The German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) was renowned for his ethical deliberations. Although his real concentration was the impenetrable intellectual forest known as phenomenology, he took the moral and ethical realm intensely seriously, writing such works as On Man’s Place in the Cosmos.
Alas, he could have also written a book called “On Man’s Place in the Pink Pussycat’s VIP Lounge.”
I learned this last year from a wonderful — and more dignified — article in the Wall Street Journal written by Roger Kimball, the editor of The New Criterion (in which I made my first appearance last month). When Scheler was confronted with the apparently blatant hypocrisy of his playing Iggy-the-Bongo with women not his wife, Kimball tells us, Scheler reportedly responded, “the sign that points to Boston, doesn’t have to go there.” In other words, one can legitimately point out the right thing, even if one doesn’t do it him or herself.
I kept thinking about this story as I read numerous e-mails that came in from readers dismayed at my apparent hypocrisy. I wrote a piece for the magazine about Hollywood values last week (“Just Like Ozzie and Harriet“) in which I criticized Hollywood types for encouraging a lifestyle that few people could afford.
“Didn’t you just declare that you were moving in with a woman two columns ago?” asked several shocked, angry, disappointed, or disturbingly prurient readers. “Are you really living in sin?” asked a couple of others.
Well, yes, I did. Yes, I am. Yes, I do (in fact we now live in the same building as Christopher Hitchens, Betty Friedan, and Adam Clymer; how’s that for irony?).
Putting aside the horrific notion that I am a role model for anybody, this is a perfect opportunity to raise a non-Floridian topic of pressing concern to conservatives in the 21st century. More importantly, it will allow me to hash out some issues I need to think about (I’ve been talking with a publisher about a book on conservatism in the digital age and I gotta start firing the neurons on this stuff).
Remember the whole “True Love Waits” push for neo-celibacy? It came out around the same time as all that Promise Keepers stuff. It was, and is, a good thing. A bunch of young people pledged to wait until marriage before they made like Max Scheler on a gallon of Schnapps at the Haus der Hinterteile. While it’s almost impossible for me to say this without sounding condescending, I say good for them.
But, as far as I am concerned, true love is, at best, patient.
Figuring out what is morally acceptable behavior, though not simple, is comparatively easy for devoutly religious conservatives. They have this set of handy instructions called the Bible that has a pretty clear list of do’s and don’ts — though not as clear as some might think. But for more secular conservatives, answering the right versus wrong questions is a lot more difficult. Secular conservatives aren’t necessarily atheists — I’m not one — but they do draw their conservative principles from a different wellspring than Divine authority alone.
So it’s tough to find a path which doesn’t descend into one slippery slope or another. On the one hand, we generally dislike secular humanism and despise moral relativism. As Leo Strauss, hardly a religious conservative, wrote, “If our principles have no other support than our blind preferences, everything a man is willing to dare will be permissible.” And we respect religion institutionally and intrinsically: “The crisis of the Western world exists to the degree in which it is indifferent to God,” wrote Whittaker Chambers.
On the other hand, non-religious conservatives live within the mainstream culture more. Don’t get me wrong. Unlike, say, the editors of the New York Times, it is abundantly clear to me that religious conservatives are often extremely sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and — yes — hip people. But it’s fair to say that their antagonism to modern American popular culture flows more completely and authentically from their religious convictions than from their ideology alone.
In a sense this is a mirror of the general tension between the neoconservatives and the other branches of conservatism. The main problem with the neocons (Full disclosure: My neocon membership card has expired and I don’t go to the meetings anymore, but I do read their brilliant newsletters, e.g., Commentary and the Public Interest) is that they feel compelled to run thousands of studies and analyze reams of data-sets to confirm what was commonsense a century ago.
A point that a lot of thoughtful orthodox conservatives — and un-thoughtful reactionaries, cranks, zealots, nostalgists, and rearview-mirror utopians — don’t give enough consideration to is the fact that the common sense is found in the principle, not necessarily in the practice. For example, a rationalist would say it is silly for a judge to wear black robes and sit on a high bench; we all know he’s the judge after all. But the reality is that we need some way of showing that judges are neutral (hence the unadorned robes) and authoritative (hence sitting above the combatants), and these traditions do exactly that. It may seem like a silly tradition, but tradition is what puts meat on the bones of principle.
Still, time changes traditional practices. It doesn’t change the principle. Conservatism is about eternal Truths, not small “t” truths which change from college seminar to college seminar. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of crimes–from horse stealing and barn-burning to excessive mopery and night-putting with the dean’s daughter–that were punishable by death. The principles–that the death penalty is just and that crimes must be punished–endure even if the practices implementing those principles have evolved.
Or take romance. Wendy Shalit, in her book A Return to Modesty, writes wistfully about how we should reestablish Victorian England here in America (See “Conservatism Without History“. She would love it if we could live in a society where courting rituals last longer than a flight to Australia seated between Mario Cuomo and Dan Rather. What Shalit and other rear-view utopians (yes, I am trying to invent a phrase) fail to recognize is that rituals lose their meaning, and hence their usefulness, if they simply become theater or kitsch. Hollywood liberals, to cite one group worthy of picking on, likes to make a big show of getting married. They are just vastly less concerned with staying married. Judges in the old Soviet Union had robes and sat on high benches (I think) but they were neither neutral nor were they authoritative. Kings killed lots of people, but the principle of justice was, at best, poorly represented in the process.
My point, if I have one, is that the one need not be doctrinaire as long as one is mindful of what the doctrines are there for. I’m not for dispensing with formalities, but I am not about to let formalities get in the way of the principles they are designed to protect.
In my case, I have spent years courting this one person. I went out and bought a piece of crystallized carbon that could have paid for lifetimes of DiGiorno rising-crust pizzas. Without this rock — and the promise it confirms — she would never have moved into an apartment with me. I am perfectly willing to say in a perfect world we’d be married before we lived together. But we do not live in a perfect world, we live in this one. And in this world we know the sign points to Boston and that’s where we’re heading. We’re just taking our own route.