"True or false: our lives have slowed down and acquired more civility and meaning since September 11… sir? Sir? Madam? Excuse me…"
A Few Words from the Editor
Sometimes we begin projects fully aware of their rationale, then find ourselves having to make change after change in response to obstacles, and finally realize that what remains of our original design is not remotely fitted to our original objectives. So it has been with me and the quest for the Center’s tax-exempt status. I saw a chance to do a job that needed doing (and that I loved doing) without demanding extraordinary sacrifices of my family. Specifically, I thought that with 501c3 status in my hand, I could elicit generous gifts from large foundations and—among other things—pay myself a few thousand dollars a year in salary. I was later asked very pointedly by the IRS inquisitor, however, if the main reason for pursuing the exemption were to get myself some money: the strong implication was that an affirmative answer would be crushed under an "application denied" stamp and, possibly, initiate charges of high treason. I must say that I grow quite irritated when looking back on that epistolary encounter. I was not requesting permission to pick the government’s pocket, or even to ease its fat fingers out of mine: I was only asking to be allowed to eat while serving a worthy cause.
In the ensuing months, I mentally trimmed my petition down to the bare bone as I contemplated re-application. I now see that my doing so has dispensed with all advantages of having the coveted status. Last year the Center spent about $450 (more than half of which came from donations: the rest trickled out of my wallet). Much of this, actually, was paid out before Praesidium went online, so the figure for 2002 may well be even more paltry. Merely to apply again to the Charitburo would cost me $350; and, on the unlikely assumption that Comrade Commissaire would wave me through this time, I would be freed only to solicit a few hundreds here and there. That mythical "generous grant" would indeed land me in enormous trouble once I had achieved charitable status by projecting exiguous budgets. Since I can already raise the necessary hundreds annually even without offering a tax deduction as an incentive to donors… well, as you can understand, to continue would be folly.
The Center for Moral Reason remains a Texas non-profit corporation, and I stand firm in my determination to provide a printed copy to those who want one, even if they have donated not a dime. What this means practically is that we shall continue to exist on modest donations—my own and others’—rather than on subscriptions or sales. Quite frankly, experience has taught me that people more readily donate, and in larger amounts, than they subscribe. There is much food in this for meditation, and I offer it to you without further comment.
Should we manage to interest any bookstores in the journal, I shall simply allow them to pocket the profit. Customers may of course send a check to Texas if they feel so moved—and this raises another advantage to conceding the feds their little victory. If Praesidium can politely ask for contributions, it can also drop the name of Arcturus Press from time to time. My personal connection to both enterprises was a constant source of embarrassment while I was being federally interrogated: the state of Texas only demands that I keep the accounts separate and remember that the proceeds of one must never pay my household bills. I know that the CMR Board of Directors will no more begrudge me an occasional plug for the Press than will readers of the former Arcturus—references to which document, by the way, I was getting most awfully tired of suppressing!
I shall include here the further confidence (lest I seem to be shamelessly "poor-mouthing") that my wife’s paycheck now very nearly equals the largest one I ever brought home as an Associate Professor. Her associate degree may soon outstrip my Ph.D. in the salary sweepstakes. Students of victimology would do well to ponder the many profound lessons herein about educational and gender privilege. As for those statistics which show how much higher on the hog graduate-degreed professionals live than peons, they only prove that people on the two coasts (where such surveys are taken) have their own planet.
The present number of Praesidium was intended to explore, in the wake of several terrorist assaults upon unsuspecting, non-combatant Americans, just what may indeed be said to have gone wrong with our nation. The backdrop for this soul-searching, of course, is the academy’s almost immediate and utterly tasteless rush to the rostrum with bloody bodies of terrorists lovingly hefted over our bleeding sons and daughters. We had this coming, professors harangued around the country: we’ve been bullying innocents for years, centuries, millennia—it’s in the male European genetic code—and we should expect more of the same until we humbly embrace some version of the professorial utopia. Homer’s phrase "tongue of brass" began to take on a new meaning.
Well, I realized in putting together the following pages that they look a lot like all the pages we’ve done before. Answering the question of what ails Western culture is our typical modus operandi, it turns out. So our present offering is at most a little more intense than usual. As ballast, Professor Carlson’s poetry and Ms. Maskell’s short story seem to me to tender a rare dose of pleasant irony and gentle humor. May you enjoy and profit from it all!
Toward Anthroponomy: How Western Culture
Has Become Its Own Worst Enemy
John R. Harris
Exactly one year ago, I dedicated an essay to explaining the reasons behind the christening of The Center for Moral Reason (see Praesidium 1.1, Winter 2001). At that time, I not only defended my devotion to the words "moral" and "reason", both singly and in tandem, but also shared my apprehensions about the terms "liberal" and "conservative", whose fierce dynamic has had so much to do with pulling perfectly respectable words to pieces. I enjoyed another ride upon the whirlwind recently when I associated myself with a Website whose address features the signature, "conservative books". (I leave the precise nature of my association and the site’s exact address unstated, for I must not seem to advertise either in the present context.) Objections from certain female academics were quick and strong. I suspect that many of their male peers were just as outraged, and I do not imply that the latter were more courteous and the former more termagant. Maybe so, maybe not. Maybe the women were just more open and honest, or maybe they found conservatism more of a threat to their careers in their special capacity as outspoken feminists (for such were they who decried my choice of words). In any event, I came away with ample cause to conclude (if I had needed further cause) that the very word "conservative" is now reinlich verboten in many academic settings, having achieved about the same PC-offense value as, say, "niggardly".
As I pose myself the question of what is genuinely, profoundly wrong with Western culture—of just what it is about us that might justify the hatred of the Third World or Islam or the self-appointed liminal voices of the campus—I cannot resist starting with this blare of witless vituperation in which we seem to pass our days. Blare itself is bad enough, and we at Praesidium have written critically of it before. The cars, the TVs, the public address systems, the ghetto-blasters, the leaf-blowers, the cheering admonishing serenading computer screens and voice mail and domestic cybermaid services… I have longed more than once for someone to invent an interminably running silence-track which could be turned up full-volume to drown the din and allow one to hear one’s own thoughts.
Racket, however, was not an American innovation. When I was in Dublin more than a decade ago for a Celtic Studies summer program, I had to cut short my visit due to sleep deprivation: I felt as though the ATF had cornered me in David Koresh’s compound. My Irish contacts, of course, were appalled that any Yank (as they call all of us) could imagine their quaint capital city cacophonous, and a few seemed indignant that I should dare to have passed sleepless nights among them, considering where I hailed from. No doubt, Cairo or Bangkok would have been far worse, even before the Industrial Revolution. Especially before then. For the West only rivaled the East in sheer noise when we began to grind out iron behemoths belching smoke and steam; and America, I suppose, being the world’s leading producer of such monsters, won the title of The Great Polluter, though the East greedily devoured our monsters and tortured their bones for a few more thousand miles, a few more million casts and prints, long after we would mercifully have melted the old terrors into sleek new models.
No, I see no seeds of a bellum pium et iustum there. The whole planet is a noisy, polluted wreck, and our pioneering technology is in fact its last credible hope for a face-lift. If the East wants to inveigh against us for having seduced it into laying railroad tracks and developing a taste for Coke and Big Macs, it might as well denounce itself for being so susceptible despite its panoply of ascetic traditions. (The full measure of the accusation’s surly childishness is implied in the Japanese experience of firearms: Japan was the world’s greatest producer of guns during the centuries we call the Renaissance, yet it resolved as a culture shortly thereafter to give them up entirely.) What I find far more indicting of our Western way is that we seriously listen to such frivolous indictments—that we egg them on, quite frankly, encouraging Western-educated Easterners to go home and broadcast or print them among a populace which, at first, can only scratch its collective head. I am bothered, not by our contemporary taste for self-criticism—for we have none, inasmuch as self-criticism requires fine analysis and honesty—but by our incendiary love of perverting rational argument for ideological ends. When I say "ideological", I mean "selfish". For ideology is nothing other than the misidentification of egotism with altruism, the devious representation of self-service as service of others; and this, I would allege, is a peculiarly Western contribution to the miseries of the last century
It is also a distinctly liberal contribution. (Never fear: I have much of a chastening nature to say later about conservatism, or what passes for such today.) Classical liberalism has played an invaluable role in Western culture. It was by no means opposed to tradition—only to the blind reverence of unexamined tradition. It recognized that the tradition’s vibrancy, the very appeal of certain writings and beliefs which allowed them to weather the erosive winds of time, depended upon particular unconditional vectors of human nature: e.g., the aspiration to live above selfish interest, the desperation over human vanity’s omnipresence, and the duty to secure the former’s victory over the latter. These ineradicable tendencies created a body of universal human law which paralleled, and in some ways counterpoised, the universal laws of nature. Insofar as they were essentially human, more or less observable in all times and places, such laws were also non-traditional, since pure tradition originates in accident (or, as some would have it, in revelation—but what can a revelation reveal to a heart not already inclined to receive its truth?)
