The reelection of George W. Bush has confirmed the leftist takeover of the Republican Party. While conservative Christians turned out in strength to defeat the party of “gay marriage,” Richard Perle & Assoc. remains in charge of foreign policy, and Karl Rove and Arlen Specter will prevent any action on the moral agenda. Most movement conservatives will continue to support the President, while claiming to hold political and moral principles that are, in fact, anathema to the administration. More radical conservatives seem increasingly tempted to damn the GOP utterly, and, along with it, the system of government that they perceive as an alien regime.
This paradox is symptomatic of a deep confusion in the conservative mind. In almost the same breath, conservatives can say that they define themselves, first, as people who defend the moral, social, cultural, and political order, and, second, as opponents of the current moral, social, cultural, and political order that is the product of modernist revolutions. This contradiction, so familiar as to be a cliché, is frequently masked by attempts to resolve it in favor of one or the other principle. Neoconservatives, for example, embrace modernity with as much gusto as their physical and mental frailty permits, either praising or at least refusing to condemn divorce, abortion, blue jeans, MTV, and the welfare state. Libertarians, by contrast, while usually acceding to cultural modernism, proclaim themselves enemies of this and every regime that rises above animalistic anarchy. “Our enemy,” for those who can read (or at least cite) Albert Jay Nock, is not merely this or that state, but “the state,” and they deny moral legitimacy to any institution—from nation to church parish—that demands an allegiance that is not rooted in the rational self-interest of the individual.
Mainstream conservatives feel themselves helpless to confront the forces of moral and cultural dissolution. Unclear about their basic principles, they side with neoconservatives when their patriotic instincts are played upon by the so-called War on Terror; but, when their hatred of socialism, high taxes, or big government is aroused, they side with the libertarians and adopt their dangerous language of human rights and anarchy. Some of them have elevated confusion to the state of an ideology. They call it, or used to call it, fusionism, a term that justified them in revering, on the one hand, Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, and T.S. Eliot and, on the other, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Milton Friedman as their heroes. They wonder why they never win, when they cannot make up their minds what victory would mean.
There is certainly a great deal to arouse conservative loathing, not only in the size and scope of government but in all the social and moral institutions that shape our lives as American citizens. The facts of our collapse are so familiar that they hardly bear repeating: the moral crisis as measured by statistics on divorce, abortion, drug use (including prescribed mood-altering drugs), and birthrates; the political crisis as expressed both by the ever-increasing share of our incomes confiscated by government and by the ever-decreasing quality of our leaders; the cultural crisis, as revealed not only in the idiotic obscenities of pop culture but in the deliberate subversion of all that is Western, Christian, and normal; and the religious crisis, manifest in the corruption of our clergy and the decay of Christian doctrine and the travesty of Christian liturgy performed in the clownish rituals of folk Masses and superchurches.
Conservatives can hardly be blamed if they find themselves occasionally wishing, with Voltaire, that the last televangelist died stuffing bribes down the throat of the last congressman, except that would leave the professors. Until they have been turned out of their ivory towers of hate and sent into the real world to starve—along with the public-school superintendents, principals, and “teachers”—there is no hope for this guilty nation. You ask: “Guilty of what?” For Christians, I remind you, suicide is a sin. Then, when all these agents of evil have perished, what then? What then? The great problem for all revolutions is the morning after.
Come the Revolution (or the Counterrevolution), cry the political agitators. Come the Millennium, cry the Gantrys and the flocks they fleece. Once we crack enough skulls, kill enough atheists or aristos—or bureaucrats or Freemasons or immigrants or polluting meat-eating businessmen—we can start over again, and it will be morning in America again and again and again. But the lust for wiping the slate clean always ends in dictatorship and concentration camps. The Greens are a good example of this mentality. Preserving the “environment” (dreadful word) is self-evidently good, from the conservative perspective, but what the Greens really have in mind is to scrape the earth clean of all human contamination. They are as savage as Lenin in their homicidal zeal.
Greens are leftists and have the usual revolutionary temperament of the left, but the temptation to run off into extremes, repudiating common sense and everyday life, is not restricted to Robes-pierre and John Brown. “Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice,” clucked Barry Goldwater, citing the words of his archkook speechwriter Karl Hess, who went from being a libertarian wacko to being a hippie wacko. (For years, I thought the line was written by Straussian wacko Harry Jaffa, who, in his bilious fulminations on the Civil War, has justified the death of 600,000 American soldiers for the sake of the ideas that Jaffa attributes—quite incorrectly—to Lincoln.)
So far, I have been dealing only with frauds and eccentrics—libertarian con men (as my old friend Murray Rothbard often described LP members); Straussian liars such as Jaffa or Allan Bloom or Leo the Great himself (They lie on principle; in fact, lying is their only principle); and the disloyal neoconmen who have taken advantage of the weaknesses in the conservative movement in order to turn it upside down, who talk so boldly about defending their country without ever really telling us what their country is.
We “traditionalists” (a term I reject because it implies that traditions per se are valuable) are not immune. People who know too much history, especially ancient and medieval history, often fall prey to nostalgia. From admiring the glory that was Greece or the faith of Dante, they soon turn to deploring the wisdom of Jefferson or the art of Shakespeare.
