A friend of mine and I had lunch the other day. He told me that Obama had to go. I said it didn't matter. He said that the country was descending into a Nanny State, and that we were being turned into a socialistic society. I said he should have noticed this a long time ago, when the last twenty Administrations were in power.
Conservatives like T. S. Eliot critiqued the Nanny State for engendering a culture of boredom. He, in particular, hoped that the existence of "classes" actually structured or ordered society to provide meaning: an existence that is more than "hollow."He was, of course, incorrect.
To be sure, Eliot could not have imagined that virtual reality – in its present near-total extent – could have ever been so possible. Much less he did not know that such is not only possible, but so widespread. It is now the rule.
The post-industrial society has made fools of conservatives (I speak as one). With its ubiquitous and polluted fog of virtual reality – which eclipses reality, or direct experience of creation – conservatives who would still like to use the historic language of reality are left speechless. God knows there are too many shrill and bumpkin voices who fly the conservative banner, but are really boorish right-wingers.
It turns out that the right wing is not conservative at all. They do not conserve: it goes without saying that they are not interested in conserving the environment; but neither are they interested in conserving quiet community, decent agriculture, home industry and Christian sexuality. They are not really interested in conserving or perpetuating the virtues nested in the Beatitudes – especially meekness.
You may add, rightly, that the left wing cares not a whit for these things, and I am inclined to agree. The liberal movement has ever fought the Church and her moral witness: listen, if you've a mind to, to the cacophony of media slander against the "Thou Shalt Not's" of the Church. The left wing cannot tolerate, even in their vaunted multi-cultural sensitivity, the Church's insistence that one must not engage in physical or psychic sex outside the nuptial union; that one must not participate in the homosexual sub-culture; that one must not join or abet armed revolution or rebellion; that one must not speak or act in the customs of either Sodom or Gomorrah.
I may add, just as rightly, that the right wing also disapproves of certain "Thou Shalt Not's" – interdicts that are as Traditional as the ones just listed above. The right wing cannot abide being told that Church is not something you can invent out of marketing questionnaires; that virtue has little to do with value; that goodness and beauty have an inverse relationship with consumerism and comfort; that the virtue of protecting family and land should not be confused with the protecting of wealth and privilege – the protection of which is cowardice.
I am all for reactionarianism (if that is a word) – but one must have a Tradition one uses as a criterion with which to react. Ask a Tea-Partier what is important to him or her, and they will say nothing really Traditional. "Expedient," yes, and surely so: the politics of Tea-Partying & Townhall-Whining (e.g., no taxes, yes guns, no aliens, yes drilling, no GM workers, yes rich bankers) is much like the histrionic arguments of James Carville and Mary Matalin over dinner at home.
But is there any reference to "Tradition" as the nexus of moral imagination? As a force for the ordering of mind against the hegemony of world and shadow? As a culture for the harmony of the soul with Heaven, against the epidemic toxin of passion?
No. There is no one who succeeds or leads in politics who cares dearly for the permanent things and Tradition. There is no one who conserves Nature and Human Nature.
The main reason for this, I fear, is that post-industrial society has rendered the conservative critique trite at best, and probably idiotic. (Although I take issue with being called a "village idiot" together with my fundamentalist friends – with whom I join in solidarity at the abusive expectoration of Franky Schaefer.) The old myths of bootstrap and fishing now sound cloyingly stupid: the poor who are becoming poorer and more indentured will not be helped by Amway or Horatio Alger stories. It is not enough, nor was it ever enough, to tell the poor as a class to just get a job.
In this moment – however one wants to describe it, and whatever one wants to call it – the old prescriptions do not work. We would like all the poor people to work instead of taking a dole. We write books and hope that the poor will read them, so that they will raise themselves up by their own bootstraps – a physical feat, if taken literally, whose very impossibility underlines the mythical role this expression fulfills in the cult "rugged individuality." Then there is the old saw "give him a fish, and he's hungry again … teach him to fish, and he feeds himself." That, too, is a myth that cannot be realized until the poor gets just as much welfare (and socialistic intervention) as do the rich: one cannot fish when he is starving, or worried about sheltering himself or his children.
We have forgotten that the Gospel ethic demands feeding the poor: it is silent about the business of turning the poor into capitalists so that they can care for themselves and release us from the Gospel burden.
Regionalists and phobics (like me) who hate Leviathan worry about the growing and menacing pale of the State. But we are not brave enough to consider the strong possibility that the post-industrial world, inbreathing virtual reality, is predicated upon a State that is both humanitarian and totalitarian.
And that predication means, simply (and appallingly), that such a State is here to stay, no matter how many guns we tote to tea parties, no matter how many signs are waved – misspelt – by angry flabby short-panted white-sock-and-rockported Tommy-Bahama-shirted social security and medicare pensioners.
