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My Scene colleague Cheryl Miller points to these three items. Despite what seems like a perfectly crafted attempt to bait me into an extremely long response, I would make just a few points. First, Ms. Grabar’s article was not “preposterous,” though it was weaker than it should have been. Second, a Jane Austen Christianity is the Christianity of the safe, the unremarkable and the ordinary. I do not claim that there is no need for such a thing or that it is unimportant, but the idea that it is actually more profound or more powerful than Dostoevsky’s vision seems, well, just silly. Third, no one who understands anything about Dostoevsky would say the following, as Tom West does:
Dostoevsky’s solution, for all its anti-European sentiment, seems to take its departure from the same post-Hegelian premise: only will, and not reason, can guide us.
The principal error of both Peter Verkhovensky (Demons) and Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) is to place their trust in the power of the will and the willingness to overstep the boundaries of the law, both human and divine. Plainly, for Dostoevsky will alone cannot guide us, and in Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy–heavily influenced by the Slavophiles and indirectly by the Fathers–there is the understanding that will apart from or in opposition to God is death and isolation. Willfulness against God is a mark of the demonic; it is at the heart of our ancestors’ rebellion in the Garden. Further, it is the one-sidedness of reason alone, reason without faith, reason against God, that Dostoevsky, like the Slavophiles, repudiates when he critiques reason. Likewise, no fair and accurate reading of The Grand Inquisitor could lead anyone to conclude the following about Dostoevsky:
For Dostoevsky, then, either we accept the absolute authority of the father and king and church, or we repudiate human reason and follow nothing but arbitrary will, personal or collective.
Amazing. This is totally wrong. It is entirely backwards. West claims to be reviewing a work by Joseph Frank, but the Frank works on Dostoevsky I have read would never have made such a claim. In the story, who represents the (for Dostoevsky) unholy trinity of authority, miracle and bread? The Grand Inquisitor. Who represents a religion in harmony with human freedom in this story? Christ. Those who have read Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary cannot miss his frequent, polemical equations (in which he again echoes the Slavophiles) between socialism, Catholicism and rationalism. The first two, in Dostoevsky’s view, both share a devotion to authority, miracle and bread. Dostoevsky’s Christianity, his Orthodoxy, is the Orthodoxy in which Christ did not come down from the Cross because He so respected man’s freedom. This is the same Dostoevsky who does not have Fr. Zosima’s body exuding the scent of myrrh after his death, because Dostoevsky does not wish to make faith an automatic response to a miracle, but a freely chosen embrace of the Incarnate Truth. (A good argument can be made that Dostoevsky has gone too far in his opposition to both authority and miracle, since the Orthodox Church acknowledges the importance of both, but that is not at issue here.) Dostoevsky’s vision is the one in which evil is the proof of human freedom–suffering will exist if man is to be free–and appeal to authority is the mark of a Christianity that seeks to supplant Christ. His Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is another valuable source for understanding his priorities. This was someone who did not discard the old scheme of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but rather refused to let it be defined by liberals and socialists according to their lights. Setting up Dostoevsky as some embodiment of the most ultra of reactionaries is satisfying to someone already intent on belittling traditionalism (so intent that he misses that Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn hold positions very close to one another in the end), but it does no justice to the complexity of Dostoevsky’s works and the mixture of his liberal background, his later Slavophile-inspired romantic conservative nationalism and renewed acceptance of Orthodoxy.
Much as I enjoyed the fellowship of the past weekend in Charlottesville, there was a persistent and palpable animosity toward politics and government generally held by many of the participants. For all the talk of community, it was a community bereft of the idea that communities require more than just good feeling, but laws and institutions as well as the willingness on the part of citizens to work publically toward the formation and enactment of the public good and the recognition that such work will result in conflict. There was something of a gauzy sentimentality and even anarchic libertarianism that pervaded the sessions. As much as I admire Wendell Berry, his work does not sufficiently attend to the needs for, and demands of, politics. Indeed, I was struck by the similarity between two camps that otherwise might be thought to be polar opposites - agrarian communitarians and libertarians. Both are wildly optimistic about human nature and the ability of humans to “do their own thing” without the “interference” of politics and government. ~Prof. Patrick Deneen
I heard Prof. Deneen’s talk in Charlottesville, and I was pretty sure there was nothing really troubling in it, but I went back through it again today and made sure. Since I, anarchopaleo-retroneotradcon populist agrarian Bolingbrokean reactionary that I am, still haven’t found anything all that objectionable in it, and I didn’t notice the “gauzy sentimentality” in the attendees that Prof. Deneen noticed, I assume I am either missing something tremendously important or there has been an unfortunate misunderstanding somewhere. Yes, there was much talk about Wendell Berry, such that it became the running joke of the conference, but it was not just aimless gushing about the grand old Kentuckian; the references and citations were all, for the most part, part of the defense of rooted, limited and human-scale living.
