Driving by the woods on a fall evening, and I’ve got miles to go before I sleep. The trees are tall, and their leaves are brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow and brown. One can hardly remember the green leaves, who were there but two weeks ago. The highway is lined with them: hundreds, thousands. A standing army of oaks and hickory trees in the Shawnee Hills region of Kentucky.
I am driving South again. I, like Brad, have been traveling a lot recently. This trip is to help my boyfriend move home after his month-long family medicine rotation in little Madisonville, Kentucky. I’ve traveled a lot this past year: North to Michigan, Illinois and Indiana; South to Georgia; East to South Korea and Japan; West to Germany and Austria. I’ve talked to a lot of people and marveled at the beauty of other people’s homelands. It is in traveling where I am truly reminded of conservatism’s place in the world, and our need for it.
Now, in October, I end my world travels in western Kentucky. It’s coal-mining country, and the people-watching is humbling. A person can drive across town in five minutes and there are three separate train lines constantly being used. The court house is surrounded by statues remembering local men who served in their country’s military in the Civil War (Confederacy) through the Vietnam War.
The community is small, so goodness freely given pervades and abuse of liberty cracks the cornerstones. I’ve been reading and mulling over the numerous pieces about conservatism and the culture, especially the latest by Claes on American intellectual conservatism. In light of the recent Republican debates, one would not know such an intellectualism exists in the public sphere!
Whenever I drive long distances, I always turn on and sing along loudly to The Avett Brothers. The first two stanzas from their song “Head Full of Doubt/ Road Full of Promise” are faintly prophetic:
There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light
In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right
And it comes in black and it comes in white
And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it
When nothing is owed or deserved or expected
And your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected
If you’re loved by someone, you’re never rejected
Decide what to be and go be it.
2011 seems dismal, even with the brightly colored leaves cheerily waving as we drive by in our close-topped cars. I am young, and I am not angry. I have student loans to pay off, and I’m happy to work three jobs because I can. There is “no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes,” as Zora Neale Hurston so snappily said; “No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
We, the conservatives, have not failed the culture. We have, however, failed to keep up communicate with the culture. Yes, yes, we’ve tried words. Words, words, words! as Hamlet told Polonius. The intellectualism which is so direly needed todaycannot be properly expressed if they are just concepts. It’s not enough for the politicians to have his smiling family on stage with him– there must be families smiling back at him. Limited government isn’t just “lower taxes”– it’s more accountability. Where is my money going? Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as public money because that money comes from private citizens. It’s a concept which can unite both the political parties- demand the government show what they are doing with the money.
Conservatism, at its core, is about accountability. We believe people are accountable to God (freedom of religion). We think no one should be able to kill an innocent and defenseless person and walk away without punishment (abortion). We are against people living off the fruits of another without a return of goods (welfare). Lazy workers hinder hard-working employees and should not be protected from the consequences of poor job performance (unions). Big corporations should not be bailed out; they should fail, maybe file Chapter 9, and have to start over like every other business in this country (free market).
Ironically, the Occupy Wall Street movement is unintentionally promoting the need for more virtue in individuals. It’s all good and politically-correct to say “don’t inflict your views on others” in regard to social issues, but what happens when a person thinks they deserve to move millions of dollars from client accounts to their own personal account?
Wait a moment- see it from their point of view. They work long hours and are under-paid (comparatively speaking). They’ve got families to provide for. Are you going to blow the whistle on a man just trying to provide a better life for his family? Modern ethics may have us pause in this evaluation. Conservatism is the gentle hand on the shoulder that says, It’s time to go, son. Stealing is wrong.
Russell Kirk wrote, “Most of us are not really so arrogant as to think we have a right to remold the world in our image. The best we can do, toward redeeming the states of Europe and Asia from the menace of revolution and the distresses of our time, is to realize our own conservative character, suspicious of doctrinaire alteration, respectful toward history, preferring variety over uniformity, acknowledging a moral order composed of human persons, not of mere political and economic atoms subservient to the state. We have not been appointed the correctors of mankind; but, under God, we may be an example to mankind.”
Today is the feast day of St. Alfred, the great King of Wessex and Christian monarch whom G.K. Chesterton wrote about in “Ballad of the White Horse.” In Book I, “Vision of The King,” Alfred speaks to Our Lady after a battle, and says he is but a common king. Alfred, common? Yet, isn’t that where we all stand? Common people, trying to live out our common lives in an extraordinary way?
Then: “But you and all the kind of Christ/ Are ignorant and brave,/ And you have wars you hardly win/ And souls you hardly save.”She says to him, “The wise men know what wicked things/ Are written on the sky,/ They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings,/ Hearing the heavy purple wings,/ Where the forgotten seraph kings/ Still plot how God shall die.”
Those are hardly reassuring words. Then again, neither is conservatism. It relies on people, not institutions. It prevails because it is common. It seeks a life, not a perfection. It accepts hardship. Conservatism says a man cannot abandon his family. Conservatism says a man will marry his love because he seeks give such love purpose, and to give that love back to the world. Conservatism is concerned for man’s moral and economic disposition, dignity, and inter-dependence.
“The men of the East may spell the stars,/ And times and triumphs mark,/ But the men signed of the cross of Christ/ Go gaily in the dark.”
Be not afraid! The beauty of conservatism is that it cannot be squashed by more laws. Holding a door for someone, writing a thank you card, getting married and raising your children with your spouse, attending church, giving to charity, respecting your neighbors and business associates, acting ethically and smiling when the day is cloudy are all characteristically conservative activities.
I have hope for conservatism in America. It may not show immediately, but in the day to day lives of the younger generation, as they get married and go to work. When politics is separated from people, it becomes a machine. Machines are only good for counting polls, and polls are not people. We Americans have never had to experience horrors of gulags (thank God!), but, still, we see people ignore or fail to understand what inherent dignity of all human persons mean. The 99% movement wants to be taken care of in their financial woes because they believe every human matters. Now it’s time to re-evaluate their positions on a lot more: why is it okay to abort future tax-payers of America, then?
For conservatism to win in the culture, we have to show how it is the culture. This is why I liked my sojourn in Madisonville so much. It was smaller than my college town (which is saying something) and suffering economically. But a lady kindly called me “Sugar” and sentences are finished with a “yes ma’am” or “yes sir.” It’s the kind of common courtesy that makes people smile and be glad they met you.
Common conservatism should be done radically. Kiss your wife in public! Play with your children! Enjoy your work! Read books! Take a walk in the park! Your life doesn’t change by the man who’s elected: your life is changed by you, and your choices. Own up to them. We don’t need the American-version of Cicero; we need the ordinary men and women to embrace virtue and seek goodness.
Gentle reader, make such a choice and change in yourself, and you’ll change in the world; or rather, you could never know whose world you’re going to affect.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.