The soul of a civilization may be lost at the very moment of that culture’s material triumph.
In our time, we run no risk of experiencing too little change; whether we like it or not, we
ride the whirlwind of innovation. To give direction to this change, and to insure that
generation may link with generation, some of us must undertake the rescue of the
– Russell Kirk
Imagination … However often the word may be used as a corporate buzzword, there is growing evidence that genuine imagination is increasingly rare in modernity. Contrary to the claims of some, imagination is not just the faculty of creating unique business marketing ideas; nor is it merely remembering pictures in your head. Neither is it merely the ability to fantasize about fake, virtual realities. On the contrary, there is persuasive evidence that imagination is one of the faculties that makes us human. Forebodingly, there is also increasing evidence that most of us no longer have it – or, at least do not exercise it. While we ought to pursue what imagination is in depth, there is an additional dimension that is even less frequently acknowledged. Imagination, for those who can exercise it, is subject to good and evil. There is a profoundly meaningful region within the essence of our humanity where the sparks fly, and that is the place where imagination crosses through the moral sphere. If this is no longer a part of who we are, it is a part of who we could be. Edmund Burke called it the moral imagination.
The primary goal of this essay is to reintroduce the reader to an increasingly endangered species of citizen who has still not quite become extinct in our embattled and rancorous political landscape – the traditional conservative (also known as the Burkean conservative). The philosophy of these traditionalists is from another age. They are from the old world. Their sensibility is of the ancients and, according to some, obsolete. Their presence today on the world stage is not immediately apparent, partly because they are content working behind the scenes, and partly because their forms of discourse do not naturally fit into today’s multi-media, sound-bite, fragmented, stream of relentless nonstop unreason. But that doesn’t mean that they are not still present, constantly working; writing poetry, essays and novels; giving carefully crafted lectures; having hours of long, deep conversation in bars, coffee houses, universities and churches; building and cultivating community and roots. You just have to know where to find them. You are not likely to find them on Fox News or in the Trump Presidential Administration. You are more likely to find them participating in movements like environmental conservation, Slow Food, Craft Brewing, the Future Symphony Institute, the Davenant Trust, New Urbanism, or the Benedict Option.
The Difference of Burkean Conservatism
Contrary to popular belief and despite the fads and fashions since the dawn of Modernity and Enlightenment, traditionalist conservatives took an active and major part in the formation of the American constitutional system of government. Contrary to the popular liberalism of their own day, they had no illusions. For every soaringly high ideal lauded by Jefferson and Paine, there was the temperance, restraint, and realism of Adams and Hamilton. For every a priori ex nihilo proposition cited from John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, there was a cautionary warning cited from Richard Hooker or Sir Thomas More. And, in the long run, when the radical, revolutionary, and destructive notions of Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, and Comte were invoked by American classical liberals, the traditionalists found kindred spirits with the more solid wisdom of Burke, Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Coleridge.
Today, the Burkean conservatives are not the ones who currently equate the Constitution to the level of divine revelation, nor are they the ones who are arguing that America should “go back” to being a “Christian” nation. The Burkean conservatives are old veterans in doing battle against what is now called “Classical Liberalism.” They didn’t accept Hobbesian or Lockean premises back then, and they don’t accept them now. The traditional conservative rejects both the basic tenets of atomized individualism and the incredible assumptions of “social contract theory.” Today’s Burkean conservative is beset and hardpressed, but he or she soundly rejects the confused assortment of scattered, incoherent permutations that pass for modern thinking.
Even more distinctively, the Burkean conservative rejects and resists all forms of ideology. For traditionalists, there is no perfect systematized school of formulas to which all members must subscribe in order to toe the lines of party partisanship. Systematized partisanship is, in fact, one of the great evils of modern day politics. Unlike many of the bastardized versions of “conservatism” that you will hear promoted in the media or even by the current U.S. President today, the Burkean conservative desires to conserve, to protect and to defend the good, the true, and the beautiful as well as the old, the ancient and the time-tested. This means that traditionalists are enthusiastic about protecting our planet’s natural resources and the environment, about upholding the lives, customs, culture, neighborhoods, small trades, crafts and businesses of families and local communities, and about preserving apparently outdated American propensities for reasoned public discourse, integrity, compassion, flexibility, and ingenuity in allowing the room for freedom and diversity that civilization, by its very form and nature, makes possible.
