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Ramblings about patriotism in bad times

At bottom, conservatism is simply attachment to a specific society. It is therefore a disposition to maintain the features of the society that make it what it is: the particular people who make it up, the beliefs, commitments and institutions that order it, and the concrete features that define its character and distinguish it from other societies.

The need for particular attachments makes conservatism necessary for social life. No society could exist if its members weren’t attached to it, and the attachments that sustain a society can’t simply be a matter of recognizing its usefulness as raw material for something else. People must love their society as it is. Nor can a society function without a fairly well integrated network of attitudes and habits that constitute its culture and mostly just grow up and get accepted as a matter of course by almost everyone. That acceptance is a matter of social attachment.

Conservatism is nonetheless a paradoxical attitude in a society as technologically oriented as our own. Such a society tends more and more to treat the world, including its own social structures, as raw material to be rationally organized for maximum equal satisfaction of desire. To do otherwise, it is supposed, is irrationality, obfuscation and oppression. The social standards now thought authoritative therefore demand anti-particularism, because particularism refuses to subject particulars to universal rational standards, and define attachment to particulars as bigotry and treat its rejection as basic to social morality.

Such an approach to social life is self-destructive, so it can’t be taken seriously as what defines our society itself rather than its dominant public self-image. One can still be attached to American society as it is, and try to preserve and promote the things that relate it to particulars and so allow it to exist and inspire loyalty, even though its current official self-definition ignores, undermines or suppresses such things. A society is not the same as its formal institutions and the stories they tell. Still, in America today conservatives are increasingly at odds with public authority and strong tendencies in the society at large. They must therefore qualify their attachment to the basic institutions and understandings characteristic of their society. They must ask themselves why they want to be conservative and how they can further their basic concerns under current circumstances. Their loyalty can only be to a different America than that of George Bush or the New York Times, one oriented by different ideals and assumptions.

So why are we conservative? Why are we attached to our own society as it is? One reason is that attachment to our own is natural, and our society has qualities that we find make it worthy of loyalty. Another is that things mostly go better if we prefer the tried and true, at least in settings, which include most political and social settings, that aren’t suited to technological solutions. Still another is that we need things, like the good, beautiful and true, that are too intangible and all-encompassing to be adequately known except through tradition.

Recent trends have led many American conservatives to join their opponents or to become bitter and alienated. Nonetheless, we cannot turn our backs on either our understanding of what is good, or on our people, history and culture. Conservatives should do what publicly-concerned men have always done in some fashion: ask themselves what aspects of their society they find good, what aspects fall short and need something additional, and what aspects are positively bad, because they destroy or injure the possibility of loyalty, or for some other reason. Our attachment is to America, but not to every aspect of America. A man should be loyal to his brother and cousin, but not to his brother’s drunkenness or his cousin’s membership in the Communist Party. The same applies to loyalty to a society.

Some reasons for patriotism are in a sense universal. Like other people, we are attached to our country through memories of childhood and youth, through familiar places, through family, friends and neighbors, and in general through language, culture and history: the network of habits, connections, understandings and memories that we get from those around us and that make us human. Despite recent propaganda, we are not a proposition nation: we are Americans for the same reason Chinese are Chinese and Hottentots Hottentots. While it is true that immigrants and their children can become American, it is also true that Europeans could sometimes “go native” in odd corners of what is now called the Third World and become accepted by the locals.

Other reasons for patriotism are more specific to America. To participate in the life of our country is to participate in a particular form of the civilization of the West and thus in the memory of classical antiquity and Christendom. In some ways those memories are more alive here than elsewhere. Our habits and institutions display an implicit understanding, for example, of the unmanageable multi-layered complexity of existence, through their general acceptance of religion, their preference for limited government, their inclination toward federalism and localism, and their emphasis on social trust and on voluntary enterprise and cooperation rather than public administration. All those things are tied to a belief in the irreducible dignity of each man that is radically at odds with current understandings of social justice, based as they are on administered equality and a basically technological and therefore manipulative view of human life. It is for that reason that (as many have observed) there is no socialism in the United States.

Those good qualities of course are imperfect and have often been one-sided. Further, they have all been under attack for quite some time and in some important settings seem only vestigial. How much influence do federalism and limited government have in Congress, for example? Nonetheless, those are reasons to revive and defend them and try to perfect them rather than give them up. The past survives in the present, so what has been attained is never lost completely.

The forces that oppose what has been good in America are obvious. The principles and standards now assumed in respectable public discussion are at odds with any possible principle of loyalty, and presume its replacement by ideology, money and public administration. Multiculturalism, for example, stands for the effective abolition of stable ties of history and culture. The same could be said of the commercialism and mindless assertiveness that are the flip side of multiculturalism, with their common opposition to settled standards and connections and their consequent liberation of individual impulse and its furtherance and channeling through institutions such as world markets and transnational bureaucracies.

Such forces must be fought, but more than opposition is needed. Something positive must be offered, and false answers fended off. Beyond the forces that attack the possibility of settled connections, and therefore a humane existence as such, there are forces in America that present it as a fraudulent object of loyalty: as a religion, or as a team, cause or business enterprise. America can’t be a religion because it’s not God and doesn’t have an adequately objective conception of God, so as a religion it reduces to self-assertion. And it can’t be a team, cause or enterprise because each demands too much unity for the sake of too limited a goal, and none has a right to the life-and-death authority that is necessary for social existence.

So what is needed to re-establish and maintain America as a human society worthy of loyalty? Many things would help, but you start with the basics. Every human order becomes corrupt and tyrannical when it fails to respect something beyond itself that gives it a place in a general moral order. Loyalty is a moral obligation, and nothing limited and this-worldly gives rise, purely of itself, to moral obligation. What’s needed to complete America, and to revive and preserve what has been good in it, is a more concrete sense of what lies above and beyond it. America needs what would count today, in respectable public discussion, as an established religion. Otherwise it will see nothing beyond itself, and will treat itself as a religion, cause, team or enterprise, or a mere field of assertiveness and self-seeking. It will disappear as a society capable of attracting legitimate loyalty. The Christian Right may have a bad name among respectable people, but something that could go by that name is the only hope for the civilization of our country.