Tonight, the second season of American Horror Story begins. I thought last season was an excellent, though perhaps unintended, cultural acknowledgement that along with sexual “liberation” come unintended consequences – particularly regret of voluntary sterility. The realities of biology and human reason are fundamentally uninterested in the dreams of unconstrained desire, of self-defined and self-policed sexual license and identity. The end of such a self is destruction and damnation, especially from the cold loneliness of birth control and abortion. Here is true and lasting horror: a subverted sexual revolution, an intimacy disconnected from innate moral order, a terrifying emptiness of disposability, disease, and death. A refusal to confess before God means confession before men, and this is American pop cultural horror. Humans, more rationalizing than rational, have devolved modernity into rationalized lust. The revolt of conscience drives horror fiction.
The end of Halloween and the genuinely frightening FX show American Horror Story – in which a family heavily interacts with ghosts spanning the generations, where horror began with an abortionist doing his own Frankenstein-type experiments – has provoked the following somewhat disparate thoughts…The sources of horror are really fascinating. Through human hubris, and the ancient desire for man to be as god, we see the source of the most horrifying form of horror as a reaction to radical self-autonomy, particularly in the sexual realm. Sexual intimacy, in other words, will always have consequence – and there never is an exception, no matter how sterile humans try to make themselves. Horror is, in part, a revulsion to excess. Without Enlightenment “morality,” there is no horror. The source of mayhem is sexual liberation. Sterility – contraception, abortion, homosexuality included – is on some level horrific. To remove the consequences of sex (human life) from the act itself is to engage in horror. To fictionalize this truth is to provide fright to an audience that also, on some level, realizes the true source of horror. To consider the show American Horror Story – abortion and the bad results of “re-creating” life are very clearly the sources of the haunted house. Such actions are presented as horrible and with horrible consequences – especially guilt. The characters are like Mary Shelley, a victim of her revolutionary husband who spent the rest of her life creatively coming to grips with her youthful choices. Or consider vampirism. This is a “satanic” (meaning sterility and death) inversion of the Christian order (life through Logos). Man “achieves” immortality through immorality and by infecting others – this is Stoker’s creative response to his syphilis, the fruit of his sexual “emancipation.” And so to step outside of the moral order is to find horror. Here we find the results of lust without restraint. This theme is a common element, from the heights of Dracula and Frankenstein to middling fare such American Horror Story to cultural pollutants such as slasher and gore films, where the ex-virgin is going to die. “Sexual liberation” leads to consequence and remorse, a near-universal experience, sadly. This, in the hands of the creative, is quite capable of striking fear into the hearts of an audience. The Marquis de Sade understood and embraced the consequences of spurning the moral order, which is why he is a terrifying, and terrifyingly effective, author. If “liberty” is used not to act in accordance to reason, but to gratify passion, and especially sterile passion, then the very act of attaining such “liberty” makes one in the thrall of the gratified passion. Sexual passion released from the moral order and from the consequence of life leads to murder, terror, and death. The genius of the Enlightenment project was to make passion an instrument of control. Horror is, on the whole, an expression of revolt.
Stephen Tonsor of the University of Michigan history department is not often mentioned among the intellectual heavyweights of American conservatism. But reading his work gives one the impression he should be better known. For the Postmodern Conservative, skeptical of standards for socio-political “efficiency,” distrustful of the hegemonic pretenses of Enlightenment modernity, and set against all secular utopias, Tonsor’s incredulity toward temporal meta-narratives (even as religious faith abides) can be a lot of fun. Let us paraphrase: liberty and equality, whatever their status as ideal concepts, are social creations. They cannot be divorced from social reality and the context in which they are embedded. To consider them in the abstract is to lose meaning. Abstract perfection is practical defect; the shadowy world of abstract philosophy is inferior to the realms of ethics, politics, and history where the common good – the object of civil society – can be fostered by the exercise of prudence. Conservatism reenacts the past not as a past program but as a set of beliefs and values which are translated into the current idiom. The vernacular architecture of socio-political conservatism must be decentralized, organic, and rooted in past experience. This worldview is Roman; its political philosophy Aristotelien and Thomist; its concerns moral and ethical; its culture Christian humanist. It is free of metaphysical anxiety and alienation because it is communal with no hope for a utopian order. Sin and tragedy are not a consequence of inadequate social engineering, but a consequence of moral disorder.
If American conservatism is inauthentic but intersecting with ideas of postmodernism through a (non-right liberal) distaste for ideology and incredulity toward meta-narratives, then it is useful to consider some of its rhetorical features. The definition of rhetoric will vary because of the diverse natures and biases of the definers of this puzzling term. The relationship of the rhetorician to communicative practice is even more complex. A “postmodern” rhetorical construction, however, presents a useful means of exploring this relationship. I take the term “postmodern” to mean a criticism of modernity and of modernity’s attempts for certainty; it is not a denial of truth but a skeptical inclination toward socio-political totality. This definition is sourced in an unknowable order and set against ideology in a preservation of worthy customs and conventions – a “humble attitude” favoring cautious change – and overlapping with a postmodernist distrust of legitimating knowledge through an overarching system of thought. All human narrative, then, is inauthentic insofar as narrative makes a large claim. The incompleteness of human knowledge and inexperience can allow for no other alternative.