I have far, far too many dear friends who are rejecting their conservative upbringings without understanding what it is that they are actually rejecting. And I have too many other liberal friends who have a distorted impression of what it is real conservatives actually stand for. This false impression is often justified by many of today’s shrill and power-grubbing public voices who pretend to speak for “conservatism” and yet use the rhetoric of intellectually dishonest demagogues who would have been destroyed if they had happened to begin speaking for a matter of seconds within the hearing distance of Socrates. If you pay even a minimal amount of attention to politics, you are deeply impoverished if you have never been given even a hint of what the Burkean traditionalist has to offer us in the twenty-first century. If you are thinking of entering politics yourself, then stop, and acquire at least a preliminary introduction to the intellectual foundations of the conservative tradition in political philosophy. Considering the new and unique issues now facing us in the Twenty-First century, such a foundation will strengthen the powers of persuasion of any up-and-coming conservatives, even when it means standing up against current leaders of the Republican Party. Or even if it now means working to kill the Republican Party.
The Time Has Come For a New Political Coalition
In the short history of modern politics, from the time that it began in the eighteenth century, different political coalitions have formed and disbanded. Unity of purpose and values has regularly led to the emergence of different powerful movements that have exerted great influence upon the shape of our culture. In the West, there have been two main traditions, conservative and progressive. Both these traditions of thought have arranged and rearranged themselves in different forms and combinations over time in order to meet the exigencies of the age. With the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016, the exigencies of our time have now changed.
I am persuaded that conservatism in the twenty-first century needs to realign itself and form a new and different unified coalition. This will require a great and sweeping housecleaning. A number of demagogues will need to be put down. We need to accomplish this in order to promote some desperately needed remedies for our time, to put a stop to some policies and viewpoints that are damaging the good of what remains of our way of life, and to preserve some things that we ought not to cast aside. In the United States alone, we have witnessed such coalition realignments before. One of them led to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Another led to the formation of the Republican Party in 1854. Yet another led to the conservative coalition carefully rebuilt from ruins in the ‘50s and ‘60s by William F. Buckley, Jr. and Russell Kirk.
To predict whether this needed realignment will happen, we have no guarantee. If it does not, then the United States will be set for an entirely new political system dominated by mere ideology, by extreme partisan grandstanding, or by a single majority party composed of a perverse combination of the progressive left and corporate monied interests. Without any restoration, the younger generations will continue to turn away from the extreme rhetoric and unreason of an increasingly shrill and shrinking reactionary right. This is a reactionary right that has completely lost touch with the intellectual foundations of its moderate and anti-ideological predecessors. This is a reactionary right that, in its younger elements, currently reeks of profound intellectual impoverishment and of radically jingoistic, conspiracy theorist, racist incoherence.
The important issues, problems and emergencies of the twenty-first century are not those of the twentieth century. But there is a grand tradition of political, philosophical, literary, cultural and theological thinking that conservatives in the West have followed throughout the course of many different historical ages. To ignore this tradition merely because you are too busy running fast-talking popular TV entertainment is on the order of grave moral negligence. The guilty parties whose own extreme rhetoric and indulgence in demagoguery damns them include the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, Roger Ailes, Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Andrew Breitbart, Erick Erickson, and Laura Ingraham. Let’s no longer shrink from naming names. It is always time to denounce rabble-rousing snake-oil salesmen when you see them. The sooner the careers of these supposed “leaders” are over, the better for us all.
