Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Human Right

The left is only ever early to the leftist. Until we measure by the human scale, every rightwinger stands alone.

Guardini, Romano - Theologe, Italien
Romano Guardini (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But every man did that which was right in his own eyes, for in those days there was no king in Israel. 

It is common in tweedy seminars to call conservatism a disposition. It is an attempt to make the right mirror the left a little better by deliberate inexactness, for the left has real advantages in coalition building and the right has real problems. Indeed, as a political force, the American right has one problem in particular. Some have called it the circular firing squad; others describe it as an attitude of “punch right, nuance left.” The tendency is real, though I’ll overstate it for effect. Anyone right of me, the thinking goes, is extreme; my boutique collection of positions is the right one. Toleration and politeness in person, but when it comes to any power, ideological checklists. This point and no further. 


The left does not have this problem. Though not known for playing well with others and as prone as the right to purity spirals when found in groups larger than one, the leftist happily neglects to police his leftward neighbor. The extremist is unpleasant, unsightly, perhaps even dangerous, but also, in the end, only early. They are anti-fascist; they are the good guys—it’s in the name. I wouldn’t, personally, you know, but if someone stopped it then wouldn’t that be a step backwards? It’s progress, you see. David French illustrated this nicely when he flipped and flopped on marriage recently. You can occasionally scare a liberal into voting for law enforcement, but they won’t question how we got here. 

The tweedy seminars, on the other hand, might spend a bit too much time questioning how we got here. The specific intellectual genealogy hardly matters, for the leftist is a leftist precisely in occupying a position of assent to modernity. Did Descartes describe a real mind-matter dualism or summon it? What of Hegel and his History? Marx and Class? Every leftist is free to disagree with every other one, for all distinction and difference is melting away whether they get the answer right, yes or no. The triumph of the left has been in fact a kind of revolutionary passivity. Or, as Jonathan Askonas, an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, wrote in Compact magazine last month, “the conservative defense of tradition has failed—not because the right lost the battle of ideas, but because technological change has dissolved the contexts in which traditions once thrived. A technological society can have no traditions.” 

Askonas makes the case, convincingly, that conservatism has failed because it has yelled stop at History, which is to say, at ideas, and hardly said anything at all to technology and the shifting material conditions in which those ideas have been articulated. “Decrying left-wing revolutionary politics and postmodern anarchy, conservatives missed that the real moral relativism was to believe that one could change the material form of society without directly affecting its substance or its ends.” This being so, the right cannot build a big tent to rival the left because it cannot agree how to ask the question concerning technology, let alone how to answer. The left can just say yes, as, “​​[t]echnology, for Marx, is the true revolutionary principle, destroying traditions by shifting their foundations faster than they can adapt.” The virtues or excellences by which the right is right-wing—that is, affirming distinction and hierarchy—require certain environmental conditions in which they can be practiced. Askonas writes:

When you descend from lofty rhetoric about “Traditions” and “Values,” it becomes apparent that a huge number of the actual practices and social institutions which built those virtues have disintegrated, not because of Progressivism or Socialism but because of the new environment and political economy generated by technology.

The true is true for all time; this I believe, and about the good and the beautiful, too. I attended the tweedy seminars. But the right, in all senses of the word, must respond to its circumstance with prudence. 

Indeed, while the traditional—though we should probably say in medias res—definition of left and right said the left was for equality and the right for difference (diversity not our strength but an essential feature), we are in need of a new and better one as technology and quantity take on a character and quality all their own. In this new technological age the left is for the erasure of not just hierarchy but variance itself, reducing people to the same sterile polymorphous slop, the bare life of gray material existence. Leftists speak of humanism, but it is the right today that must and does fight for humanity itself. We must measure, discriminate, by the human scale. What does it mean to be a good human being, a human animal, a rational and political creature? If there are good ones there are bad ones, too. 

Though we are one, body and soul, this is a spiritual task, and it is the spirit that the great flattening attacks first. Romano Guardini, the 20th century theologian and my master in questions of human nature in these latter days, wrote of the necessary man, who stands against the leveling tide: “He must know and agree that the import of the coming culture is not welfare but dominion, fulfillment of man’s God-given assignment to rule over the earth. What is needed is not universal insurance, but the kind of world in which human sovereignty with its greatness can express itself.” This is not the rejection of technology, nor yet dissent from history, but the mastery of both. It is the individual human’s exercise of power distinct to the individual human creature, the beginning of the task “of establishing an authority which respects human dignity, of creating a social order in which the person can exist.” Let the right be a disposition again. Plus ultra