Yet this science of human universals, which might be called rationalism, was also tradition’s champion. By pondering the traditional, the contemplative could explicate it and renew it for those who had not noticed its true revelations—its special comforts, warnings, and exhortations which do not change in urgency or relevance as generation succeeds generation. Traditions are also always in need of refinement—all of them. Several conservative editorialists in recent months, for example, have made a drum out of bellicose passages of the Koran, which they beat in a harrowing tocsin. "The Muslim holy book overtly calls for war with the infidel," they say, and say correctly. Yet many Muslims are equally insistent that their book calls upon them to cultivate peace and practice mercy. No doubt, the Koran does both in different places: so does the Bible (specifically, the Old Testament). The proper response to such literary contradictions, which of course are insurmountable to dogmatic literalists, must be to meditate in the spirit of the document—in that spirit which lives in all of us yet does not strictly belong to any of us—and distribute emphasis accordingly. In religious circles, such flexibility is often called liberal interpretation. What I should like to know is, how is a great tradition to be kept alive merely by conserving its letters, non-sequiturs and all? Isn’t the true work of conservation properly one of breathing spirit into the letter?
This, as I say, was once "classical liberalism", a vein of spiritually liberating thought whose roots extended back to Socrates, the Academy, and the Stoa. To remark that contemporary liberalism has strayed from the stars which once guided it would be to court falsehood with generosity. In no uncertain fashion, today’s liberalism has aggressively repudiated its commitment to seeking the universal beyond the conditional. It is, indeed, openly hostile in all settings to the notion of universality (or "essentialism", as its votaries say with a sneer). Arbitrary tradition, if not Western, fares very well, by comparison. The contemporary liberal can behold infanticide or slavery or (as Mary Grabar detailed in Praesidium 1.4) cannibalism with equanimity as long as the practice belongs to a non-Western, non-Christian culture. The very injustices which he or she most deplores in Middle America—keeping the wife at home to raise a family, inflicting corporal punishment upon children, exacting full communal participation in religious observances—are stoutly defended, even in extreme forms involving bloody reprisal against dissenters, wherever English isn’t spoken and frozen yogurt isn’t sold. The neo-liberal (if I may so designate this counterpart of the similarly unsavory neo-conservative) hasn’t suddenly discovered an affection for quaint customs and hoary rites, of course. My best guess is that he or she simply does the contrary of everything the bourgeoisie may be seen doing.
This exhibitionist counter-conformity has gone on for most of my lifetime: it dates back at least as far as the late sixties, at any rate. It has been especially visible in sexual attitudes. In the late sixties and throughout the seventies, ordinary parents were still outraged if their daughter moved in with her boyfriend at college, ordinary neighbors whispered torridly if a housewife conversed for too long with her insurance agent, and ordinary citizens grew irate if the local theater started running too many R-rated films. Liberalism assumed its positions accordingly. Bright young people lived together without benefit of clergy, either partner among enlightened couples tolerated (or even encouraged) the other’s brief affairs, and scuffing up the line between art and pornography became a solemn duty. Then things began to change somewhere in the mid-eighties. All of the liberal behaviors just described had become more or less mainstream with incredible alacrity. One would have expected the official liberal position now to be one of satisfaction—perhaps complacent delight—that the message had been so obediently heeded. Instead, the avant-garde liberals in the campus culture ignited a stunning phenomenon: they staged a reversal of sexual attitudes in the PC movement so thorough that its severity far surpassed anything ever observable in sixties suburbia. Any overture or protracted stare from a male could be considered attempted rape, kissing on the playground won the boy (never the tender maiden) instant suspension, and a nude female figure portrayed in a centuries-old oil painting or sculpture qualified as harassment. Middle America had grown sexually liberal only to find that liberalism had grown passionately, even furiously repressive.
I have oversimplified. A tendency to sexual restraint is still somewhat typical of the middle class, while a tendency to libertinage is still easy to identify among the academic élite. The very survival of these tendencies, however, makes the liberal position all the harder to accept as a position, deliberated and arbitrated, rather than as some kind of involuntary reflex. Middle America has actually moved toward the center, coherently and decisively. On social issues, it is in fact moderate-liberal: the most troubling aspect of its shift is simply that it perceives no shift and considers itself to be preserving traditional decorum. This is either disingenuous or just plain obtuse, depending upon what degree of self-analysis you think the average American capable of. It is not, at any rate, irrational. The liberal vanguard, on the other hand, will grind out handbooks for coed freshmen on happy "hook-ups" and force all campus newcomers into coed dorms at the same time as it pursues boys relentlessly for date-rape and offers seminars which warn that all men have always been ravenous sexual predators. In other words, no clear line exists between the "free love" crusade of the sixties and the "all sex is rape" crusade of the nineties: both refrains occur in the same song. The irrationality of a single voice’s raising all these conflicting appeals and alarms has not escaped the faithful of neo-liberalism any more than its critics. The former have indeed adopted irrationalism as a plank of their leaning and weaving platform; and when the latter seek to debate with them, they seize upon superior logic as a longstanding instrument of oppression and try to fume their opponents into silence with the shame of having made sense!
Conservative commentators, in my opinion, are therefore mistaken to read the diffusion of liberalism throughout Western culture as "do your own thing" independence run amuck. World War II was scarcely past when Richard Weaver wrote, "Individualism, with its connotation of irresponsibility, is a direct invitation to selfishness, and all that this treatise has censured can be traced in some way to individualist mentality." I am inclined to believe that his understanding of individualism was rather tendentious even at the time. An individualist, I should say, is someone who knows that ultimately only he is accountable for his actions even when he follows the group, and that all actions he performs are only his even when he imitates everyone around him. He grasps that the circumstances of his socio-cultural conditioning may mitigate, but cannot excuse, any errors of moral judgment he makes—that a socially mandatory behavior is still a choice, and that a bad choice remains bad despite its having been socially sanctioned. Nevertheless, the Right has not been shy about applying Weaver’s dim view of individualism with a vengeance to the conduct of the Left since the late sixties. We are to imagine that recent advocates of liberalism have simply been scratching more itches in more public places as one barricade of propriety after another came crashing down.
This view, I repeat, does not convince me. It entirely fails to account for that virulent anti-rationalism so prominent in today’s avant-garde. After all, mere hedonism can be quite deliberate: it is probably the oldest ethical system of all—or the oldest ethical imposter, I should say, whose facing down was the first task of true ethics. (One can see the fight joined in Plato’s Gorgias, for instance, when Socrates struggles to convince Polus that doing wrong is a worse evil than being wronged.) That arch-Tory, Thomas Hobbes, reminds us that the calculations of the sybarite can be made with utter lucidity. Many who wish to conserve the comfort, security, and privilege of traditional ways are very familiar with such balance sheets. The bottom line may well favor a life nestled warmly among the herd (as Hobbes argued) rather than the cold, dangerous isolation of the rogue non-conformist. Preoccupation with animal pleasures adds up to communal participation (however shallow or duplicitous), not general resistance.
What we see happening on the Left today is much closer to the antithesis of a zeal for individualism, and often resembles an irrational frenzy of self-annihilation. When campus firebrands cry for liberation from sexual pressures, liberation from boring duties, liberation from social discomfort, and the rest, their chorus may sound like one of "I want what I want," but their longing’s essential characteristic is precisely that it speaks in chorus. The phenomenon here borders on mass hysteria. Individualism is jealous of its elbow room, its private time: it has to think things out. In contrast, today’s liberal élite explicitly mistrusts and loathes calm reflection. It is Dionysiac. It wants ecstasy—the special ecstasy of being swept up in a vast surge, a swarm of waving hands and ululating voices that could become a blood-dimmed tide in an instant.
To my mind, this dementia is the single most alarming symptom displayed by our ailing society—the single Worst Thing Wrong with America. Dionysus has always ruled somewhere, of course, or (better yet) has always ruled in some wild corner everywhere. To define civilization as an etiquette which limits his crazed reign as much as possible would not go very wide of the truth. Our problem is that we have thrown open the gates to his tiger-drawn chariot. Not our most ignorant and unintelligent, but our best and brightest seem to have pledged their lives to his worship. As long as American culture tolerates rant and rodomontade in places where serious discussion should be going on—as long as we permit ourselves to be governed by sound-bite and shouting match—the infection will only spread. On our death bed, we will end up looking very like those who now hate us most: a body whose energies are concentrated so consumingly on keeping its moribund appendages in minimal obedience that it cannot so much as sit up straight.
Because I regard our internal war against rationality to be of supreme concern, and because neo-liberalism has chosen the wrong side in this war, I usually describe myself as conservative. Yet it is impossible to exonerate the Right’s intellectual ineptitude fully when one attempts to explain the Left’s intellectual disintegration. We are, after all, one body. If the legs are too shaky to walk, perhaps the spleen is at fault for not providing enough red blood cells. The neo-liberal infatuation with delirium is an extremely complex phenomenon requiring an extremely intricate diagnosis and treatment. I shall not attempt such intricacy here. Others have cited the dissolution of the family and its impact upon children who grew up viewing themselves as unwanted by one or both parents. The divorce culture itself, obviously, was fueled by the major components of the sixties uprising: raw hedonism, male cowardice and loss of purpose, female discontent with traditional roles, and so forth. Why these forces should have come to a head in the late sixties is, by comparison, little discussed. I have seen Howard Schwartz and Peter Singleton reach about the same conclusion from very different directions: i.e., that the American family—and especially the woman at its center—lost respect for the male breadwinner when he became a "company man", seldom seen at home, always weary, never able to demonstrate or explain with pride to his children just what he did all day. Ironically, this is the lackey’s existence which Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem "freed" their sisters to pursue. No wonder they continue to feel shortchanged!