The literature of American conservatism is vast and varied, but one missing and vital question is of its authenticity. If, as the evidence strongly suggests, the two most empirically verifiable aspects of our nature are original sin and the world’s oldest belief system of “you shall be as gods,” then a continuously constructed inauthenticity of reaction as well as the (hopefully occasional) forces of democratizing and quasi-utopian zeal is entirely plausible as the source material of authenticity. (Is the desire for freedom really written in every human heart, as opposed to, say, tribalist loyalty?) America, after all, was born of revolution and is strongly infused with the constant cousins of political tension – the left-liberalism of a state-sponsored, totalizing strain for equality of station and the atomizing effects of the right-liberalism of “freedom and liberty,” often accompanied by the revolutionary zeal of capitalism. The most pointed criticisms of these ideological tensions come from traditionalist European Catholicism, an awkward source of authenticity for any of our country’s newish and modern temporal mental exercises. And so, despite efforts to source American conservatism in the anti-ideology of Edmund Burke and others figures skeptical of ever greater enlightenment and progress, the author of the founding text of Anglo-American conservatism was a Whig, a (mostly) Protestant, and a staunch defender of the revolution of 1688. This can easily be made to fit American sentiments, especially in a broad electoral coalition not dominated by the idea of Christian salvation. But those Catholics within the coalition tend to view the Sacramental nature of humanity as best expressed in a polity based upon a comprehensive union of two persons then extended outward in the coordination of achieving the biological purpose of the organism as a whole. This regeneration of spirit and character, seeking to address the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul and a restoration of ethical understanding, is authentic not by the practical realities of a political philosophy but by a Triune God reflected in the reality of salvation practice and history through the coming together of persons in one family. If this vision of our state of nature is reality, then I would suggest there is an unresolvable tension at the root of all socio-political thought, rendering it eternally restless and inauthentic: man cannot be as a god, and man cannot escape the various, seemingly endless mechanisms set in place to satisfy that truth.
I recommend the recent reissue of Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community, which includes an excellent introduction by Ross Douthat. The book is a critique of both leftism and the right-liberalism (more “freedom,” less “equality”), so prevalent in today’s conservative coalitions, which the author considers to be an invitation to statism. People need their community, and they are willing to look to the state for it. Humans are, intractably, social creatures built for communion. So prevalent is the belief that an equal satisfaction of preferences is a high social good, and that the purpose of politics and morality is the working toward that supposed good, that Nisbet can be a bit of a shock. As this blog argues, liberalism is very insufficient to maintain social order. Freedom and equality as high principles can harm other realities necessary for social harmony. Even as it is very important to recognize the many strands of individualistic liberalism in modern American conservatism, critics of liberalism from both the “left” and the “right” could state: personhood (not the “individual”) is reduced by liberalism to subjectivity and ripe for manipulation by impersonal institutions and processes following their own, frequently status-seeking, logic. As such, the aspirations that inspired the founders of modern thought – the conquest of nature through science, perhaps even the conquest of human nature, and the emancipation of power from moral restraint – could be “achieved” at a great and unpredictable cost. Nisbet’s response is that community, culture, and family, which are intimately bound together, are ultimately about membership: a grouping partaking in a network of memory and “belonging” to one another. Far too many lifestyle choices and social, political structures shatter what the authentically familial would hold together – consumption and production, sensuality and fertility, freedom and virtue. Abstract, unrooted “freedom” is an invitation to loneliness and despair. Down with the statist-individualist symbiosis! It is through the many associations where a more fulfilling sense of freedom can be found.
Yuval Levin, a researcher of the fractured relationship between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, recently wrote an interesting post about Burke’s significant appeal for conservatives as a founding father (and it should be noted that leftists won’t stop admiring him either). This raises the question of what a “Burkean Conservatism” might look like. Peter Stanlis, a prolific Burke scholar, takes the term to mean an ability to combine natural and constitutional law with a practical prudence to form a political philosophy at once consistent but almost wholly unsystematic. Society is indeed a contract – but one between God and man, and all generations of humanity that form families and communities.
I think there is much to admire in such a sentiment, one of an anti-ideology……
In the past few years, Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg have led the charge to popularize the notion that the governing totalitarianisms of fascism – centralizing, modernist, nationalistic, and willing to cooperate with the radical, internationalist Left, most notoriously in August 1939 – emerged from theories of progressivism and socialism. Officials were the embodiments of a transcending collective will organizing a cult of state-organized unity. However far one might agree, it is interesting to note an interview that George Viereck, father of German-American poet and conservative thinker Peter Viereck, conducted with Adolf Hitler in 1923. When asked to define socialism, Hitler replied: “Socialism is the science dealing with the common weal. Communism is not Socialism. The Marxians have stolen the term and confused its meaning. I shall take Socialism away from the Socialists.” It will be curious to note if some on the coalitions of the Left will persist in applying the label “fascist” to those of us on the coalitions of the Right. After all, two of the things that the fascists hated most – classical liberalism and religiously-oriented traditionalism – are foundations of the post-Buckley, fusionist, conservative movement. And so we might accurately, albeit awkwardly, argue that two strands of the (Anglo-American) Right were chief enemies of fascism, a socialist-laden, modernist, authoritarian theory of governance and political practice that ran roughshod over throne and altar and was defeated by forces for liberalism.
In response to the Rhetoric Society of America’s inquiry – what are Pope Benedict’s reasons for positioning the Catholic Church as an essential link between enterprise and justice, and as a significant voice in the public discussion of globalization – I suggest a “spiritual argument of restoration.”
Leaders of the Catholic Church since the rise of industrialization have affirmed the rights of labor. An argument could be made that without Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which criticized communism and capitalism while supporting private property and the growth of unions, Western labor movements would have been weaker. Such teachings have strongly recurrent themes: an emphasis upon the human person, the dignity of work, and the importance of community. These take strong precedence over the state and market, which must possess the moral foundation of a dignity inherent to humanity, and gifted by the Creator, to properly function…..
Because it is fashionable to be late and lists are fun, let’s think about the books that most influenced our early intellectual formation. Not too long ago, some writers on my reading list presented their contributions: Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen, Austin Bramwell, Daniel McCarthy, Thursday. Mine are below the fold, and use the comments for further recommendations.