Moreover if you call yourself a conservative, but you refuse to apply what the most educated, intelligent, and great-hearted conservative thinking men and women have thought and said, you are guilty of intellectual dishonesty. This contributes to the impression of idiocy, illiteracy, and obliviousness given off by the likes of Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann, Thomas DiLorenzo, Thomas E. Woods, Bobby Jindal, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell Jr. If you are an embarrassment whenever you speak in front of a news camera, then you shouldn’t be speaking for a majority of quiet people with discernment.
Of course, there are also those who use the label of “conservative” as nothing more than a means to either gaining their own power or feeding their own ego with no regard for law or principle. Such wolves, whether in or out of sheeps clothing, include the likes of Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Steve Bannon, Dinesh D’Souza, Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard B. Spencer, and Jared Taylor. Cicero wouldn’t have flirted with supporting white supremacists or Neo-Nazis, and neither should we. If a man uses his position of power as a shield to allow himself to sexually assault women, then it no longer matters if he is against abortion, for tax cuts, or in support of any other position you favor. Those who spend their time committing crimes are not those who spend their time thinking about how to protect and advance the good of the commonwealth. The sooner we kick them out of the public square the better.
It is time for a changing of the guard for those who have been representing themselves as our “conservative” voices. Most of the individuals listed above have not the slightest notion of the depth and insight with which the good, the true, and the beautiful have been advocated for and explored in the conservative intellectual and literary tradition. Those who do have a notion of it are even more guilty for their ignoring and betraying of it. Why then should they be our leaders? Why should we listen to them any longer?
Moreover, for one to reject this rich tradition that one was never really taught simply because one were raised or influenced by the thoughtless or the illiterate when one was young is to allow one’s beliefs to be formed and to be determined by chance and environment. To reject anything upon such grounds is reactionary, a choice that no lover of liberty or adherent to liberal order should allow.
I propose that we take our busy distractions, the happenstance of our particular upbringings, and any willful intellectual laziness out of the equation. There are some very important problems of our time that need remedies. Quite frankly, the way in which conservatives have been handling these problems has been both pathetic and destructive. There are some profound questions that we need to ask ourselves. In order to do so, we will only be able to hear ourselves think if we stop listening to some of the rather appalling noise that some of our alleged “conservative” leaders are currently making.
The old conservative four way coalition between traditionalists, anti-Communists, libertarians and members of the religious right has disintegrated.
It is time to form a new one.
The Effects of Technology Must Become a New Political & Cultural Issue of Our Time
In our current mass-media, digitalized, social-networking age, most of us are often oblivious of the human costs that we pay for our immediate gratification and convenience. While we voraciously surf the internet and perpetually update our ever effervescent “status” on our iPhones, while we continually answer a never-ending barrage of text messages and emails, while we participate in our online “communities,” it is as easy to be sheltered from reality as it is to unconsciously maintain the illusion that we have more knowledge about the world than any generation before us. Little thought is put into the health of the soul, except for the occasional internet postings of soundbite clichés, “memes,” and platitudes. Almost no attention is paid to how our habits form the neurological wiring of our brains and therefore the definite molding of shrinking attention spans and capacity for depth of thought. Little thought is attempted in wondering what philosophies or intellectual foundations were deliberately laid in order to create the very society in which we now live.
American Pop Celebrity culture is an obsession. Idolatry, long warned against by Old Testament prophets, by ancient Stoic philosophers, by the Romantic poets and even by the occasional modern thinker, has now evolved into a form that the history of man may have yet to comprehend. From the absorption of the online equivalent of celebrity news rags to memorizing and quoting from one’s favorite TV shows, things have grown to the point to where our very personalities are often shaped by an assortment of peer-pressured, miscellaneous, collages of mimicry. The longings of the soul are now often mocked or commercially exploited. Those things we may have been once truly passionate about are cast aside in order to lead a fast-paced rapidly browsing life. Important conversations, dreams, thoughts, friendships, loves and ties to local community and family wither away.
When the first countries in the world began to industrialize, it took much too long before any consensus of thinking people began to critique the human costs of industrialization. We are naturally slow about this sort of thing. It later took us years to realize what commercialization was doing to us, not that we any longer care.