The talk itself should have made any neo-Schumpeterian and neo-Schuhmacherian’s heart fill with joy and gladness, and the conference attendees should have reassured everyone that a room could erupt in applause at the mention of Ron Paul’s impending presidential victory and believe in and try to live rooted traditional community life at the same time and that they cheered for Ron Paul because they believed and lived in this way. (Am I just imposing my own perspective on all the attendees? I don’t know, but I don’t think so.) The people who were there despise what the political class calls “politics” because I think they understand that this “politics” has nothing good or positive to do with the immediate political communities to which they belong. They loathe “government” generally not because they think any and all government is undesirable, but because they believe this kind of government that we have today is significantly and dangerously corrupted. Prof. Deneen may find in the enthusiasm for Ron Paul an example of precisely the sort of disengagement and lack of realism about politics that he thinks is the problem, but I would suggest that any expression of enthusiasm for a presidential candidate, even an extreme long-shot such as Rep. Paul, demonstrates a strong sense of engagement and perhaps almost undue preoccupation with politics as conventionally defined.
There is a sense in which D.C. is less of a monstrosity as a city than Las Vegas or Phoenix, engaged in perpetual war with nature as those cities are, but there is also a very real sense in which those places could not thrive without the policies and priorities set in Washington. Washington is not at war with nature, but it is at war with our America, and so it is not terribly surprising that people who consider themselves patriots regard it with special loathing. For my part, in my visits to the Georgetown campus and the rest of the metro area, I have found some things to enjoy in the District and its environs, but on the whole I take Kekaumenos’ advice about going to the capital: don’t do it unless you absolutely have to, and leave as quickly as possible.
Were there libertarians at the conference who had an unfortunately optimistic view of human nature? Probably. Did they make up the bulk of the speakers and attendees? I am doubtful about that. Are there some romantics who pine for settled communities simply because they like to have things to pine for? Probably. But that is not what anyone I met was talking about. Maybe I didn’t meet enough of the people at the conference. I would like to suggest, however, that the hostility to politics and government (which I suppose can hardly satisfy a professor of government) that Prof. Deneen encountered there was very far from a desire to live in a world beyond politics. The ISI folks, as I understand them, view attempts to escape the inevitable realities of politics as fairly insane. As Chantal Delsol’s book would have it, it is the attempt to eliminate the structures of power (among other things) all together that constitutes one of the grave mistakes of modern Western man. The existence of power and the existence of disparities of power will be constants in human experience, and so there is the ultimate choice of attempting to constrain and limit the corruption that comes from concentrated power (according to the finest Anglo-American traditions of Bolingbroke, the Country party, the Anti-Federalists, who are the very same people who embody what Prof. Deneen calls the alternative tradition) or acquiescing to various degrees in the monstrosity of the Robinarchy on the grounds that there has to be a government somewhere. To be against the Robinarchy does not mean that you reject authority or government, much less that you have an optimistic assessment of human nature, but that you would like to see government rightly ordered according to principles of legitimacy, lawfulness and justice.
Over the past year it has been interesting to see reactions to the conservatism of virtue and place (this seems to be the most succinct name for what we are trying to describe) that has been on display at different points. When traditional conservatism was advanced during the debates over “crunchy conservatism,” all of the talk of virtue and the criticism of megacorporations immediately aroused the suspicions of the enforcers of acceptable fusionism that some sort of lefty statist coup was in the works. Citing John Lukacs saying negative things about paving over green fields was taken as proof that we wanted to collectivise the farms, or something like that. Libertarian terror at the prospect of actually living your life in accordance with nature was palpable. It was the foes of the traditionalists, paleos and “crunchy cons” who wanted to talk about a “partial philosophy of life” and who advanced the idea that politics somehow stops at the voting booth and the government office. The anarcho-traditionalists, if we want to call them that, were the ones saying that political life is first and foremost concerned with the affairs of the institutions of your local political community and the needs of your family, and these are what ought to take priority. They were proposing practicing politics as if the Permanent Things (i.e., virtues, among other things) really existed and actually mattered, and you could see the unmitigated horror this induced in every “mainstream conservative.”
There was an equally harsh reaction in the other direction when the exact same people begin speaking favourably about “front-porch anarchism” and Wendell Berry and Dorothy Day in a slightly different context. All of a sudden the same people who were a few months earlier supposedly attempting to regulate every aspect of your daily life with supposedly fascist dreams of transcendence were dangerously oblivious to the need for order and stability! This would be the “gauzy sentimentality” objection Prof. Deneen voiced earlier. However, I think I can explain how people keep having this mistaken impression.
