I have long felt that the defining event of my lifetime has been an ongoing cultural revolution. A recent book by Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks , confirms this.
According to Rieff, from the beginnings of human history, men and women have thought that happiness comes from a disciplined conformity to sacred truths. It is true that the Enlightenment did a great deal to deflate claims to sacred authority, but in the main, modern European culture preserved a commitment to universal moral truths¯"We hold these truths to be self-evident. . . . " John Stuart Mill was an agnostic, but he was also a moralist, and he was very traditional in the sense that self-discipline and devotion to truth defined his idea of the good life.
No so today. Our elite culture treats symbols of authority with mockery. Robert Mapplethorpe put crosses in jars of urine, and the philistines who read the New Yorker and sent money to the ACLU line up to defend his freedom of expression. Not, mind you, his mere and uncontested right to put crosses in piss, but his right to federal funding, to space in art museums, to celebration and acclaim as a great, liberating artistic genius.
This happens so often and so pervasively that we don’t even notice it. The habit of submission to received wisdom, acceptance of established standards of behavior and taste, loyalty to a literary or cultural inheritance¯key features of all traditional cultures, indeed, the very features that make them traditional ¯are now seen as reactionary vices. In what Rieff calls "the halls of our institutions of higher illiteracy," there is an atmosphere of deflating critique and pride in transgression, and we are told that this makes us mature, independent, and rational.
No wonder I’ve felt tremors from a cultural earthquake. By Rieff’s analysis, we are living in the dawn of a new world, a new moment in human history. Our elite New York Times reading culture is trying to live "independently of all sacred orders," and this "is unprecedented in human history." "A culture of civility that is separated from sacred order," he observes, "has not been tried before."
We are undertaking a stunning social experiment. The richest and most highly educated Americans are trained intellectually and disciplined economically. But they are increasingly removed from any serious encounter with the spiritual and moral discipline. At Ivy League universities, the best and the brightest are educated in a moral and spiritual vacuum. The higher your SAT scores and the wealthier your parents, the more likely you are to end up at a school dominated by those who hate Western culture and denounce American society, and the more likely you will end up mouthing therapeutic platitudes about the evils of repression and the importance of liberated selfhood. Those who most benefit from a social order given life and purpose by the old traditions of devotion to truth are trained, writes Rieff, "as soldiers of unfaith to replace soldiers of faith." "Forgetfulness," he observes, "is now the curricular form of our higher education."
When I was young, students still put up posters of Che Guevara in their dorm rooms. Back then, the battle was between two kinds of believers: those who had faith in liberal democracy, and those whose faith was Marxist. Modern conservatism was shaped accordingly, and it fought against the endless invasions of government into ordering structures of community, family, and personal life. This struggle against the nanny state came to something of a standstill, with modern conservatives a rather beleaguered few who were greatly aided by the all-too-evident failures of the granddaddy of nanny states, the Soviet Union.
Now we have a postmodern conservatism that reflects the new struggle of piety against critique. The result is a conservatism more populist than libertarian. A perennial American mass movement animated by a healthy distrust of the powerful elites whose protests of public service and good intentions are often cloaks for self-interest, economic populism has now become a right-tending cultural populism. This explains why conservatism has grown from minority protest to majority rule.
The change is there to see if we will but recognize that it is not, in fact, the economy, stupid. In 1900, the ordinary man in the streets in Des Moines sensed that Wall Street cared not one bit for his well-being. In 2006, his spiritual equivalent is largely reconciled to global markets, and more than likely his retirement accounts are managed by those once-wicked financial types. But he senses that the kinds of people who hate George Bush cannot be trusted to protect and preserve social order. They spend social capital freely, as if it were not plain for the eye to see the marriage is already damaged by no-fault divorce. They seem ready to trade Israel for promises of peace just as Chamberlain gave up Czechoslovakia, and who knows, maybe they’ll give up Des Moines next in order to preserve the pleasures of summers in Nantucket undiminished by the ugly realities of global terrorism.
Rieff writes, "The destabilization of social order is less a political than a moral phenomenon, less an economic than a spiritual condition of struggle." When elites give up on piety (whether religious, moral, or cultural) and become soldiers of unfaith, commandos of transgression, experts in desires satisfied, they renounce the moral and spiritual conditions in which power serves rather than the powerful simply being served. A culture without piety, especially a culture in which elites lack pious submission to sacred truths greater than themselves, is a culture of barbarism, however velvet in texture. I’m sure the Dutch kill their elderly with a soft touch.
Postmodern conservative populism is now defined by the struggle against this elite and their fantasies of human flourishing without moral discipline and social order without sacred truths. And it is a struggle we need to win in order to protect the weakest and most vulnerable.
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