Now … with the internet at our fingertips and the constant use of our omnipresent “smart” phones, we have not even begun to really consider the effects on our humanity that the advent of social media has been wrecking upon us. We live so intensely in the ever present now, that we sometimes forget how really recent this all is. Yahoo began in 1994. Google showed up in 1998. Just over a decade ago, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger began something called Wikipedia in 2001. MySpace, now the ailing senior citizen of social media, began as recently as 2003. Facebook started up in 2004. Twitter in 2006. Many of us have far more online “friends” than we have friends in real life. Many of us spend far more of our time with our online friends than we spend with our friends physically incarnated. The very idea of community is now turning virtual, and therefore, for all practical intents and purposes, quite often meaningless.
We forget how easy it is to be sheltered. We remember that the majority of the world’s population is living in constant misery (or slavery) only when the occasional YouTube video reminds us of some transient online campaign. Life expectancy statistics in war-torn or poverty-laden third world countries are, for us, not much more than statistics to chuck at each other for partisan political fighting. We conduct ourselves virtually, and often anonymously, in the polarized, mass-media, public square. We have no notion of the public square where our ancient, deprived, internet-less ancestors used to have strange and foreign things called “classical rhetoric” or “public discourse.”
Being detached from reality is, for most of us, preferable. Occasionally, our human frailties will still knock us out of our intensely constant social-media-ization. Our obsession with spending money we don’t have will occasionally create economic bubbles that will burst and destroy large numbers of our society’s jobs. Sometimes, an illness or a dying family member will remind us of real life. And if those things are real life, why would we want such things anyhow? Honestly, those things are distractions from the time we can spend in the virtual world of mass-entertainment. After a whole day’s work, it is now our inclination to “turn off” our brains for the rest of that evening. Perpetual entertainment usually does the trick. It’s mind-numbing, but numbing the mind makes the effort of actually thinking, or the pain that is tied to actually loving, more distant and, consequently, less disconcerting and unsafe.
It’s much nicer to forget or ignore uncomfortable things. Entertainment is, at least, vicariously thrilling and addictingly comfortable, however very much of our short time here on earth it manages to control and to kill. Time is, after all, something we enthusiastically and ruthlessly spend, use, and kill. To be entertained is not to be bored. And, in our current age, one may sometimes wonder if the old pursuit of happiness has metamorphisized into the never-ending retreat from this something called “boredom.” The uncomfortable is best left ignored. The ugly parts of reality are better left until tomorrow. The differences between our technologically serviced society and the majority of the rest of the world are more easily exploited. Let’s not think about anything unpleasant, unless it’s entertaining.
How about the fact that the world is a dark, wild, violent, cold and chaotic place? The second law of thermodynamics is relentlessly merciless – upon matters both material and immaterial, upon joys both ancient and youthful. Life is very short and, for a majority of people, often brutal. “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” ponderously intoned Carl Sagan. And yet, he neglected to mention there that the “cosmos” was wildly spinning out of control and dissipating into space. Everything orderly is disintegrating into dissolution. Random collisions, meaningless destruction, entropic decay into ultimate disorder and disarray is the natural fate of the universe.
This is, like it or not, historically proven to also be the always impending fate of the civilizations of man. Civilizations may rise for brief shining moments, but they have a consistent history of crumbling into ruin. With the intelligence and life skills of the majority of our population today … well, you can see how … but let’s stop here for a moment.
Why on earth are you bothering to do something as antiquated as reading a discursive essay like this one?
Your preferences are likely quite different from the author’s. This author does not pretend that the reader ought to have the same personal tastes or “likes” that he has. However, as fellow mortals still at the beginning of the twenty-first century together, we all do have a few common social and communal interests. And, these interests of ours are under threat of extinction.