The Company… The Corporation… the private-sector Big Brother… the villain in so many film noir classics made just after World War II: is this not supposed to be the driving force of conservatism? It isn’t to Richard Weaver; but to the so-called neo-conservatives who began to emerge as early as those fateful late sixties and burgeoned until they took over the eighties, full-throttle capitalist growth is indeed the white knight of the romance. Market forces are supposed to topple all despotism worldwide as (it is claimed) they did the Soviet Union, to lure the indigent out of a torpid despondency in which the welfare state has only mired them more deeply, to sustain domestic prosperity by concocting new "necessities", and to contribute to universal health by making the progressive conquest of mortality immortally profitable. To my ear, much of this sounds overtly anti-conservative. It is almost exclusively economic conservatism—and exclusively a defense of private property wedded to a laissez-fairism governing the acquisition and exchange of property. Yet this is an uneasy marriage. In my lifetime, the unscrupulous acquisition of property has steadily vitiated the meaning of property itself. Unfettered development and aggressive marketing, for instance, have placed my present residence under continuous assault by noisy, smelly vehicles and garden equipment and have rendered my neighbors incapable of staying at home. My books cost more and more, yet their paper is cheaper and their print less legible than ever; and much of what I want is out of print, besides, since little of any depth gets published today. At the grocery store, producers of breakfast cereal are so eager to addict me to sugar that they seldom allow me to choose my own dosage; and indeed, I find that most of what lines the shelves resembles a spoiled child’s birthday gift on the outside as much as it does his birthday cake on the inside. I can’t get the quality I once knew out of this brave new world, the old favorite things I possess are often degraded by their coarser surroundings, and a product such as a book which requires silence and stasis to enjoy is scarcely even dreamt of now. I live in a constant and unnecessary flux whose alterations threaten every pleasure I take in life more and more. That the whole dizzying career toward the outer darkness of uniform vulgarity and inanity should be styled "conservative" in any sense of the word would strike me as outrageous if it were not so manifestly idiotic.
How does this "neo-conservatism" conserve taste? Taste must be painfully cultivated and requires an intellectual subtlety that many people will never possess. That which is painfully acquired does not sell well, and that which may never be widely acquired can only look to "niche marketing" for its salvation. Taste must be written off in this race for big, fast bucks as a net loss. How does a neo-conservative conserve such attributes of character as honesty, endurance, and self-sacrifice? These, too, are painfully acquired and perhaps even more thinly distributed than taste, inasmuch as their root is spiritual as well as (probably much more than) intellectual. Will the open marketplace assure their rise to the top? No marketplace could be much more open than the Internet. The newsletters I regularly receive through e-mail telling me how to rope in customers and have them pulling out their plastic before they can think are enough to give me some very blue moments of misanthropy.
Of course, the recipe of neo-conservatism calls for a generous leavening of religion (any religion will do, as long as it exerts those old-time restraints against anti-social behavior: Original Religion Lite). Shadia Drury has recently penned an interesting book about the thought of neo-conservatism’s grandsire, Leo Strauss. I am wholly unversed in Strauss’s philosophical bequest, but I tend to take Drury at her word about it, first because she is a sound scholar, and second because what she says tallies with what I have seen. I believe she is entirely correct, therefore, that religion for the neo-conservative is a strong desideratum not because all the world’s vanities must fall prostrate before its higher summons, but because it is, rather, the glue which holds this great capitalist generator of secular bliss together. It channels ruinous concupiscence into market-making greed and gluttony, sterile envy into what we call "motivation": it keeps the family together and makes the neighborhood pick trash off its lawns (or pay to have someone pick it off). It also allows a hard-working, prosperous citizenry to view material success as the fulfillment of a holy covenant rather than as an obstacle to spiritual maturity. It makes people behave themselves out of a sense of communal expectation without tormenting them over the tawdriness of motive behind their behavior.
I have paraphrased Drury for the sake of brevity and emphasis. I wish to quote her directly at a particular point, however, which seems to undermine a crucial insight into neo-conservatism. Here is her assessment of the conservative orientation’s liabilities:
Now, Drury does not advance this capsulized criticism to distinguish between neo- and proto-conservatism. Though the Mills dig at Tories obviously belongs to an earlier time (a time, in fact, when one could be a Millist progressive without having to apologize for our nightmarish modern experiments in social engineering), her intent seems to be that neo-conservatives have preserved this much of their ancestral plumage. As a description of abiding conservative traits, the passage strikes me as needlessly argumentative. That the conservative hangs on to values "whose rationale is all but totally lost" hardly seems a fair measure, for instance, of Jonathan Swift or of La Rochefoucauld, whose suspicion of human nature was no less profound for being legendary. John Locke, to be sure, believed the human mind to be a blank slate before culture and environment scribble all over it; but as much can certainly not be said of Plato, or even Aristotle—and in what sense could anyone be dubbed a custodian of Western tradition who rejected both of those two (and with them, almost every shred of patristic and scholastic philosophy)? Immanuel Kant was clearly as immersed in this tradition as he was critically supplemental to it. One might object—many nowadays will immediately object, I am sure—that Kant is as vigorously disavowed by contemporary conservatives as he is arrogantly ignored by contemporary liberals. The former cannot forgive him for making sense of the classical heritage (especially the ethical heritage, which he absolutely insists on severing from such perceptible phenomena as voices from golden clouds) in the very way which Drury finds lacking in their approach. The latter have simply airbrushed him from history for being a despicable "universalist" (which, by happy coincidence, excuses them from the labor of actually trying to read him).
I should not like to detain this discussion in arguing that Kant’s critical idealism is the zenith of that analytical conservatism which embraces classical liberalism. One "ism" too many could easily halt my broader argument in a fatal doldrums. I am content to observe here simply that raising rigid barriers around schools of thought can be highly subjective and self-serving. Let me put it this way, using Kant as the wedge behind which my greater point may enter. If one actually reads the man’s work—not one of two passages, or even one or two treatises, but a substantial part of his corpus—one cannot seriously doubt that Kant a) believes that moral duty must always preempt material tendency and aesthetic pleasure, b) considers such duty to justify the supposition of a supernatural and supremely good power, and c) regards all possible human progress as ultimately indexed to this duty and this power. In other words, Kant maintains that people will become better because they will strive after moral improvement, and that they will strive after moral improvement because, as beings granted freedom by and under an all-good power, they have no higher destiny.
What has this to do with Fichte and Hegel, let alone Marx and other social engineers with whom some conservatives have joined Kant? The views outlined above certainly do not amount to a license to overhaul society from the ground up, or even to an admission that such overhaul is possible. In its totality, Kant’s stance is a principled prohibition against despair—than which, of course, nothing could be more conventionally Christian. It is a solution—a version of the only solution—to the great enigma of faith: i.e., how do you find the energy to fight battles which will mostly be lost in a war which has already been won? If Kant rejects despair at the secular level of this great struggle, he rejects complacency at the metaphysical level. We must actively hope in a goodness not of this world—which means that we must strive after it, that it may become a little more of this world.
A conservative who cannot accommodate this solution has conserved nothing worth having. His neo-conservatism might as well be called pseudo-conservatism—a set of barrenly atavistic postures struck for their effect upon others rather than for their expression of an inwardly felt truth. And such is just what Drury has described as essential conservatism throughout the ages: review her angular portrait, and you will find not a glimmer of inner conviction in the smug Dutch merchant who sits for it. Why not? Because Drury has refused to paint fine detail—because she herself is a professed liberal of the old school who has neither abandoned rationality nor conceded it to the other side? I think not. I think her pseudo-conservative portrayal of conservatism is actually a fine likeness of neo-conservatism. The atavistic pose of her subject has beguiled her: she has assumed that his grandsires really did look the same. The rejection of Kantian rationalism by these young upstarts is scarcely more typical of principled conservatism than the rejection of all rationality whatever is of classical liberalism. John Calvin tossed out Plato with one hand while slipping the other around Cicero’s shoulder: his "repudiation" of inner enlightenment in favor of phenomenal revelation was petulant, sporadic, and self-contradictory. Enter the affected "returns" to the fundamentals which cropped up throughout the twentieth century. Karl Barth surpassed Calvin in the process of reviving him. Patron saint of the soi-disant conservative movement after World War II called neo-orthodoxy, Barth mounted an opposition to conscientious reflection and rational analysis which was consistently belligerent (and would probably have left Erasmus’s star pupil aghast). His new following—his neo-conservative sectarians who have joined hands with the Jewish eudemonists of Irving Krystol’s camp—continue to eat it all up.
Again I ask, why? Why is neo-conservatism so heavily invested in mimicking the antediluvian religion of a patriarch who chats daily with God even as its faithful build Websites, juggle cell phones in their mini-vans, and divorce at rates exceeding those of the general populace? Is the disparity itself the explanation—have these people advanced so far into the postmodern limbo of constant harrowing change and gaudy, raucous surface without substance that they have compensated by creating a primitivism of mythic proportions? Where young liberals have responded to chaos by letting down their hair and streaking through the wilderness with cries of "Euhoe!", have conservatives answered by raising a marble edifice in the city’s center and chiseling "Nomos" across the architrave?
