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Can Conservative Intellectuals Go Home Again?

My last post, following the lead of David Brooks and Rod Dreher, was about giving the argument for “communitarian conservatism” in the context of Dreher’s decision to move back to his hometown of St. Francisville, LA.

But there are problems with that argument.

First off, it’s just not true that communitarian or traditionalist conservatism is in retreat. It lives a fresh and vital existence in the moral imagination of many of our conservative intellectuals. It is an understandable response to the tendency toward moral emptiness of a high-tech, capitalist civilization.

The favorite poet of many of these highly literary intellectuals remains T.S. Eliot.  He wrote a big poem about the “wasteland” that is our world.  And one philosopher they have a sometimes unacknowledged debt to is Martin Heidegger, who said that the self-understanding of our time is technological.  We understand everything, even one another, as nothing more than resources to be exploited.  Heidegger also wrote that “the wasteland grows.”

A philosopher traditionalist conservatives admire is Alasdair MacIntyre, who claims we live “after virtue.”  Any common understanding of how to live depends on a shared moral language embedded in traditional practices, and we live in a post-traditional time and so morally empty time. 

MacIntyre’s conservatism is actually indebted to the philosopher Karl Marx, who observed that under capitalism “all that is solid melts into thin air,” meaning moral distinctions lose their weight and meaning.  From Marx’s view, we’re then stuck with facing the truth: All morality is an oppressive illusion imposed by the ruling class.

That alleged truth-facing has morphed, of course, into the leftist fashion of discrediting moral claims as actually rooted in racism, sexism, and classism.  The conservative rejoinder is that moral claims that treat us as autonomous individuals and nothing more are equally oppressive, because they chain us all to the requirements of a productive meritocracy.  The occasional conservative even observes that the effectual truth of women’s liberation, from a Marxist perspective, is to turn women into wage slaves just like men.  The result is that the virtues connected with voluntary caregiving—ones once thought to be reserved to women—are now less honored than ever.

So “communitarian conservatives” are opposed to the isolated individualism of the bourgeois way of life. That’s why they’re attracted to small towns, big families, whole-life churches, local economies, agrarian virtues, and so forth.  They share the idea of buying and acting locally with the environmental left.  But they’re not about thinking globally and acting locally.  They’re more about thinking and acting locally.

We have to wonder, of course, about how much even a conservative intellectual can authentically taking his bearings from being enmeshed in a particular, quite limited place. Here’s Rod’s memory of how things were for him as a kid in St. Francisville, LA:

I experienced bullying and social exclusion when I was in high school—the sort of thing that you’d find anywhere, but when you live in a small town, and go to a small school, there’s really no place to find refuge. When I went off to a public boarding school for gifted kids, I found that my new friends there who had come from big-city schools were different from we who had come from small-town schools. We small-town kids mostly felt like we had finally found solid ground—a place where we wouldn’t be picked on for being weird, or bookish. The big-city kids had found their own niches in their big-city schools.

As a nerdy wimp hopelessly short on the manly and productive virtues prized by the community, Ron was bullied and excluded.  He was victimized and marginalized and wasn’t feeling the love. Teenage Ron, in fact, thought that most of his fellow, small-town kids were rather cruel and stupidor at least ignorant. 

Kids like him, he admits, are better off in larger, more diverse, more urban places.  There he would have found his people, his lunch table, his geeks.  The libertarian praise of our techno-virtual world is that it creates niches, and various kinds of people can flourish together and apart in unprecedented freedom.  Rod admits there’s something to that praise.

So Rod escaped from his small town to be a liberated intellectual, finding his niche as a journalist among those who shared his interests and passions.  And his liberation, of course, is facilitated by the technology that allows him to blog his message to people in places everywhere, that allows him to be quite the displaced celebrity celebrating the virtues of place.

There’s a lot more to say, but it’s clear enough that when Rod goes home, he doesn’t go all the way home.  He’s not really bound by the limits of his place. Let me close with a very perceptive comment by Ron Thomas–one that suggests several issues that I will get around to discussing–in the thread to the original communitarian conservative post:

It is good that Dreher is moving back to a town in which he has family; otherwise, he would find it hard to “break in.” I live in a town of 11,000 here in North Carolina (Lincolnton). It is good that I am at least a Southerner (Memphis); that helps the acceptance. I wonder what he will do for a church? I had heard that he became Orthodox. Probably not many there. I suppose he will “telecommute”, as opposed to working in a lumber mill. I am glad to live in a small, Southern town. It is indeed most of what Dreher is looking for, but, there is another conservative duality to face: what religions scholar Huston Smith calls spontaneous vs. deliberate tradition (or conservatism). Dreher is being deliberate, but a lot of the traditionalism/conservatism is spontaneous, i.e., just the way things are. That is not always the case, of course: my fellow members in the local “Robert E. Lee Historical Association” read First Things a lot–and I am the only Catholic in the group.

BTW, I do not think “communitarian conservative” is a tag that at all fits Kirk et al.   


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