Personally, I have no illusions that my viewpoint does not now represent anything more than a mere minority. But sometimes minorities have important things to say to the wider mainstream culture. Often, like the guardians of the Library of Alexandria during that city’s wars and riots, it is a minority that attempts to preserve a few overlooked truths that could have the power to save civilization itself. But that, of course, presumes that our Western civilization is worth saving. We could always just ride the next wave of Progress far far away from those things our ancestors held dear and tried to pass on to us.
I must admit that I am a layman and an amateur in matters of historical and intellectual traditions. I am, by no means, as wise as the Alexandrian librarians, who, after all, themselves utterly failed.
And yet, the point of of pursuing the things we ought to pursue here is simple. It is high time that conservatives stopped wasting their breath with the inane and insipid. It is high time that Americans began to distinguish reality apart from ideological fantasy or generational apathy. My generation has been watching (or just social-networking) from the sidelines for too long while a collection of, to put it kindly, power-grubbing short-term thinkers have been representing us in the public square. It is high time for a little action on our part. And, since action is required, we ought to start doing things a little differently around here.
My generation is, apparently, supposed to take care of the National Debt. It took the United States over two hundred years to acquire a national debt of one trillion dollars by 1982. Then, it finally doubled to 2 trillion by 1986. By 2006, our debt was well past 8 trillion. It just sped past the 20 trillion mark in 2017.
If you are not an automaton who is only interested in surfing the internet for the fads and fashions of pop celebrity, then you might consider this to be … well, a problem. Moving from 1 trillion (in two hundred years) to 2 trillion (in four years) to 8 trillion (in twenty years) to 20 trillion (in ten years) is a rate rapidly heading for economic destruction, disaster, and a devastating depression. Who is ignoring this? Almost all of us are ignoring this.
Let’s not bother with the doomsayers who are prophesying the end of our civilization, but let’s also stop ignoring the fact that our politicians currently view our collective futures as their own personal bright and shiny credit card. This is not sustainable and it will have real world consequences.
It is high time to recognize that the national debt is not just some abstract and irrelevant concept that old boring people talk about on the news. It’s a capricious and unasked for tinkering with our future that, if unchecked, will disastrously affect the economic health of our country – and your livelihood and your ability to keep a career and provide for your family – for the rest of your life.
How to Transcend our Polarized Partisan Wrangling
Look up from your iPhone and your texting and consider this for a few seconds before the poverty that your big spending government is wrecking upon your future destroys your ability to pay for your future iPhones and text messages in the first place. We are now on track with an impending unpleasant smack with reality.
- It is high time conservatives stopped sounding so stupid on the television.
- It is, indeed, time we cast a number of these political wolves to the side and got on with doing something productive for once.
- It is time that those of you of a liberal frame of mind stopped ignoring how wealth is created while you are dealing with how wealth may be distributed unjustly.
- It is time that those of you with a conservative frame of mind stopped ignoring how wealth may be distributed unjustly while you are encouraging wealth creation.
- It is time that those of you with a libertarian frame of mind took the occasional pause to remember those questions the old saints asked about what a focus on wealth accumulation can do to the soul of a man or a woman.
- It is time to stop all the fantasizing, and reawaken something refreshing that, once upon a time, a few brilliant thinkers named the moral imagination.
The imagination of man is creative in nature. Part of the very act of thinking is to organize and structure thought. Part of the very act of civilized living is the creation of forms and structures in which fragile things like justice and order and goodness can be preserved from destruction. These “forms,” built in the clouds of the imagination of man, turn into ancient traditions as they are passed down from generation to generation. A tradition is, therefore, obviously not material. It is, of a sort, an imaginative adornment or structure created by the imagination of man in order to restrain the nature of man.
The Moral Imagination
In 1790, British member of Parliament, Edmund Burke, with his elegant and fiery English prose, described what the revolutionaries in France were doing to the forms and traditions of society:
“But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly … On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spate to them from his own private interests.”
