On Being Young and Conservative in the Twenty-First Century

Over the last decade, the primary sensation of being a young conservative can only be described as a sinking feeling combined with a profound sense of loss.

The current conservative leadership has failed utterly. It is failing now.  And, they are currently demonstrating a large amount of very compelling evidence that they will fail even more miserably in the future.  And by “they” I mean “we.”  Those of us younger conservatives still count ourselves as committed members to this grand tradition of political philosophy and culture.

The failure here is a failure to communicate.

It is a failure to articulate clearly.  (This often necessarily follows the failure to think clearly.)

It is a failure to remember old-fashioned things like civility, humility, wit and well-roundedness.

It is a failure in all three forms of rhetoric: logospathos and ethos.

It is a failure to preserve what we hold dear.

It is a failure to represent a point of view that has a richness of depth, history and tradition.

It is a failure of continuity with the past.

It is a failure to act, to compromise, to be effective or to accomplish even minimal and rudimentary goals.

And, above all, it is a failure to persuade.

Not only is the contemporary leadership failing to persuade in the political, economic, cultural and religious spheres, it is failing to persuade even those in its own camp.

It is not even persuading the now grown children of those who were the strong conservatives of former decades.

Progressives, liberals, postmoderns, “postconservatives,” independents …. all are dominating the public square.  Conservative viewpoints are, purportedly, being voiced on the airwaves of Fox News and talk radio.  But, if you have any background in conservative thought, you will not find Fox News to be conservative.

Even the American church, long one of the last citadels of conservative thinking, has been overrun by the theological innovations and progressivism of the likes of Wolfhart Pannenberg, Anthony Thiselton and Stanley Grenz.  It does not matter, for purposes of responsibility, that church pastors and teachers do not even know who these thinkers are.  They are still to blame because they parrot the ideas of Grenz et. al., ceaselessly and uncritically.  Only the occasional Brian McLaren knows from where his ideas derive.  At least he is honest enough not to pretend to be traditional or conservative.

The desire to educate oneself – to read theology, philosophy, sociology or psychology – while also attending a modern American church is depressing.

There is nothing quite like the experience of reading how Carl Jung’s rejection of Christianity naturally led to his ideas about human ego and personality, and then to hear the pastor of a Christian church teach Jung’s conclusions without attributing them to their source (let alone without giving any indication of any understanding of from where they derive).

There is nothing quite as discouraging as reading the arguments of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers against the Judeo-Christian foundations of thought, and then to go listen to the ideas of Maslow and Rogers preached from a church pulpit.

The modern American church is powerfully attracted to cultural fads and many have swallowed the conceit that the church is bound to shift and change along with the culture.

Because the postmodernism and deconstructionism of Theodor W. Adorno, Jean-François Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Peter L. Berger and Jacques Derrida are still in fashion in society, a dumbed-down populist version of the same is being taught in the modern American church.  If the ideas of Norman Vincent Peale and Charles A. Reich are reduced and overly-simplified derivatives of Rogers and Maslow, then the teachings of Phil McGraw, Laura Schlessinger and Oprah Winfrey are reduced and overly-simplified derivatives of Peale and Reich.  (This has been demonstrated by what they actually teach, irrespective of their protestations otherwise.)

Popular American evangelical, “emergent” or “missional” teaching don’t just repeat the ideas of Rogers or Maslow.

Instead it copies the copycats.  That’s right.  In other words, much of the teachings of the American church are reduced and simplified derivatives of McGraw, Schlessinger or Winfrey.  There is now far too much church teaching that copies the derivatives of Peale and Reich who are themselves derivatives of Rogers and Maslow.  American church teaching can’t even get its postmodern thought from Lyotard or Foucault.  Instead, it borrows it from Hollywood or other forms of popular culture, after all traces of actual thought have already been put through a rigorous dumbing down process.

It does this to be popular and to draw a crowd and to, when it comes down to it, act as if the church were a product that needed to kowtow to the economic laws of supply and demand.  

Thus the kitschy marketing gimmicks, the buzzwords and slogans and nonsense, that, when you actually pay close attention to what is really being said – turns out to be mere slogans or aphorisms that are so broad they could mean almost anything.

Thus all the trendy clichés and buzz-words in Christian sub-culture – metanarrative, intentional, missional, gospel-centered, relevant, authentic, journey, conversation, identity, construction, self-talk, “speaking into,” “prophetic word,” relational, hipster, “spiritual formation,” etc., etc.

