A liberal looks at the country and, in his eagerness to immanentize the eschaton, rejects well-functioning tradition for want of some high-theoretic World State. A conservative looks at the country and, in his eagerness to restore long-abandoned traditions, rejects much scientific and cultural progress for want of Duck Dynasty. Yet a healthy body politic needs both visions; liberals and conservatives are merely opposite lobes of Uncle Sam’s lungs, diseased though each may be in its own special way. Lose one to cancer, you lose a lot.
Lose both, though, and you lose everything. The Zombie Apocalypse test is apropos: What really matters after catastrophe strikes? Think of an event like Hurricane Katrina, when public order in southern Louisiana was shaky for several weeks and ordinary survival became a genuine ordeal. In such a climate, does anyone really care about “trigger warnings” or carbon footprints or into which cathole the transgendered person gets to pee? Almost all of the current causes célèbres of the Left are what kids these days call #FirstWorldProblems. The issues that progressives adore are so irrelevant to life on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy that it’s a wonder so many people invest so much time into advocating for so little substance.
Yet in that Katrina situation, the Right isn’t appreciably better. The preppers hide in their bunkers while the guys with guns take stuff from the guys with yoga mats. If public order is a long way off, you’re much more likely to end up with a descent into strongman-led tribalism, with a pecking order directly related to what you can contribute to the group in terms of rare skills or biceps size.
And therein lies the rub. Neither conservatives nor liberals currently articulate a comprehensive worldview that successfully encapsulates the value of ancient knowledge and antique skills, with a respect for the sundry joys of High Culture and a sophistication for harmonizing new insights with old wisdom. Today, we can afford to obsess about Facebook offering dozens of gender options. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who eagerly set their Facebook genders to “Cis Woman” or “Transmasculine” are unlikely to survive a week without dying of dehydration, injury or human-caused trauma. Today, we can afford to let conservatives be the voice of anti-elite sentiment. Tomorrow, when the Zombie Apocalypse comes, those same people who disdain higher education will be the first to chuck the last copy of War and Peace on the fire when the menfolk return with a fresh kill of some endangered species.
We might get lucky; we might get a world that looks like Falling Skies, with a healthy balance between warrior and academic leading the group. But we might end up with Lord of the Flies, instead. It scares me that I can’t tell which scenario is more probable.
We could, perhaps, console ourselves with the belief that the Zombie Apocalypse — a term of art, of course, for any great civilizational catastrophe — won’t occur. But such consolation is empty given the sprawling narrative of human history. The May edition of the estimable First Things included, as a feature article, “The Great War Revisited” by George Weigel. It is a masterclass narrative in a magazine that, itself, sets the high bar of literary merit.
Weigel recounts the willful blindness of world leaders in 1914. No one could quite believe that the stability of the Westphalian system could collapse so quickly and so completely in so little time, so they acted as if it couldn’t.
Consider. On January 1, 1910, Tsar Nicholas II ruled an ancient, vast, autocratic Russian empire. Kaiser Wilhelm ruled a powerful, prosperous Germany freshly ambitious after Bismarck’s consolidations a generation before. Emperor Franz Joseph ruled the elegant if creaky Austria-Hungary — since 1848, no less. The Ottomans were in control, albeit tenuously, in Istanbul and had been for more than half a millennium. The Qing Dynasty ruled a decrepit China through a monarchy with roots two millennia old. America was quiet and disinterested in foreign affairs, with William Howard Taft presiding over a prosperous, growing but inward-looking country.
On January 1, 1925 — a mere 15 years later — the Romanovs were decomposing in a shallow grave while the Soviet Union crushed internal dissidents on Stalin’s orders. Germany was a shambles, the harsh Peace of Versailles spreading misery among Germans of every stripe and depriving governments before Hitler of any real, legitimate power … thus sowing the seeds of the next major war. Austria and Hungary were cleaved apart and the last Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed VI, had been deposed while Ataturk began his secularizing work (potentially sparking the tinder of later Islamofascism, to boot). The KMT was consolidating control in a democratic China while Japanese forces still stung by the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 had correctly gauged the exhaustion of the West and plotted accordingly. The United States, after Woodrow Wilson’s collectivist war policies and internationalist exhortations, was enjoying the Roaring Twenties under Calvin Coolidge. And families across the world were still coping with the devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.
