Restoration Starts at Home
If traditional conservatism is making a revival, it must not be a mere reaction to the presentism of the modern age.
As far back as when I read Murray Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right, I was aware of the fact that what passes for the “conservative movement” is mostly just a slightly less radical version of the Progressivist milieu. A libertarian at the time of my initial reading seven years ago, my focus was on the mere Big Government nature of the postwar American “right.” This New Right, of course, had taken on Leo Strauss’ conception of political interpretation and slowly abandoned the key aspects of pre-war Rightism. This New American Right, therefore, was already sick when the Neoconservatives ventured over from the left and swarmed the political movement in the 1970s.
And thus, my disinterest in the New Right blossomed over time (except inasmuch as I juxtapose it with the Old Right), while my formal identification with traditional rightism finally found its explicit fruition about three months ago. I've found solace in the reflective and philosophical rightism of people like Paul Gottfried, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and Richard Weaver. They represent to me an opportunity to understand the disparity between the world as it is and the necessary predispositions of mankind if actual recovery is attainable. Beyond the terrible nature of the managerial state in our time, what are the cultural and social prerequisites for stability and strength? In asking this, one comes to the realization that a revolution for "liberty" that is, in fact, a revolution for "license" to abandon all moral, ethical, and legal constraints, provides the fodder for more disintegration and therefore statism, not less.
Of course, I am not alone in finding solace in rightism. Socially, things are heating up as the sexual revolution becomes more perverse and degraded, as individuals become more disintegrated with their past and heritage, as late-stage liberalism and its narratives of emancipation and self-actualization collapse in on themselves.
Rightism is seeing a revival. Not only in the United States, but in places such as Brazil, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and even Russia. The conservative prophets who foretold that individuals need philosophical center, that need “place,” that need empirical lines of identity beyond just “ideas,” are being proven correct. In this way, the type of conservative sentiment that is bubbling to the surface is an abandonment of Conservatism Inc that is represented by the loudest voices on the Conservative scene, such as Dinesh D’souza, Charlie Kirk, and Ben Shapiro. And good riddance.
Thus, #TradCon (Traditional Conservative) is becoming a loud subset of Twitter; this is symptomatic of the general stirring unrest as the postwar democratic liberal order begins to fragment. And yet, for myself, and speaking with my good friends Ben Lewis and Jared Lovell, I don’t find all that much closeness with the “Internet Right.” Angry and frustrated, and certainly justifiably so, one gets the sense that their rediscovery of the language of traditionalism is mere form without substance. Aware of the social damage done by the collapse of traditional religious, sexual, and aesthetic standards and values, these Internet Rightists react with means of expression that are still distasteful and undignified; they lack a positive vision and application of the “good life.”
It’s therefore difficult to find anything all that “traditional” about them. They don’t seem to have a problem with post-1960’s loosening standards of chastity and sexual constraint (heterosexuality alone hardly constitutes a traditional standard), they don’t seem all that interested in recovering a true understanding of a religious thought and life, and, especially, they don’t appear to have the same emphasis on leading a family, employing a dignified and responsible use of language, or a noble and chivalrous temperament. Of course, I completely recognize that they have been pushed to the margin of society by a far left elite that forces on them an ugly multiculturalism, shock-and-awe-style sexual perversions, and a narrative of hostility regarding the cultural sentiments with which they identify.
Nevertheless, to be a traditionalist is not merely to “react” in raw form, it must also recover an ancient code of civilized conduct and a willingness to live in light of the transcendent. Traditionalism must look to pre-modernity not only in it’s anti-egalitarianism or anti-democracy, but also in the older recognition that “our lives are not our own,” to borrow a phrase from Paul in 1 Corinthians; they belong primarily to God, in whom we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and therefore the traditionalist must live an orderly and responsible life dedicated not merely to himself, but to those who came before, and those who will come after.
The only way toward recovery, if it still is possible (and I have my serious doubts), is to start first with oneself, not the social structure at large. Perhaps we can lean on the reflection of Richard Weaver here:
Surely we are justified in saying of our time: If you seek the monument to our folly, look about you. In our own day we have seen cities obliterated and ancient faiths stricken. We may well ask, in the words of Matthew, whether we are not faced with "great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world." We have for many years moved with a brash confidence that man had achieved a position of independence which rendered the ancient restraints needless.