The “front-porch anarchist” folks were talking about ”anarchism” with the understanding that this means a rejection of consolidation, concentration and centralisation, a repudiation of war, the extraction of wealth by the state and the exploitation of the land and the people by corporate masters together with a rejection of the trashy culture, the degradation of the human person and the general ugliness of the age. It is difficult to discern this at first, because the label anarchist is immediately off-putting to most conservatives (as it should be in its normal meaning of bomb-throwing assassins), but what needs to be understood is that these “front-porch anarchists” are irrevocably opposed to the kind of anarchist who believes that destruction is creative, since they are adamantly opposed to the kind of “creative destruction” that requires the destruction of all they love to create the bland, homogenous, dead world that they hate. From everything I heard in Prof. Deneen’s talk, it seems to me that he and they are in more or less perfect agreement. What have I missed that I think this?
Tradition is another name for contingency. ~Andrew Sullivan
While I really don’t want to be too pedantic, this is ridiculous conceptual confusion. Nothing new about that in Sullivan’s writing, I know, but this is a particularly bad example of dismissing an important concept (tradition) by completely misunderstanding what it is. Tradition is contingent, historically, culturally, even to some extent geographically, but that does not mean tradition = contingency. That would be like saying that history = contingency.
This would also be like saying, “Sunlight is just another name for warmth.” You couldn’t get away with saying something that silly, except perhaps in a poem, but I wonder whether everyone would be equally aware of just how silly this statement is. You cannot take an attribute, make it into a substantive and then say that this substantive is identical with the thing that it modified when it was an attribute.
This is to take a quality of a thing, even one of its major qualities, and confuse it for the thing itself. This is to make an attribute the equal of its substance, which is a fundamental confusion of categories. It is neo-Barlaamism, and we all know why Barlaam was wrong, don’t we? Well, Sullivan probably doesn’t.
Schumacher’s greatest achievement was the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern economics in a language that encapsulated contemporary doubts and fears about the industrialized world. The wisdom of the ages, the perennial truths that have guided humanity throughout its history, serves as a constant reminder to each new generation of the limits to human ambition. But if this wisdom is a warning, it is also a battle cry. Schumacher saw that we needed to relearn the beauty of smallness, of human-scale technology and environments. It was no coincidence that his book was subtitled Economics as if People Mattered.
Joseph Pearce revisits Schumacher’s arguments and examines the multifarious ways in which Schumacher’s ideas themselves still matter. Faced though we are with fearful new technological possibilities and the continued centralization of power in large governmental and economic structures, there is still the possibility of pursuing a saner and more sustainable vision for humanity. Bigger is not always best, Pearce reminds us, and small is still beautiful. ~Description of Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful.
Clark Stooksbury, Jeremy Beer and (I suspect) many others familiar to us all from our Crunchy Cons and Look Homeward, America adventures earlier in the year will be assembling next month for the group blog about Mr. Pearce’s new book, whose name it bears: Small Is Still Beautiful.
A great division among the American people has begun–gradually, slowly–to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between “conservatives” and “liberals,” but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and in economic determinism and people who are not. The non-believers may or may not be conscious or convinced traditionalists: but they are men and women who have begun not only to question but, here and there, to oppose publicly the increasing pouring of cement over the land, the increasing inflation of automobile traffic of every kind, the increasing acceptance of noisome machinery ruling their lives. Compared with this division of the present “debates” about taxes and rates and political campaigns are nothing but ephemeral froth blowing here and there on little waves, atop the great oceanic tides of history. That the present proponents of unending technological “progress” call themselves “conservatives” is but another example of the degeneration of political and social language. ~John Lukacs, At the End of an Age
George Grant likewise noted in his writings the absurdity of calling defenders of technological, progressive empire conservatives. He also had some choice words for friends of “creative destruction” in Technology and Empire:
These days when we are told in North America that capitalism is conservative, we should remember that capitalism was the great dissolvent of the traditional virtues and that its greatest philosophers, Hobbes and Locke, Smith and Hume, were Britishers. In the appeal to capitalism as the tradition it is forgotten that the capitalist philosophers dissolved all ideas of the sacred as standing in the way of the emancipation of greed. For example, the criticism of any knowable teleology by Hume not only helped to liberate men to the new natural science, but also liberated them from knowledge of any purposes which transcended the economically rational.
I submit that this emancipation and liberation and the unchecked cement-pouring and exaltation of “growth” are all part of the same process, and all require the same opposition.
Be on the lookout for for the new The American Conservative (11/20) (not yet online). In addition to my article, The Gospel According to Bush, Austin Bramwell delivers a powerful indictment of National Review’s post-9/11 foreign policy (or, rather, the lack of one) and neoconservative influence on the conservative movement, including this simple and accurate statement:
(National Review Online, which now far outshadows the magazine in influence, has become the world’s most prolific organ of neoconservative opinion.)
