Post-war conservatism arose as a protest against the tapioca conformity of mass man and mass society. Any revival of conservatism will thus demand a recognition of true diversity and human dignity…
For many Americans of my generation, conservatism represented the best hope for a truly diverse America, a country that valued individual persons against the conformity demanded by corporations, governments, and educational systems.
Our teachers—even in a relatively small town in Kansas, the children of the 1960s—talked about love and peace, but they clearly sought conformity. They had rebelled and found the truth, or so they thought. As such, they certainly didn’t want us to rebel, at least not against them. They were not only some of the most uninteresting persons I’ve had the misfortune of knowing in my five decades of life, but they were also some of the most tyrannical. They were as bad in public school as they were in Catholic CCD. They praised mediocrity and, not surprisingly, subservience. When it came to actual education, they merely wanted us to memorize facts, not to explore or to think. And, this was not just true in primary and secondary education, it was just as true (if not more so) in graduate school. They never saw us as individuals to be nourished, but as circles to be squared. When we questioned any underlying assumptions, they bristled. When we continued to question them, they labeled us as problems. When we still continued to question them, they (quite actually, at least once in my life) slammed doors on us.
Coming of age in the 1980s, many of us found in the writings of Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Robert Nisbet, and Russell Kirk a far more compelling explanation of the world, one that offered humility and, at times, ignorance when trying to explain the deepest mysteries of free will and the uniqueness of each person. None of these inspirations claimed to know reality completely, and we appreciated the honesty. They taught us dogma, not systems. They begged us to ask questions, and they never shied away from answers and, when necessary, non-answers. Unlike the leftist bullies who taught us, those on the conservative and libertarian side of things welcome an exchange of ideas, an interaction that transcended any one time or place. While our teachers might refer to an Franklin D. Roosevelt or a Lyndon B. Johnson, our inspirations looked back to Socrates, to Aristotle, to Cicero, and to Thomas Jefferson.
Since 1989, I have watched with intense misgivings and much anxiety as those of us on the right have begun to conform to one another, creating a kind of echo chamber. More often than not, this has happened as conservatism has become—at least to much of the public—something to be packaged and sold, a sort of “right-wing ideology” that breaks complexity into soundbytes and bulletpoints. The Ann Coulters replaced the Milton Friedmans. Conservatism, broadly defined, went from asking questions to answering them, and not always well. Narrowness and patness replaced nuance and openness. As Barry Goldwater had warned as early as the first half of the 1970s, a fundamentalism and a Puritanism were creeping into the Republican party, draining it of its intelligence. This could be said equally of the conservative movement. As the movement splintered, each little school of thought rigidly defended itself, its ideas, and its founders against all rivals. Thus, not only did conservatism “commodify” itself over the past quarter century, it also embraced the very essence of what it should have hated: modernism and progressivism. Forgetting the universal truths of human dignity and individual diversity, it compartmentalized itself, narrowing and narrowing and still further narrowing its questions, its scope and vision, and its interests.
Devoid of any guiding principles, it has become—at least to the public at large—a swelling of populistic anger, exaggerating personality above personhood.
It is worth remembering that post-war conservatism and Christian humanism arose as a protest against the tapioca conformity of mass man and mass society. We were not—as the fascists and the communists abroad—going to be satisfied with a society based on the insect hive. We sought real diversity against the pressures of conformity and the longings of the mob (whether democratic or totalitarian).
With Russell Kirk, we believed in the principle of proliferating variety, recognizing each person as a unique manifestation of the infinite grace of God.
With B.I. Bell, we recognized that crowd culture suffocates us subtly at first, then dramatically after.
With Dorothy Day, we recognized that real charity comes from the heart and the soul, not the directive of some bureaucracy.
With Ray Bradbury, we preserved art as the refuge of the broken soul and the expression of radical creativity.
With Friedrich Hayek, we fought against the fatal conceit of all man-made systems.
With Romano Guardini, we feared the “ease” to which man become a part of the mass, losing his identity in his desire for stability.
It is worth quoting Kirk at length on this.
Avarice, rather, is desiring more wealth than one’s soul can support properly. Avarice sometimes produces present poverty: the miser, proverbially, is ragged and lean. And I am afraid that when our politicians and planners and sociologists talk of output and distribution and real wages, they are not so much intent upon relieving genuine poverty as upon satisfying the dreams of avarice. They are not thinking so much of a just and contented America as of a shimmering and strident America. They are not really interested in patching the tarpaper shanty in Mecosta County; they would prefer to rip down the shack, pack its inhabitants off to Detroit or Flint, put them into state-subsidized housing, find them a television set to keep them out of mischief and vagrant fancies, and set them to work upon industrial production. Who will miss the second-growth spruces and the little lake in the barrens once he gets his new Ford? This, in essence, is the future which “capitalists” and socialists and “communists” all are arranging for us. It may be an efficient program. It is not a human program. It does not try to plumb intangible longings; it endeavors to satisfy the dreams of avarice. But avarice is insatiable.
Any revival of conservatism will demand a recognition of true diversity and human dignity. God or nature—pick your theology—makes nothing in vain, and only grace perfects nature. Yet, free will has not disappeared simply because we see the signs of conformity and ease all around us. We only have to reclaim what is rightfully ours. To quote one of my favorite Canadians, “I will choose free will.”
Books by Bradley J. Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.