Peter Hellman, in a review of by Bryan Burrough's Days of Rage, outlines how the frustrations of the 60s gave way to the violent extremism of the 70s. The violence of radical leftist protesters discredited their movement, contributing to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Conservatives won that battle by maintaining an even keel and avoiding outrage, if not exasperation.
But today, it’s the boring conservatives, young and old, who have become the countercultural movement at every level. The new underground doesn’t burn the American flag like the protestors of old; showing it honor is countercultural enough. Going to church on Sunday will turn heads, getting married young will cause alarm, and trusting the wisdom of previous ages will get laughs.
In 1776, those who stood for national pride, limited government, and civic virtue were the revolutionaries, but since then, conservatives have sought to maintain those strengths by respecting authority and taking recourse democratically. Until recently, that is.
Last year, Slate noticed the increase in outrage, and in a new way, from conservatives.
Conservatives, by disposition, ought to be outrage-averse. Kate Fox’s joke about British protests—“A truly English protest march would see us all chanting: ‘What do we want? GRADUAL CHANGE! When do we want it? IN DUE COURSE!”—could once have been leveled at conservatives with equal fairness. Conservatism, as understood by Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and William F. Buckley, is the opposite of radicalism. It eschewed the mob impulse, the scalp-hunting instinct, and the bellowing ire that’s come to be business as usual in some quarters of the right.
Conservatives might just have to get used to the fact that media domination will prevent their message from getting out effectively and have to learn how to live as strangers in a strange land. But frustration and anger don’t attract people. We might be tempted to do things which may satisfy in the moment, but which will hurt the conservative cause down the road. Instead of red-faced outrage, we should offer the inspiration of virtue. Civic responsibility, devotion to community, and a sense of humor go a long way to convince people that you aren’t a reprehensible bigot, a pock on the face of society. And if this seems difficult, God gives the grace to bear wrongs patiently, forgive those who hurt us, and love our enemies.
And, we shouldn’t imagine that we have nothing in common with the New Cultural Majority. The importance of small communities within larger ones, a concern for nature, and the greatness of Calvin and Hobbes are things we can all agree on.
Hanging heads and snarly tweets belong to the weak minded. Despair must be replaced by confidence in the truth. American men and women need to put on their hard hats in the workplace, the schools, the political sphere, and at home and get to work. We have a society to rebuild. We can learn from the excesses of yesterday’s leftist counterculture on how not to do that.
Dominic Bouck, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.
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