And again, a devastating line:
If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
The piece is filled with simple but powerful insights such as these. But no one on the right will be happy with Mr. Bramwell’s diagnosis, for in it all conservatives are gravely ill of one error or another. No real respite for the dissident conservative, the traditionalist, the paleo or crunchy; according to Bramwell, we are all more or less complicit in different aspects of the farce of conservatism today. (I can’t quite go that far, but he often makes it difficult to disagree with his withering descriptions.) More than that, Bramwell likens “the movement” to an Orwellian dystopia. One can find points where his dismissal of all conservatives of every kind overreaches in some places, but 1984 serves as a shockingly good model for how much of the movement seems to work. Consider the Two Minute (or Five Day, depending on how you want count) Hate of Kerry or the long list of dissidents set upon by the jackals.
It will be of little avail, I suppose, to note that the bulk of Mr. Bramwell’s analysis rests on the claim that conservatism is an ideology, when any conservatism worthy of the name is non-ideological. It is an anti-ideology. Prescription and prudence, if they make what someone might call an ideology, make a very ”thin” ideology indeed. Someone will presumably say that this, too, is an ideological claim, but it cannot be stressed enough that there are conservatives (perhaps not many, but they do exist) who never subscribed to the thing Mr. Bramwell describes as conservative ideology. But he is right that boundary maintenance and the perpetuation of the movement’s identity as “the conservative movement” are the movement’s priorities, not discernment or truth.
But what the movement’s Two Minute Hates accomplish is not to invent bogeymen, but to exaggerate their power and the threat they pose. ”Judicial activists” are not something that we pretend exist for the sake simply of our own boundary maintenance, just as Byzantines did not completely invent the existence of Bogomils, but the content of their ideas and extent of the danger posed by such people are often wildly exaggerated (especially around election time). But even if it has become a stock phrase to bemoan the impact of “moral relativism,” and invoking such a thing has become a replacement for serious thought, it is not the case that such a thing does not to some degree exist. The greatest problem of conservatism is that it perceives real problems, but simply starts screaming, “There is a really BIG problem over here! It is gigantic! It’s going to wipe out life as we know it!” Then it retires to the parlour for an obscure discussion of who insulted whom during the 1992 presidential campaign over drinks and cigars .
Nonetheless, it is surely true of the movement, broadly speaking, that it does not generate important or interesting ideas anymore and is almost structured not to generate such ideas. It is structured to reproduce itself and confirm its own assumptions about its intellectual vitality and diversity, when neither is really in evidence in most places. If dissidents in the conservative resistance do indulge in the claim that the movement once had solid principles and now is tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine, even though what those “principles” were always remained the province of the leadership (with movement chiefs thus settling on the dubious combination of international anticommunist activism, untrammeled capitalism and vague perfunctory nods towards Christianity and the Constitution, which the other two had rendered completely moot), it is at least because they espouse those principles and insist on the hope, perhaps the myth, that something worthwhile remains of conservatism because there was once something true about it. But it seems to me that if the movement lacked real principles, there were principled conservatives–some of whom gave the movement far too much credit and some of whom who have since sobered up–who saw this at each stage and gave their warnings. In the year 1984 (appropriately enough), John Lukacs derided the “narrowly nationalist and broadly Californian view of the world” held by many conservatives–”narrow enough to be ignorant, broad enough to be flat.” He had many more things to say besides that, but the point is surely that the superficiality, triviality and mind-numbing uniformity of the movement has been clear to principled conservatives (or, as Prof. Lukacs prefers to call himself, reactionaries) and they have typically dropped out or gone (or been driven) into the proverbial wilderness to the degree that they have insisted on retaining principles that they can and do defend with reasoned argument, appeals to history and precedent and a desire to preserve what they have inherited from their ancestors.
But where I really must part company with Mr. Bramwell is when he says: “At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive.” Subversive of what? Well, he will tell us.
The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root [and? I must admit I fail to see the point here-DL]; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan [succeeded how? to do what? the state succeeded in weakening family structures and increasing its power–is that the “success of the West,” and if it is why do we want it?-DL].
I often see conservatives say things like this whenever they want to defend modernity or “the West” (as opposed to, say, Christendom) against critics (”behold, we have gotten rid of pious veneration of ancestral customs and we show enormous disrespect towards women–be like us!”), by holding up our present state of affairs and saying, “We could never have had all this had we not curtailed the reach of the extended family and rid people of their ancestral loyalties.” To which, it seems to me, the proper conservative answer is: And this makes me want to oppose these things why exactly? Those things may be desirable because of these effects. The reactionary response is still better: Who wants the present mess? This is all the more reason to bring back the extended family and cultivate ancestral loyalties! Arranged marriages for all!
