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A long-time colleague of mine used to say, rather often, “John, you are so hopeful.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. Another colleague once told me that he had just seen the ultimate conservative bumper-sticker: “LOSING SLOWLY.” The wickedly funny Ambrose Bierce (in The Devil’s Dictionary) defines “pessimism” as “The philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.” In my experience most conservatives are pessimists, or at the very least, to parody a phrase, optimists who have been mugged by reality.

Christians, of course, are required to have hope. The sin of despair is equivalent to the sin against the Holy Spirit: unforgivable. But even Christians are not required to be optimistic about any given political regime (history and the Bible are proof of that), any particular economic system, or even any one marriage.

It is this last subject that threatens to turn me into a pessimist, despite the fact that my own has lasted, so far, for forty-nine and one-half years. I blame it on Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Charles Murray, two guys who say a lot about the family. Murray sums it up in Losing Ground: “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time–more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare, or homelessness because it drives everything else.”

If you were to put a hundred black girls, all age twenty, in one room, you would find that about two-thirds of them have at least one baby without benefit of marriage. Almost the same with hispanic girls, and white girls are catching up fast; and this in the enlightened age of the pill and abortion, neither of which is either safe or rare. Pick your statistician–they all show the same thing. The family is in trouble. Pick your historian–they all say the same thing. The health of the family is directly responsible for the health of the political and the economic order. Let’s not argue here about the type of family–nuclear, extended, clan, tribe, whatever; nobody can argue seriously that any commonwealth can stay stable or prosperous for very long with high rates of divorce, illegitimacy, and abortion.

It’s enough to make even “hopeful” guys like me into pessimists.

And what are we talking about? “It’s the economy, stupid!” And how do we fix the economy? In Washington, of course. The only problem with that approach is that Washington has been at war with the family for about a hundred years. Your friends and neighbors who think that politics trumps society recognize, although they don’t say it out loud very often, that the family is the veriest enemy of the state. To weaken and destabilize the family is therefore the first agenda item of every variety of ideologue–marxist, freudian, feminist, objectivist, libertarian, whatever! Thus the broad consensus on easy divorce, no-fault divorce, unlimited welfare for “single parents,” universal abortion, mandatory government education, “day” care, and often unrecognized (and insidious) attacks on the family like marriage and inheritance taxes. Except for the fact that married men tend to live a lot longer than singles or often-divorced guys, I would be tempted to the rational conclusion that I’ve made a bad bargain, and should be a pessimist.

But then, there’s the moral history of mankind, which is, I hope, more important than the political and economic history of this particular flawed and pleasing place that used to be a republic.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Faith, hope and charity. John, as my former history professor – and one who graded more exams than i could count – if I can manage the faith and charity parts will 2/3rds get me a passing grade 'upstairs?'

    Stephen Masty

  2. Whilst I did not get to take American Heritage from Prof Willson, I still keep a paper he graded in a cherished place because his three sentences of comments were worth more than the five pages I wrote … But, anyone who has spent a day at Happydale knows that Family, Church and Local Community are the bed rocks of our society… unfortunately with the family topics mentioned above, the attacks on the 1st Amendment’s free exercise clause, and the chilling desires to nationalize police specifically, and general encroachments of the federal gov’t into all things in the realm of “local community” in general, I find my optimism often needs buttressing…

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