I wrote earlier that a religious veneer gives the economic conservative the comfort of thinking his affluence ordained from on high and the security of seeing his fellow congregants denied the more spectacular forms of anti-social behavior. I was not being entirely serious then, for I doubt that such cold calculation of self-interest enters the neo-conservative’s head at a time when his neo-liberal adversaries are running amuck. On both sides, rather, I suspect the bedrock motives of being quite visceral. The hostility of both to rationality clearly calls for that conclusion. If Messrs. Schwartz and Singleton are right and the new generation of liberals despises its absent or emasculated fathers, perhaps the new generation of conservatives longs for a father who exercises arbitrary and absolute control. These zealots do not want a God who sits at their bedside and soothes, "Why fear the dark? You’ve seen all that surrounds you during the day. Whatever else creeps out with the shadows is something you yourself have put there…." No: this requires too much steady, concentrated effort, I suppose, of a terrified child who cannot stop shaking. And so the Father, as a non-negotiable element of the faith, must solemnly declare, "Of all ghouls and goblins that haunt the night, I forbid a single one from harming a single hair upon thy head!" There, now: evil spirits exorcised, doubts eradicated, case closed. That the divine fiat is wholly arbitrary, its power wholly incomprehensible, makes it all the more reassuring. In a word, it is inhuman—and the human is precisely what dismays us most. We want something utterly not us to make being us as safe as when a magnificent figure leans over a toddler and lifts the child into the sky with a laugh.
A poignant image… and, if we never knew such a father on earth, perhaps a pathetic one. But it is also dangerous in its disparagement of the human ability to understand—the moral obligation to attempt understanding (part of which attempt is discovering just what we cannot understand: Kantian critique, in other words). We must get over this self-indulgent craving to be little children again, to be excused seventy-times-seven of our tantrums and solecisms and fears of the bogey man. The neo-liberals among us must stop thinking it important that they "feel threatened" and, instead, assume some resilience and dignity. The neo-conservatives among us must stop thinking it the objective voice of God when they "feel called" to do something against responsible counsel or in defiance of others’ claims upon their loyalty. We must all grow up. To be sure, those who do not become as a little child will never enter the kingdom of heaven; but since when did any child want to remain a child? The distinctive quality of child-like innocence is its self-oblivion, its headlong pursuit of an admired adult state without being the least daunted by its incapacity to wear such big shoes. My little boy wants very much not to cry when he hurts himself: he wants to "be a man". I dread the day when he entertains the insight that most of the adults around him are lustily broadcasting their loves, hates, fears, and wants to all the world with the narcissism of a spoiled brat.
In calling for reason from both sides—from the one anti-rational phalanx that they form—I am not denouncing sentiment. As was said somewhere in our last issue of Praesidium, a deliberate emotion is actually a more sincere, profound, and humane emotion. What I deplore in contemporary American culture is not the reign of feeling, but the kind of feeling which reigns: impulsive, shallow, egocentric, implacable, tasteless, and disastrous to both self and others. Thoughtful people have finer emotions. The music of Vivaldi or Beethoven or (my personal favorite, however decadent Richard Weaver finds him) Debussy is not unemotional just because it doesn’t jerk out physiological response at the rate of rap music. Otherwise, why not make a symphony out of detonating bombs? The art of Titian or Vermeer or Friedrich is not unemotional just because it doesn’t represent a familiar icon in media that induce vomiting. We need to recover our reason so that we may reclaim a finer quality of emotion. A rag-tag bunch of juvenile derelicts with stupendous funding behind it which succeeds in murdering 5000 people seems an unlikely delivery system for this message. In a way, though, it is fully appropriate: its self-absorbed, exhibitionist thuggery is the logical conclusion of campus anti-logic, and its self-righteous, ostentatious bibliolatry is the logical extension of Big Tent illogic. Al Qaeda is a glimpse at what our Left could become: small wonder that the PC crowd sprang to its defense, for ideologues dream in cataclysm. The Taliban is a glimpse at what our Right could become: small wonder that American fundamentalists want every trace of it expunged from the earth, for it could eventually be a rival gang fighting for the same Far Eastern turf.
How do we recover reason? If diagnosing the sources of our irrationality is as complex a task as I suggested earlier, then what chance have we of a simple cure? I recur to Kant. Each of us, as an individual, is responsible for his or her choices. Whatever degree of conditioning may have been inflicted upon us by family or peers or culture, we can always start out the new day by proclaiming, "I’ve had enough of wearing this crowd’s livery: today I change." We must all wear someone’s livery, to be sure: even Robin Hood’s men wore Lincoln green. It is our duty, nevertheless, to insist that the greater powers to which we pledge allegiance adhere to certain minimal principles. Many would rather accept the colors than responsibility for the ideas and actions nourished under them. In any given situation, many—perhaps most—human beings are weak-willed. We must recognize that our groups do not usurp our will, but merely express it. Everything they do with our approval is something we are doing. We must gravely ask ourselves if we can bear the consequences of that reflection.
In my opinion, the remaining classical liberals who refuse to admit that their project is now essentially conservative, given the virulence of the assault on rationality, need to consider the consequences of their position. Shadia Drury is pleased to label the more oppressive strains of the PC crusade as something vaguely right-wing. There are one or two good reasons for that claim: but it is not broadcast resonantly by her coterie, and almost never in those quarters where it might do some good (that is, where it would create an uproar). Besides, the fact remains that the avant-garde has only oppression of inquiry in common with some of the Right. The core notion that all history is a conspiracy and all discourse propaganda is as counter-conservative as it is anti-rational. No doubt, Drury would like to elbow (or finesse with the proverbial ten foot pole) her camp’s holy warriors off the ledge where they perch precariously in the hope that some fourth dimension would carry them back up on the Far Right. In campus curriculum wars, however, her crew puts up the weakest of fights and immediately rolls over at the first shout of "Racist!" or "Sexist!" In politics, it tags along on a leash as candidates make extravagant appeals to helter-skelterites. On the social front, it smuggles its offspring off to private school in a more fuel-efficient line of vans and provides condoms for Courtney’s coed sleep-over just in case a profane pair or two may take in vain those giggly reassurances that everyone is "just friends". With friends like this—with friends like themselves—why do moderate liberals imagine that they need conservatives for enemies?
Neo-conservatism, which at least talks publicly about repealing the rule of hysteria, wants to ensure major change by preempting mass vacillation with an unquestionable and irrevocable command. Since the command’s authority, however, may neither be examined nor doubted, this strategy only extends the rule of hysteria. How can you not doubt what you have not examined? On the contrary, only by examining something can you locate its assumptions—its working axioms—and decide if these deserve to be doubted because of their great number or because of their tendency to impair rather than elicit good conduct. In my opinion (frankly, it is a conviction with me), Christianity requires very few assumptions to make sense of life’s mysteries; and it also pulls our contradictory human motives—our fear and lust and envy, our guilt and self-loathing and very occasional eagerness to trade our death for another’s life—into a coherent and productive forward surge. I cannot understand why any conscientious, practicing Christian would applaud, or even tolerate, manic displays in the pulpit when the case for faith can be made with such harmony and such profundity—with such intelligent emotion. The present trend toward irrationally ungrounded and unlimited trust in a higher power to arrange one’s physical safety, comfort, and prosperity is simply an alternative kind of PC cultism. The campus radical demands perfect sexual experiences, perfect jobs with perfect pay and hours, perfect civility on all occasions: the pious eudemonist has unshakable confidence that all his diseases will be cured, all aspects of his marriage and family life blessed, and all his financial pressures resolved. There isn’t enough space between the two to insert a fuse.
For neo-conservatism’s flight from "reckless individualism" always comes full circle: self-preoccupation always draws a large following, and crowd-followers are always courting a selfish desire to escape themselves. Sparing a tender heart and an untrained mind the "anguish" of private reflection doesn’t ensure a well-integrated, communally directed person farther down the line: it ensures, rather, a shallow community whose dominant concerns are no less selfish for being general. A girl who has been saved from the challenges of great books may want the same liposuction as her friends are having, and may want it to make all the boys of her acquaintance happier. Is this, then, self-sacrifice? By the same token, a poorly read young person who is taught to approach God in prayer with all his wants and never doubt of their fulfillment will end up composing a Christmas list wherein money and popularity are sure to figure prominently. For true character and genuine spirituality, the results of such a catechism are calamitous.
Descartes was able to peer inside himself in the Meditations and find both God and his fellow man. Such discoveries, he claimed, are based on common sense, which is "the best distributed thing in the world." The neo-orthodox and neo-conservative equation of inward study with self-absorption is a direct assault upon moral reason, which requires a painfully acute analysis of personal motives in all circumstances. With attacks like this from within Western society, who needs terrorists?