Okay, maybe not arranged marriages for all (the king gets to choose his own bride, after all), but nowehere does Mr. Bramwell’s piece better reveal the schizophrenic tendency of American conservatives to praise the worst aspects of modernisation (the weakening of the extended family, and consequently the relatively increased dependence on artificial institutions, just as the breakdown of the nuclear family further helps to empower the state today) while deriding the natural attachments that seem to me to be the stuff of what a conservative ethic has tried to protect because such attachments can be taken to excess or can become socially dysfunctional. “Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East.” Of course, to already define ancestral loyalties as uncivilised is to close the debate before it even begins. One might as well do the same thing with religious piety: “Religious piety is the curse of uncivilised peoples, most especially in the fanatical Middle East.” Would you call that a compelling argument for thoroughgoing secularism, or a rather ridiculous attack? If Omar in Iraq marries his first cousin, the argument seems to run, we must flee anything that puts too much importance on the extended family. If the Shi’ites commemorate Shoura and remember the slights to the Imam Husayn, are we therefore obliged to forget our ancestors, heroes and martyrs or risk becoming Moqtada al-Sadr? To ask the question is to reveal the alternatives as false ones and the argument as uncharacteristically weak and sloppy for someone as insightful and wise as Mr. Bramwell.
Is it true that the United States had to “extirpate” the ancestral loyalties of the natives (and here I assume he means native-born Anglo-Americans) in order to survive? In an obvious sense, the War of Independence saw a significant old attachment to Britain severed and the loyalty of Loyalists was indeed suppressed brutally, but in what other sense does this really hold? Surely it was the central point of Kirk and Bradford on the Constitution that the patriots were defending their patrimony, their ancestral rights as Englishmen, and were therefore conservative revolutionaries. Now perhaps a compelling argument could be made that this is all wrong, but it will not do to dismiss an abiding view of the War of Independence with the flick of the wrist. But, more to the point, even if true, why would a conservative-minded person look on this with equanimity, as if that example demonstrated that such loyalties were undesirable? Which, in fact, takes a higher priority: the survival of a new confederation of republics, or loyalty to kith, kin and place? The answer smacks us across the face: obviously the latter takes greater priority. Put it in more immediate, tangible terms: to whom do you owe greater loyalty, your wife or the President? This is not a trick question, and there is only one right answer.
If Westerners have sacrificed those goods to acquire a highly centralised state and what is now a deracinating economic order, it will hardly answer the critic to say, “But if we make these loyalties the priority, we might have to give up our centralised states and creative destruction!” Yes, we might. Surely that is yet another reason to give these loyalties priority, and not an argument against them.
The chief reason they might be undesirable to a confederation is that they might cause the fragmentation of that confederation, and would guarantee the weakness of a central state. I don’t think any Antifederalists would be crying over that one. Neither do their heirs–which is what some of us consider ourselves to be. I remain absolutely unconvinced on this point that there is something misguided about attachment to “ancestral loyalties.” Without these, there are scant few other loyalties worth having.
Mr. Bramwell is surely engaged in his own kind of boundary maintenance when he fires off two warnings shots to these particularists:
Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.
Yes, obviously if we place higher priority on family, kin, church and place than we do on other things we are sliding irrevocably into the maw of multiculturalist claptrap. Right. Note the reliance on the crutch of the left-wing bogey of communitarianism (no, not that!) and the scary mention of insidious multiculturalism (multiculturalism is insidious, but it is strange to hear of it from someone who is about to tell us how we all cook up bogeymen to ridicule phantasmagorical enemies). It takes one back to the crunchy con wars: “You can’t believe that! It’s just like leftism! How do I know? Because I just said it was like leftism!” It simply makes no sense to warn us that we should be wary of all localism because it can be turned into a justification, as it has started to be in David Cameron’s Britain, for implementing local-level shari’a. Obviously we can appreciate the importance of loyalty to your place and your home as depicted in The Napoleon of Notting Hill without concluding that we must yield to the demands of the rabid cleric who preaches jihad in the East End. Surely we can discern the difference and weigh the virtues of different kinds of localism and local attachments, and we would weigh them against claims of justice and what we believe to be the truth about human nature and society. The choice is not between Brave New World or Kafiristan, and if it were the choice I think the Kafiris might have the better of the argument.
But in any case we tend to find multiculturalism itself obnoxious not because it fronts for diverse cultures (which it does only superficially), which hardly trouble me in and of themselves, but because it is a clear example of Western self-loathing and a lack of confidence in our capacity to have local and regional diversity of customs and cultures without collapsing into a a heap caused by the complete abandonment of all standards and all Western norms. Decentralism does not equal moral, social or cultural chaos; only in the absence of real, living, local communities have we seen people fall back on their more elemental identities to the detriment of national cohesion because there are no communities to which such people might even theoretically adhere themselves. What option does Mr. Bramwell leave us then? A homogenous, superficial monoculture to which all pay lip service? If we must not have multiculturalism (and I agree here) and we must not have local varieties of our own culture, we are left with having a national or supranational uniformity in which there will be very little recognisable as culture.
