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Conservatism, Parades, and Little Platoons

We need fewer think tanks and more front porches.

In 1986, at the height of Reaganism and organized conservatism’s political triumph, George Panichas warned that this victory was coming at the cost of conservatism’s soul. He wrote these words nearly 30 years ago; think how relevant they remain today. Excerpt:

Where are to be found, one must ask in “fear and trembling,” the spiritual exercises in conservative experience today? How is one to resist the materialistic doctrine that assails conservative criteria and that takes precedence over God and soul? A spiritually strenuous conservatism, as Irving Babbitt would say, has given way to the spiritual idler. The consequences of this recession have led to a general confusion among conservative adherents no longer able to distinguish between what Babbitt calls a law of the spirit and a law of the members, that is to say, the confusion of the things of God and the things of Caesar. This confusion, endemic in liberalism, imperils the conservative metaphysic. Nothing could be more debilitating than the confusion of first principles.

The preceding reflections should not be construed to mean that what is advocated is an otherworldly conservatism. Yet, a conservative metaphysic that neglects or omits the teleological dimension—and that seeks to escape from “the tragic sense of life”—falls into the same trap of illusion that is intimately connected with the liberal temper. Rather, these reflections, in their corrective purposiveness, seek to emphasize the need for a binary discipline—the discipline of ideas and the discipline of transcendent belief. The forms of conservative thought as we encounter them today are too much of this world, too much an acceptance of nominalist philosophy. They lack the element of ascent and are mired in the worship of time and in an “abandoned world,” Godless and soulless. This is the world of spiritual dead-ends that belongs to “an age of bad faith” in which the “gods of mass and speed” breed to bring about the consuming majoritarian nightmare that Matthew Arnold depicts: “And littleness united / Is become invincible.”

Insofar as the conservative metaphysic bows to the “world-machine,” it reduces itself to the non-ontological and non-organic elements that identify contemporary life in its cruel alienations. This is the post-Christian and post-modern world that arrogantly renounces the “religious sense” and denies “the idea of the holy”—renounces God and denies the soul. It is a sad paradox that conservative leaders and thinkers often fail, in the present climate of their political victories, to recognize or implement their spiritual identity and responsibility. No authentic conservative metaphysic can be operable when the discipline of God and the discipline of the soul have been ceded to the doxai, the dialectical structures and superstructures of modern life.

We hear the claim that we live in “a decade dominated by conservatism.” But such a claim must be assessed in the light of what precisely identifies and measures the particular dominances spawned by the conservative political phenomenon. From a metaphysical standpoint that phenomenon is neither reassuring nor inspiring. Its major social-political orientation is one of program and policy and points to a conservatism that has a downward tendency. That is, the conservatism that we view in the public sector is largely socioeconomic in character; its aims are too easily influenced or tainted by the idea of mechanical progress, by that overriding belief that distinguishes a modernity that scorns divine transcendencies and embraces the instrumentalist article of faith that Simone Well sees at the center of our spiritual crisis: that “matter is a machine for manufacturing good.” No expression better particularizes the supreme impiety of the modern age as it molds habits of mind, attitudes, expectations, and aspirations. This impiety has gone unchecked during the past decade, and this dismaying fact should trouble the conscience of conservatives who subscribe to any spiritual standard and value. The world of pure instrumentality, in which everything is subordinated to the mechanical principle to which Simone Weil refers, is a profane world that needs to be unflinchingly opposed.

The perceived public image of conservatism, especially as it is now articulated and conveyed by fancy conservative journalists and publicists, is one of glitter. But all that glitters in it is not gold. Too often a cleverly packaged conservatism lacks the spiritual disciplines indispensable to a serious concern with ultimate issues that go far beyond public-policy issues. It lacks transcendence in the contexts that Saul Bellow stresses when he complains that there is now “no particular concern in the foundation of the country with the higher life of the country.” Such a conservatism, to be sure, has achieved institutional prominence and electoral popularity, and its glamor has even appealed to the electronics media. It is, in an organizational and popular sense, strikingly successful. But all these external trappings do not satisfy the higher spiritual demands and responsibilities that are inherent in the conservative metaphysic.

