June 16, 2009
In politics, words are often elusive things. Definitions change from speaker to speaker and writer to writer and age to age. Well do I remember, in the palmy days of the 1970s and 80s, mainstream columnists talking about “conservatives in the Kremlin.” This was a phrase that meant something to a degree, but was also an oblique slap at others who claimed that label. The fall of the Soviet Union put all of our political adjectives into a state of considerable flux, revealing just how much opposition to or softness on Communism had determined our political landscape.
Which brings us to A.D. 2009, where, with the election of Barack Obama, those who call themselves “Conservative” are extremely fragmented”whether they consider the new President of the Republic to be the anti-Christ, or just a darker Mayor Daley, such folk have only their dislike of their new ruler in common. In this bright, shining, new 21st century, just what does “cnservative” mean, anyway? As everyone knows, there is a deep division between the “Neo-“ and “Paleo” Conservatives: the former considering the latter hopeless Romantics, and being considered as monopolist warmongers in return. But it is a major division within Paleoconnery itself that concerns us at the moment.
Of course, we have to define Paleocon before we do anything else. Some writers have suggested a recent origin for it as a response to neoconnery, dating origin as recently as 1992. But for this article, we will give it an earlier origin. One might say that its roots lie in the “20s and “30s, as thinkers of a certain mold attempted not merely to oppose tendencies they disliked in American life (such as the New Deal) but to define what was best in America itself”indeed, in the human experience. One might look at such different folk as Alfred Jay Nock, T.S. Eliot, H.L. Mencken, the Southern Agrarians, Ross Hoffman, and John Flynn as among the first of what we would now call the Paleocons.
With the demise of Taft Republicanism in the “50s, figures such as Russell Kirk and the protean William F. Buckley attempted to give “conservatism” a coherence which, given the diversity of its pioneers, was not so easy a task as one might think. Southern Agrarians; Burkeans like Kirk himself, Catholics of the Triumph school; proto-Libertarians; and a number of other groups clustered under the “conservative” tent. But what they had in common, back then, was a desire to see America as an integral part of Western/European civilization, and for many, to see our founding mythos of the Revolution as one of a series of essentially “conservative” upheavals, like the Glorious Revolution. People of this stripe were keen to draw a distinction between such events and the French, Russian, and subsequent Revolutions.
In addition to anti-Communism, another defining force for Conservatives was opposition to the societal changes emerging in the 1960s and gaining institutionalization in the following decade. Thus emerged what has been known ever after as “social conservatism.” Although a new phenomenon in themselves, antipathy to these changes was rooted in the basic principles espoused at that time by conservatives in general. The emergence of the neocons, the failed promise of the Reagan years, and the afore-mentioned fall of the Soviet Union produced the ideological landscape we have today.
With such a spotted past, paleoism, a loose federation of varying schools of thought, has of course had its divisions from the beginning”so much so that calling it a “movement” is a bit of a misnomer. Centering around whatever ideology a given writer or thinker espouses, some of these divisions have been”and remain”rather bitter. But there is another, overarching one, one that requires some examination. That is”generational.
Older Paleocons, such as the late Russell Kirk and Pat Buchanan, as noted, try to see the United States and their institutions and culture within the wider parameters of the West. For such folk, all that has happened to the soul of the country in the past five decades is a horrible aberration, akin to drawing a moustache on the face of the Mona Lisa. They would “conserve” what was best of the country they knew, and bring the purified nation forward to deal with the problems facing American and the World.
But many younger Paleos (sounds odd, doesn”t it?) disagree. For them, the loathsome state of affairs in which we find ourselves is no aberration, but the logical development of seeds present in the republic since its founding. While their nostra for healing the national ills may range from Catholic Monarchy to Libertarianism to the breakup of the country into smaller units, they agree that the present system is a hopelessly corrupt old structure lurching towards its well-deserved ruin. Some would welcome this event, in hopes that new and better things will rise from the ashes. They do not wish to conserve any thing, but to reconstruct the ruins.
Now, there are important reasons why each side should espouse the views they do, but, in this writer’s humble opinion, they have more to do with experience than ideology. It is very difficult to explain one generation to another, but I feel, given my own age, uniquely qualified to try.
Let us start with the older folk. A man like Pat Buchanan, for example, grew up at a time when, as a Catholic, loyalty to his religion and to American institutions went hand in hand. Although he had doctrinal differences with his neighbors, there was a general consensus on moral issues (yes, of course, there was hypocrisy; just as we of today are not always Inclusive, Sharing, and Accepting). From that moral consensus (and lack of sophisticate home entertainment centers) arose a wealth of neighborhood organizations: veterans groups, fraternal societies, school athletic teams, and on and on. The churches too were far more important in the social life of communities.
