Memory and anticipation in the age of Leftist power

History really did end, not because things stopped changing but because they stopped staying the same.  There was a time not long ago when the past seemed to have some weight, and that which had long endured was assumed to have deep roots.  A conservative accusing progressives of seeking to change the definition of marriage from what it has been “for thousands of years” alludes to this sense.  A progressive invoking the “long arc of history” does as well.  Now, effective resistance to the Left has nearly ceased to exist, and one can expect any aspect of social life to be transformed or eliminated as soon as a consensus on the Left forms that social justice demands it.  Whether this is good or bad, it means the death of the historical sense. [1]

This might seem an odd accusation, at least when directed at progressives.  After all, their entire worldview is indignation at the oppressive past and devotion to a utopian future.  But this worldview is ahistorical in the sense that modernists used to accuse traditionalists of being ahistorical in their devotion to the past, in that the past is imagined to have been static (all history until yesterday being white Christian patriarchal oppression in about equal measure as far as the progressive is concerned) and morally unambiguous (evil, in this case).  (Whiggery, by contrast, was not ahistorical in this sense.)  Nor can today’s progressive imagine what future progressives will be demanding in a hundred years; if he could imagine it, he would be demanding it right now.  So he is not consciously a link in a continuous progression.  His moment is the phase transition from evil to good, the only truly dynamic moment of mankind.

In the face of Leftist power, the conservative also steps outside of history.  The past has no enduring presence, and we feel completely alone when we believe what all of our ancestors believed.  The future has no reality for us.  It no longer makes sense to say that one is fighting to preserve something for one’s children or grandchildren.  The time of their adulthood presumably will come, but it is beyond our horizon; we can neither predict it nor do anything to influence it.  As I’ve written before, the whole purpose of conservatism has changed.  One no longer fights liberalism with hopes of victory or even stalemate.  Defiance is a performance, an act of fidelity–to God, to the truth as one sees it, or to oneself–carried out for its own sake.  Because it cannot accomplish anything, there is no obligation, no uniquely right decision.  The very fact that a man has only the present compels him to decide what he wants to do with his time (a short time, but the only time that is real to him), how he wants to live it.

I believe conservatives can respond well to this new situation.  That is, we can individually achieve our intellectual and spiritual potential in this era of presentism and existential performance.  Motivation was always a struggle when victory was so far out of reach (even the modest sort of victory conservatives pursue, of simply succeeding in preserving something), but not far enough for us to forget about it entirely.  If the question is only whether each of us can give a performance to be proud of, if we feel so called, then I think the answer is that we can.  Certainly, some can respond to this call poorly.  Probably there will be more deplorables deciding to “go out in a blaze of glory” by shooting bunches of random strangers, but for most of us, this is hardly our idea of glory.  A more common case will probably be the unveiling of a carefully crafted statement on the internet, to be delivered when the author feels ready for involuntary early retirement and loss of friends, friends and job exchanged willingly for a regained sense of his manhood and the pleasure of just once giving them all a piece of his mind.  Which will do more for his personal development than donating money and voting in futile elections.

 

[1] Social change accelerates.  By comparison, things which used to undergo change are settling.  The militant certainty which drives rapid social change retards the intellectual and creative life.  Half a century ago, when people spoke of “rapid change”, they usually meant technology.  Since then, technological progress has greatly slowed, as has advance in the theoretical sciences.  No one anymore expects technology to fix our energy or environmental problems or to let us colonize space.  (We do expect it to change men into women, but here again the true power is not medical but social, the power to make us all agree that such transformations have indeed taken place.)  Philosophers are “naturalists”, meaning they think it’s clear what science teaches us about nature and don’t imagine future science can do anything but fill in details.  Philosophers’ political commitments demand that various groups be recognized a priori as innocent or oppressive, which leaves little interesting for a political philosopher to think about.  Status in art, literature, and drama is ruled by political considerations, and no true innovations can be expected while art is subordinated to political orthodoxy.  A hundred years ago, men cared passionately about the location of national borders.  Today, men argue about whether borders should exist at all; few would fight a war or bother at all about where exactly they are drawn.  In this crowded Earth, the age of exploration, founding of cities, and new cultures is over.  Not all of this is to be missed, but while modern men congratulate themselves on their transformative time, they should remember that a peoples’ areas of development and stasis shift with its interests.

3 Responses

  1. A more common case will probably be the unveiling of a carefully crafted statement on the internet, to be delivered when the author feels ready for involuntary early retirement and loss of friends, friends and job exchanged willingly for a regained sense of his manhood and the pleasure of just once giving them all a piece of his mind. Which will do more for his personal development than donating money and voting in futile elections.

    are you reading my mind or something?

  2. There is a certain serenity that comes with crossing the line and taking one’s place among the deplorable, not unlike the serenity that I imagine came to an apparatchik when he was finally purged by Stalin. At last there is an end to the anxiety of trying to stay on the right side of a fickle despot. When some new bigotry is announced, some people will be allowed to “evolve,” while others will be held to account and sent to the gulag. Do today’s progressives know that their blogs, tweets and videos must be pockmarked with bigotries yet to be named? Do they lie awake at night wondering when they will be denounced? How much better to get the unpersoning over and get a good night’s sleep.

    Your footnote makes an important observation. When all things solid melt into air, all things airy and insubstantial suddenly solidify. I make this point by showing students photographs of college students from each decade in the twentieth century. If an eighteen year old JMSmith had appeared on campus in 1965 dressed and groomed as he actually did appear in 1975, it would have caused comment. If he had appeared in that condition in 1955, he would have been expelled. However that same JMSmith could take a seat in a modern classroom, nearly half a century later, without attracting much attention. Same outfit, same slouch, same grubbiness.

  3. […] with our discussion of “performative” or “existential” conservatism (i.e. conservatism after […]

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