Postmodernism came along and announced (reasserting the propositions of Mediaeval nominalist philosophy) that language, along with the traditional definitions of English words, had lost its meaning.  The Deconstructionists claimed that traditional rationalist thinking was passé, that traditional Western thinking was corrupted by hidden metanarratives, ideologies of power and social constructs, and that human identity was to be constructed out of whole cloth by “finding” the satisfaction of supposed psychological needs “in” things of your own choosing.  All this nonsense was explained in trendy and fashionable terms.  Much of the modern American church took one look at it, rolled over on its belly and happily adopted the language of a philosophy designed to cut down Christianity at the roots.

None of the sort of thing, of course, that would brighten one’s day.

When I point out how conservatism has been losing, I do not mean to complain about our numbers in the sense that I expect traditional conservativism to be the majority point of view.

I am not referring to the mere fact that we are currently a minority.  Conservatism has survived minority status before.  Neither I am referring to the fact that we are not trendy or currently in fashion.  Being fashionable has never been a worry of the conservative, and despite all the hyped-up talk of getting “with it” with the younger generations or appealing to minority demographics, of learning how to be “up to date” with the latest technology and social networking campaign strategies, we are going to have to admit that making these changes is not going to “fix” anything not already blatantly obvious or easy.

Listening to opponents labeling us as “behind the times” or “reactionary” or “antiquated” is as anciently old hat as political philosophy itself.  Even to be worried about such accusations is to forget how to be a conservative in the first place.

But, then again, that’s it.  We have forgotten how to be conservative.  The consequences of this are the well-documented widespread desertions from our ranks.  But, even worse, the consequences are the loss of the conservative point of view from the public square.

We have allowed the Sean Hannitys and Ann Coulters and Glenn Becks, the Mitt Romneys and Rick Santorums and even the Rand Pauls, to make up their own definitions of what being conservative means.  This is our degradation.  This is our criminal abandonment of our outposts in the dark of the night.  This is our incompetence and ignorance and naivety and defeat and break with our time-tested traditions.

This is our severing ourselves from history, from reason, from culture, from intellectual foundation, from the arts and humanities, from basic human relationships and from life.

To be young and conservative has become, for far too many bright and active and passionate people, to be disenchanted and disillusioned.

I know too many other young conservatives (or former conservatives) who are struggling with embitterment, with apathy and with boredom.

The most powerful inclination can easily turn into the desire to disassociate ourselves from conservatism itself.  We turn more independent and progressive.  We join the ranks of those who have simply given up on our ancestors.  We no longer care enough to study or to learn what being conservative really meant before it was co-opted and used as the pretext for the ranting and invectives of populist self-serving demagogues.

How do we escape this banalization and ultimate despair?

How do we avoid ignoring the problem in the hope that it just goes away?

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, to be young and conservative has meant sinking into an ever deepening morass of cynicism.  It is so easy to be cynical.  It is too easy to sneer and dismiss words that seem as if they are now empty and have lost all meaning, and then to attempt to create your own language that only further isolates you from the rest of the world.  It is also too easy to give up the hard and complex work that thinking through the present situation requires.  It is too easy to quit trying and to just unquestioningly accept the uncomplicated role of a mere propagator and loyal supporter of one’s own ideologically enclosed camp.

Or, why not just join the opposition? – it is, after all, more open, more tolerant, more inclusive, more willing to help the lost and the poor and the needy.  That is what Christ would have done … isn’t it?

Or, perhaps even more easily, why not allow your cynicism to encompass the entire political spectrum?  Just float along with the times.  Liberal and conservative are boxes too simplistic to fit into anymore anyway.  Why do we need to be labeled at all?  Why follow our parents and grandparents’ biased stereotypes?  Why not just be independent, individual, authentically you?  Why not insist on being merely your own unique, nonconforming and beautifully individual snowflake?  Why not?

Because these dumb questions have been asked before.

Because choosing your own individualhood over continuity with the past, both bad and good, is the rejection of community.

Because refusing all labels and generalizations is to ultimately conform to the transitory fashion of the time.

Because it is to merely accept the proposition that form and limit to thought is the negation of self (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

Because doing so is to follow an old and worn and much trampled path.  It is, quite frankly, a dull and unimaginative option.

Because, and it is time we understood these distinctions again, “immanentizing the eschaton,” as Eric Voegelin would say, is impossible and attempting it causes more harm than good.  Because conservativism, as H. Stuart Hughes would say, is the negation of any ideology.  Because one acts differently if one is trying to attain perfection, than if one is trying to work within the confines of reality.