This invocation of multiculturalism in response to calls for localism is rather like the sometimes tiresome refrains that appeals to “the common good” are code for state regulation or collectivism–what else could it possibly mean, right? It is likewise a failure of imagination to assume that all particularist appeals are the same or that by affirming the one we must enable the insidious Other. It is as if to say that you cannot talk about community without forever legitimising people who talk about setting up utopian communes, when you are doing nothing of the kind. In correctly defining and defending a thing, you exclude, delimit and reject the false or distorted notions of it. Affirming Orthodoxy, for instance, entails the rejection of heresy. If I say, “God,” I do not mean Robespierre’s Supreme Being, Bush’s “God of universal freedom” or Shiva, and by my explanation of what I mean by saying, “God,” I necessarily rule all of these others other as being something other than God Himself. Pale reflections, mockeries or travesties, perhaps, but not God. Multiculturalism is a mockery of real organic cultural diversity; it is the fraudulent show of cultural diversity, no better than a buffet line filled with different kinds of ethnic food, designed only to dissolve what little cultural consensus actually remains while doing little or nothing to defend or approve the various cultures under Tolerance’s protective shield.
However, do not let my criticisms dissuade you from reading Mr. Bramwell’s piece. It is an important and challenging article that every conservative ought to read, if he is interested in something other than bashing the other side with cheap rhetorical clubs and defining who is part of the club to the exclusion of all the actually important questions. In spite of my strong objections to one part of it, I heartily recommend it to you all as first-rate work and thought-provoking analysis.
If there is any valid critique of Dreher’s “crunchy cons,” surely it is their predilection to easy distraction. They, by and large, still want to be nice. Where are the crunchy bare knucklers, or better yet, brass knucklers? Where are the stem-winders and latter-day Elijahs set to call down fire upon the prophets of the liberal order? Where are the anarchists and wild-eyed populists infused with righteous rage who will say not just “no” but “Hell No!” to the Linker/Gallagher bargain? ~Fr. Jape
It is encouraging to see that Fr. Jape can bestir himself to send a carrier pigeon from the grave when the occasion requires it. I think I know where we can find some populists, or at least some inspiration for those populists, but what about the anarchists? Any wild-eyed anarchists out there?
Back last night from Mecosta, and too much to get caught up on at the office today to do much blogging. Alas. But I exchanged e-mails with Maggie Gallagher, a critic of “Crunchy Cons,” this morning on an issue that came up (unbeknownst to her) over the weekend at the Kirk Center conference. The theologian Vigen Guroian, criticizing the crunchy-cons concept in Mecosta, said that there’s something phony about the idea of trying to adopt a tradition that doesn’t come down to you organically. Vigen said it’s a very modern thing to try on different traditions (e.g., converting from one religion to another), and he’s skeptical about the whole “back to tradition” aspect of the neotraditionalism advocated in “Crunchy Cons.” If I got his argument correctly, he’s simply saying that what I propose is not feasible. ~Rod Dreher
Rod gives what I consider to be a good answer to these charges, but I’d like to offer my own as well. It is similar, but I think it goes a bit further. Organic traditions are best. Ascribed identities are best. This is true. This is also of absolutely no use to people who have never been part of organic traditions worth mentioning and have always been bumbling along on the deserted highway of choice. This conservatism and traditionalism says to us, “Organicity or bust!” In which case, those of us who have not had the privilege of having received rooted, traditional identities can do nothing, because the very act of grafting ourselves onto a vine is deemed excessively individualistic and self-determined. Furthermore, it maintains the fiction that people who have received ascribed identities and inherited traditions from their ancestors are somehow free from modernity, as if there is not today with each affirmation of the old ways on everyone’s part a self-conscious decision to adhere to that tradition rather than let it go. It is true, as MacIntyre has argued, that even those who abandon or actively reject the traditions they have received are shaped by those traditions. In this sense, there is no escaping where you come from. The exile is forever shaped and haunted by his home country. But according to the rooted, exiles are not really allowed to settle anywhere else. Once in exile, always in exile.
For these refugees wandering through the virtually tradition-less lands such as myself, the arguments of Prof. Guroian and Ms. Gallagher are not only not helpful, they are something of a slap in the face. It is as if they are saying, “We’ve got ours. You’re simply out of luck. You can’t acquire a tradition not your own. You will never have what I have, so you might as well give up.” Perhaps that is not what they mean to say, but every single time they make their objections, whether to Crunchy Cons, “neotraditionalism,” simple “traditionalism” or conversion to a different church that is what it sounds like. They say things like, “Don’t talk about tradition, live it!” To which I say, “Well, obviously. Now that I am doing that, do you think you might acknowledge it?” To which they say, “But you’re still just choosing what you want.” Perhaps they would not be satisfied until the refugees adhered themselves to a tradition they positively loathed as a way of showing everyone that it was not just the fickleness of taste that motivated them but a dreadfully serious desire to belong to a tradition in spite of itself. Of course, this would correctly merit the charge of being perverse.
