Several months ago I was watching one of the talking-heads shows on which Pat Buchanan sits in wearing his conservative's hat. I forget what the show's topic was about, but I remember his saying something along the lines that the America he grew up in was a good America, and it isn't good anymore. It struck me then that this sentiment is what's really at the heart of the conservative backlash in this country. There is a deeply abiding sense among many Americans that we lost the good America in the sixties and seventies, and they want to get it back. They see Liberalism as the enemy that destroyed the wholesome America, and I think that many on the cultural right believe that if they can defeat liberalism in the political sphere, that somehow this will make things all right again.
I think the mistake that conservatives make is to think of liberalism as if it were a mistaken way of thinking, and if people would just stop thinking liberal thoughts, that would solve the problem. But liberalism is the laissez-faire spirit of modernity, and the driving force behind modernity is technology and commerce, and the driving force behind technology and commerce is innovation and growth. Any society in which innovation and growth are the central driving forces is not going to be hospitable to the values and structural requirements that make a traditional society work. The conservatives want to eat their cake and have it, too. They want the affluence that comes with consumer capitalism and free markets and they want the America that essentially contracted a terminal disease in the twenties and died in the sixties.
That's why the traditional-values agenda of the GOP seems so hollow. It's all form and no substance. The GOP agenda is to take a whore and dress her up for church on Sunday, but to let her do her thing the rest of the week. The basic difference between conservatives and liberals lies in that liberals don't see any point in dressing up the old girl or making her go to church. They accept modernity on its own terms and are simply willing to let her do her thing, and the thing she likes to do best is consumer capitalism.
Our basic understanding of what the word freedom means is shaped primarily by the terms defined by consumer capitalism. Freedom means the freedom to choose, and the idea of choice has become linked to having more and more choices, and having evermore choices means that you can never settle in with anything--you're always moving on to the next thing. There's little stability; everything becomes fragmented--our culture, our families, our very selves. We swallow what's in our environment, excrete it, and move on. Toqueville pointed this out as an American characteristic already in the 1830s.
This is what freedom has come to mean in the popular American imagination. And it's hard to imagine anything that could do a better job of undermining a genuine living tradition than this particular way of understanding what freedom means. This isn't real freedom; it's a kind of counterfeit of freedom. It's freedom understood at its crudest level as a mere lack of restraint. Why American and Thatcherite conservatism celebrates this kind of crude freedom is really for me at the heart of why contemporary Anglo-American conservatism just seems intellectually incoherent and naive. Conservatism is in effect dating a prostitute while all the time thinking she's a paradigm of virtue and beauty.
But this doesn't mean that I approve of the sanctimonious condemnation of consumerism that comes from certain sectors of the politically correct left. I don't think stoning the old girl is going to accomplish anything. If people want to opt out of a consumption-oriented lifestyle, fine, but their doing so doesn't change much. They still have to swim in the same soup as the rest of us, unless they decide to drop out and, dragging their kids kicking and screaming with them, go live in some nook of the world where modernity has not yet encroached.
But what's the point, because there's no escape in the long run no matter where you go. This kind of refusal is often (not always) a form of anal Puritanism in politically correct garb. There's no getting out of the soup, only learning how to swim in it without drowning. And maybe over the long haul we can find truly effective ways to clean it up so it isn't so foul smelling--because it really does stink now. There's nothing I see going on out there that I find terribly encouraging. It seems as though all my effort now is directed toward keeping my head dry, and that's in a large way my motivation for keeping up this blog. It's my way of keeping my head, if nothing else, out of the soup.
But this brings us back to Pat Buchanan because in his memory, the soup he swam in as a kid smelled pretty good. And he wants to swim in that soup again. But I suspect that the soup of Buchanan's memory has more to do with a feeling of the lost innocence of his childhood, which like most of our childhoods was a time when we just weren't aware how bad things smelled, even though they did. We were just better then at covering up the stench. It's a little more complicated than that, but I'll return to this idea when I have a chance. Time to get the kid up and out to school.
[Ed. note: This is a repost from 9/27/04]