“The Awful Responsibility of Time” (or, Robert Penn Warren’s Advice to Dissident Conservatives)

September 3, 2010

I know he’s probably sick of everyone talking about him by now, but E.D. Kain’s recent talk about abandoning the conservative label began to remind me about a similar moment his colleague William had a few years ago (not leading, in the end, to a permanent abandoning of the word), which sent me looking through a bunch of old posts to see my responses to him, and to see what my own struggles with labels looked like then.  What William wrote then, I think, deserves being quoted again:

Conservatism, broadly construed, is dedicated to a certain kind of story about our political life, just as the liberalism is dedicated to its own story. To say “I am a conservative” or “I am a liberal” is to endorse a story. And the mainstream of the conservative movement, right now, is advancing a certain interpretation of that story.

So what do you do when the genre turns ugly? You don’t stay silent; you tell a better story. You take the various codes and tropes, and you learn how to make them compelling again.

You reclaim the word by reclaiming the genre.

Changing it through telling stories, through reclaiming the genre, makes it (to my ear) sound easier than it probably is.  But I don’t mind that.  It’s reassuring—it doesn’t seem impossible.

The story that needs to be rebutted is that which has come out of the weird afterlife of Buckley’s invocation to “Stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop!’”  While from a certain perspective it’s admirable just as was Hektor’s defense of Troy despite knowing it would inevitably fall.  Society changes; someone has to caution—someone has to lay the gadfly.  But this requires one to accept that yelling, “Stop!” is an act doomed to failure.  History will not stop because it cannot stop.

Without that realization, when the image lapses into dogma, the problem arises, as I’ve said before:

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).

The story that needs to be told now, after all, is one that has already been told.  In that regard, I suppose, we’re fortunate.  It’s the story of Jack Burden’s hard-won wisdom in the beautiful closing paragraph of All the King’s Men:

We shall come back, no doubt, to walk down the Row and watch young people on the tennis courts by the clump of mimosas and walk down the beach by the bay, where the diving floats lift gently in the sun, and on out to the pine grove, where the needles thick on the ground will deaden the footfall so that we shall move among the trees as soundlessly as smoke.  But that will be a long time from now, and soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

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