On Left and Right both—but especially on the Right, where tradition enjoys a good name even if it is little respected—we must strive to recover the sense of a higher purpose, a moral duty whose roots extend beyond the depths of our personal being to a metaphysical author. We must seek (to use Kant’s contrast) "anthroponomy" over anthropology. In today’s correct-speak, we must labor to see that cultural diversity leads us toward, not away from, our common humanity: we must devotedly study the fixed stars behind history’s variegated fireworks—not the spectacular differences which can so easily blind us to our shared mission. Many, I repeat, will resist the new emphasis (the old emphasis renewed), or will be too blunt to see beyond the spectacle. We must try, then, to court a larger few, and cease being consumed by the movements of the many. The many are always followers, in any case. The only real issue is whether the thoughtful will debase themselves in concocting schemes which feign mass enlightenment, much to the delight of fools and the consternation of the lost; or whether, instead, they will tell the truth and leave the masses to grumble over an unwanted challenge. I submit that it is our inescapable duty to pose the challenge and withstand the grumbling.
Allow me to underscore with my closing words the painful divisions and continued strife to be expected of such truth-telling. I am not advocating peace at all costs, but ascent at all costs. I am not proposing that we "reach out" to Muslims or "sit down" with Hindus, but that we insist upon the service of goodness in our own acts and welcome it gratefully when we find it in others’ acts. The critical line of differentiation which I see running through human affairs does not respect skin color or choice of holidays or number of genuflections in the temple. It cuts right through the grain of every major religious faith, rather, stirs complacent neighborhoods into unrest, and pits members of families one against another. Good men who mitigate a bellicose passage of the Koran will be denounced by the weak-minded and the politically devious as betraying The Prophet. Good men and women who dare to assert that the true God could never have intended Abraham to sacrifice his son will be denounced by the same parties in Christendom and Judaism—the many who are too dull and the few who are altogether too shrewd—as blasphemers against holy writ. The position I recommend is not middle-of-the-road, come-together appeasement. It is intelligent, energetic, uncompromising service of moral right. Conservatism and liberalism are not two polarities whose bisecting I urge in high Aristotelian fashion. Both, rather, have put other things before goodness, or perhaps have reverted to that paleolithic definition of goodness as "feeling good". I argue for feeling bad, instead—lonely, beleaguered, ignored, slandered, persecuted—whatever it takes, so long as the right thing gets done. To be exact, we should learn how not to feel bad when doing good rather than how to avoid feeling bad as we find ourselves now.
We of the West are no longer tough enough: is that what the Third World has been saying about us? If so, then its furious voices are correct—but not, I suspect, in any sense that most of them understand.
1 See pp. 405-406 of Die Metaphysik der Sitten in Kants Werke, vol. 6 (Berlin; Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 203-494.
2 Cf. Noel Perrin, Giving Up the Gun (Boston: Godine, 1979). I am indebted to Peter Singleton’s Return to Chivalry (Tyler, TX: Arcturus P, 2001) for bringing this splendid little book to my attention.
3 Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1948), 181.
4 Simply because it is at hand, I might cite from the introduction of David Walsh’s powerful book, After Ideology: Recovering the Spiritual Foundations of Freedom (Washington: Catholic U of America P, 1995), such phrases as "driving passion for messianic self-salvation", "the expansion of individual egotism", and "the destructive delusions of self-perfection" (see 1-7). I would strongly recommend this brave, original study to anyone who honors truth. My point is merely that it has become a locus communis to attribute our postmodern self-absorption to the individualist tradition of self-analysis, whereas I find ample evidence that self-absorbed people do very little analysis of any kind.
5 See and Howard S. Schwartz, The Revolt of the Primitive: An Inquiry into the Roots of Political Correctness (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001); and Peter T. Singleton, op. cit. (n. 1 above).
6 See Shadia B. Drury, Leo Strauss and the American Right (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999), 159.
7 Ibid., 159. If I may be permitted a marginal protest which is not at all irrelevant to the main issues of this essay, I would like to object to Drury’s characterizing of Strauss’s philosophy within a few pages of this passage: "The phalocratic character of Leo Strauss’s philosophy is undeniable" (167). The preposterous word "phalocratic" says virtually nothing, says it with crude provocation, and reflects an altogether typical habit of speech in liberal scholarship. If Drury means to maintain that Strauss’s ideas were unconsciously but significantly influenced by certain prejudices stemming from his masculinity, she should spend enough words to do so. The term she has chosen, instead, does him the abuse of alleging that he thought with his genitalia—a scurrility which defies rational construction except as a patent insult. We need not wonder how a feminist would respond to being labeled "cliterocratic" or "uterocentric"; and her furious indignation at such a term, in my opinion, would be fully justified. I realize that Drury did not begin this jargonized mud-slinging and is, indeed, only using the common parlance of her field. Nevertheless, to sloganeer the writings of an intelligent human being with a phrase like "Phalus rules!" partakes of the same vindictive hysteria as we see in the more volatile campus uprisings.
8 The ascription of a utopian faith to Kant has become almost universal among conservative scholars, who conclude that his wresting the Jacob’s ladder of moral knowledge from the rather low celestial vault of miraculous revelation in history must leave it inclined upon humanist and scientific ends. I do not entirely understand the stages of this deduction. I would guess that it is affected by Kant’s treatise, Zum ewigen Friedan (Toward Perpetual Peace), whose availability in translation suggests that it has crossed the path of many political science professors. Yet this work is directed at the conduct of nations and must be viewed, besides, against the backdrop of Machiavellian statecraft and unscrupulous protection of inherited privilege which colored the political landscape of Kant’s time. In other works composed throughout his life, he is both reluctant to extend an optimism about the possibility of individual moral progress to any political system and outspokenly opposed to all types of civil disorder. (See, for instance, the conclusion to Part One of Die Metaphysik der Sitten, where Kant warns that "to rebel against it [governmental authority] is nevertheless absolutely impermissible and criminal." For more on the subject, visit the online journal Anthropoetics for a 2002 special number [edited by Thomas Bertonneau] on Eric Voegelin, wherein my own paper about Kant offers this defense at length.) I must insist, then, that to speak of Kant in the same breath with starry-eyed poets of revolution is grossly ill-informed and unfair.
9 Cf. the early treatise (1759), Versuch einiger Betrachtungen über den Optimismus.
10 Cf. Kant, Die Metaphysik der Sitten: "For by this method [i.e., adhering to the Golden Mean] moral quality is not determined; on the contrary, all depends on whether or not conduct is in proper accord with duty." (Op. cit., 404.)
Academentia: Making History
Mary Grabar is putting the finishing touches on her dissertation at the University of Georgia, Athens, where she also repels Vandals from the redoubt of freshman composition. We ask, by the way, that admirers of former president Clinton observe how her criticisms of that charismatic figure originate in and focus upon her concerns as a woman: this is scarcely a political diatribe. Surely any fair person would admit that, all things considered, Mr. Clinton’s conduct toward women was reviewed with a benignly blind eye by current Gestapo standards.
Never debate a former 1960s protestor who was "there" and helped bring the government "to its knees". The aging radical will fall back on his old tactics.
The conversation began innocently enough last summer at a pickin’ party/pig roast in an idyllic farm setting in rural Georgia. It’s an annual event and I got invited because I belong to a group that promotes old-time music and folk dances. At such gatherings, I find myself sharing my love of traditional music and dance and some liberal concerns such as land preservation and ecology with men wearing skirts and women who think this Grateful Dead-inspired fashion is sexy. I avoid political discussions, so I maintain friendships (though during one conversation my aesthetic objection to flowery skirts flowing over hairy legs encased in tube socks was insistently attributed to my narrow upbringing). We have a good time dancing, and though I have my doubts about the effectiveness of "dances for peace" that are sometimes held by the same participants (except of course for the peace among the dancers themselves), such a setting is the most conducive I know to having people of all political persuasions "get along". Other than church, I know of no place where I feel safer than at a dance weekend.
The day began with my usual Saturday morning visit to the tiny local organic farmers’ market for fixings of the potluck.
The radical and I had met once before. The conversation began with work. He teaches geology and environmental science at a local college. The latter piqued my interest. I told him about a paper I had presented the previous weekend on T.S. Eliot’s concept of environmentalism, as he spelled it out in his "Idea of a Christian Society". I also told him about my frustration in trying to find an anthology for a special topics freshman composition class I had devised that would include the environmental point of view of someone like Eliot; the anthologies I had found had three sections: animal rights, deep ecology, and ecofeminism. All three views start from an anti- Christian premise and reject the idea of anthropomorphism, while purportedly attempting to change the "consciousness" of readers. All wrongly assume that environmentalism started in the 1960s.
I made the mistake of telling the radical this before knowing his history. Though I claimed to be an environmentalist, I also admitted to being conservative and Christian.
The latter two aspects negated the first for him.
Though the radical had never heard of, much less read, the pre-1960s writers like Richard Weaver or John Ruskin that I mentioned, he insisted that the environmental movement had started in the 1960s because that’s when people’s "consciousness" began to change. Innocently, I thought that this teacher of environmental science might have been interested to hear what a Victorian had to say about the environmental and social havoc wreaked by industrialism.
The conversation moved to a general lauding of the sixties. He took partial credit for the civil rights movement and ending the war in Vietnam.
