One advantage I have in this conversation is that the Elliott household continues the discussion in more hours and words than we can capture on this scroll. We wrestled with some ideas today I would like to share with the rest of you.
One is a hope for us in this discussion to remember, reclaim and formulate anew the truths that comprise a body of thought worthy of living by, which we can pass on to our children and students, while taking up the sword of imagination to do battle with the present culture. Part of the weakness of conservatism has been a tendency to only look backward, often with nostalgia, which can only result in a kind of melancholy acceptance that most good things have been lost and the best we can do is hunker down and survive.
Another weakness of the current conservative movement is its uber-politicization. What we need is a revitalization of the life of the mind and spirit, because it is here that the deep wellspring can nourish us as individuals and as a movement. I am certain that we are pilgrims with an eternal destination, and that the political circumstances of that journey are secondary or tertiary in importance in the grand scheme of things. The culture we create has a profound effect on our lives and those that follow us. But as T. S. Eliot reminds us in “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” cultural disintegration is the most devastating and the most difficult to repair. It takes a long time to grow the grass to feed the sheep, which will provide the wool to make the yarn, to finally produce a coat.
I am reminded of a presentation given years ago at the Center for Constructive Alternatives by a Member of the British Parliament, Rhodes Boyson, on “How Ideas Become Political Reality.” His model is so good that we used it in the early days of The Heritage Foundation to move ideas through the steps quickly and effectively. It runs something like this:
At the originating end of the model there are a few seminal thinkers, whose penetrating thought and serious intellectual work produces books of substance and importance. These thinkers share fruitful ideas with others in their writing.
The wisdom and insights are then passed on to those who teach in university classrooms and intellectual forums. They share these ideas with inquiring minds who engage, debate, reformulate, and eventually pass them on to others.
These ideas are then passed on to popularizers—they appear in newspaper articles, magazines, journals, television programs and radio broadcasts. (I’ll update his model to include blogs, websites, and tweets.) The ideas are simplified, shortened, and often taken as fragments. These snippets of ideas are scattered like confetti across the landscape—or perhaps more aptly, like seed.
These ideas lodge and begin to put down roots in pockets of people who share an affinity for the particular snippets that support their particular interests. Clubs, civic groups, grassroots political organizations, and a variety of voluntary associations then espouse these ideas and look for ways to put them into practice. (Up to this point, the model works for culture as well.) These groups also serve as points of pressure on individual politicians and political parties.
The last—indeed the very last—people reached by ideas are the politicians themselves. They put their fingers in the wind to determine the direction that it is blowing, and are disposed to act accordingly. Although the source of the ideas may be something written half a century or far earlier (one thinks of the obscure scribblings of economists referenced by Keynes), they eventually result in policy.
But that last jump an idea takes to reach the politicians comes about only when a certain course of events commands their attention—a crisis, a disaster. As the crisis focuses the attention of the politician, he then looks up desperately to find a political solution acceptable to the prevailing winds. The potato famine, in the case of Adam Smith, did a wonderful job of focusing the minds of politicians who made speedy application of Smith’s ideas in a time of need. In a moment of crisis, politicians are open to seeking ideas outside the little box they brought with them into office.
To return to the purpose of our discussion, Winston and I see a real lack of focus at the first point of this progression, the seminal thinkers who form the intellectual climate. The political application is far down the food chain, a derivative of ideas. Part of the poverty of the conservative intellectual movement is the scarcity of deep thinkers today who can formulate a compelling vision of important ideas. The giants on whose shoulders we stand are no longer with us. I was privileged to know a number of them, and I mourn their passing. The torch has been passed to the living now, and it is now with our generation(s). A number of individuals who have the capacity for greatness have been invited to be a part of this discussion, and I have great hope for your lasting contributions to Western civilization.
In the piece “Is Life Worth Living?” Kirk tells us he set out to defend the Permanent Things, while rowing against a strong tide. He sought to “conserve a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom; a tolerable moral order; and an inheritance of culture.” That is precisely what we must do. The tide has only gotten stronger and there is less of a consensus on what a tolerable moral order might look like today. The polarization in the country has grown, as Gerhart Niemeyer told me years ago that it would.
But I have hope. In the past 14 years that I have worked at the street level with people of faith who are serving the least among us, I have discovered a vibrant and courageous group of people who are renewing our country from the grassroots up. They are walking into prisons to change the hearts of prisoners to never to commit crimes again. They are going into elementary schools to mentor children of drug addicts and immigrants, and giving them the assurance that they are valuable and that they can learn. They are coming up with social entrepreneurial solutions to deep-seated social problems. These people are knitting up civil society, one relationship at a time. They are doing it because of their faith, not because the government ordered them to. These people are rowing against the tide with their actions. And they are throwing a life raft to those whose lives have capsized.
With a nod to Bruce, I have found that many of these people may have begun with political leanings to the left, but they have a great deal in common with us. At some point they realized that the government can’t do these things well, because it cannot love. Only individual people can. And to transform lives, we need the freedom to share the source of Love. There are many more people than you might guess who share a hope for more perfect justice, more humane solutions, and a better life that contains the things we value. They hoped the government could provide these things, but are learning that at the street level, their little platoon is doing a better job.
If we are ever going to be able to cast a vision forward, not backward, I believe it will be in articulating the vision and finding the language to appeal to people like this across this country and perhaps even others, whose first loyalty is the Kingdom of God. If the people who profess belief in Him were to actually live it with intentionality—in their business decisions, in their classrooms, in their television broadcasts and movie scripts, in their community organizations and in their art—together we would transform the culture. And ultimately, as John Paul II knew and demonstrated in Poland, changing the culture is the pre-eminent task. The rest follows.
Becoming an intentional disciple is crucial. Living faith with vibrancy and authenticity is necessary. Relying on the Holy Spirit for inspiration and guidance is of utmost importance. We, like Kirk, are called to take up the sword of imagination and stand. Not with our eyes on the capitol, but the Kingdom—the Kingdom among us.
I know that important battles are being fought in the political fray. So many others have already rallied to that realm. Let them do it, and Godspeed. But the deeper work at the starting point of Boyson’s model can only be done by a few, and I have great hope for what this group could do. “Redeeming the time” is the phrase that comes to mind.
As a postscript, thank you Brad, for your kind and humbling words.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.