Liberation fever is not new; it's at the heart of the Modern impulse. It started with the Reformation, progressed through the Enlightenment, and ultimately manifested in the liberation movements of our own era. The modern spirit from its earliest manifestation has always been a movement to shuck off the constraints of the traditional premodern social system. The black liberation movement, the women's liberation movement, and now the gay liberation movement are all perfectly consistent within this fundamental liberationist logic of modernity.
They are all assaults on traditional constraints. And conservative establishment resistance to the demands of blacks, women, or gays has always been rooted in arguments to preserve traditional social forms and traditional morality. And these arguments were also always accompanied by predictions of social chaos if these groups were given what they asked for. But in the modern era traditional logic always loses to modern logic sooner or later. The custom ("the way we have always done things around here") argument always loses to the rights argument when basic fairness is at stake. And the fairness' argument should defeat the 'custom' argument.
But here's where it gets tricky, because many people on the right think that the culture's surrendering to the demands of blacks, women, and gays is directly responsible for the destruction of the traditional American way of life. They are not. On the surface there might seem to be some merit to this argument, but traditional America was already dead by the time any of these movements got any traction, and the liberationist left didn't kill it. Free-market, consumer capitalism did.
Consumer capitalism is the end result of another kind of liberation movement whose origins lie in the sixteenth century and are linked the emergence of the Protestant bourgeoisie as a driving force in science, politics, and commerce. This new class wanted to be free of the stultifying constraints of state-centered mercantilism. They pushed for the laissez-faire approach that would let the market dictate the direction of the economy instead of the king dictating it. The new class gradually won that fight, and in the late 1700s the enormous economic energies that produced the industrial revolution were released. And during the 1800s we saw the enormous growth of industrial capitalism and with it a ravaging of traditional social arrangements as the economic center of gravity shifted from the manor to the factory.
The American Civil War pitted the new modern forces of industrial capitalism against the forces that shaped a tradition-centered agricultural, hierarchical society. Traditional forces sooner or later always lose to the forces of modernity, but that doesn't mean that the traditionalists go down without a good fight. The Southern Confederacy showed a ferocity in defense of its culture and mores that ultimately proved futile. The recent Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai, explores this same theme of a soulful traditionalism losing to the relentless, machine-powered forces of the new industrial state in Japan of the 1870s. The same dynamic is working now in the Middle East.
But even as late as the 1890s about 90% of Americans still derived their livelihood from farming and agriculture-related businesses. And traditional American culture was rocked by economic turmoil in agriculture that eventually led to the destructito of the family farm as the basic institution in which traditional values thrived in a genuine way. And a formidable political counterbalance to the soul-deadening encroachments of industrial capitalism came from rural America where Populism became a political force in the 1890s.
The rest of the culture benefited from the continuity of American traditionalism in the rural heartland. Whatever else may have been going on in the cities or the factories, the heartland was there as a kind of ballast for a few decades more. But living American traditionalism was destroyed by first the ravages of the Great Depression in the 1930s and the mechanization of agriculture in the 1950s, which led to the capital-intensive agriculture that gradually killed off the family farm. Without the family farm, there is no institution that preserves the genuine living American traditionalism of which I speak.
Traditions need thriving, living institutions and a way of life through which the tradition is passed from generation to generation. The death of the family farm and the traditional way of life associated with it is the main cause of the the death of a living American traditionalism. People like Wendell Berry and other Agrarians have tried to keep that tradition alive, but it's a largely futile effort, and yet a kind of not-quite-dead form of traditionalism still lingers in the red, mostly rural red districts throughout the country. I'm not saying people there don't lead decent, thoughtful, virtuous lives, but they don't do it because they are traditionalists, and they don't do it any better than urban Americans. Both rural and urban Americans are living in a world turned upside down since 1860, and I just reject the idea that rural Americans are somehow more authentic as custodians of living American traditional values.
Preserving this kind of traditionalism in America is like the Irish trying to preserve Gaelic language. It's more of head trip than the preservation of something still living. It doesn't really live because there is no natural habitat to support it. Sure people talk about traditional values, but the point I'm trying to make is that these are zombie traditional values. They no longer inhere in a living tradition or thriving cultural habitat. The traditionalism of movement conservatives manifests in twitching, wraithe-like cultural forms and values that might provide a sense of order and meaning, but are themselves soulless.
Living tradition is in sherds in America. It was shattered by the spirit of consumer capitalism. It has been replaced by the kind of zombie traditionalism that typifies the right-wing Wal-Mart mentality, a company that spouts traditional values while at the same time destroying the habitat of small, family-owned businesses in which those values thrived. And, yes, we need to pick up some of the pieces and use them to assemble something new, but this idea that we must preserve a traditional way of life in America is like a traditional East Indian father who insists that his Americanized daughter marry the husband of his choice when she's in love with someone else. Arranged marriages can work in a cultural habitat in which the whole society supports it, but they can't in modern and postmodern cultures where the individual and his or freedom, for better or worse, is the paramount cultural value. More on the freedom theme in Zombie Traditionalism II