Since I had been doing research for my dissertation that involved the history of the 1960s for my chapter on Gravity’s Rainbow, I told him that it was my impression that the civil rights movement had started before the white sixties radicals got involved and that some historians and political scientists believe that the sixties protest movement actually prolonged the war in Vietnam.
"Who are these authors?" he demanded.
I gave him names of scholars.
He dismissed them as part of some right-wing conspiracy and quoted Ho Chi Minh’s statement about the impossibility of the U.S. winning the war.
Then began the charges typical of the sixties radicals once you challenge their view of history. I was castigated as a right-wing fundamentalist on the side of corporations and overall repression of freedom. My references to specific writers and titles, either pre-sixties or conservative, fell on deaf ears.
He accused me of believing in "God, work, and the family". I replied, "What’s wrong with that?"
"You probably even like John Ashcroft!" I asked him what problems he had with Ashcroft. He named an organization that he alleged was racist. The charges against John Ashcroft range from his associations with Southern Partisan to his sinister background as a composer of hymns, as an exposé by The New York Times—with entire verses as evidence—revealed.
The radical, with the years having added some girth to the six-foot-plus frame, morphed from a placid banjo player to an enraged boy. He began shouting. I had to walk away.
I removed myself and sat down with a retired professor, his wife, and sister-in-law who was in a wheelchair. Not mentioning my conversation, I said something about the state of academia, that history is taught as if it began in the 1960s. The woman in the wheelchair smiled and said, "They were just teenagers. They thought they invented sex." The makers of the movie Pleasantville, promoting the revisionist history of the radicals, would have us believe that everyone in the 1950s was a repressed Puritan. (Then see the realistic 1970s representation in The Virgin Suicides of a beautiful teenage girl deflowered on prom night and left by Narcissus to wake up alone on the football field.)
Clearly, something emotional was going on. I had struck a nerve with this unmarried, childless man in his late forties. As a woman, not only did I symbolize potential confinement and restriction of his unlimited male freedom, but I was a bad woman—one who overtly championed the idea of "God, work, and family". I was not even like most of the women he had probably dated: women who would grant this bad boy of the sixties all the privileges he had come to expect, up to co-habitation and then abortion if necessary.
But his type are all around us.
Paul C. Vitz, in Psychology as Religion, exposed the aggressiveness that the focus on the self bred among men (and women). The cult of the self as evidenced in therapy and books that, in short, advocated looking out for number one produced a generation of men who never emerged from the egotistic and narcissistic stage of adolescence. The hostility and rage that Vitz had diagnosed in 1977 have been compounded by the passage of time.
Some of the radicals, though, express some regret for protesting against their own country but attribute the phase to misguided youthful ideals in the midst of overwhelming peer pressure. Last year, the novelist Pat Conroy had published an essay expressing these sentiments in Reader’s Digest; he claimed that instead of protesting against the Vietnam War, he should have done what his buddy did and fight in the war. But some still insistently cling to their own notions: any "progress" not yet realized is due to the incompleteness of the revolution. One suspects a defensiveness about a less than glorious past: of converging barefoot and shouting against your government while your parents are supporting you.
They are still in rebellion. Many of the men who imbibed the predominant ethos of draft-dodging of the sixties or disco-dancing of the seventies now find themselves single and childless. They are angry and don’t know why the chicks who would "do it" with men who refused to fight are no longer chicks. In their anger, the women have turned to worshiping themselves in the form of goddesses or have surpassed the rebels in terms of job titles, real estate, and 401(k)’s.
The latest psychobabble directed to women who love too much or love the wrong man is that the need for someone to complement their traits and protect them really indicates the need to nurture that aspect in themselves. So the desire for a member of the species with more muscle mass than you have indicates the need to develop your own muscles. While the advice to exercise more is probably good in most situations, women now are counseled to become emotional and physical hermaphrodites. Nurture yourself, we are told. Don’t depend on anyone. Men like "independent" women.
Former male rebels without a cause have told me that allowing a man to buy me lunch is the equivalent of prostitution (the category into which marriage has also been cast). That women "use" men to have babies. That no one in his right mind would get married without a pre-nuptial that would detail the fair distribution of property, down to deciding who gets the couch and who gets the recliner (with a clause in the event that there are two couches and a recliner, or two recliners and a couch, etc.). Similarly, women insist on paying their share of the restaurant tab and insist on an equal payment from the man in terms of potatoes peeled for dinner. Babies are had at their convenience. The mutual stand-off is described in the more nebulous terms as "fear of commitment" and "problems with intimacy", problems which have provided the material for many therapists, book contracts, and radio advice talk shows.
Granted this is my experience with a selective pool. I, after all, am referring to single, heterosexual, middle-aged men. But whereas in times past such a man was a rarity, today many such men choose this state. Marriage, because it involves duties to "God, work, and family", might interfere with the principles they attempt to adhere to: self, fun, and freedom. Or they will complain that they cannot find the "right" woman: i.e., one to take on Mommy’s role: as provider of creature comforts for when Johnny comes home from play. To be fair, I know men who have tried to meet women’s demands that they become more like women (i.e., "sensitive"); but such men are usually ruined, either by capitulating and then whining about "feelings" or becoming defensive and angry—or else (the worst combination) by turning whiner and pseudo-he-man men’s rights advocate. Men in their thirties have their own quirks, I am sure. But the free-wheeling sixties and seventies—the decades of "make love, not war"—seem to have produced a group of single men, who, despite their attempts at Buddhist meditation, yoga, release therapy, and sitar lessons, are very angry.
Pat Conroy’s statement of if-I-could-change-things-I-would was one I had heard from a former ashram member, hitchhiker, acid-dropper, daily pot-smoker, ex-social worker, now "healer", "psychic", and men’s rights advocate. Months before its publication in Reader’s Digest, he had sent me a copy of Conroy’s essay which had been circulating through an e-mail list-serve. During the presidential campaign, my friend had castigated John McCain for his "traitorous" behavior while prisoner of war. Even former domestic terrorist and Pentagon bomber, Bill Ayers, now Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois and Director of Center for Youth and Society, has the audacity to broach Bob Kerrey’s behavior in Vietnam.
But the man before me did not even grant the Conroy-ian pseudo-admission of youthful misjudgment. At forty-eight, he stood as firm in his conviction as he had at eighteen years old. He was still the rebel who had made history by that brilliant stroke of genius that had inspired his peers: to change the world by gathering themselves into a mob to force a democratic government to "its knees".
The position of the anti-hero is either in the middle of the mob or on its fringes. In either case, his identity as a man with a place in a social order is obviated. He can lose himself in some back alley alone and experience the rush after the needle has found the vein, or he can find himself in the midst of a throng and experience the rush of power that comes from losing himself in its frenzy.
* * *
The 1960s produced its own twisted version of the hero: the stoned-out drop-out who screamed he would not fight in a war, or study for tests, or support a family. In retrospect, I realize my protestor-interlocutor was assuming that I, like most women in his social circle, would view his history as heroic. I did not, and he was deeply insulted. His students, I am sure, look adoringly at him as he regales them with stories about "changing history", though they are not mature enough to question how being loud, obnoxious, and intimidating en masse is really a courageous act.
Heroism itself has changed. The "reality" shows that re-enact gladiatorial contests where men and women "survive" by physical and emotional subterfuge present mini-dramas of life in the workplace and sometimes home. Women break through the glass ceiling through guerilla business tactics or gain tenure through "scholarship" that engages in warfare with every critic coming before them (now even with earlier "mothers" of feminist criticism; nastiness somehow has a way of coiling back like a snake). "Courage" has been changing indeed: eat fried rat on a staged Galapagos Islands.
The recent re-definition of courage by Susan Sontag and others to include the terrorists who fly airplanes through buildings is really an extension of the sixties reversal. Heroism was a notion ostensibly ridiculed by these anti-heroes and then changed in meaning to suit their purposes. Any act of rebellion was therefore categorized as courageous.
But the middle-aged, who no longer have parents to rebel against, must put themselves into the role of heroes. Just as the definition of "courage" is changed from meaning selfless acts to protect the weaker to meaning crazed terrorism that kills the weaker, the definition of heroism is changed as well.
One can, like Pat Conroy, chalk up his own past of less-than-exemplary warrior heroism to being misled by peer pressure and claim from the safe perspective of middle age that one would do things differently now.
Or one can continue to insist that protesting was more heroic than going off to Vietnam. One was fighting the enemy: the "military-industrial complex". In a parallel move, communism has to be recast as a nebulous, and probably more just, form of government. What is important in terms of the new heroism is defying the traditional order, questioning and then subverting traditional notions of right and wrong. If one does not do this, does not agree with the sixties radicals, then one is "following like sheep", which my interlocutor indeed accused me of doing. The government was the real enemy and these protestors were engaged in guerrilla warfare.
Those buzz phrases remain in my mind as they were shouted at me that summer day: "following like sheep", "changing history", "bringing the government to its knees," "John Ashcroft", "God, work, and family". I have known too many such men—often the most liberal and claiming feminist credentials. There is something scary about a man shouting down a woman, though I have never known one who was conservative to do it, as much as he disagreed with me. But shouting was the predominant form of protest in the sixties; it’s part of letting it all hang out. My debater was continuing to practice what he probably had been doing with his mother, sisters, and ex-girlfriends.