Burke strongly believed in the traditions and institutions that provided the very foundation of civilization. Law and order protects the citizen from terror and chaos and allows the citizen the liberties necessary in order to practice his or her freedom. The restraint that law imposes upon us is contrary to our own natures. But, the systems and conventions that mankind has built up over time have been tested and slowly changed and modified in order to allow the maximum orderly practice of freedom possible. Burke was a conservative because he recognized the great value in preserving what was old and tested in society. Recognizing the inherent value of traditional human institutions necessarily makes one suspicious of radical reforms designed to destroy such institutions. With a deep sense of history, the conservative remembers the pain, destruction and unintended consequences that radicalism has caused over and over again.
However, rejecting radical and enthusiastic reform does not equal opposing all reform. The reasoning conservative can agree with the need for a specific reform in principle. When looking at any problem in our culture, it is of most benefit to the thinker to establish these two principles before any other. (1) There is a presumption of great value in the old and time tested. (2) Many radical reforms have unintended consequences due to the usual failure of populist enthusiasm to understand the necessary realities that are included within the bigger picture. Acknowledging these two propositions is what inclines one towards conservatism. But these alone, according to Edmund Burke, were not enough.
As conservatives with any hope at all, we all must explore Burke’s brilliant arguments to the effect that acknowledging the reality of what does not change and what has changed does not the compromising of one’s principles. There are too many reactionaries, fanatics, and partisans in politics who insist on an “all or nothing” approach that, whenever reality contradicts something they believe to be right, insist upon the immediate change of reality accomplished by whatever force (usually by political power) necessary.
Instead, Burke argued that the only way for us to rise above the failings of our own natures was to acknowledge both the moral law and the problems with reality. Prudence was, according to Burke, not ethically deficient compromise, but instead a virtue. After acknowledging first the presumption in favor of tradition and accepting a strong distrust of progressive reform, the conservative can also acknowledge the inherently moral reasons for accomplishing a specific reform when required for the sake of justice. This is the undertaking which requires the moral imagination – the practical application of creative solutions to a morally necessary task without ignoring reality and without casting away the value of what is old.
Otherwise, reform and positive law is supported by nothing other than social planning and experimentation along with the political might that special interests and majorities wield in the creation of such laws.
One of the greatest traditionalist conservatives of the twentieth century, Russell Kirk, established that Burke’s approach ought to be the method by which all conservatives strive. In his 1969 book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, Kirk explained:
“The moral imagination is the principal possession that man does not share with the beasts. It is man’s power to perceive ethical truth, abiding law, in the seeming chaos of many events. Without the moral imagination, man would live merely day to day, or rather moment to moment, as dogs do. It is the strange faculty – inexplicable if men are assumed to have an animal nature only – of discerning greatness, justice, and order, beyond the bars of appetite and self-interest.”
“What is unique about man is that he has the power of imagination,” wrote I.B. Berkson. It is, ultimately, an explanation of what it is that makes us human in the first place. Earlier in my thinking, I had never really considered all the implications of what the very idea of an imagination can mean. Berkson continued:
“The human being can disengage himself from the immediate particular situation in time and place and view it from a more distant and wider perspective. He can recall the past and in a sense live in it; he can try to divine the future and plan for it. He can see himself in a different country from the one he actually lives in, and not least in significance from the moral point of view, he can put himself in another person’s place.”
It is in the act of imagining yourself in another person’s place that you can glimpse how the other person feels and thinks differently from yourself. It is how you can identify with another peron’s experience of joy or suffering that you have never experienced yourself. This act of imagining yourself in another’s place can also lead to the real world act of placing yourself in another’s place, in order to protect or accomplish something for that other human person. Thus acted many of the heroes of history and literature, all pointing to one specific sort of action.
This is a virtue that our current day partisan politics lacks. Both Republicans and Democrats exhibit an utterly impoverished imagination and neither can imagine being in the other’s shoes.