We always knew that "Tea-Partiers" -- a group who would be happier as hobbits in Bywater -- are generally unaware of their historic and occultic surroundings. That is made cringingly clear by so many signs depicting Obama as Hitler (comment from Jesse Owens on this one?), and by those that equate Nazism with Socialism.
But what we should consider is just how unaware we non-Tea-Whiners are. We who hold our nose (rightly) at the off-scourings of Dreck TV and Il Magnifico radio-rooter-rants – we like to read Kirk and Eliot and romance our sentiments with agrarian and regionalist lyrics.
We are troubled, however, by apocalyptic visions. We do not like to disturb our Amish reveries: we push away unbidden suspicions that prophets like Berry may hold mainly for Arcadia (and not anywhere else), or only for little clusters like the insular community in M. Night Shyamalan's Village.
In an age where world hunger lurks monstrous around tomorrow, and coastlines likely will be sinking, can agriculture really abandon the legacy of Norman Borlaug?
Can conservatives really hope for social renewal? Can they intelligently hold fast to the dream of cultural triumph? The very substance of thought has changed. And that fact alone has rendered much conservative thinking wretchedly obsolete.
Despite the lullabye croonings of Internet cheerleaders like Vincent Rossmeier, our mode of communication has profoundly affected the quality of our ability to think, and the quality of the things we think about. When our thinking is forced by events to stretch beyond routine and the usual events of our week, we usually fall apart at the first onset of any disruptive passion. Moreover, the things we think about usually do not follow the solid lines of goodness and beauty: rather, they are overpopulated by demotic urges, menial demands for comfort and a denial of Time in favor of the Moment.
I would like to say, with Eliot, that we are surely the Hollow Men. But unlike Eliot, I have to remember that Hollow Men themselves are unable to say such a thing. By definition. They look in the mirror and do not recognize the face.
The Wasteland is like water to a fish: so ubiquitous, so invisible, that the fish is unaware of its vast and profound presence. We are fish.
Liberals cannot ever know this, to be sure. Their hope is ever in mortal princes, despite their incessant and perennial disappointment. They would rather believe in Benthamite doctrines than in the simple Law of God: but dealing with God means accepting the status of "sinner," and no self-respecting liberal will ever put up with that.
Right-wingers are hopelessly unable to learn this, because they are Philistine. They are not village idiots (it is more idiotic to say so). They simply do not care about things that should be cared for. They need to grow up out of their prurient addictions but they never will.
Conservatives should know this, but they have been ambushed by industrialism and the gas cloud of virtual reality. They should have discerned the spirit of antichrist. They were busy looking for him in the ecumenical movement, in heresies and other religions, in foreign nations. But wherever they looked in other times and places, he was there at their back creeping in.
The humanitarian, totalitarian State is here. It is only secondarily mediated by the Government. It is directly mediated by the media and marketplace, which has combined into one environment – and this environment has entered not only our home and hearth, but has interposed itself in the midst of our consciousness. There are very few thoughts these days that proceed unaccompanied by phosphorescence and pixilation.
Our problem is not the Nanny State. It is, rather, the Nanny Marketplace, whose commercials are broadcast these days on the dark side of our foreheads.
That is why I tell you not to worry so much about Obama or his Republican predecessors and successors: they are, to a man, impotent at stemming the tide (even if they cared). The conservative mistake in the last hundred years is that they were too political, and boorishly so. They cared more for elections than for stories, for art and poetry. They insinuated political contests into religion, of all things, and wondered why God discredited them at every turn. They abandoned philosophizing and turned instead to Philistine sarcasm (think of Buckley here).
They have willingly joined the Gadarene rush down over the cliff and into the briny sea.
The foe of real conservatism is the spirit of antichrist. The substance of real conservatism, as the inheritor and steward of permanent things, is of course orthodox Christianity. I say this with dread, as I worry that orthodoxy, in its American manifestation, is distinctly unready to confront this malevolent spirit. God is cleaning His House for sure, and His broom is sweeping many bureaucratic corners. Leadership in a time of trial and unease must be leadership that has attained apatheia, that can discern and test the spirits, that is practiced in the fight against passion and demonic insinuation. (This lack is the single reason why there is no correction of Orthodox jurisdictional miasma, and why so much Orthodox administration is in turmoil.)
There is not enough of this spiritual fight and test today. The darksome spirit is trying to cover and confuse the permanent things. He has set up billboards all over the interstate highways of our speeding minds, billboards that hide the hollowness with plastic and charming self-esteem … billboards that hide the waste and what lies foreboding on the horizon.
Mortal princes will never look beyond the billboards. Spiritual princes should, but have not.