College students, I have found, do not question the version of history promoted by those like my interlocutor: the vaguely idealistic goals of "brotherhood" and "love", nor the Marxist means proposed to achieve them, expressed in "The Port Huron Statement", a position paper of the Students for a Democratic Society, that presumed through its sweep to rewrite the New Testament. The music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan is still popular with them. In contrast, one cannot imagine a teenager of the sixties listening to anything that old and dated—from his parents’ generation, yet! (Another tribute to George Harrison on NPR as I write this; one of those insipid commentaries by a mother of a small child who ends by pointing to the "wisdom of youth" as her three-year-old comments that George and John are dead together.) One of my better students approvingly quoted in a paper the now sixty-year-old lyrics of Bob Dylan’s (né Zimmerman before the image change): "Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand… your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your road is rapidly aging. Please get out of a new one if you can’t understand, for the times they are a-changin’."
These students have a vague belief that every right and freedom they have is due to the efforts of the guitar-strumming saints of the sixties. But with the elimination of standard courses on American and European history (unless it is the multicultural fare of presenting these cultures as oppressive), they have nothing against which to gage the version of the sixties propagandists. Certainly, these students will not get a different perspective if they are taking classes in environmental science from my debater.
Their teachers, still caught up in their adolescent narcissistic desires to be the center of the universe, insist that history began with them, when they began making it. Don DeLillo captures such self-infatuation of tenured radicals in his satirical novel, White Noise, in such scenes as a lunch gathering of middle-aged adolescent men who throw food at each other while they discuss the glory-studded events of their youths—where they were when James Dean died, and where they were when they brushed their teeth with their fingers: the "seminal events… Woodstock, Altamont, Monterey."1 As recent college offerings on such banal and trite topics as Oprah Winfrey and The Simpsons indicate, the curriculum is changed to include any and all topics, topics akin to those DeLillo’s academics work to implement in their own courses: the "ethos of the road" and "the culture of public toilets."2 Students have been taught that to be naked and stoned is the ultimate form of resistance and heroism. But each generation of radicals must surpass the older one. It is no wonder that the children of the original Woodstock generation (those who could afford to travel and buy pot) destroyed the cash machines and other property at their Woodstock II concert a couple years ago.
* * *
As our conversation had become heated, I had tried to find some common ground. I had told my interlocutor that I had at one time been in a landscape architecture program. I had told about my discoveries in my research, that some of the same concerns that his generation was voicing in violent and chaotic form had been voiced reasonably and with knowledge by those like Richard Weaver. Though there was far from total agreement, older conservatives (not the free-market, self-gratification apologists one associates with conservatism today) voiced some of the same concerns that the radicals did about rampant corporatism, materialism, alienation, consumerism, environmental destruction, and mechanized warfare. But I should have known better. "Woodstock nation", as Abbie Hoffman proclaimed, would not engage in linear, rational, Western thought and read philosophy and history. So my references to Ruskin, Eliot, and Weaver were to no avail. In the sixties, "poet-warriors" would declaim feelings on the streets and in coffeehouses. Now the beats’ dictum of "first thought, best thought" is heard in poetry slams, MLA panels, and classrooms across the country. And I was encountering the self-righteous wrath of one of its veterans personally.
As displayed by my interlocutor (as well as by refereed journals and hiring committees at the most prestigious universities), the claims to openness, free thought, non-judgmentalism, like all absolute claims to relativism, are self-negating. While an adolescent may be humored to a point in his attempts to think independently or not be "brainwashed", as he might misguidedly put it, prolonging the rebelliousness that rejects all standards except its own into middle age implies the opposite of its intended effect.
Such claims become simple assertions of power, and like all assertions of power, carry threats of violence. DeLillo satirically presents his academics as "thug-like", with qualities akin to Mafiosi and brown shirts.
On a practical level, the tenured radicals have control of most of the universities and dictate what students will learn. But unlike the presumably authoritarian strictures of a traditional curriculum, which looks to a historical consensus on what is the best that has been thought, these curriculum changes are made arbitrarily—by none other than those who "were there". And their qualifications need not be more than having been there (or now for younger academics to just share their sympathies), notwithstanding a certain technical proficiency that has come to substitute for wisdom. (I am sure my interlocutor was an adequate geologist.)
While these new heroes of the self attempt to extricate themselves from duties to God, family, and country, they elevate themselves as that one to whom duty and honor should be shown. Self-help shelves sag with tomes that are variations on "Women Who Love Too Much", i.e., "at all", which emerged from the earlier genre of "Look Out for #1". The message to women is to match men in selfishness.
Now the former peaceniks, like my debater, I have found, are not bleeding heart liberals (that’s where women’s misplaced compassion goes), but libertarians. But libertarianism, though on the surface falling into the conservative category, is really suited to the demands of these Peter Pans. They use it to justify shirking financial as well as moral responsibility. They did have to get jobs eventually, and now, rather than clamoring for government programs (for which daddy is no longer paying taxes), they want to keep the money for themselves. Their protests against taxation are not based on a philosophical quarrel with how the money is spent, but rather with the idea that they cannot keep all the money for themselves. They also do not believe in contributing to charities (unless maybe it’s the ACLU. or another organization that would fight for their freedoms), or in tithing, or supporting children. (They might chip in for the girlfriend’s abortion, relieved that the amount is minuscule in comparison to eighteen years of child support payments.) They claim the libertarian ethos of rugged individualism but have had college educations paid for by parents and may have started their own businesses in the homes of girlfriends long discarded after the entrepreneur was able to pay his own rent.
The "spiritual paths" follow the self in a similar way. Zen Buddhism is a favorite. So is anything New Age or anything that mimics the "feel-good" seminars of the seventies. Anything with repressive "thou shalt nots" is out. Commandments might make them feel guilty about their behavior to women and country and, presumably, carry the danger of making them "follow like sheep".
Indeed, they have no Good Shepherd to follow. As they refuse to follow any authority, they place themselves into that role. Hence, rules change according to their own whims: for marriage, fidelity, support of children. But could anything less be claimed for those who presumed the authority to change "consciousness" itself? No wonder that the former "consciousness" changers have become self-described psychics, shamans, astrologers, and healers. The pool of available middle-aged men seems to be filled with those who will predetermine that the relationship will not work out because of your sign, your childhood, or aura. Not surprisingly, many of these men are suspicious and accusatory on matters ranging from fidelity to ulterior motives for marriage.
The old strictures of order, respect, and compassion that emanated from a Judeo-Christian tradition have been replaced by constant rebellion, suspicion, and manipulation. Underlying it all is the perpetual adolescent’s egotistic desire for power.
* * *
Though I claim responsibility for making stupid "choices" for whatever reasons, and for going along with the dominant ethos at one time, I do not think that my experience is that unusual. The sixties ethos has seeped into the culture at large. I have seen my married peers go unthinkingly into the materialistic acquisitiveness and conformity for which their fathers were criticized; their changes are minor—"business casual" instead of the gray flannel suit (including for women) and a joint instead of a martini on the weekend. They are the "bobos", the bohemian bourgeois who buy the trappings of peasant culture, while enjoying the gadgets and luxuries technology has to offer. They’ll take a toke at a party while they worry aloud about their teenage daughters doing dangerous drugs or having birth control failures. They pass on the stories of their era to their children. A teenage Boy Scout glowingly related to me his father’s story of sixties heroism: about a graduating high school senior who stood on a chair during commencement to protest the administration’s policy of preventing those like himself, with long hair and beards and unkempt appearance, from walking across the stage to pick up diplomas. But the "social progress" evidenced by allowing someone who looks like Taliban John to parade across a stage during a graduation ceremony is a dubious one and is evidenced indeed today in a new policy of tolerance for various sorts of appearances of increasing outrageousness. I don’t know how much farther the children of these sixties heroes can go than the tattooing, hair-dying, piercing, and branding they have been inflicting on themselves.
Revolution is inherently violent, and sado-masochism, self-mutilation, and terrorism are an extension of the violence that undergirded the revolution of the sixties. Furthermore, violence was not an unfortunate, unforeseen outcome when flower-bearing, peace-loving children were forced up against the wall by the "establishment". Rather, violence was justified and advocated by some of the most respected intellectual leaders of the protest movements. The revered novelist Thomas Pynchon actually celebrated the Watts riots in the 1966 New York Times Magazine.3 Here, Pynchon, from the privileged perspective of someone "hip" (an attitude often nurtured by trust funds and Ivy League educations) presented the violence of Watts as justified and authentic. Assuming the empathetic stance of one of the oppressed, Pynchon wrote,
One wonders how much time the Cornell-educated young writer spent in Watts to present this authentic thumbnail sketch with the confidential "you".
The authorial stance of one among the "cats" veers into aesthetic appreciation:
One can imagine the readers of the Sunday New York Times appreciating Pynchon’s glimpse of "reality" of Watts and his assessment of the riot’s aesthetic qualities from their doorman-guarded penthouses or summer cottages on the Vineyard. Rioting since then, from the Rodney King riots to the lootings in Cincinnati, has similarly been rationalized from the distances of ivy-covered enclaves or security guard-manned editorial offices.
