Things are so going so disastrously wrong, and so much damage is being done to our civic and social institutions, that as I sit down to compose my annual Independence Day reflections on hopeful realism, I feel like I should be having another “down year” like I did in 2014 (“a more realistic July 4”). But I’m not, and the man who is helping me most in that department is a chronic depressive who was convinced western civilization was doomed.
I think I would need to write ten thousand words at least to convey the effect upon me of reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness for the first time (in 43 years I had never read it, shame on me!) earlier this year. I’ll try to keep it shorter here; I feel no doubt that I will produce the ten thousand word version in the coming year or not much longer.
Chambers is of course a very great man and I’m teaching my daughter to be like him, but that’s not what I want to talk about here.
Reading Witness has revealed to me new insight into how the moral narratives of conservatism were formed out of the mid-century anti-statist experience. This has showed me greater depths in both what was right with conservatism and why it went wrong and failed the way it ultimately did. Chambers himself was only a reluctant participant in the formation of those narratives, and never called himself “conservative.” He felt conservatism was too ideological and didn’t offer enough to the common man whose traditional ways of life were being destroyed by the technological developments of modernity. But he taught us that the key political quesiton is “God or Man?”; that all forms of statism are ultimately forms of the answer “Man,” differing only in the degree to which they have the courage of that conviction; and that our society was sliding toward statism because its leaders had decisively committed themselves to the answer “Man,” implying that a radical change of spiritual direction was what was really needed. The fight for God and against statism were the same fight.
This was not false then and is not false now. Where we went wrong was in conflating all objections to libertarian free markets with statism, adopting too political and too pugilistic a strategy for what was essentially a spiritual fight (Chambers famously had no hope for the west; less famous is his statement that this was because he could see no political solution to the problem – and he was right about that part, at least) and neglecting to take seriously, as Chambers always did, two historical realities that complicate the fight for God and freedom against statism: the congenital political schizophrenia of the American constitutional order due to racism and slavery, and the dependence of moral norms on social institutions that are destabilized in advanced modernity.
One of my themes in the past year has been “death of conservatism watch,” not in the sense that there will not be a Right, but in the sense that the complex and somewhat contradictory combination of ideas that we call “conservatism” is dying and something else will replace it. For those of us who were deeply attached to what we thought and hoped conservatism was and could be, the question now is 1) how to preserve what is worth preserving and 2) to what extent doing that has anything to do with the political Right now.
Interestingly, I think Chambers is a figure my friends on the Left would admire, if they knew his story. And I think the heat of the Cold War may now finally be far enough away for us to introduce him to them.
It could be part of the forging of a new trans-partisan moral consensus, in which responsible people on the Left come to terms with their failure to see statism for what it is – and their persecution of conservatives for the crime of seeing it for what it is – and responsible people on the Right come to terms with the schizophenia of the constitutional order caused by racism, i.e. our failure to relate ethnic identity to natural rights in a satisfactory way, given the interdependence in the human mind of reason (a universal human power by which we know about universal natural rights) and cosmic narrative (which are not universal but particular to ethnic and religious identities).
Part of that process should be some kind of Eulogy for Conservatism. It is dying now, dying of its own self-inflicted wounds. But it did great things for this country, saving this country from disaster and catastrophe again and again, and this country did nothing but spit on it. Before conservatism passes into history, the greatness of what it did for its country, in spite of all its country did to try to destroy it, should be entered into the record.
When Chambers died, a friend remarked: “The witness is gone, the testimony will stand.” I feel the same about what was good in conservatism.
And a eulogy for what is gone is followed by a return to the forces of life.
Need a sign of hope? The New Disney Animation continued to kill it this year.
We set a course to find a brand new island everywhere we roam; and when it’s time to find home, we know the way.