If I participated in the “tradition” in which I was raised, if we can even call it that, I could not be a Christian, because my parents never raised me as one and no one in my family going back three generations was a regular churchgoer when I was around. In the real world, that is where the regime of pluralism, choice and intermarriage gets you. Were it not for our family’s keen interest in genealogy, I would have had no notion that a generation or two before our family had several ministers. The extended family I grew up with had gone to church in the past, years and decades before, but not anymore. We were as happily (or unhappily) secularised as you please.
So I either go “back to tradition” by picking and choosing among the various churches of my ancestors (the wonders of pluralism strike again!), which would still not be satisfactory for the rooted, since I am picking and choosing, or I can go “back to tradition” by looking to the Orthodox Church, as I have done, as possessing the fullness of Truth and the unbroken Tradition of the Apostles, which will also not satisfy the rooted (apparently not even the “cradle” Orthodox) because I have now chosen a tradition from which I cannot even claim distant descent (unless you take things back a long, long way to ancient Orthodox England). So I may as well become a secular Republican, since that is the closest thing that I know to an ascribed identity; let my scriptures be The Wall Street Journal, let Sunday morning football be my liturgy. That is what I grew up with. That sounds like a fine improvement over Scripture and the Liturgy, doesn’t it?
When it comes to religion, when your parents do not actively hold fast to the tradition of their fathers, there is not actually anything more “natural” and less “arbitrary” about turning to the tradition that your ancestors once had (in my case, say, joining the Methodists, Presbyterians or Quakers) than there is in turning to a Christian tradition that actually prizes living, organic Church Tradition, such as Orthodoxy. Prof. Guroian, who is Orthodox as I am (though I am a convert), would seem to be suggesting that it would be preferable for me to go off to join the folks at PCUSA or the United Methodist Church because some of my ancestors were once ministers in those traditions, regardless of whether those churches even remain true to the traditions they have inherited. In this sense, we are being told that cultural tradition ought to trump what appear to be more genuine expressions of Christian tradition.
As a matter of descent, I could technically automatically be a Quaker, so perhaps I should go to their non-liturgical meetings and wait for the Spirit to inspire me to protest the war. Even though my mother doesn’t typically go to Friends meetings, because she does not remotely recognise the Quakerism of her youth, I should start going. That would be, according to this fetishisation of organicity, better and more genuine than looking for a different tradition. But even if I did that, it would still be me who was doing the choosing and the tradition-selecting. This fixation on ascribed identity becomes almost an equal and opposite absurdity in its rejection of individual choice: not only is it better not to choose, but if you ever choose something it is therefore by definition less genuine than if you received it. This is a mirror image of the individualist’s declaration that “I decide who I am.”
As I read this, this means that the person born into the tradition not only belongs to it more than you, the convert (which may be true), but in your very act of conversion you are simply replicating modern, non-traditional ways of doing things and cannot really be taken seriously. Even if you are not a “church-shopper,” but actually stop and adhere yourself to this or that church for the rest of your life you are no different from the “church-shopper” and the person who never goes to church because he chooses not to. Even in making a sound choice, opting for the rooted person’s own tradition, you are being arbitrary–no matter how many good reasons you have!
Even if you, the convert, can end up teaching the “cradle” folks about their own tradition, which you have had to learn about, admittedly somewhat superficially and intellectually on one level, and which they have taken for granted (and, I’m sorry, but they have taken it for granted, because it has been granted to them without their even asking for it), you are never really part of that tradition. In the eyes of the rooted, you will seem to be something of a parasite, living off the healthy body of an organic tradition to which you are ultimately always going to be alien. Of course, according to a truer definition of organicity you could be metaphoricallly grafted onto one of the branches of the tree, and according to a more realistic understanding of belonging you could be adopted into the clan even though you do not share their blood. But according to this static understanding of organic tradition, there are no ways in and it is never possible to truly attach yourself to it.
Besides the rather glaring problem that this poses for the idea of Orthodoxy and the vocation of the Church, to jump to whether or not this or that church represents the most genuine embodiment of the fullness of the truth is precisely the move that these rooted folks expect us to make. Even when I say, “I have come to believe that Orthodoxy represents the fullness of the True Faith,” they will say, “Aha! You have chosen to belong to Orthodoxy, you have determined it to be the best choice, which only proves our point.” In other words, there is no way for the refugee to win the argument and convince the rooted that he can become rooted, or at least to make a start of it. So rather than get into weighty discussions of why, as a matter of history and theology, it is frankly obvious to me that Orthodoxy is best and the surest road to salvation–and in saying this I am affirming what I have received from the Church and the Fathers–I will instead turn back to the fetishisation of organicity and tradition behind these critiques.
Later in Rod’s post, Maggie Gallagher says:
Its not being traditional, its choosing tradition as the best of all available consumer goods.