Those who have government supported round-the-clock bodyguards make similar pronouncements on cases of violence. Former President Bill Clinton’s rationalizations for the terrorist attacks of September 11, or at least his inappropriate pointing to the political sins of Western culture at a speech at Georgetown University last fall, drew the wrath of the right-wing. Many of the Clintonesque statements made on campuses that traced the terrorist attacks back to U.S. policies were gathered into a report put out by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). Liberal commentators like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jay Bookman called the ACTA’s report "hysterical", and implied that any criticism of the Left’s supposedly open views was being quashed by the radical right wing. (On the board of ACTA, Bookman suspiciously pointed out, sit Lynne Cheney, Sen. Joe Lieberman, and William Bennett.) Newspapers like the New York Times that covered the report quoted the more nebulous remarks repeated from campuses, and by implication charged ACTA with hysteria also. Bookman quotes a passage from the ACTA report that is presumably self-indicting: "Rarely did professors mention heroism, rarely did they discuss the difference between good and evil, the nature of Western political order or the virtue of a free society…. Indeed, the message of much of academe was clear: BLAME AMERICA FIRST." The key words quoted by Bookman to support the charge of "hysteria" are "heroism", "good and evil", "political order", and "virtue", terms the Left loves to scoff at.
Liberals use a different form of rhetoric, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out in Eugenics and Other Evils. This rhetoric masks such terms as killing with euphemisms like "choice", or "dignity". Chesterton was already onto their game in 1922. (Surely even some hysteria should be allowed in the wake of 3,000 deaths. To express no outrage at such a time is the pathological response.)
Bookman concludes after quoting the report,
Bookman, obviously, has not spent much time on campuses. The attitude of "honest discussion" goes so far only to grant prestigious chairs to "philosophers" like Princeton’s Peter Singer, who promotes infanticide and bestiality. Given the current climate, future "honest discussions" on campuses might entertain the equivalent of sending Grandma out on an ice float. But "honest discussions" do not go so far as to entertain the notion that euthanasia goes against divine law (the word most often stricken from discussion on campuses is "God"). They do not go so far as to include conservative views, including those who claim that some professors do "blame the United States for Sept. 11".
Bookman does not mention the fact that real "honest discussion" has already been squelched on campuses across the country. There is no dissent likely to come from the nineteen-year-old sitting in the environmental science class when his professor tells him the environmental movement started in the sixties. Nor is he likely to challenge the professor’s point that protestors like himself changed the world into a more harmonious, peaceful place to live. What does the nineteen-year-old have to compare it to? (Besides, he likes the fact that his parents buy him $40,000 toys to drive around in and let his girlfriend spend the weekends in his room.) The nineteen-year-old has not heard otherwise. The professor, who is in a position of authority, is likely to dismiss out–of-hand any suggestions to his own reading list that do not jibe with his egocentric world view.
This is a world view that has come to dominate education. Clinton’s speech, as an example of sophistic pandering, did not overtly promote treason; instead, it just presented another tallying up of the standard list of Western political sins (which could have been lifted from any seventh grade social studies textbook). Similarly, the "texts" disseminated in the classroom have the appearance of open-mindedness and objectivity. But by the fact that the radicals in power preclude the broaching of another view, the discussion is cut off—contrary to Bookman’s claims of "honest discussion".
Another text that students are not likely to be exposed to is Norman Mailer’s 1957 tract, "The White Negro", the position paper on the new male ethic that was to emerge in the sixties. Arguing for an existential authenticity, Mailer predicted that the "psychopath may indeed become the perverted and dangerous front-runner of a new kind of personality which could become the central expression of human nature before the twentieth century is over." For Mailer, the psychopath and part-psychopath attempt to overthrow western "sublimation" and "create a new nervous system for themselves." Aligning the psychopath’s impulses to the "Negro’s" (or Mailer’s stereotyped presentation of the jazz-playing proto-hippie sexual adventurer), who had been living between totalitarianism and democracy, Mailer then predicts the rise of the "hipster". But the hipster, because of his repressive society, must imbibe the values of the psychopath (it was society that was diagnosed as crazy in the 1960s, after all). The psychopath tries to live the "infantile fantasy" and by "instinctive wisdom"—wherever this takes him.
I can think of no clearer expression of the extreme claim for "authenticity". After all, if your feelings lead you to murder, then murder you must, implied Mailer. Indeed, the psychopath murders "if he has the courage".
Mailer acknowledges the counter-argument, that to murder a "weak fifty-year-old" candy store keeper who is likely to be the target for the authentic psychopath could be considered an act of cowardice. But then he offers the justification that one murders not just the man but
Already, in 1957, courage is associated with the courage to murder—for the American terrorist on American soil. The small-scale act of terrorism against the hallmarks of Western order (an "institution", "private property") that is rationalized by Mailer in 1957 is extended in 2001 to skyscrapers and jet planes. (A more outrageous example, cited in the ACTA report but not mentioned in the newspapers, was an assessment by City University’s George Lakoff of the "planes penetrating the towers with a plume of heat. The Pentagon, a vaginal image from the air. . . .")
The fact that some people are killed or hurt in the destruction of "institutions" and "private property" is secondary to the hipster’s quest for—ironically—love:
But such a search for the "Holy Grail" of the "apocalyptic orgasm" is fraught with "ambushes of violence" and "retaliations among the men and women among whom he lives his life," and thus becomes unattainable. (Ask any woman who has been with such a man.)
Society, therefore, must be changed. The hipster must replace the "square": "the hipster may come to see that his condition is no more than an exaggeration of the human condition, and if he would be free, then everyone must be free." Such freedom requires courage, though not the courage of old to live up to one’s duties to protect the weaker. Modeling this new-man-as-hipster on what he perceives to be the "Negro’s" position as outlaw and as violently and sexually authentic, Mailer writes,
Hip has, indeed, been absorbed into American life. Sex is now flaunted by twelve-year-old girls. Repression is the closest thing we have to sin. Norman Mailer is an esteemed literary lion. Rap, which promotes not only the orgasmic quest for "bitches" but the destruction of private property (except the rappers’ own), is reviewed as legitimate art in the pages of The New York Times. Today, hip has been absorbed to the point that only fuddy-duddy enemies of the First Amendment would object to the language of the rapsters’ expressions of authentic rage. The sixties radicals made the world safe for rap and pornography.
Sixties ideology and the version of history—that it was "made" then—is disseminated not only in the humanities through political and poststructural theories, but also in the sciences, where a new catechism replaces prior attempts at objectivity: "Class repeat after me: When did the environmental movement begin? ‘The environmental movement began in the 1960s when people’s consciousness began to change.’"
But a look around suggests that other than environmental protection laws (which are often traded off in the marketplace) and efforts to recycle the exponentially growing amount of garbage produced, no profound change has been made, indeed, in terms of "consciousness". As Eliot and others stated, no profound change comes unless there is also a change in values or religious beliefs, hence Eliot’s prescription of a "social-religious-artistic complex". Lacking discipline that is rooted in a firm spiritual belief system, the baby boomers live in bigger houses (often alone), throw away more garbage, and have more energy-consuming gadgets than their parents did. And from my experience on campus of being threatened daily with being run down by cell-phone wielding student-commandeered SUVs, they have no qualms about making sure their progeny have all the comforts technology and oil can offer.
To be fair, the protest movements helped advertise environmental concerns, which helped institute those laws (and which I would support). But the environmental movement has alienated many potential allies by its alignment with such fringe groups as animal rights and ecofeminism, and such alliances themselves demonstrate its tangential nature. Not much has been done on a personal level (where true change must originate), despite all the rhetoric of "lifestyle" choices. Many of the original alternative businesses, like Horizon Farms and Ben & Jerry’s, have sold out to large corporations, inviting a cynic to conclude that "organic" or "worker friendly" were used as marketing techniques. These idealists apparently did not want to give up material possessions to truly live their ideals. I have the same criticism of professing "Christians" who use Christianity in their business enterprises, from selling septic tanks to theme parks. They too confuse the worship of Mammon with the worship of God. Neither group has tried to diminish its reliance on electronic gadgets or the internal combustion engine.
I recall that as I had navigated down the dirt road to the party, I had encountered two young men driving environmentally obscene, loud, three-wheel off-road vehicles. The orgasm-seeking described by Mailer got played out in the marketplace, with electronic spectacle-producing toys marketed to kids and "adult" entertainment to their parents. There had been many SUV’s parked along the dirt road to that party, as one also finds at a Dave and Buster’s or "multicultural" alternative festivals like the Lake Eden Arts Festival near Asheville, attended by an overwhelming majority of white people who can afford to pay $30 for a session of laying on of hands and who congratulate themselves for their cultural diversity as they watch young white women perform African dance. (I laughed last year when the security blared over a loudspeaker in the campsite, "You will need to move the Land Rover. Please move the Land Rover.")
Admittedly, there have been attempts, such as the organic farmers’ market I try to patronize. And certainly such small-scale, "earth-friendly" endeavors are in keeping with Christian ideas of stewardship and community. But changes cannot be maintained unless the change in consciousness goes beyond the self-glorification of the hipsters, unless it involves the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater and ultimate good—indeed, what allegiance to God, country, and family entails.
The chest-pounding of the graying veterans of the revolution for the self would be merely amusing were it not for the fact they now are in