Conservative Catholics are particularly susceptible to the disease of nostalgia. If Henry VIII was an entirely evil man, does that mean we must turn entirely against America’s British traditions? If the Declaration of Independence employs Lockean language, does that make the entire American experience an unmitigated evil? I have heard this kind of talk among Catholic traditionalists for years, but none of them seems to know the first thing about British or American history. America may not be the most splendid civilization the world has ever seen, but this is, after all, our country, and, even in its current sad condition, it deserves our loyalty, much as an alcoholic father deserves the loyalty and support of his children.
There is no man and certainly no age that deserves to be called good, and few ages (in our own history, at least) have been so bad that no one therein wrote a good song or bore witness to the truth. It is an old catholic principle that a Mass is not necessarily invalid because the minister is not a good man, and those who seek perfection in this world, even within the Church, are seeking for what can never be and, in the process, contemning the good things that may come their way. As the Italians say, Il meglio è il nemico del buono: Better is the enemy of good.
If the left is prone to utopian dreams and “angelism” (Maritain’s word), conservatives are supposed to be hard-headed. They are supposed to understand the limits imposed by human nature and accept the limits imposed by historical circumstance. Wild talk about restoring the republic or seceding from the Union is like the third cognac after a long and boozy evening. It was inebriating at the time, but, when you “awoke and found the dawn was grey,” you felt foolish and depressed. Even Tacitus, who despised most of the emperors and pined for the old republic, censures the folly of Stoic republicans who foolishly threw their careers (and lives) away insulting Vespasian, who was far from the worst ruler Rome would have to endure. Tilting at windmills is not a sign of heroic nobility; it is a sign of suicidal delusion, especially when the windmills are grinding the wheat that makes our bread.
For corrupt institutions may be worth defending. I do not like, for example, the PATRIOT Act; I deplore the abuses committed in the War on Drugs and in the various crusades to eliminate evil; I am well aware of the corruption and brutality of many policemen in America and despise the strutting bullies who lecture drivers who exceed the speed limit by six miles per hour or fail to put on seat belts. The police—local, state, national—are used to enforce all the wicked legislation of this regime: They are sent to protect abortionists and to arrest good parents who spank their children. Nonetheless, I do not think it is a good thing to undermine all respect for law and order. Even a bad cop may be enforcing a good law or, at least, a necessary system of law. At a minimum, the police, taken as a whole, are mercenaries we have hired to keep the savages at bay. Christians believe that the ruler’s sword has been given him by God for the punishment of the wicked, and not in vain, as Paul tells us, does he hold it.
The police are the most offensive embodiment of the power of the state, and conservatives who hate what the state has become slip easily into the bad habit of condemning the state per se. We are not anarchists or even individualists, however. We know that man is a social animal and that the commonwealth is a natural institution that developed in response to the needs of our human nature. When a state goes bad, as Germany did under Hitler or Russia under Lenin and his successors, one may be free to resist the evil commandments of such a state or to join in a revolution, where it is feasible, to overthrow the regime, but even Nazi and communist states paved the roads and policed the streets. Overthrowing Hitler or Stalin would obviously have been a moral act—but not robbing or slandering or profiteering in the name of resistance. There is probably no time in the history of the world when it was a good idea to inflame weak minds in a general spirit of lawlessness and sedition. Civil disobedience, the tool of leftist revolution, is only a philosophical (and, thus, the worst) form of treason.
What I have said of the state is a fortiori truer of the Church. Catholics, especially, have a narrow line to walk. Many American bishops, for the most part, have betrayed both the faithful and the Church Herself, and it is right and necessary to rebut their false teachings and to condemn their misbehavior. Some ultratraditional Catholics have taken the further step of condemning the Church per se, however, and, in the extreme form of the argument, of denying legitimacy to this Pope and one or more of his predecessors. What they fail to realize is that they are adopting the tactics and attitude of their enemies. I constantly hear from the admirers of the Second Vatican Council that the Church had been all wet for many centuries and only now is fulfilling Her mission. As one traditionalist friend of mine likes to put it, “When did the Church cease to be the Church?” Alas, this has become a question that must be put to many traditionalists. This argument applies equally, mutatis mutandis, to most Protestant churches.
The difficult situation in which we find ourselves calls for the exercise of that moral diplomacy once known as casuistry. Conservatives must work hard to clarify their principles and to assert them as the foundation of every policy they propose and every institution they wish to reform. In correcting and admonishing the leaders of these institutions—the state, the Church, the schools—they must keep in mind the noble purpose and sometimes brilliant history of these institutions. What good do we do if we convince all of America that this state and the churches in it are so evil that they deserve our devoted hatred?
In my darkest moments, I sometimes imagine the United States as an occupied country. But what if it is? Only an evil man would wish to lead an army to devastate his once-native land. That was the crime of Oedipus’ son Polynices, who lead the expedition of the Seven Against Thebes portrayed by Aeschylus. I would prefer to emulate the noble patriotism of Farinata degli Uberti, the leader of the Florentine Ghibellines, who, with their allies, defeated Guelf Florence at Montaperti. When the allies demanded the destruction of Florence, Farinata refused, and the force of his will was enough to save his city. If conservatives cannot love their country, even in its current sad state, as Farinata did, then they have become moral exiles, aliens in their own land. And, if they cannot love the country in which they live, they should go to live in a place that they can love.