So we have Prof. Guroian assuring us that some people really do belong to traditions and really do inherit them, but that attempts to attach yourself to them are artificial. Then we have Ms. Gallagher telling us that nobody today has any such tradition and that we are all simply consumers. The latter claim is plainly false, as any visit to an ethnic Orthodox parish will confirm in two seconds. So in the first case we have a sort of idolatry of organicity and on the other an idolatry of tradition. In the first, organicity seems to think that there are only ever full-grown plants and never seeds. It seems to claim that you cannot graft anything to an existing vine. Not only is this contrary to what we understand about things that grow in the earth, but such organicity isn’t even fully alive if its partisans insist that those who graft themselves on are somehow less connected to the living tradition. It assumes that there is no relationship between the plant and its natural surroundings, that it can continue to exist as if encased in amber while somehow also remaining alive. In order to find fault with those who seek to return to a tradition, living tradition must be made into a caricature of itself.
For Ms. Gallagher, nothing is traditional anymore. Not even adherence to a tradition. This is a sort of parody of the conservative view of modernity, as if there was an Age of Tradition in which everyone adhered to what has handed down to him as if they were automatons (because in this fantasy, no one prior to, perhaps, 1500, had the ability to decide anything himself) and then came the Age of Choice in which no one received what was handed down to him but simply starting choosing all things, including the traditions to which he belonged. Which, of course, are apparently not traditional. Perhaps a later date would be even more appropriate, since we are really talking about the predicament of 19th and 20th century Westerners and not all moderns.
But the central difference between pre-modern and modern man, or even between modern and late modern man, is not exactly simply the relatively greater role of individual choice in the life of the latter, but comes instead in in the relationship between choice and authority. Submitting to authority is as traditional as it gets. At some point, everyone has had to submit to a teaching authority for the first time–that does not make obedience to that authority artificial in any sense. Those who want to privilege choice and make the self and the satisfaction of the self the standard by which they judge what is good and what is not are necessarily hostile to the dictates of authority. Such an authority proposes to give them a standard outside of themselves that they must either accept or reject. A traditionally-minded person embraces the claims of that authority, yields to it, denies his own will and tries instead to will what the authority calls him to will. This is as basic as the redirection of our desires away from ourselves and towards God; it is the abandonment of autonomy and the entrance into koinonia, in which ourselves are no longer ours but Christ’s. Indeed, we are called to put away ourselves, to die to ourselves, and thus become truly human and truly personal for the first time. This is the perfect example that is dimly reflected in every submission to authority: the death of the self, the embrace of authority, the vivification of the person. Those who claim that such submission is impossible, or is always artificial when it is attempted, are sentencing the refugees–or perhaps sentencing all of us–to the living death of selfhood. Not only is it irritating to those of us who are trying to make the best of the measly scraps we have been given, but I believe it is fundamentally untrue.
Arguably no one in the modern age has been traditional in the way that medieval people were traditional, because the options for the latter were perhaps fewer (though, in fact, as the proliferation of medieval heresies shows, there were always just as many haireseis available to pre-modern people as there are to us–the difference is that they did not make choosing such a privileged act), but at every step in the chain of transmission of tradition people actively reproduced and passed on what they had received. The rulers of some European nations, some of which became Christian as recently as the tenth or eleventh century, had to decide for Christianity and against the paganism of their past, just as, at one point, Romans and Greeks had to do the same. At some point, the most ancient and venerable tradition began when a multitude of people actively, consciously chose it. Not only were they traditional in submitting themselves to the authorities of that tradition–which is the true measure of acceptance of a tradition (not whether you find it self-satisfying or even “authentic,” which are beside the point)–but they were instrumental in making the tradition that later generations would be able to take for granted because men such as Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Gregory Nazianzenos, and Grand Prince Vladimir chose to make Orthodoxy their own. Was their participation in the tradition artificial or forced, or are they not in fact examples of how a living tradition adapts and embraces those that adhere to it and so becomes even more vibrant and healthy?
It is difficult to imagine St. Paul writing, “Hold fast to the traditions that I have given to you, whether in word or by epistle, unless you happen to be a convert, in which case you may as well go back to making blood sacrifices to Apollo because you lack a sufficiently organic connection to the Church of Christ.” It is difficult to imagine Moses telling the people of Israel, “Sorry, folks, we have to go back to Egypt, because I have it on good authority that if we departed from Egypt now in search of some so-called Promised Land we would just be engaged in a lot of self-conscious identity construction that doesn’t really count for very much. It is better to abide in the fine traditions of the Egyptians, who, after all, have really old traditions. The God of our fathers? Overrated, if you ask me. We don’t want to be a bunch of self-absorbed consumers seeking authenticity in a fabled land of milk and honey. No, I think we should go back and be slaves. After all, it’s what we know!” Of course neither of them would have said anything remotely like this. And both of them freely chose to embrace the calling with which they were called by the living God. But, if we are to believe the rooted folks, St. Paul and Moses were precocious moderns experimenting with some new-fangled ideas. Personally, I take my chances with trying to follow, however poorly and ineptly, their example and leave behind the fetishists of traditions to which no one (or at least no one else but them) can belong.