Read the whole thing here. How are you going to sum up this kind of thing in something that can be said on Hannity? I don’t say this to put down Hannity, but rather to point out how the media environment in which political and philosophical (if that’s the word) communication takes place works against this kind of higher thought and reflection. I suppose it has always been this way, to one degree or another. Panichas’s essay is heavy, abstract stuff, and it’s hard to imagine how you talk about this sort of thing to the Rotary Club. Again, no offense to the Rotary Club; I read things like this all the time, and I’m sitting here in my armchair trying to figure out how to translate Panichas’s insights into the concrete realities of ordinary life.

Here’s an attempt at it. What Panichas means, at least as I read him, is that conservatism has narrowed its focus to the material dimensions of life, the sort of things that can be addressed through tax policy, regulation (or its absence), and so forth. It has relegated concern for the “permanent things,” which, according to Russell Kirk, include:

… the health of the family, inherited political institutions that insure a measure of order and justice and freedom, a life of diversity and independence, a life marked by widespread possession of private property. These permanent things guarantee against arbitrary interference by the state. These are all aspects of conservative thought.

Not all of these permanent things can be addressed meaningfully by politics. Popular conservatism, though, seems to believe that culture is an add-on to politics, which is to say, is not where the real business of life is. Liberalism has this view too, in its own way, and you can see where it comes from in the spirit of modernity, which exalts individualism and the right to choose over the community and what is chosen. You can also see it in the pervasive sense in American society that the good life is measured by material wealth, freedom of choice, and worldly achievement. Nothing wrong with any of those things, necessarily, but they exclude virtue. Mind you, I don’t think we want the state prescribing virtue to the citizenry, but a healthy polity requires serious thought and action toward the identification and cultivation of virtue within the community.

As Claes Ryn and others have pointed out, American conservatism made a fatal error when it concerned itself primarily with politics. Gerald Russello writes:

Claes Ryn (How Conservatives Failed ‘The Culture’) is characteristically forthright about what he sees as conservatism’s main difficulty:  its neglect of the imaginative realm of culture and the arts in favor of politics. This emphasis is not only a reversal of traditional conservative priorities but is self-defeating.  Ryn’s own work is a testament to what a realistic conservative vision looks like, infused with imagination and an informed understanding of human society.  Cultural questions are treated by the Right now as reasons for political engagement and partisan fundraising, as if Hollywood, Broadway, and the TV networks cannot be fought on a purely imaginative basis.

Ryn acknowledges some of the positive attributes of the political conservative movement, including its sincerity and some victories, but the situation has grown only more dire since he wrote this essay 15 years ago. The most popular conservative pundits now write almost exclusively of politics, and the quality of engagement with important questions of culture and imagination has been diluted severely. Bright spots remain – one thinks of the New Criterion, for example, which still seriously engages the arts, but the most important non-liberal source of the reflection Ryn is seeking, the journal Image, is outside the conservative community, for reasons its editor, Gregory Wolfe, explained in his recent collection of pieces from that journal. But his work, critical as it is, only illustrates Ryn’s larger point: the unifying culture that conservatives should have been defending they have let dissolve and have not developed imaginative responses to the current cultural crisis facing the West.

The typical response from conservatives is that politics, and its adjunct law, influence culture and so are properly a conservative focus. I don’t think Ryn disputes that these areas are important, just that they are not the most important. In many ways, the Tea Party is a version of the 1970s and 1980s evangelical resurgence. Although the rise of the Religious Right had some good effects, as a cultural matter are you better off, as the saying goes, thirty years ago than you are today?

