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Sunday Night Journal — February 4, 2007

The Liberal Conservative (4)

This is probably the last in the series, at least for a while. I wanted to add one more note to my list of reasons for wishing to preserve the institutions of liberalism—meaning, of course, the philosophical liberalism that goes back at least to the Enlightenment, not contemporary political liberalism. In fact I’m not entirely sure that “liberalism” is the correct term; perhaps something like “Anglo-American constitutional pragmatism” would be closer. But I’ll stick with “liberalism” for the moment.

So far I’ve adduced the specific achievements of the liberal order: widely representative government, constitutionalism, material prosperity. But there’s another, more elemental reason. America (meaning the United States of America), is, more than any other nation, the embodiment of these ideas, it is my country, and I love it.

There’s a tendency among those of conservative or traditionalist leanings to decry or deny what used to be, and for many people still is, the standard American patriotism, which, as has been pointed out many times, is more a devotion to an idea than to a place, or even a nation. Chesterton said it best, in his often-quoted remark that “America is a nation with the soul of a church.” This devotion, a traditionalist says, is not patriotism by any reasonable definition, because patriotism is first and most importantly devotion to a place and a people. I agree with this, and have written about it (see this journal). Devotion to an idea is not patriotism.

But love for the USA is not only love for the American idea, and love for one’s town and region don’t preclude love for the country at large. Lately I’ve been more conscious of this latter emotion. It’s an exasperated sort of love, the love you might have for an eccentric relative. Make no mistake, this is a crazy place. Its craziness is a direct result—no, make that an integral part—of its success. (See this post by the very interesting Eve Tushnet, which I ran across a few weeks ago and which helped crystallize some of these things for me: “Americans are bats crazy….There are insights to be gained from our particular brand of crazy.”)

America is what you get when you give the masses the money and freedom to do what they want. A great deal of it is deplorable, to say the least. I’m as oppressed as anyone can be by the sight and the spread of the miserable ugly chaos of strip development. I rarely visit a shopping mall and when I do I generally come out depressed, angry, or both. I can’t stand the inescapable hucksterism which is now as much a part of politics as of commerce. Our entertainment industry is a reckless and shameless source of pollution on a global scale, made doubly maddening by its self-righteousness, and surely at least as responsible for the hostility of other nations to us as anything George Bush has done. And so on.

But there is also in this madhouse a great deal that is creative, courageous, generous, and good. It can be maddening, but also maddeningly likeable. And finally there is just the sheer magnificent spectacle of it, which always makes me think of Bruce Springsteen’s words:

And the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all—
they just stand back and let it all be.

Whether loving it or hating it, surely few active minds could fail to find America interesting; to do so would strike me as evidence of mental torpor.

If you’re an American, don’t think you aren’t part of this. Don’t think you can withdraw from it to a place of traditional order and dignity. It doesn’t exist here, and probably won’t within your lifetime. More importantly, if you were to go where it does exist, your restless discontent would probably make you unhappy there, and your presence might well harm it. You’re too used to having your way: taking your business elsewhere; moving to escape your neighbors or your town; finding a different parish if you don’t like the priest or the music in yours; switching jobs or switching religions when you don’t like the one you have.

The tragedy, and the agony, of America is that this personal willfulness is extended where it is not just a questionable habit but a sin. People leave their marriages when they’re unhappy, they abort their unplanned children, they indulge every appetite, they flout natural and divine law at every turn. This may be, probably will be, our undoing. And here, of course, is where conservatism has a job to do: in the effort to pull the country back from the brink. Success does not seem very likely, but then conservatism is almost always at least mildly pessimistic, in temperament if not by definition.

Here, also, is where conservatism should be liberal in the root sense: generous and tolerant, always with an eye toward the good to be preserved and encouraged as much as to the evil that must be resisted. If you are an Evelyn Waugh whose bitter ire toward the modern world can be turned to the purposes of great satire, or if you are a prophet chosen by God to warn and admonish the world, then by all means do what you have to do. If not, to surrender to a very understandable vexation will most likely just leave you complaining on the sidelines while the outcome of the contest is determined by others.

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