For four centuries every man has been not only his own priest but his own professor of ethics…. There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot. So few are those who care to examine their lives, or to accept the rebuke which comes of admitting that our present state may be a fallen state, that one questions whether people now understand what is meant by the superiority of an ideal.
What man needs in our moment is not a singular obsession with “rights.” A generation that centers its attention solely on what one is allowed to do, rather than what he must do to reflect the eternal good and therefore to contribute to the health of the social order, is a generation that will abandon the latter and fail to attain the former.
Freedom will result naturally and organically, when mankind recovers the sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Restoration therefore requires a commitment to principles beyond the basics of rights and liberality: Weaver notes that “it may involve arduous effort, self-denial, sleepless nights, all of which are repugnant to the bourgeoisie.” The only way traditionalism will have meaningful expression is if it is acted upon and put into practice. But this requires tremendous courage and will to disconnect oneself with the present settled routine. Weaver again:
“In the same way, we have to inform the multitude that restoration comes at a price. Suppose we give them an intimation of the cost through a series of questions. Are you ready, we must ask, to grant that the law of reward is inflexible and that one cannot, by cunning or through complaints, obtain more than he puts in? Are you prepared to see that comfort may be a seduction and that the fetish of material prosperity will have to be pushed aside in favor of some sterner ideal? Do you see the necessity of accepting duties before you begin to talk of freedoms? These things will be very hard; they will call for deep reformation."
This is precisely why I was so dogmatic about our emphasis on the family; in our age of crisis, family structure provides a microcasm of the necessary ingredients of civilization. Weaver notes:
The comity of peoples in groups large or small rests not upon this chimerical notion of equality but upon fraternity, a concept which long antedates it in history because it goes immeasurably deeper in human sentiment. The ancient feeling of brotherhood carries obligations of which equality knows nothing. It calls for respect and protection, for brotherhood Is status in family, and family is by nature hierarchical. It demands patience with little brother, and it may sternly exact duty of big brother. It places people in a network of sentiment, not of rights— that hortus siccus of modem vainglory.
In the family, there is order and structure; there is hierarchy, there are elements of dependency and elements of obligation; there is something real worth fighting for that outlasts the life of the individual himself. There is a leader of the family unit, the husband/father, and there is a helper and representative of this leader, the wife/mother. There are children being invested in, not merely for their own sake, but for the continuity of the family name. The children glean from their parents how to live and how to think and therefore the parents are obligated to live at their very best, to reject the wretched temptations of the world, of addiction to modern technology, of standards of conduct and speech that are socially and spiritually degrading.
It is first in the family that Russell Kirk's words here come to life:
Most men and women are good only from habit, or out of deference to the opinions of their neighbors, the friend to tradition argues; and to deprive them of their habits, customs, and precepts, in order to benefit them in some novel way, may leave them morally and socially adrift, more harmed by their loss of ethical sanctions than helped by the fancied new benefit.
Families were the basis of Western Civilization and now, in our final hour, they represent the last obstacle of liberal disintegration; and therefore its recovery is not optional, but foundational, for a meaningful civilizational future.
In a world aflame, the household is a castle of refuge. If traditional conservatism is making a revival, it must not be a mere reaction to the presentism of the modern age; it must be lived out and applied, not set on an empty pedestal. It is easy to look to the past. To the extent that TradCons do not emphasize these things in their own lives, to that extent they are quintessential modernists.
The great conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet warned us not abusing reflection on the past:
Antiquarianism is not the same as genuine study and understanding of the past; it places a value on old things simply because they are old. But there is dross as well as gold in the past, and mere age won’t make up the difference. We don’t turn to the past as a narcotic but as a unique treasury of other human experiences, in different time frames, and also as the setting of the roots of our own civilization. The modern idea of progress directs our minds just as much to the past from which we derive as to the unchartable future. With loss of the real past, in our search for meaning, we unfortunately turn to idle nostalgia.
Nostalgia is very different from respect for or genuine intellectual interest in the past; it is really the rust of memory.
The great danger of nostalgia is that it narcotizes us and helps prevent a proper sense of the past—which is closely woven into the present and helps us guard against destabilizing fads, fashions, and foibles in important areas of thought and allegiance.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.