Kirk believed that it was by applying the moral imagination to new problems that conservatives managed to preserve what ought to be preserved and, occasionally, to change what ought to be changed:
“My endeavor is to help refurbish what Edmund Burke called the ‘wardrobe of a moral imagination.’ When the moral imagination is enriched, a people find themselves capable of great things; when it is impoverished, they cannot act effectively even for their own survival, no matter how immense their material resources.”
There are different ages. In a barbarian and pagan world, a conservative will be advocating for more use of what would otherwise be considered radical force and reform than in a civilized and ordered world. In a world of conflict between powerful and contradictory civilizations, a conservative will be advocating for the preservation of certain values in opposition to those of the enemy civilization. In a world where there is only one superpower, conservatives in such a superpower are going to work to preserve while also looking for what is worth changing for the better. This necessarily demands making careful distinctions between what are essentially negligible losses, practical gains and nonnegotiable values.
This essay and all my future writing is and will be devoted to advocating for one point of view that usually goes unnoticed in our brain-pickled mass consumer twittering culture. Given the weaknesses of human nature, narcissism has always been a problem. But the modern narcissist is currently drinking Red Bulls. And this is unfortunate, given that one actually has to physically use one’s hand in order to raise the monster energy drink to one’s lips, and the four fifths of one second of time that it takes to do so is four fifths of one second less time that one could have used texting one’s stream of unconsciousness to the social media world on the latest updated iPhone/Blackberry/iPad/Android with one’s right hand while clicking the remote in order to flit between Pop Celebrity and Reality TV shows with one’s left hand.
In an especially Facebooking narcissistic culture, we are faced with narcotic-like heavy influences. These influences encourage us to multi-task, to be impatient, to be ultra-sensitive, to easily take offense, to be high-blood-pressured, to be easily stressed, to be peer-pressured even after graduating from high school, to have very short-attention spans, and to be more heavily medicated than any other generation in the history of man. Ergo, we must begin to challenge a lifestyle that the media we use strongly encourages in us.
It’s Time to Practice Deeper Thought and Imagination
And while creating a world of addicted perpetually web-surfing phone-texting souls may have its uses, pretty much the whole point of looking at a meaningful and flourishing human life is that our culture also has its disadvantages (particularly for the technology addicted souls). So if, at the very thought of being separated from the internet for, oh, let’s say one half hour of reading the printed page, grit your teeth in nonconformist determination and:
(1) Stop … and hold still for a second.
(2) Take a deep breath.
(3) Turn your goddamn iPhone off.
(4) Look outside the window. No, not on your computer. While we’re at it, turn your computer off too.
(5) There should be at least one on the wall of your room somewhere. It’s this really captivating ancient technological invention made out of glass, and there is something called the sunlight, instead of artificial light, shines right through it. There are real, actual, embodied, alive things out there.
(6) Open a bottle of wine or a bottle of good single-malt Scotch.
(7) Pour the aforesaid contents into a glass.
(8) Sip the aforesaid contents of the glass slowly while reading a good book. If necessary, when the glass is empty, take a break from both book and drink and come back to it again regularly.
Keep doing this, and you’ll eventually be able to read for longer and then even longer periods of time.
In spite of our increasingly short-attention spans (well documented by technological critics like Nicholas Carr), I find that associating something else pleasurable with activity that seems like work makes it all go down easier. Associating reading and drinking together, and therefore thinking and drinking together is, in fact, one of those old, ancient traditions that go as far back as St. Thomas Aquinas sitting in his candlelit Dominican Abbey, with its local brewery, in Rome. One of the arguments that anyone interested in the survival of civilization must begin making is that something old-world, like single malt Scotch for instance, tastes far far better alongside a book or a real life friend than it actually tastes alongside a computer or other virtual electronic device.
