Not long ago, The University Bookman (a fine online journal well worth the attention of imaginative conservatives) posted a review of an important book, The Culture of Immodesty in American Life and Politics, edited by Michael Federici, Richard Gamble, and Mark Mitchell. This volume collects essays addressing the pretensions of our public life, populated as it is by artists, intellectuals (and pseudo-intellectuals), and executive officials who pretend to an expansive right and capacity to rule. According to the authors and editors of this volume, the pretensions that have given rise to our bloated ruling structures at home and abroad are rooted in a loss of modesty. Of course, today most people think of modesty almost purely in terms of our all-but-lost sexual morality. But modesty also means recognition of one’s limitations and a concern not to overreach at the expense of others. Our loss of modesty is a loss of character and prudence. In putting modesty aside, our nation and people have sought power beyond our means and our abilities, resulting in cultural and political chaos.
The point is well taken, as is the authors’ refusal to offer specious “solutions” to the problem. “How-to” books in politics themselves are dangerously immodest. Yet, one cannot help but wonder at the ironic predicament in which we find ourselves. We now live in a republic of pride, in which the capacity to rule, to “change the world,” and to overcome even our very nature has undermined the institutions, beliefs, and practices essential to any decent life. How can we “modestly” or even “moderately” oppose such trends? Indeed, given how far we have travelled on the road to corrupt perdition, how can we hope for even modest renewal, especially if we are forbidden from taking drastic action?
Drastic action, it would seem, is by nature immodest—it comes from the belief that we have the power and the right to revolt against the times and the powers-that-be, and that we can build, on our own, a new and better world. Moreover, the urge to such action, to prove that one is “a rebel,” has become so domesticated and preening as to be ridiculous. The American Bar Association’s official journal constantly runs articles on “legal rebels.” There are few things more ridiculous than the spectacle of lawyers priding themselves on their “rebellion” for eroding what little is left of civility and order as they pursue the same tired bromides of ever more rights and ever more judicial interference in people’s lives, yet this is what passes for the “cutting edge” today. At least, however, this reduction ad absurdum brings clarity: “rebellion” is just another word for “look at me!”
The conservative response, that we should not seek to build a “new” world but, rather, restore that which has been corrupted, provides the beginnings of a way out, but only barely. Revolts often masquerade as restorations and the hard work comes with determining what is to be restored. Meanwhile, the reactionary imperative, perhaps understandable in corrupt times, partakes of unrealistic, romantic notions and the immodest belief that we can truly recreate what has been broken and replaced.
This is why history, that most abused of studies and frames of mind in our age freed from “the dead hand of the past,” is so crucial to understanding the nature and limits of our predicament. We cannot rebuild Christendom in the literal sense of culture united under a single Church and committed to a common vision of the good life and its place in eternity. Any such attempt would be as wrong as it would be doomed to failure, for it would entail “winning over” millions of our brethren who have made clear their opposition to and determination to fight against any such ideal. Even the more modest goal of a revived republic, in which people of faith might pursue good lives unmolested, seems out of reach in the era of Obamacare mandates and intrusive “rights commissions” forbidding Christians from living according to the natural law (or even their own “convictions”).
But history provides examples of modest, conservative “revolution” in the sense of revolving back to deep-rooted principles and traditions. One might reference, here, despite its ugly anti-Catholic elements, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which a monarch committed to using power beyond law was chased from the throne in favor of constitutional rule. Better, Americans can look to their own revolution, in which our forebears opposed a Parliament and King that refused to recognize our inherited way of life, including the traditional customs and rights that had defined our relationship with Great Britain for generations. The patriots of the American Revolution did not start a war, they protested, petitioned, and refused to pay taxes. I often am told by friends (English friends, in particular) that the American Revolution was an “unjust war” because the actions of the British prior to the war were not so egregious as to justify armed conflict. Leaving aside detailed arguments of rights and duties, I always respond with a single observation: “we didn’t start the shooting.” It was only after the British had placed Massachusetts under martial law and begun sending massive numbers of troops with the intention of stifling protests that open rebellion began.
None of this is to promote rebellion (even tax rebellion, which can land you in jail for a very long time). Indeed, most of us have more to offer through activities in our own professions, in our civic and artistic activities, and especially in our churches, than on any imagined battlefield. But it is good to remember that standing up for one’s principles, including, at times, through open protest (one thinks, here, of the annual March for Life, which the mainstream media continues to ignore) is not the act of some superficial “rebel” if the cause is right, the goals modest in the true sense, and the means chosen consistent with our Christian duties. In a time of ever-increasing intolerance for people of faith and life-affirming commitment in our culture of death, we should simply be prepared to face increasingly harsh treatment for our troubles while continuing to say “no” to our prideful rulers by saying “yes” to God. Such would be a revolution in itself.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.