Indeed, for perhaps the majority of people, one’s immediate community played a bigger role than it does today. And here, in 20-20 hindsight, one’s mind may turn into an absolute cornucopia of Norman Rockwell scenes: kids trick-or-treating; school Christmas pageants, Fourth of July fireworks, parades, and barbecues; women in dresses, men is suits, and everyone in hats. I am just old enough to remember this kind of thing; I can imagine what a hold it would have on someone formed in that atmosphere. Consciously or otherwise, this would inevitably be the ideal such a man would want to conserve or recapture.
Now, though, let us turn our attention someone born in”say”978, the year I started College. Depending upon where in the country he was raised, his schooling would have been suffused with the trip that boomer-educators have stuffed into the system. His teenagerhood would have primarily involved the Clinton years. What would his experience of the institutions of Church, State, and Community have been? Would not his instinctive reactions be one of deep loathing? Regardless of how well-educated or self-taught he might be in the works of the Western Canon, would not his own experiences constantly war with what he read? This, too, is something I have experienced.
The kind of man we are describing, if possessed of the ideals propounded by one or another of the paleocon schools of thought, and living in an environment utterly dominated by the opposite spectrum, could not possibly think of conserving anything! Return to the Constitution? You mean the document that guarantees a woman the right to murder her child, and will no doubt shortly Gay marriage? “Um,” one might reply, “but that’s an aberration”” “No,” retorts the angry young person, “that is the decision of the one body mentioned in the Constitution to decide what these things mean.” “Well,” one might begin again, “that isn”t the Constitution, that’s Marbury vs. Madison, and”” The young person cuts one off with “whatever, everyone has accepted that the Supreme Court makes these decisions for the greater part of our history. The Court is the Constitution, and it’s rotten!”
For this reason, younger Paleocons are often willing to go, theoretically, where the older ones fear to tread. For the latter, many ideas, from anarchy to monarchy to theocracy to authoritarianism and other forms of governance, were simply impossible to consider, precisely because they clash with the Constitution. But the young ones have no problem contemplating these ideas. Moreover, thanks to the Internet’s ability to make allied foreign thinkers of the past and present immediately accessible, even the shibboleth of “Un-American” impresses few of the young.
Although their responses to the problems we face differ wildly, many of the younger set of paleocons are not, therefore, “conservatives” at all. What might we call them? Restorationists? Reconstructionists? That last might be better, although it is often used by various Jewish, skinhead, Calvinist, and neo-pagan groups (for a dizzying array of reasons.) At any rate, it is closer to what such people would like to accomplish”the remaking of the country along very different lines to what we know now.
Of course, an obvious riposte to the younger enthusiasts is that that every generation wants to remake the world when they start out, and few do. Moreover, in holding views so far from the mainstream, are they not courting irrelevance? But, in the world of ideas, immediate gratification is rarely an option, and Voltaire and Rousseau shook”and continue to shale”the world long after their deaths. There may well be, as these lines are being written, young thinkers begetting ideas that will one day push the world in as positive a direction as the Enlightenment writers pushed us this way.
There is another phenomenon at work here. I am, myself, a Catholic Monarchist at base; Robespierre was not. Yet he was more a man of the Ancien Regime than I could ever be, just I am much more a man of the Revolution. The reason, of course, lies in the periods of our upbringing, and the influences of the culture around us. So, too, with younger paleocons. Older folks will notice that quite a number of them are, shall we say, sexually more laissez-faire than their stated principles would permit; also that, even if they are diehard anti-immigration stalwarts, they do tend to be more globally aware than their elders: these and a number of other such things are testimonies to just how much a part of the current culture the younger folk are, no matter how much they may condemn it. By the same token, of course, the young see ideological blindspots in the older generation, compromises so venerable with their own ideals that the older folk are utterly unaware. The result, on either side, is often a sneering mental reference to hypocrisy.
In either case, the reaction is both justified and unfair. Justified, because, as that great American, Allen Ginzburg, once remarked “everyone’s lies about everyone else are absolutely true;” that is, both sets of complaints are quite true. On the other, it is unfair, because it is hard to see how, given their respective periods of upbringing, either side could behave differently.
What then, in the words of Lenin, is to be done? Why should anything be done at all? Paleocons of all stripes need to realize that there is much to be learned from one another”something all the more important in that we are run today by a set of people who have their own utopian agenda, quite as irrelevant to the needs and wishes of most of the country as anything anyone could dream up. Both generations must understand that each has a reason for being as they are. Young paleos ought to see that men like Pat look back to a past that was not merely, in many ways, better than the present; it was also tangible, real, as opposed to theoretical. Old paleos must understand that”as the new Chief of State proves”we are not going back. What are needed are thinkers and men of action who will use the best of the past and the present to play an effective role in the fight for the shape of the future.