by Bradley J. Birzer, (Co-Founder of The Imaginative Conservative and Human Person)
Hot Dogs, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Blowin’ Stuff Up
July 4th the Birzers acted like typical Americans. We ate hot dogs, fresh fruit, and freedom fries. We read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s take on the Declaration of Independence. And, we blew lots and lots of stuff up.
Throughout the day, an unease plagued me, though I certainly loved all of the actual doings of the Birzers. What exactly was my family really celebrating: the America that was; the America that is; or the America that could’ve been.
As I rarely tire of saying (oh, Birzer!, can it!!!), no one can criticize some thing or that thing or this thing or any thing as effectively as a conservative can and usually does.
It’s what we do best.
It’s in our very blood, in our souls, and in our intellect–we want to figure out what should be conserved, what should be forgotten, and what should be reformed. This is what a conservative does and should do–despite what many radio and TV personalities have done under the umbrella of “conservatism.” In fact, what they’ve done is commodify a beautiful thing, thus deconstructing and undoing it. Their conservatism is not the conservatism of a Socrates, but the conservatism of a Pericles. They don’t want so much to obey the god as they do gain and increase power. Indeed, they would love nothing more than to execute those who worship the transcendent.
As true conservatives, however, we have a more serious problem–much deeper than the perverse who claim our name and adulterate our very civilization in some plastic, money-grubbing, and lipo-suctioned fashion. The corrupt will always be with us.
This major problem is one of which we simply have never solved. Buckley tried to explain a possible solution with a cute aphorism: claiming that he just wanted to stand “athwart history” to yell “Stop.” Sadly, while certainly humorous, this quip is unrealistic. It was unrealistic in the 1950s, and it’s even more unrealistic six decades later.
Creation is so very, very hard, while destruction is so very, very easy. Those who merely yell stop will be crushed or ignored or mocked very quickly. Additionally, it’s never enough to yell “stop.” Some things need to stop, others need to go, and some need to pause before going.
In the free world, as we know, much of the destruction is creative, as Schumpeter thought it might be. Think of Apple. Apple’s technology is built on a humane aesthetic. The Mac of today outdoes the Mac of yesterday, and we benefit immensely from this. Or consider what’s happening in the field of energy. Revolutionary would be an understatement.
But, much more of the destruction is…well…destruction. In particular, imagine what the last four administrations have done to the U.S. Constitution.
What are we to do? Yell “stop.” It’s cute, but it will get us no where. The world is moving so very, very quickly and in such a fragmented way that we can barely keep up. Just as we analyze some problem, the public is already fascinated with a new issue and our criticism seems already a bit crusty, a bit old fashioned, a bit out of step. And, it is. At least according to the eyes of the world.
For the vast majority of Americans, there really is a rational ignorance. It’s far easier to think about what brilliant thing Apple is releasing this year than it is to remember that our current president fully supported–without Congressional approval, and, hence, unconstitutionally–the group just overthrown in Egypt.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the brilliant Friedrich Hayek, drawing upon the even more brilliant de Tocqueville from a century earlier, often talked of “creeping socialism.” Socialism is, for us in 2013, a rather deceptive term. Almost every one advocates some form of progressivism in America. Almost no one advocates–at least openly or systematically–any form of socialism. Fascism, perhaps, but not socialism. But, if we take de Tocqueville’s “democratic despotism” or Hayek’s “creeping socialism” loosely, symbolically, we can fully understand what they meant. And, there seems to be no more creeping–just lots of leaping. In almost every single way, we are less free than we were five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago.
A few voices, here or there, such as W. Winston Elliott III, Senator Cruz, Senator Paul, Representative Amash, Mike Church, Carl Olson, Jim Otteson, Sarah Skwire, Larry Reed, Daniel McCarthy, and others lead a loyal opposition. I am deeply honored to serve with and next to them (three of them have no clue who I am–which is fine).
Indeed, most powerfully, Elliott has recently (Joy Cometh in the Morning) made a call to put away our whining and moping, to see a new redness, a new yellow, a new green, and a new blue through the glistening of a new dawn.
To this I say: “Amen.” Winston, lead the way.
A Modest Suggestion
Let me make a modest and, at this point, somewhat underdeveloped suggestion. But one, I hope, is far more effective than Buckley’s “Stop.” I would suggest that for real conservatives (and assorted allies) to make any difference in this world, and any difference we make will take generations to take hold, we must claim not just the American founding but the very essence of the American founding.
That is, while it’s wonderful to praise the Declaration and the Constitution, we must recognize the principles that took generations and generations to understand to allow these two documents to exist by the 1770s and 1780s. And, please note, I’m certainly not excluding the Northwest Ordinance–perhaps the height of all political philosophy ever made manifest in this world or any other.
Here as I make my suggestion, I have to be careful, as I know that certain very good and brilliant segments of those I’m claiming as allies will immediately react by believing that I’m making a “neo-con” or “liberal” suggestion.
Nothing, I beg these readers to consider, could be further from the truth.
So, I’ll just state it. I believe that as conservatives (and assorted allies), we must develop to a very, very deep extent and with as great a breadth as possible, a real understanding and appreciation for natural rights.
And, I don’t mean this in the sense that most neo-cons means these as Lockean and Jeffersonian abstractions. And, I don’t mean rights in the liberal sense of “I have a right not to suffer from my allergies; so the state must mow the grass everywhere.”
I mean natural rights–mysterious and known only through a glass darkly, but an inherent dignity clinging unalienably to each human person, past, present, and future, regardless of the accidents of birth.
Sadly and somewhat strangely, as the “right” as splintered over the last five decades, a notion has developed that our greatest founders–Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk–rejected the idea of natural rights. This is simply and demonstrably false. Neither man ever rejected natural rights. They embraced the idea of natural rights, while rejecting the Lockean and Jeffersonian claims to know what specific natural rights are. Without going into detail, Kirk argued on several occasions that the foundation of all natural rights as the right to property.
But, this is a discussion for a different time.
For now, let me state–we need something to hold us together, something to transcend the immediacies of the moment. Yelling stop is fun and clever, but it’s ultimately ineffective. As conservatives, we must move beyond merely criticizing. We have this down, and we do it better than anyone. Now, we need to use our very love of the past to find things that work here, there, and everywhere. The Aristotelians and Thomists have shown the past for establishing a real understanding of the Natural Law. It is now our duty to do the same for Natural Rights.
To start over again
So, back to the beginning. If the innumerable celebrations of the 4th are to mean what they should mean–if all the hotdogs consumed, Declarations read, and fireworks blown up should have significance–let them find significance in what America did best: it showed that each human person has dignity and that each human person has the right to his or her own person. It offered a third of a continent in which to let men be men. If America is to have a mission, it should not be through the extension of power, but through the extension of dignity and love. We should not crush the world; we should offer–freely–a leaven for 7 billion human persons of the world.
[This piece is dedicated to the friendship, wisdom, and leadership of Winston Elliott--Brad]
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.