In a harried world where we are always under pressure to conform to the speeding fashions of the age, where even the time to sit down quietly to read a good book is being taken from us, this idea of exerting the moral imagination may become more vital to our sanity than it may have ever been in a less fragmented culture. Reality may be bleak, but the line between the imagination and reality can be crossed. Sometimes, in fact, we need a properly guided imagination to see truths hidden from us in the rat race of the global digital world. Emily Brontë hinted at this in two stanzas of her poem, “To Imagination”:
“… Reason, indeed, may oft complain
For Nature’s sad reality,
And tell the suffering heart how vain
Its cherished dreams must always be;
And Truth may rudely trample down
The flowers of Fancy, newly-blown:
But thou art ever there, to bring
The hovering vision back, and breathe
New glories o’er the blighted spring,
And call a lovelier Life from Death.
And whisper, with a voice divine,
Of real worlds, as bright as thine …”
We Can No Longer Neglect Culture, Art, and Philosophy
In one sense, the imaginative work ahead of us is a work of political philosophy. That is political philosophy (as opposed to “political science”) that acknowledges the search for a better world, because it assumes there is an existing higher standard by which judgments of better and worse can be made. Consequently, politics is rather more than the mere workings of government. There is a politics of the family and the home. There is a politics of the church or the synagogue. There is a politics of the elementary schoolroom and playground, the university, and the business. There is a politics of the art world – of music, painting, sculpture, literature and film. Thus, in another sense, this essay is admittedly ambitiously intended to be a work of cultural, even literary, criticism. It is reasonable to propose that we can exert our imaginations within the moral sphere and eventually recover T.S. Eliot’s sophisticated idea of “sensibility” in choices of culture.
The conservative thinker in the twenty-first century ought to be cultured rather than advocating for a culture, cosmopolitan rather than hipster, prudent rather than fanatical, moderate rather than radical, self-educated if necessary rather than pop lobotomized, an exerciser of creativity rather than an indulger in fantasy, and, most of all, an avowed guardian of those things worth holding sacred rather than a blind faith enthusiast in progress, science, populism, or government saviors.
It is time we acknowledged the possibility that the internet and social media may be the final culmination of exactly what democracy finally needs to achieve the “democratic despotism” that Alexis de Tocqueville warned America against. It is time we acknowledged the possibility that technology and social networking may just be the greatest accruement of power that “the lowest common denominator” has ever been endowed with.
I’ll repeat that last one. With our increased constant and global interconnectivity, we now may just live in the first age of man where the greatest power for social change in culture and the world is the lowest common denominator.
We are, after all, the most drugged and highly medicated society in the history of mankind. We are the most counseled, the most psychologically disordered, the heaviest contractors of neuroses. There is much that has changed. The rugged individualist has reprioritized his life so as to accept a strange-looking multi-colored pyramid entitled the “hierarchy of needs.” Independent and freedom loving man is now psychologized man living, as Philip Rieff prophesied, in a therapeutic society.
It is time for conservatives, if they want to lead again, if they want that spark that ignites wonder, enthusiasm and excitement, if they want to capture the imaginations of the rising generations, to expand and broaden their focus to culture as a whole, and not just to the constraints of government politics.
The arts, film, literature, music, history, sociology, psychology, technology, science, and yes, even theology and the church, all these subsets of culture must be engaged energetically and comprehensively by the rising leaders in conservative thought. Specialized and narrow focus on merely one strand of culture is no longer good enough. Denying the complexity and wholeness of that which is necessary for human flourishing will only cheapen and impoverish us. The time is long overdue for us to restore and practice the moral imagination. Only by doing that may we begin to overcome the increasing divisions, resentments, and biases that are being stoked by powerful populist demagogues. Only by doing that will we be able to stomp out the cancer currently called the “alt-right.” Only by moving our imagination back into the moral sphere will we be able to meet the challenges of our age with the civility, persuasiveness, and wisdom that it so sorely needs.
– Berkson, I.B. The Ideal and the Community: A Philosophy of Education. 1958.
– Brontë, Emily. “To Imagination.” 1846. The Complete Poems of Emily Brontë. 2017.
– Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. 1790.
– Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. 2010.
– Kirk, Russell. Enemies of the Permanent Things. 1969.
– Rieff, Philip. The Triumph of the Therapeutic. 1966.
– Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 1835.