You do not, in fact, get to do your own thing.  “Doing your own thing” is the populist path pursued by Cleon in the time of Pericles.  It is the position insisted upon by Callicles in spite of the challenging questions of Socrates.  It is the ability promised by Gaius Marius as he began the destruction of the Roman Republic.  Insisting on your own personal independence is the much romanticized path articulated in all its pleasure-seeking detail by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and then followed happily by Thomas Paine, by the Jacobins and by Robespierre, by Ralph Waldo Emerson and by Henry David Thoreau, by Marx and by Engels, by John Stuart Mill, by William Jennings Bryan, by the Progressives and the by Positivists, and by the Existentialists and the Deconstructionists.  And each merry path, historically, ends in darkness.

Eschewing labels is a philosophical trope unto itself, promulgated by post-modern philosophers precisely like Michel Foucault or by Christian religious “emerging” teachers like Brian McLaren.

Just sit down and read Plato’s Gorgias.

Seeking to be free from traditional social constraints is not just something you can do without associating yourself with a particular line of thought.  Life is too complex to avoid schools of thinking.

There are philosophically backed positions for any action that you may choose to take. Our actions, after all, demonstrate how we really think.  Even if we do not think through the logical consequences of the ideas that our actions demonstrate that we really believe, the logical consequences still exist regardless.  There is a intellectual history to thought.

There are ideas that you will prove that you believe by how you act, even if you are ignorant of where these ideas originated from or if you are uneducated as to how these ideas have been explained and why and to what purpose.

By how you act and by how you speak (or by how you don’t act or how you don’t speak), you support one philosophy against other ways of thinking, even if you do not even know that the philosophy exists.

I also am, however, one of these uneducated unfortunates.

Intellectual history is not a subject often taught in schools or universities.  It was not taught to me.  It was not taught to my parents.  It wasn’t really taught to my grandparents.  If you (a) are alive right now, and (b) have received a modern education, then the chances are really really good that you were cheated.  We’re all in the same boat.

Understanding that the ideas that I speak, support and advocate have histories is not an understanding I have been conditioned or trained to possess.  I wasn’t taught habits of precision in my speech, my writing or my thinking.  The Classical Educational model, prevalent in schools from before the Medieval Ages to the Nineteenth Century, was designed to create well-rounded critical thinkers.  The progressivized Twentieth Century version of “education” was designed to teach useful subjects and values.  The Twenty-First Century version of “education” is merely a 2.0 of the progressive version, the same version, now with increased access to computers and internet and phone applications.

We need to realize the unique problems with which we have to deal in our own age.  In his follow-up book, Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley explained:

“In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

If Orwell’s version of totalitarian oppression was the fight of the 20th Century, then Huxley’s soft form of (even democratic) despotism, will be the fight of the 21st Century.

“For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment — from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema.  In Brave New World non-stop distractions of the most fascinating nature (the feelies, orgy-porgy, centrifugal bumble-puppy) are deliberately used as instruments of policy, for the purpose of preventing people from paying too much attention to the realities of the social and political situation … Only the vigilant can maintain their liberties, and only those who are constantly and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but some-where else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it.”

We can do better.

There is much work to be done, but first things first.

Here is, therefore, putting all participants in our current cultural, political and religious landscape ON NOTICE:

There are still conservative thinkers who are not so easily disillusioned with our old political philosophy.  This is because our thinking is not based upon mere passing historical fashions like the “Tea Party” or the “Religious Right.”  What we know of conservatism is not only the transitory movements our own little age or lifetimes.  Instead, our thinking is shaped by the intellectual work that was carefully laid before us by the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., Russell Kirk, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Robert Nisbet, Richard M. Weaver, Gerhart Niemeyer, James Burnham, Eric Voegelin, Whittaker Chambers, Leo Strauss, T.S. Eliot, G.K. Chesterton, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer Moore, George Santayana, W.H. Mallock, W.E.H. Lecky, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Henry Newman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others.  This is the tradition we adhere to.

This is a foundation that still exists today even if the talking heads currently making large amounts of noise on the television are unaware of it.

Therefore, today we read and seek out respectable, formidable and persuasive thinkers such as Robert P. George, Victor Davis Hanson, Russell Jacoby, Marilynne Robinson, Roger Scruton and Wendell Berry.  In our current technological age, we are also interested in making a few adjustments and realignments within the Conservative coalition.  This ought to include a line of thinking that questions how technology shapes who we are and how we live: begun by the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and now Nicholas Carr, among others.

