Some years ago I wrote a post on what I called “the absolutizing of fright”:
I have the same questions about the notorious “Flight 93 Election” essay, which says “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” And also says, “a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto.” And also says, “we are headed off a cliff.” Later our pseudonymous author says that conservatives will be “persecuted,” will be “crushed,” and under a Hillary presidency America will be “doomed.” But what precisely is he talking about? It’s absolutely impossible to tell. He doesn’t give even a hint.
Under a Clinton presidency, would socially-conservative evangelical Christians like me have been fired from our jobs, driven from our homes by the military, and sent to re-education camps? Would we have been forced to sign some sort of Pledge of Allegiance to the Sexual Revolution, under threat of imprisonment? What?
This kind of rhetoric — featuring an undefined alarm and an undefined response to that alarm — has if anything escalated and spread since then. For instance, in a recent essay Paul Kingsnorth talks about allowing the concept of “the West” to die:
Maybe we need to let this concept fall away. To let it crumble so that we can see what lies beneath. Stop all the ‘fighting’ to preserve something nobody can even define, something which has long lost its heart and soul. Stop clinging to the side of the sinking hull as the band plays on. We struck the iceberg long ago; it must be time, at last, to stop clinging to the shifting metal. To let go and begin swimming, out towards the place where the light plays on the water. Just out there. Do you see? Beyond; just beyond. There is something waiting out there, but you have to strike out to reach it. You have to let go.
I have never been sure what people mean by “the West” either, so I hold no brief for the term. But Kingsnorth’s counsel? I have absolutely no idea what he might mean. I can’t even guess. It’s in the same disaster-porn mode as “The Flight 93 Election,” though Kingsnorth features a sinking ocean liner rather than a crashing plane. But I don’t understand the image. I don’t know how it translates into beliefs or actions, though whatever it means, it’s consistent with having a Substack, I guess. Might it also be consistent with preserving and transmitting the best ideas and the greatest achievements of those cultures that we typically identify with “the West”?
Along similar lines: last year Jon [not Josh, as I earlier wrote] Askonas published an essay called “Why Conservatism Failed,” in which he wrote, “We can no longer conserve. So we must build and rebuild and, therefore, take a stand on what is worth building.” I don’t understand this either. If you’re rebuilding something aren’t you conserving some elements of it — or at the very least the memory and the idea of it?
And can we really “no longer conserve”? To conserve is surely to inherit or discover something of value and then attempt (a) keep it in good condition when you can, (b) repair it when it needs repair, and (c) pass it along to the next generation. I’ve been doing that my entire adult life, in a thousand ways. I’ve tried to teach my son the manners, morals, and convictions that I learned from the family I married into. I hope he’ll teach them to his children. I have taught and written in defense and celebration of the great books that previous generations preserved for me; of certain strenuous but also illuminating and life-giving ways of reading; of the rich inheritance of liturgy and hymnody that the churches in my life have introduced me to; of the world-centering and world-transforming story of Jesus Christ. I hope that those I have taught will receive all this as their inheritance and in their turn preserve and transmit it. Many, many others I know have done the same work. Is this not conserving?
Askonas writes that “we are living after tradition” — but are we? I have received rich and wonderful traditions, have been blessed by them, and work for their perpetuation. Askonas also writes, “Those who look to build a human future have been freed from a rearguard defense of tradition to take up the path of the guerrilla, the upstart, the nomad.” Again: what does this mean? Like me, Askonas is a professor at an American university. How is this being a “nomad”? How is this being a “guerrilla”? Those seem like better descriptors for these guys.
Like Paul Kingsnorth, Askonas is speaking an imagistic language that strongly resists translation into specific beliefs and practices. Even when he suggests the possibility of “wild new technological practices,” it’s impossible to tell whether he’s referring to biotechnology, information technology, architecture, infrastructure — it could be anything, or nothing. The sheer abstraction is stultifying.
Are our circumstances difficult? In some ways, sure. I’m sympathetic with T. S. Eliot’s view:
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
But at many points in the history of the traditions I have gratefully received, the conditions seemed (indeed were) even less propitious. And yet the faithfulness of those who loved those traditions was not exercised in vain.
My friend Tim Larsen speaks of the cacophony of new faiths that sprang up in America in the first half of the nineteenth century as “do-over religions.” Some of the language in the pieces I have been quoting sounds like the rhetoric of a do-over religion, and I fear that to think in this way is to despise the great work of our faithful elders and faithful ancestors. My concern is that writers like Kingsnorth and Askonas have not tried conservation and found it impossible, but found it challenging and left it untried.
On the Netflix series High on the Hog, in the episode “The Rice Kingdom,” the food historian Michael W. Twitty makes a crab and okra soup — okra of course being a vegetable that slaves brought from West Africa — and comments, “Despite the fact that we were in hell, that we were being worked to death, we created a cuisine.” And note that that cuisine depended on elements of old food traditions that they had conserved — conserved in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable. I concluded my recent essay on Albert Murray by quoting the great man on just this point:
And man prevails through his style, through his elegance, through his control of forces. Not through his power, but through his control. People who confuse art with attack forget that what art is mainly concerned about is … form, and adequate form, and the artist is the first to know when a form is no longer as serviceable as it was. You see? And that’s what innovation is about. He’s trying to keep that form going, and he finds it necessary to extend, elaborate it, and refine it; to adjust it to new situations. That’s what innovation is about. It’s not to get rid of something simply to be getting rid of it, or to turn something around. It’s to continue something that is indispensable.
A people who underwent centuries of slavery could think this way, could create all that they have created, but we can’t conserve? Tradition is over? Give me a break.
But maybe this rhetoric not what it sounds like. Maybe it’s more constructive than it sounds. But because of the relentless vagueness of the imagery, the hand-waving abstraction, I can’t tell. So what I wonder is this: By the lights of this new do-over religion, what, specifically, should I be doing instead of what I have been doing? Until I find out, I’m going to keep practicing piety.