The task in front of conservatives today, Russello says, is how to construct a compelling counternarrative to secular liberalism — this, not to win political victories, but to preserve the permanent things in a culture increasingly hostile to them. This requires thought and writing, certainly, but more than that, I think, it requires action.

Here’s what I mean. This is from an essay I wrote for a Baton Rouge magazine, based on my new book The Little Way Of Ruthie LemingI’m writing here about my decision as a young man to leave Louisiana in frustration after the state’s dysfunctional politics and economy made me despair of living here:

I can never forget the (perhaps apocryphal) words a New Orleans journalist told his newsroom at his farewell party before taking off for a job up North: It was more important tolive in a city that valued libraries more than parades. That’s the reality of Louisiana life, I told my friend. Romanticism and sentimentality obscure, but do not nullify, hard truths about the barriers life in Louisiana raises to professional advancement.

Which is what mattered to me more than anything. And why not? There’s nothing wrong at all with wanting to advance in one’s field and better provide for the needs, comforts and prospects of one’s own children. As my family grew, my wife and I moved from New York City to Dallas, and then back east to Philadelphia; my career arc—and my salary—kept rising.

And then it happened.

“It,” as regular readers know, was the terminal cancer diagnosis my sister Ruthie received in 2010. Her cancer journey, and the way the people of our hometown — which Ruthie had never left — walked with her, changed my heart, and made me see the deep value of all I had left behind. It’s not that all of Louisiana’s problems disappeared; rather, it’s that I saw them in a light that I hadn’t earlier perceived. I found that I loved Louisiana and wanted to be back in spite of those problems. Here’s why:

Losing Ruthie compelled me to think in a new way about my responsibilities to my parents, to Mike and my nieces, and to my own kids. I asked my wife back then what would happen to our family if one of us woke up one morning with terminal cancer?

“We have friends who could help us,” she said. And it was true. But we had not been in Philly long enough to build the kind of deep and extensive relationships that Ruthie had from having spent all her life in one place.

There was more. In my emotional geography, Ruthie was a landmark, a mountain, a river, a fixed point around which I could orient myself. There was no horizon so far that I could not see Ruthie in the distance and know where I was and how to find my way home to Louisiana, no matter where in the world I lived.

Now she was gone, and before long, my mother and father will be gone, too. What would my children know of Louisiana then? Does that matter? Should it matter?

It mattered. Julie and I decided that we wanted to be part of Louisiana life—tailgating at Tiger Stadium, Christmas Eve gumbo at our cousins’ place in Starhill, po-boys at George’s under the Perkins Road overpass, Mardi Gras parades, yes ma’am and yes sir, and all the little things that give life its texture and meaning more than career prestige and a paycheck.

True, by moving to Louisiana our children would have fewer “opportunities,” in the conventional sense. But what were the opportunity costs of staying away? I had believed the American gospel of individual self-fulfillment and accepted uncritically the idea that I should be prepared to move anywhere in the world, chasing my own happiness.

But here’s the thing. When you’re young, nobody tells you about limits. If you live long enough, you see suffering. It comes close to you. It shatters the illusion, so dear to us modern Americans, of self-sufficiency, of autonomy, of control. Look, a wife and mother and schoolteacher, in good health and in the prime of her life, dying from cancer. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It happens to your family. What do you do then?

The insurance company, if you’re lucky enough to have insurance, pays your doctors and pharmacists, but it will not cook for you when you are too sick to cook for yourself and your kids. Nor will it clean your house, pick your kids up from school, or take them shopping when you are too weak to get out of bed. A bureaucrat from the state or the insurance company won’t come sit with you and pray with you and tell you she loves you. It won’t be the government or your insurer who allows you to die in peace—if it comes to that—by assuring you that your spouse and children will not be left behind to face the world alone.

Only your family and your community can do that.

What our culture also doesn’t tell young people is that a way of life that depends on moving from place to place, extracting whatever value you can before moving on again, leaves you spiritually impoverished. True, it is not given to every man and woman to remain in the place where they were born, and an absolute devotion to family and place can be destructive. I do not regret having left Louisiana as a young man. I needed to do that; I had important work to do elsewhere. 

