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America’s Anthropological Battle

This year’s meeting of the Philadelphia Society affirmed conservatives are no longer defenders of the status quo.

“Conservatism, Unmasked,” is what at first glance you might have called the Philadelphia Society’s annual national meet-up and gabfest in Fort Worth, held, by long custom, for the not unrelated aims of defining conservative challenges while renewing friendships and vows of common purpose and commitment.

Not a face mask did I spot during the late March weekend in the grand ballroom of the Worthington Renaissance Hotel, filled as it was with conservative notables (including The American Conservative’s new print editor Helen Andrews, the central attraction at a TAC-sponsored dinner). Naked noses and mouths, unfamiliar during the dark days of the pandemic, were part of the happy response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to emancipate Texas from most COVID protocols. Possibly, in equal measure, facial nudity reflected the deep American yearning for free choice. A good time, this, to be affirming freedom. Hardly had the Philly Soc struck its tent and left town then Joe Biden unleashed his $2.3 trillion plan for an American makeover, funded essentially by all of us, not excluding the unborn.

The non-partisan but Democrat-skeptical Philly Soc—founded in 1964 by William F. Buckley, Jr., Milton Friedman, and their like—is no liberty-fixated enterprise run by the National Committee to Abolish the Income Tax. Members run the gamut of conservative thought, excluding from representation only the really, really, really way-out. (And even these can pop up occasionally. Way-out by whose definition?!)  

Conservative policy based on reasoned philosophy, including the hallowed wisdom of the past, is the Philadelphia Society’s stock-in-trade: the legacy of the men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 to give the young nation’s aspirations a civilized hand-up. Members—I have belonged since the Carter era—are neither conspicuously Trumpian nor devoid of gratitude for the former president’s conservative initiatives, which were many, including a successful push to seat youngish conservatives on the federal bench.

Joe Biden, it turns out in the spring of 2021, isn’t exactly what he let on he was during the late campaign. The Great Healer is in fact the Great Buttinski, here, there, and everywhere working to deploy federal power and influence. He seems to advocate the transformation of a foot-dragging (by his, or Liz Warren’s, standards) America in the same way LBJ and Franklin Roosevelt brought off the same trick: through legislation and arm-twisting.  

The familiar arguments among conservatives, this time around, aren’t going to center on questions that can strike some as abstract, such as how to refine liberty considerations in the light of tradition. Way Bigger Government, under Biden and Nancy Pelosi, is breathing down our necks. “We are not defenders of the status quo,” said the University of Texas-Austin philosopher Rob Koons. “We are very much the disloyal opposition,” to “the present totalitarian regime.” 

How do you like that for the whining submissiveness sometimes imputed to conservatism’s supposed elite class, tricked out in bowties and Ph.D. degrees? Philly Soc members in Fort Worth made known with remarkable consistency 1) their apprehension as to the dangers now facing America, and 2) their appetite for resistance. 

“Experts cannot live our lives for us,” declared the society’s incoming president, historian-author Wilfred McClay, Jr., who is about to move his franchise from the University of Oklahoma to Hillsdale College, from which conservative redoubt he hopes more effectively to engage the control freaks, the “equity” faction, the cancel crowd.  

The National Association of Scholars’s Peter Wood affirmed the thrust of Biden’s “transformation” rhetoric and the thirst of the progressive faithful—maybe especially in Wood’s own venue, the academy—to “punish those who dissent.” According to Philip Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research, what the left seeks is “the elimination of the competing [American] narrative and uncontested control of the political system.”

I pause to note how different all of this sounds from even the klaxon warnings heard when Barack Obama took the presidential oath. Who supposed the last few years would bring us to this point? Besides, I guess, Sen. Warren and like-minded colleagues.

Anyway, effective resistance presupposes the adoption of strategies of resistance and replacement. So far, as reflected in Philly Soc speeches, such strategies require formulation and implementation. However, particular outlines emerge.

There is the unashamed strategy of Rob Koons, embracing an “underground” identity for those who, perhaps especially in Occupied Academia, would insist on free speech and free debate as preconditions for the responsible conduct of academic activities—e.g., education. Koons commended, inter alia, private education and the creation of an “Amazon-like underground.”    

Prof. Elizabeth Corey of Baylor University made a ground-level point, to wit, “The most important things in life are not political.” Michael Matheson Miller of the Acton Institute took the same thesis by the handle and flourished it: “We lost the culture. How are we [conservatives] different from anyone else?”

Miller’s question served as a kind of rhetorical bill dookie—the long-bladed tool used by gardeners for probing and unearthing, even severing, deep roots. More and more, said he, “we are in an anthropological battle.” What we are wanting is “a real unity of diverse people.” That’s “real,” not enforced, or merely the kind of thing the New York Times seems intent on achieving through ceaseless preachment. Anthropology, Miller explained, provides “a vision of the world,” and how life should be lived. “It’s just not just economics,” the making of money, or the redistribution thereof.

McClay at this juncture introduced the notion of “an incoherence that plagues us,” a divergence between “what we think” as a civilization “and what we do.” What are we about? What is our purpose? What understandings and assumptions underlie and give life to our endeavors—or else don’t? “Political life,” said McClay, “is only part of our lives,” more captivating to the political class than to the less power obsessed.

“Where did we come from?” asked Christopher Buskirk, of American Greatness. “We have been too quick to ideologize our values. What do they mean to us? Are lives getting better or getting worse?…How do our principles translate into the real world?” Do they actually “improve the lives of our people?” Moreover, “We should put ideas in concrete terms.” Wouldn’t that be an interesting task: connecting Idea A to Outcome B? For instance, said Buskirk, with reference to the free-trade squabble, “‘How do we enrich our country?’ should be the basic idea,” but often enough isn’t, under Democrats and Republicans alike. 

This “anthropology” thing, in terms of how to examine human life’s varied mysteries, found life of its own in mentions of it following Miller’s sally. “Ontology” would have served as well, but likely has too theological a cast. Everybody understands what it means to study people, and to ask the question my wife has taught me always to pose when it comes to weighing the generality of human actions: “What are we trying to do here?” Throw some government cash around? Score points with voters? But to what end–what meaningful end, that is? And–the query despised by politicians–what actions, what initiatives might serve equally well, if not better, and to the enlargement of justice and virtue?

Meanwhile, what’s the federal government’s role in determining the ends of liberty? Is there such a role? And say there is indeed such a role: To what extent may government properly hinder or encourage individual people in the exercise of their liberty? And on what intellectual grounds?

The Philadelphia Society’s overriding value as an organization (its elbow-rubbing opportunities aside) consists in posing and considering appropriate answers to such questions, bearing, as they must, on America’s navigational problems in political hurricane season. From the crow’s nest, the Heritage Foundation’s Katherine Gorka summed up: “We cannot be afraid; we cannot sit on the sidelines.” Same story, same posture, from editor Andrews at the American Conservative dinner: “There’s no room for going back. We’re not going to restore the previous status quo.”

William Murchison is a writer and author, most recently, of The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.

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