Postmodern Conservative

Let It Go (Shake It Off)

Let me begin by making an obvious point that unites all genuinely postmodern conservatives. The Confederate battle flag has no place in American public life or the “public square.” It’s true that the courage and heroism of Confederate soldiers are part of our memory. And so I’m okay with a good number of our military installations being named after Confederate generals, including really bad generals (Fort Bragg).

Turning to South Carolina in particular: There’s just no denying that the flag is a reminder of a “regime” all about the whites enslaving the blacks and then perpetuating the badge of slavery through segregation. And today, the presence of the flag on public grounds is a reminder to blacks that, in some ways, whites still rule, insofar as virtually no black citizen of the state would consent to such a display. It’s too close to the truth to say that South Carolina has a white political party (the Republicans) and a black one (the Democrats). I know it’s not the truth simply, and I can see, of course, that South Carolina even has a black Republican senator. But the effort exemplified by that success is still in its infancy. The great project in statesmanship of the Southern Republican party is to become a party of black and white together defending policies that aren’t about race or racist memories. It’s clear to me that most Southern Republicans want that, but not all. In the name of this undeniable progress, it’s time for South Carolina (and us all) to, when it comes to every effort to be defensive about what the flag and the Confederacy stand for, “shake it off” or “let it go.” This is not the time to be arguing over the true causes of a war that ended 150 years ago, at least not in public. (It’s okay over a few beers or in the classroom (where no topic should be off limits.)

When it comes to race, Americans have maybe the most reason to celebrate progress in the direction of justice. And when I argue with libertarian constitutional theorists, I make a point of emphasizing our agreement on the true ground of that progress. When I criticize Democratic technocratic–big government progressivists, I always work in that I’m with you completely when it comes to the greatness of the accomplishments on behalf of black citizenship and opportunity of LBJ in 1964 and 1965, as well as admiring the courage and resolution of that “proud man of Morehouse” MLK. To avoid getting bogged down in some argument irrelevant to my point here, let me add that honoring the greatness of a man (or woman) doesn’t require believing that he was perfect in every way. Lincoln and Robert E. Lee (to be as nonpartisan as I can) were far from perfect in every way.

I’ve written before that there’s a lot to be said for the Southern heroes portrayed our best popular culture today. That’s because they combine Lincoln on justice and Lee on honor. Examples include Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. It’s not so clear, after all, where our country would be without its protection by honorable and violent (and pious and patriotic) warriors — both black and white — from the South. And Coach Taylor shows us the democratized version of the Southern gentleman, a rational man of talent and virtue who is blind to all human distinctions but those based on character and talent. He’s the enemy of the oligarch (as the Southern gentleman always is), to anyone who reduces everything to money and success. I’m far from wanting Southerners blacks or whites to surrender what’s properly proud and pious about their distinctive cultural memories. But, let’s face it, all Southern nostalgia has to be selective, and it has to begin with the proposition that Lincoln and LBJ and MLK were right on justice.

Having praised what’s good about the (comparatively) honorable and violent South, let me add that it’s ridiculous to suggest that one way to resolve a basic issue of public safety is to have people go to church armed.

We postmodern conservatives try to be attentive to the ways things are always getting better and worse, which is why we don’t ignore the sad fact that decent public education is not available in too many areas of the South. It’s also why we agree with our friend Ross Douthat what the new papal encyclical lacks is balance. It is, for example, right to criticize those libertarian techno-market optimists who believe that things are basically getting better and better, who say that if we have economic growth and technological progress that both nature (or the environment) and “human ecology” (or dignified relational life) will almost inevitably flourish on their own. Still, when one of my students wrote in her paper, “as technology progress, relational life gets worse,” as if that were some kind of iron law, I knew I had failed to let her see the contributions that technological progress have made (and can make!) to personal life. Solzhenitsyn was more balanced (or less close to unwarranted hysteria) when he said that the gift of technology should be regarded as the most intricate challenge to our free will ever. The encyclical in some odd way buys into the unwarranted techno-political optimism of liberals by seriously suggesting that some global (and surely tyrannical) authority could be the ticket now.

And no Christian should simply buy into either “the decline and fall” ethic of anti-modernism or the boosterism of modernism. Air conditioning and the screen — and even finance — are far from all bad, and they have improved the lives of many virtuous family men and women. Still, the encyclical could actually have been tougher in criticizing the impulse to impose “climate control” on every human space, as well as on how the screen has removed so many from the real world of human beings into the anti-relational fantasies of games and porn. 

It’s also true that every Christian should be a bit ironic (although not too much) about all those obsessed with various forms of impending doom. That’s not to say I’m impressed by the open-mindedness of articles in the WSJ that suggest that because the pope isn’t right about everything, he isn’t right about anything. And after all it’s his job to counter the excesses of our materialistic self-obsession, which always morphs into hatred of who we are as free and relational creatures with bodies differentiated into male and female. (And so he could and should have laid into those Silicon Valley transhumanists and the soft transhumanism of the thought that each of us should be perfectly free to define the contents of his or her own identity.) It’s  his job to remind us that, with the privilege of being able to live in the truth and even remake much of nature for our personal use and enjoyment, come corresponding responsibilities. Nature — including human nature – is a gift never to be used arbitrarily or as a tool simply for manipulation or domination. That doesn’t mean we weren’t made to mix our ingenious labor with nature to make even our material lives more comfortable and secure. To say that there are moral limits to material progress doesn’t mean that material progress isn’t a human good. And the encyclical might have been more insistent, against all those pantheistic, even moderately deep ecologists, in pushing to point out that one of many truthful advances that came into the world with Christianity is the de-divinization of nature. Another is that only human creatures are distinguished by being made free, loving, relational, rational, and creative beings in the image of the Trinitarian, personal God. That’s not to say that there’s not evidence — if we know how to look — of the goodness and gratuitiousness of nature all of creation. (Actually, the encyclical is pretty eloquent on that last point.)

The encyclical does properly emphasize that to be human is to be a person with logos, a person who delights in dialoguing with other persons about the true we all share in common. And the key to accepting it as an invitation to dialogue is to surrender your defensive ideological commitments at the door. Letting it go doesn’t mean you should end up being persuaded by everything, or maybe anything, beyond the places where it truthfully affirms the anthropology (or account of human nature) that this pope inherits from his predecessors.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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