But the world looks different from the perspective of middle age. In her last 19 months of life, Ruthie showed me that I now had important work to do back home. Hers was a work of stewardship—of taking care of the land, the family, and the people in the community. By loving them all faithfully and tending them with steadfast care, Ruthie accomplished something countercultural, even revolutionary in our restless age.

You can’t convince somebody by logical arguments why they should love someone or something. You can only show them, and hope the seed of affection falls in the heart’s fertile soil. Through Ruthie’s actions, and through the actions of everyone else in the town who held our family close, and held us up when we couldn’t stand on our own two feet, I was able to see the power of Ruthie’s love, given and returned. And I was able to see my own life in light of this love, and, finally, to feel for the first time in nearly 30 years, a profound affection for this place I had abandoned so long ago.

We moved back to Louisiana and have regretted it not one bit.

It’s not that Louisiana has changed, or changed all that much. It hasn’t. Parades still matter more than libraries here, and college football coaches’ salaries are more important than college professors’ paychecks. The political and economic problems are still with us. So, bless his heart, is Edwin.

Louisiana may not have changed, but I have. Parades—I speak metaphorically—are a lot more important than I used to think. That is, the small things about the life we were all given as south Louisiana natives can’t easily be given a dollar value, or co-opted into an instrumentalist case for rising in the meritocracy. Having the chance to drive over to Breaux Bridge to the zydeco breakfast at Café des Amis, or to have Sunday dinner with the family every weekend, will not get your kids into Harvard, but it just might give them a better chance at having a life filled with grace and joy. Same goes for their parents.

What I saw was a kind of cultural conservatism lived out in my hometown. It’s not a conservatism that was limited to political conservatives, or political liberals. The people of this town don’t really see each other as conservatives or liberals. They see them as neighbors. Not long after I moved back here, someone told me that she had moved to town a couple of decades ago, and discovered that there was a gay man dying of AIDS. He wasn’t from around here; he and his partner had moved here a few years earlier, apparently. And there were the people of the Episcopal parish, taking care of him. Did they approve of homosexuality, celebrate diversity, and all that? Maybe some did, but most almost certainly didn’t. That didn’t matter. What mattered is that there was a man in town who was suffering, and he needed help.

Is that liberal? Is that conservative? Who cares! I would call it conservative in this philosophical sense, though: it was a recognition that a life of virtue requires the community to care for one of its own, through individual acts of love and sacrifice — and that the good life, in turn, requires maintaining the cultural conditions for this kind of virtue to flourish across the generations. In Little Way, I write about how a woman named Susan Wymore, born Susan Harvey, stepped into the breach on the Christmas Eve after Ruthie died, and carried out a tradition of candle-lighting in the cemetery that Ruthie and our mother had done for the past 10 years, but that my mom, in the wake of Ruthie’s death, was too grief-stricken to continue. I make the point in the book that the Harveys have been friends with the Drehers for generations, and that Harvey men, all dead and gone now, helped my late grandfather rebuild the family cabin in the Depression after it burned to the ground. My dad, who was a child then, had a roof over his head because the Harveys rushed to help their neighbor, my grandfather.

Is that liberal? Is that conservative? It’s neither, not in the Fox News vs. MSNBC understanding of the terms. But it is conservative in a philosophical and spiritual sense. To preserve the things that give our lives weight and meaning requires cultivating a sense of commitment to virtues, lived out in the practices of a community. And to do that requires feeling some sense of shared membership in the community. We live in a time and place in which our sense of community is under intense strain from cultural and economic forces, forces that neither mainstream liberalism or mainstream conservatism are doing much to resist, and in fact are doing a great deal to exacerbate.