We greatly value tradition.  We understand that prudence and moderation are virtues.  We acknowledge Edmund Burke’s warnings, but also his elucidations upon how conservative thought always has to make new adjustments in every historical age.

We exist.  We are young.  And we are going to start participating in the public square.  There are some readjustments that will have to be made.

I, for one, find the level of discourse conducted over at Fox News equally as appalling as that conducted over at CNN.  I cannot stomach listening to the thoughtlessness of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and others like them.  I am embarrassed that anyone at all ever listens to Glenn Beck.

There is some serious housecleaning that needs to be done.

The times do change.  The more Huxley that I read, the more prophetic I find him.  We are allowing ourselves to be too distracted and contented.  We no longer care about politics and culture, let alone do we care about being active in these spheres.  We are not doing much of anything to preserve the basis of our own civilization.  Huxley explained:

“That so many of the well-fed young television-watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing, but not too surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unrestricted movement in all the three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone — or at least by bread and circuses alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, “make us your slaves, but feed us.”’ And when Alyosha Karamazov asks his brother, the teller of the story, if the Grand Inquisitor is speaking ironically, Ivan answers, ‘Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that they have vanquished freedom and done so to make men happy.’ Yes, to make men happy; ‘for nothing,’ the Inquisitor insists, ‘has ever been more insupportable for a man or a human society than freedom.’ Nothing, except the absence of freedom; for when things go badly, and the rations are reduced, the grounded dodos will clamor again for their wings — only to renounce them, yet once more, when times grow better and the dodo-farmers become more lenient and generous …

“The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to become fighters for freedom. The cry of ‘Give me television and hamburgers, but don’t bother me with the responsibilities of liberty,’ may give place, under altered circumstances, to the cry of ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ … The Grand Inquisitor reproaches Christ with having called upon men to be free and tells Him that ‘we have corrected Thy work and founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority.’ But miracle, mystery and authority are not enough to guarantee the indefinite survival of a dictatorship. In my fable of Brave New World, the dictators had added science to the list and thus were able to enforce their authority by manipulating the bodies of embryos, the reflexes of infants and the minds of children and adults. And, instead of merely talking about miracles and hinting symbolically at mysteries, they were able, by means of drugs, to give their subjects the direct experience of mysteries and miracles — to transform mere faith into ecstatic knowledge. The older dictators fell because they could never supply their subjects with enough bread, enough circuses, enough miracles and mysteries.”

The circuses of the Twenty-First century are now all the rage.  They are distracting and occupying us without any relief.  Conservatives are going to have to choose to distinguish the moderation and prudence that is necessary for the order of their own souls.

And, finally, and most important of all, there is an underlying conviction.  Social civilized order is a gift with profound moral dimensions.  The choices that we make on where we invest and spend our time, on how we choose to think, on what we emphasize, compromise or give away are not limited to some little secular material box that the Gnostic heresy would have us limit them too.  In epistemology, there is a moderate school of realism that (a) acknowledges the existence of absolute truths, and (b) also acknowledges the fact that they only inhere in the very specific particulars of the reality in which we actually live.

Mere abstract theorizing and ideological reductionism are of no use to us.

Apathy and cynicism are not going to change anyone’s soul for the better.

There are adjustments on issues we can make but there are also some hills worth dying on.

There is so much of very great value in our culture.  If even a tiny fraction of what the greatest philosophers and theologians have said about the existence of the eternal is true, then there are really moments in life and culture where we can find that intersection between “time and the timeless.”  There are particulars that exist in the reality in which we live that can make us into better persons.

There are some problems that, without striving for any perfect Gnostic dream world, we can address differently from the past.  We will have to.  There are intellectual and social and solid foundations upon which we can rest our positions.  When we rest a reform – no matter what the social problem happens to be – upon the right traditional grounding, it will be unassailable to ill-informed critique.

There are moral dimensions to our life together that I have no interest in trivializing into simplistic ideological slogans but neither do I have any interest in denying their existence.  You shouldn’t either.  It is by acknowledging these further dimensions to life that we can take the broader and more moderate view of political and cultural questions.  It is by challenging ourselves to think through all the implications of how we choose to act or not to act that we can strive for discernment, prudence, and reasoned good judgment.  It is by seeking out the good that we have no experience of that we can shape and change ourselves for the better.

These are all considerations that I have too long neglected to my own detriment.  My prayer and my desire is that I – that we – would neglect them no longer.

The foundations have not yet been destroyed.  They are still there to be the ground for our action.

Tempus fugit.  Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret.