Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Thoughts of a young paleo

In attending my first-ever meeting of the John Randolph Club in October, I noticed a definite set of younger paleos (conservatives, populists, libertarians, liberals, whatever you attach to the prefix) like myself in their 20s, 30s and even 40s distinct from the older paleos who had helped to originate the movement some 20 years ago.

I wonder if such paleos came to the movement the way I did. Despite living only 30 miles away, I had no idea the Rockford, Ill. Institute even existed, let alone know of the existence of Chronicles magazine while growing up in Beloit, Wisconsin. The first time I heard either mentioned at all was in the hit piece done on them by David Frum in his book Dead Right which came out in 1993. It wasn’t until 1997 that I picked up my first edition of Chronicles at the newsstand section of my local bookstore in Shawano, Wisconsin where I was working at the time. The reason I so identified with the paleo movement after reading Chronicles was the fact that while I considered myself nominally a conservative, those who were the dominant conservatives in the 1990s as pundits, political leaders and talk show hosts were repugnant to me. Maybe it was my Midwestern humility, but I never was able to identify with a right so filled with smart asses and arrogant jerks. They were simply mirrors of their leftist counterparts.

When I found out that the writers and editors of Chronicles felt the same way, I knew I had found a home for my then still formulating beliefs. I also realized that what I was reading was far different than any other opinion magazine I had read up until then. It gave a context to conservative thought that was more important than writing about the next election or the latest up and coming politician. Other magazines dealt with politics and policy, Chronicles dealt with what makes politics and policy and that is culture. I will also add the fact I lived and worked in small farming towns since graduating from college also added to Chronicles’ appeal because it is written from the point of view of such communities rather than the point of view of the coasts.

Being young and presumably the future what paleo movement will be brings about its own set of challenges that I’ve thought a lot about since the JRC meeting and in reading many opinion pieces about the future of conservatism in general (or lack thereof) in various publications. Such thoughts are what I am turning into text:

1). I may be old enough to have lived without the internet, but unlike older paleocons, not old enough to have lived without television, or at least in the case of Aaron Wolf, have someone in the family keep the set off. I may be speaking for myself, but the sad fact is younger paleocons, especially those who haven’t been homeschooled or have more than one TV set in the house, are going to be touched by modernity like it or not. We are simply too far gone not to have it tinge our thinking or outlook in some way. Now that doesn’t mean we’re watching Entertainment Tonight with great interest, but it does mean we are quite aware of the culture we are in right now and have been shaped by it even in the smallest of ways and simply cannot just give up what we’ve liked in the past or forget what we’ve seen or heard even though we read Chronicles now. It may very well be that Bono and his bandmates are pretentious hypocrites in social activism like a lot of celebrities (being Irish tax cheats for example) but I have always liked their music.

It would not bother me in the least if in the future the Rockford Institute board made a rule that any future editor of Chronicles be home schooled in the Classics. I would support it wholeheartedly if only to preserve the character of the magazine because it will be difficult for those coming out of the current educational system to have the same kind of education as the older paleocons have had. The tough standards in many fields are gone, they’ve become completely politicized, and it’s much easier to get through school today since educators are more concerned with handing out diplomas through the assembly line so kids can have their golden ticket into the middle class in order to pay off their debts. The whole point of founding the Rockford Institute 30 years ago, as founder John Howard told the JRC banquet audience, was to counterbalance the trends within society and culture that were taking place in the aftermath of the 1960s that made it difficult for Rockford College to fulfill its mission in educating young minds. Does anyone not believe the situation is far worse now than it was back then?

When the older paleocons are gone and the younger ones move into their place, it will undoubtedly change the way movement thinks of itself.

2). The culture wars are coming to a close. The Rockford Institute was founded just as those wars were underway and paleoconservatism itself is a reaction to those wars within the larger culture and within conservatism itself.
Since many of those cultural struggles took place on college campuses, let us compare those same campuses back then when my parents went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and to the era when I went to college at the UW (and my brother and sister too because they are four years older and younger than I am respectively).

When my parents were in school, social activism and protesting were the “in” things to do at that time. When I went to school? The biggest crowds were for sporting events. A good protest when I went to school would have drawn 3,000-5,000 people down State St. or in Library Mall. That number would have been considered paltry back in the 1960s and the idea that sports would be the most important social event on campus would have been preposterous (especially when the football and basketball teams at UW back then were lousy to mediocre and few cared about them). The biggest crowds for anything political when I was school were a candidate rallies for Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton. That hardly compares to Dow Day, The Black Strike, the GE Strike and the Kent State-Cambodia protests.

The late UW history professor George Mosse once said that despite all the turmoil on campus (including the bombing of Sterling Hall) he truly missed the students of the ‘60s because their interests were a lot broader than where the coolest house party will be on a Saturday night which meant they were probably more attentive in class. In many ways, college has become an extension of high school only without the parents around. Where parties and sporting events take precedent over intellectual aspirations and where a college diploma now, as a high school diploma was back then, is a ticket to the middle class. Everyone is simply waiting to get into the job market.

So the passions that once animated baby boomers as students that they carried with them through adulthood will pass as they grow old and die. My generation (X if you want to call it that although nobody asked me) and I would say the generation afterwards has no passions. If all we’re focused on is personal wealth creation, who has time for passions? The debates that engaged my fellow poli sci students were along Democratic-Republican lines, not over grand ideas or changing the world. The College Republicans and Democrats are organizations whose main focus is basically teaching youngsters how to become dirty politicians and as job placement firms for activists in Washington or the local state capital.

If there is one main ethos to my generation’s politics it’s live and let live. We’ve never been interested in telling others to “Be like us or else!” I think as the cultural wars fade into history, it will be important for younger paleos to shift the locus of the movement from such wars to decentralization. As Bill Kaufman said: “Let Utah be Utah and let San Francisco be San Francisco!” Most of my generation would not have a problem with that and think as the U.S. empire eventually falls apart as all empires eventually do, the aftermath politically and socially will be towards developing thousands of Little Americas, each communities set up by like-minded people. This will especially be true if immigration patterns do not change at all in the next 50 years. The nationalist/localist divide that I perceive within paleoconservatism will be settled by the movement of one’s feet.

A good example of this took place in my home state of Wisconsin this past election. Conservatives wanted to add a measure banning homosexual marriage into the state constitution. Republicans made sure this got on the ballot in the hopes of ginning up turnout in their favor. Instead, it backfired. While the measure passed comfortably, many Republicans in the state legislature, especially those in districts with college towns, lost their seats because of a backlash of younger voters against them. Again, the live and let live ethos speaks for itself.

3). What are we creating for future generations? Chilton Williamson Jr. nailed it during a column in a recent issue of Chronicles. What are we, as young paleocons, writing or creating that is relevant, new or long lasting? If all we are doing is just blogging or writing internet columns, heck that’s what Jonah Goldberg does too everyday. What does it say when National Review Online is more relevant to so-called conservatives than National Review the magazine?

Austin Bramwell also put it well in his recent American Conservative article:

“Whatever its past accomplishments, the conservative movement no longer kindles any “ironic points of light.” It has produced fewer outstanding books even as it has taken over more of the intellectual and political landscape. This trend will only continue. Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.”

I recently went to a Borders book store to buy a DVD for my father’s birthday and was just amazed at the number of books in the politics section. The problem was, for all the quantity of books out there, the quality is just utter crap. Most are either ghost-written screeds from talk-show hosts or pundits, self-serving biographies or short-term political party strategy books.

My next two books will be works of fiction and hopefully find a broader audience than my first book and hopefully better myself as a writer. We don’t always need to write non-fiction to get our point across. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien made their point quite well with fiction and the rest of the world thought so too. There’s nothing better in writing than a good story and if we can’t tell them then we’ll be truly lost in modernity.

4). There is a movement out there. I read a story in a newspaper recently about a small town in rural Virginia that’s trying to use what has to sell itself as a place live rather than sell out to the god of progress and try to lure some big industry to town with basket full of tax breaks or build big box stores over cornfields. That’s important because it shows that resistence to globalization isn’t just confined to leftist college towns. One can find it all across the country in the rural areas of the Midwest, West, South and New England or what remains of cohesive neighborhoods in large cities.

Rod Dreher hit upon this with his book Crunchy Cons. Now I think Dreher should be sued for plagerism because much of what he’s written about comes right out the pages of Chronicles itself but I’m sure TRI is content to know its work has not been done in isolation. What thiis shows is that there is a large pool of tradition-minded, local-minded, patroon-like people out there caught in between the squeeze of multiculturalism, globalism, the mammon worshippers and the neoconservatives. This is why we’ve rejected the conservative movement, because it wasn’t about conserving anything anymore and because we couldn’t figure out which side of the “fusionist” coalation its victories were due to. Not to mention the fact its promoters are some of the most repulsive, annoying and stupid people on earth.
A Georgia farmer can call himself a conservative like his neighbors do, but if he willingly takes his peanut-subsidy from Feds, what good is his conservatism? For many its simply a standard of tribal loyalty they’ve really give little thought to other than they know who they are and who the “other” isn’t as Bramwell also points out:

“Conservatism is entertaining. Understanding the world, though rewarding, provides nothing like the pleasures of a “Two Minute Hate,” a focused, ritualized denunciation of enemies. To induce its own Two Minute Hates, conservatism, like Ingsoc in 1984, manufactures bogeymen such as “judicial activists,” “so-called realists,” or “moral relativists” that become symbolic representations of detested outsiders. Meanwhile, like the Inner Party in 1984, conservative leaders tolerate the more vulgar, angry purveyors of ideology—think talk-show hosts or authors of bestselling political books. The most vicious attacks, meanwhile, are reserved for turncoats, like Goldstein in 1984. (Of course, as many paleoconservatives could attest, the hatred is usually mutual.) Rooting for conservative ideology is as engrossing to its partisans as rooting for the local football team is to its fans.
The roots of ideology lie deep in our cognitive limitations and instinct for group loyalty. One could make similar observations of any ideology. The most distinguishing feature of conservatism is its misleading name. Lexically, “conservatism” denotes caution, prudence, and resistance to change. Conservatism the ideology, however, has if anything tended towards recklessness. “Nuke ‘em!” has always been a popular conservative sentiment, never more so than today with respect to the Muslim world. For frantic boast and foolish word / Thy mercy on thy people Lord!

No movement can exist without ideas, likeminded people and a place where they all come together. Certainly the original conservative movement could not have existed without a book like Witness and a place like Southern California. With TRI and other institutions we can create the ideas, with magazines like Chronicles and the American Conservative and a book like The Politics of Human Nature along with a few leaders we can find and bring together the likeminded people and with decentralization we can create the places where it all comes together.

--Sean Scallon


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