The kind of conservatism that I’m interested in — the only kind that will preserve the permanent things for my children, and my children’s children — is a conservatism that offers a credible (in that ordinary people can live it out) and powerful (in that it’s capable of holding its ground against opposition) counternarrative to mainstream American life, along the lines of what Panichas says. This is a spiritual conservatism, but not one that can be reduced to a political program, a policy statement, or a sermon. It is a sermon, a program, a politics of virtue not spoken, but lived.

This is where Ruthie’s example is so powerful to me. As I’ve said here before, she was no theologian, and certainly no political thinker, and she disdained contemplation and intellection as luxuries for idlers. She was wrong about that, but I can’t deny the fact that her life as she lived it was a far greater testimony to the kinds of personal and political virtues I admire and have written about than the theoretical speculations that have been my professional occupation for years.

Ruthie was not flawless in this; I think, for example, that she was far too unconcerned by the way an uncritical approach to consuming mass media served to undermine the virtues she tried to cultivate in the hearts of her children. (Put in normal, everyday terms: she should have turned the TV off more.) But that’s small beer, really. For me, as a traditionalist conservative, the greater lesson of her life, and her example, is that the permanent things are best preserved by living them out in family and community, and our chief political task — not the same thing as an ideological task — is to create the conditions in which it is easier to do these things. Doing so will require us to stand up to the Democratic Party and to mainstream liberalism — but it will also require us to stand up to the Republican Party and to mainstream conservatism.

Here is where Russell Kirk and his conservatism is of inestimable value to us today, and why I look to his example and thought as prescriptive of what I hope to do with the rest of my life. Read this Bruce Frohnen piece on Kirkean conservatism to understand more. Excerpt:

Fear of God, love for our accustomed ways and associates, respect for law and our inheritance. These make us want to do right. Unfortunately, having dispensed with such motives, we have spawned a generation of literally fatherless children, who know well how to ‘progress” in material terms—by stealing, dealing drugs, and otherwise preying on their fellows—but, because they are without families and communities, do not know how to lead good lives.

Good lives consist of virtue. They may not be comfortable and easy. But they fulfill our deeper longings—for affectionate attachments and the knowledge that we at least are trying to do God’s will. And the virtues are not hard to find. All societies have set down basic rules of conduct akin to our Ten Commandments and Golden Rule, and our poets and philosophers have restated those commandments in numerous ways over the centuries.

Standards of virtue are unpopular with today’s intellectuals. But these standards still apply to us because they are permanent things—no society can long survive without them. Our culture in particular provides much room for advancement in life. And advancement is a proper goal, provided it is pursued properly, through the provision of service to our fellow man—whether in commerce, in politics, in the clergy, or, perhaps most importantly, in daily life. But a society can survive the rigors of a just liberty only if its members are attached to and seek to serve the family, friends, and neighbors who make up their community.

We cannot dismiss self-interest. But we must build on it. This is why the family is the key to virtue, and to society itself. Aristotle observed that communities are based on the habits of friendship first formed in the family. Attached by nature and necessity to our parents, we become accustomed to them and seek their approval. We observe them and listen to them (more or less) because we both need and love them. They protect us and teach us how we should act.

Only after learning from our parents do we have the habits and attitudes necessary to deal with neighbors and others, to take the next step in that long chain of attachments leading to public life. Edmund Burke pointed out that “to love the little platoon we belong to in society, [is] the first principle (the germ, as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” We must learn how to love others. Such learning is possible only within the intimate relations of family and local life. And even here we cannot learn virtue if we do not accept that it is good to serve those we know and love.

We conservatives need fewer policy discussions and more parades with our little platoons. We need fewer think tanks and more front porches. We need fewer political leaders and talking heads, and more Ruthie Lemings. In sum, we need fewer lectures and sermons, and more poetry and imagination. For, as Kirk knew, imagination is a sword.


Ruthie and Hannah Leming, West Feliciana High Homecoming Parade, 2010
Ruthie and Hannah Leming, West Feliciana High Homecoming Parade, 2010


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