Wrestling With The Is

March 24, 2009

I see now that I’m not the first person to point this out, but Washington Monthly has an interesting take up on the short-lived life of Culture11 (Rod gets the h/t because I saw it there first).  Before saying something myself, I want to point out two things.  First, from the article itself:

“What Culture11’s editors got right was the observation that, regardless of what you think of the world as it is, you can’t figure out how to wrestle with it until you understand what’s actually happening in it.”

 And then this, from Rod’s discussion of the article:

“As Claes Ryn put it in a penetrating TAC essay, organized conservatism finds itself wrecked today because it abandoned the culture, and taught itself to see the culture only in political terms.What we’ve turned into is a slightly more sophisticated, somewhat more secular version of Joe Carter’s Christian “shit-counters.” And see, this goes back to yesterday’s discussion (which I tried to launch, but which, like every homosexuality-related thread on this blog, gets taken over by the grinds) about why churches and social conservatives have got to find some way to articulate the old verities, the permanent things, in a way that’s compelling to people in this culture. You can’t just stand there and yell, “No!” at whatever the liberals throw out there, and expect that to change minds and win hearts.” [emphasis mine — JLW]

Reminiscent of any famous conservative line from a famous conservative writer?  Pace William F. Buckley, standing athwart history yelling, “Stop!” ought not be the underlying principle of any conservative politics.  It’s a good quip, and as such, I don’t think you can claim in good faith that it was meant, as phrased, as a philosophical principle, but still — standing athwart history yelling stop can’t work, and cannot work because we live within history.  While the man who sees his calling as yelling, “Stop!” may be filling a needed role, it can’t be more than a role, and he as well as others need to accept that he will always appear somewhat like Kubrick’s Major Kong in his final moments on camera in Dr. Strangelove.

Standing athwart history means standing outside of history.  Any successful politics cannot must stand and act within history; within history is where we live.  Any successful — or even unsuccessful — conservatism must as well: isn’t it conservatism which eschews the messianic impulse toward perfection, toward removing humanity from the realm of history ourselves?  (Again, Buckley: “Don’t immanitize the eschaton.”)  And, living and acting within history, for conservatism to be successful, it must be more than yelling, “Stop!” or “No!” (though sometimes it may be justified and called for).

I don’t pretend to do more now than come at a particular aspect of what it must do, but I see it as important: it must appreciate.  The teaching of others — and learning ourselves — of appreciation of culture, and tradition: of what-is, and what-was — though by doing so we vivify the what-was and it remains the what-is.  Cultural prizes, from Homer to Chartres to Keats to those of the present day, are not past so long as they are appreciated and understood and prized.  But the last cannot happen without at least the first, and an effort made toward the second.  The cultural tradition is a living tradition: so are the political, and moral, and religious traditions of our lives; but I can better talk about it in terms of culture.  All of those discussions, of course, are different, but not so much that they can’t be understood by analogy.

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2 Responses to “Wrestling With The Is”


  1. […] is some excellent stuff in there on the dangers of optimism, too, and that last remark also got a first-rate treatment from JL Wall, who’s been doing some terrific blogging over at his place since the winter quarter […]

  2. E.D. Kain Says:

    Very well said, and very true.


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