by John Barnes
A response to “A Conservatism of Hope? Still?”
The view from the public policy world is increasingly grim, I confess. Mark Steyn, commenting on the sad ensemble constituting the GOP presidential field, captured the problem recently:
“It’s very depressing that in the debates so far there’s no sense, from either the questions or the answers, of the urgency of the situation. On every meaningful indicator, this country is accelerating toward the cliff. If the multi-trillion debt pile-up is not halted and dramatically reversed within the next presidential term, America will slip too far too fast to recover within its present political arrangements. Were the nominating process to fail this time round (as it did in 2008) it would be not merely a disappointment but an existential threat.
Yet the center of these debates is nowhere near where it ought to be. I accept that there’s an element of don’t-frighten-the-horses calculation going on, but it’s doing the nation a huge disservice. Much of America is seizing up. There are too many barnacles encrusted to the hulk, and the ‘viable’ candidates are arguing about giving them a paint job.”
Much of the populace, too, seems blissfully unaware of the magnitude of the problems facing our Republic. Yet not entirely. Underneath the silliness, hypocrisy, incoherence and patchouli oil, the “occupy” movement does (even if indirectly) give voice to one genuine concern: Something is dreadfully awry with our government. The tea party movement, not without problems itself, also gives voice to that legitimate concern. One colleague suggested that, given some overlapping concerns, the tea partiers should march into the streets with the occupiers. Now that would make for fun watching.
I won’t go into the pregnant irony of Nixon inquiring about the remnant of hope, but Kirk’s response is poignant: “If most intelligent and energetic people come to believe the prophets of despair, then indeed ruin falls upon the state, for many folk withdraw to hidie-holes, there to conceal themselves from the coming wrath.”
The temptation to become or listen to a “prophet of despair” can be a powerful one, and I grapple with it regularly.
Most Americans have jobs that don’t involve swimming in political and policy affairs, and these concerns notwithstanding, they’re saner for it. What most consume briefly via the evening news and talk radio, I spend all day plowing through and digesting. The great danger for policy wonks mired in the minutia of government is to not see the forest for the trees, and all too many are focused on tuning up the Titanic’s engines while she’s down at the bow. Hence we have a field of GOP presidential contenders largely aloof from the frightening cultural and economic challenges we face.
I would trade vital organs (what I can spare, anyway) for the opportunity to share cigars and libations with Kirk as we discuss the perennial challenge of maintaining hope for the Republic today. Despair, like the misguided notion that man is fundamentally depraved, is an alluring temptation when all indications are that, barring a course change, our civilization is careening into a dark abyss. It’s a temptation that lulls a great many into inaction. Admittedly, a mere glance through the news headlines on any given day seems to bolster the case that all is lost.
Yet as clearly as if it were yesterday I remember sitting alone in the cavernous nave of St. Dominic’s Church in San Francisco years ago. As a brother there I had the privilege of a key, so in the wee hours before dawn there was no better place to find silence and solitude. The only light came from a few softly flickering candles, from my seat the most distant being the sanctuary lamp. But it was the most meaningful light—a light representing the ultimate hope amidst the pre-dawn darkness, the unfailing remnant of hope before the resurrection. It was the most perfect analogy that I have ever experienced.
As a worker in the policy vineyard who sees the news and trends every day, hope is difficult. So very difficult. As a Catholic I know hope is a necessary virtue, no matter how dire the circumstances. As a conservative I know that I cannot abandon it and seek refuge behind the walls of some imagined redoubt. The gathering darkness may indeed overcome the Republic, or, as Kirk (echoing Edmund Burke) reminds us, “often the historical determinists are undone by the coming of events that nobody has predicted.” We do not know which, and it’s not our business to know. It is our business to keep hope, no matter the challenge, lest with our heads bowed in despair we miss those opportunities to change the course of history.
John Barnes is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and writes from the empire’s far western hinterlands, where he works in communications and public policy. He spent his undergraduate years at Hillsdale College in Michigan and holds a graduate degree in history from Utah State University. Follow John’s ramblings and musings @JBarnesMT.