It may be true—I believe it is—that American society is mostly good, if only because no society could last a day that wasn’t mostly good. Still, if that’s true then it must be possible for a society that’s mostly good to be pointed in a radically wrong direction and to adopt a fundamentally evil system as its public orthodoxy.
So what to do? The mainstream conservative approach is to participate in ordinary life but stick to the conservative side of things. That becomes increasingly difficult as time goes by. What, after all, counts as ordinary life today? Sending your children to public or mainstream private schools? Having a TV and letting them watch it? Attending a mainline church? Accepting a responsible position in a large organization that requires you to express personal enthusiasm for “diversity” and act accordingly? Reject those things and you’re an extremist; accept them and most likely you’re no longer living as a conservative.
Independence and integrity have become far more difficult than in the past due to improvements in communications and the growth of comprehensive bureaucratic organization. “Ordinary life” now includes acceptance of the mass media and the socially interventionist liberal state, and tolerance of the things they stand for. Most of us are employees now, and must sign on to an institutional program. It’s hard to escape individually except by becoming an eccentric or hermit, and not everyone—especially, not everyone with children—can live like Thoreau.
In order to avoid mere personal eccentricity one needs a place to stand—some understanding of things that’s fundamental enough, comprehensive enough, and recognizable enough to justify, in a manner that can be publicly understood and shared with others, a way of life at odds with that other people carry on. Possibilities include:
- The Confucian approach—culture and retirement from public affairs. When the right way does not prevail, you withdraw from public life, study the rites and the ancients, discharge your normal human obligations to family, friends and neighbors, write (if prudent) the occasional memorial protesting injustice, and wait for Heaven to send better days. The approach is a natural one for conservative intellectuals with no very concrete religious commitment. The problem with it is that it assumes a morally coherent and publicly recognized cultural heritage, as well as family and local community life that is not much affected by public corruption.
- The St. Benedict approach—withdraw and join a community devoted to disciplined pursuit of some otherworldly goal. That’s splendid for those with the calling, but not everyone has the calling and you can’t bring your wife and kids along.
- The Pilgrim Fathers approach—determination among a network of families to live in accordance with a definite religious principle, combined with willingness to embrace whatever degree of separateness is needed for the integrity of that way of life.
The last approach seems the most workable today, at least for those with family responsibilities. A decent life requires dropping out of the established culture, but you can’t live by purely private standards, especially if you’re responsible for family members. So you have to establish community with other dropouts, and the way a community establishes and justifies its distinctiveness is through an authoritative concrete understanding of how things are and what people owe each other. Such an understanding is, at least in effect, religious and dogmatic. How dogmatic it has to be no doubt depends on the degree of separation needed from the surrounding world.
Joining the Pilgrims is not an altogether pleasing prospect for those of us who would temperamentally prefer something less ambitious, the Confucian approach for example. The problem is that in the absence of the necessary social setting an attempt to live like an out-of-office Chinese literatus becomes an attempt to live like Thoreau, but in surroundings that are much less favorable than Walden Pond and mid-19th century Concord. There is no easy out for those who want to avoid participation in modern corruption—it has spread much too far. Modernity is intrinsically extreme, and in the long run leaves no choice but capitulation or active radicalism.