Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

The Blind Spot of Conservatism

Big government is not the lone, or lately even the chief, pulverizer of civil society.

About a third of the way through The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, Rod Dreher paints a moving portrait of a community tending to one of its own:

The news hit the West Feliciana community like a cyclone. As the day wore on a hundred or more friends mobbed the hospital. Some offered to move in with the Lemings to care for the children while Ruthie fought [her cancer]. John Bickham told Paw that he would sell everything he had to pay for Ruthie’s medical bills if it came to that. At the middle school the teachers did their best to get through the day, but kept breaking down. All over town people prepared food and took it by the Leming house, which, this being Starhill, sat unlocked.

“We were surrounded by so much love,” Mam recalls. “It was the most horrible day of our lives, but we could feel the love of all these good people. There was nothing we could have wanted or needed that wasn’t done before we asked. And they were there. Do you know what that means? People were there.”

The inspiring collective response of this small Louisiana town seems to me a paradigmatic real-life example of the kind of civil society that Yuval Levin (as well as TAC’s Samuel Goldman) champions here as a Burkean rebuke to harsh conservative rhetoric about the “culture of dependency”:

We are all dependent on others. The question is whether we are dependent on people we know, and they on us—in ways that foster family and community, build habits of restraint and dignity, and instill in us responsibility and a sense of obligation—or we are dependent on distant, neutral, universal systems of benefits that help provide for our material wants without connecting us to any local and immediate nexus of care and obligation. It is not dependence per se, which is a universal fact of human life, but dependence without mutual obligation, that corrupts the soul. Such technocratic provision enables precisely the illusion of independence from the people around us and from the requirements of any moral code they might uphold. It is corrosive not because it instills a true sense of dependence but because it inspires a false sense of independence and so frees us from the sorts of moral habits of mutual obligation that alone can make us free.

I don’t want to speak for Rod here. Nor do I want to superimpose on The Little Way, a deeply personal meditation on social and family bonds, a polemical or partisan quality that it in fact mercifully avoids. But I don’t think I’m misreading Rod at all in saying that technocracy is not what enabled his particular illusion of independence. That illusion stemmed from the desires of his own heart: a desire to escape the stifling atmosphere of rural America and discover the wider world; to pursue a life of the mind; to experience, as the British playwright David Hare put it in his screenplay for The Hours, the “violent jolt” of life in the metropolis.

Our culture stokes this desire, and in no small way our economy depends on it. When politicians tirelessly invoke the “American Dream,” when we celebrate social mobility and “churn,” we are encouraging millions of young Rod Drehers to leave their Starhills and become “boomers,” as the poet Wendell Berry (via Wallace Stegner) describes those whose ambition compels them to leave home.

To make the point in the context of our ongoing clash over immigration, do we not at least unwittingly celebrate the dilution of communities when we hold up as heroes those who leave behind their friends and extended families to pursue employment in America? To borrow the simple phraseology of Rod’s mother, a young man who leaves a village in Latin America or South Asia is no longer there.

This is not to dispute Levin’s point about a large and active state “pulverizing” civil society; the phenomenon is real and, as I’ve written before, a purportedly morally neutral state will always and inevitably tip its hand about what it believes to be positive goods.

My point is that big government is not the lone, or lately even the chief, pulverizer of civil society.

A global economy in which the fiscal affairs of distant countries can tangibly affect the lives of people in towns like Starhill; wealth and income gains redounding to the benefit of a concentrated few; the emergence of a postindustrial cognitive elite that skims the cream of small towns and corrals them into the high-earning enclaves along the coasts—these and many other factors contribute to  the weakening of community bonds.

I don’t mean to oversimplify what is a complicated picture. “Boomers” are capable of behaving like “stickers” in their adopted communities. Recently in my own neighborhood in Northern Virginia, populated as it is mostly by people who did not grow up here, a network of families displayed on a smaller scale the kind of selflessness that Rod depicts in The Little Way. A group of moms who’d known each other for just a handful of years prepared and delivered meals and sat for the children of a woman stricken with a highly aggressive form of breast cancer.

And if you ask, say, big government-loving Bruce Springsteen what he thinks about the role of civil society, he would no doubt reel off the names of dozens  of locally based voluntary associations and charities that serve struggling citizens. When he sings “We Take Care of Our Own,” I very much doubt he has only the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services in mind.

Lastly, I want to push back some at this notion of illusory independence (and perhaps contradict myself in the process). If you ask someone who’s been unemployed for any length of time whether he’s aware of their dependence on others, he might tell you he’s all too aware of it—and deeply humiliated by it.

Conservatives have a blind spot.

And we need to fix it.



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