All the things that looked so permanent in 1910 had been laid waste over five years of war and a decade of ill-managed peace. An entire generation had bled to death for naught on the fields of Europe, and others — India, Japan, China — took notice. The suicide of the West took some time, but each slice of the wrist was unmistakable —
- The sinking of the Titanic (1912) — we began to doubt scientific progress
- The Guns of August (1914) — we went to war because we couldn’t find a reason not to
- The battles of Somme and Verdun and Passchendaele (1916-1917) — we killed millions knowing it was futile
- European acquiescence to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (1938) — we looked away from evil
- The Yalta Conference (1945) — we let Stalin get his spoils without a fight, condemning millions
- The Counterculture (ca. 1968) — we stopped being serious about shared culture
- The War on Terror (ca. 2001) — we over-reacted to a minor threat, then under-reacted to major threats
Imagine being a normal person born on January 1, 1890. You saw the entire world change before you greeted your first grandchild. You were born into a world without widespread automobiles, powered flight or amenities like indoor plumbing or electricity; as a child, you likely heard stories from your parents of the Civil War, the taming of the American Frontier and the era of tall ships. You lived through the Great War and World War II and the Cold War. If you lived to the ripe old age of 80, you died after seeing a man walk on the surface of the moon.
Think about that.
History is replete with moments in time where everything changed within a generation and old truths and new ideas fought bitterly for supremacy. The Great War was such an inflection point. So was the political upheaval of 1848. So were the Napoleonic Wars a generation earlier and the French Revolution that lit their fuse. So was the Reformation, starting with the 95 Theses posted in 1517 and persisting through centuries of wars of religion in Europe. So was the discovery of the New World in 1492. So were the Crusades. So were the crowning of Charlemagne, the Mongol invasions, the collapse of Rome and Constantine’s conversion to Christianity.
So why do we persist in thinking that such an earth-shattering event can never again occur? Why must we be so un-serious about the future that we can relish small-potatoes political idiocy as the world smolders while waiting for the tinder for the next world-historical dislocation?
Today’s domestic politics isn’t up to the task. Neither the Right nor the Left can articulate a coherent vision for what the world ought to look like next week, let alone a century hence.
Some of today’s more enlightened pundits — I’m thinking especially of George F. Will and Peggy Noonan — correctly note that the race for 2016 is hamstrung by both the Republicans and the Democrats lacking a consistent and comprehensive message about what they want for America. Debates currently focus on irrelevant personalities (Bill Clinton, the Koch Brothers) or on issues that aren’t really significant in the grand scale of things (marijuana legalization, the minimum wage). We’re back to small-ball politics.
But while politics is about legislative agendas, ideology is about the big picture. And on that front, all the main ideological voices in America lack a conceptual coherence that applies with equal validity and rigor to life on a college campus as well as life in a post-apocalyptic village. Ideology requires a conception of the human condition that applies regardless of any individual human’s specific condition. It requires a nuanced teleology. Ideology shapes politics, so with ideologies in disarray, it’s no surprise the our politics follows suit.
Progressive ideology spends so much time on harmonizing complex identity relationships that the framework it’s built upon cannot endure in adverse material conditions — what works in faculty lounges at Berkeley won’t work in a rural farming community in Nebraska, and certainly won’t work in a long-term survival situation. It fails the test of universal relevance. Conservative ideology lacks coherence on the big questions of life and human relationships; half of engaged conservatives appear quite willing to live within Leave It to Beaver and eschew politics entirely while the other half can’t figure out if it’s for or against the NSA, for or against starting council meetings with an invocation to Jesus, for or against vaccines. The libertarians fail to concede that humans are social animals, and that eusociality imperfectly squares with contractarian principles, so they seem like the rump at a linguistics conference that really, really wants you to believe that Esperanto is a logically superior alternative if only people would abandon their native tongues and give it a chance.
(Sneaky thought: You know who actually nails the big picture effectively? Catholics and Jews, and non-radicalized Muslims.)
I want conservatives, in particular, to advance a coherent framework that tells me what kind of America we aspire to in the year 2114. Don’t recite policy — recite the principles that policy will be shaped by. That framework will give a compelling, universal why as well as a specific answer to the tough questions we prefer to elide:
- If human life is precious, will we abolish the death penalty when we abolish abortion?
- Which is better: A well-reared child attached to two same-sex parents, or a poorly reared child of two opposite-sex parents?
- Under what circumstances will we invade a sovereign state? To acquire resources? To avert genocide? Never?
- Can we force children to get mandatory vaccination against parental consent, for diseases that could devastate large populations?
- Does human destiny reside in the United States, across the globe or among the stars?
- What should be in the public square, versus entirely private, versus private but subject to government monitoring?
- To what degree should individual risk be socialized?
- What is the purpose of a well-lived life?
- Is society stronger with a Judeo-Christian worldview, with a secular worldview or with a Greco-Roman ambivalence about religion?
- To what degree should a person be required know how to change a tire, raise a garden or build a fire in the backcountry?
- What is the point at which we agree that gulf between “have” and “have not” is too wide to tolerate?
- How do we balance libertarian autonomy with the stabilizing power of society’s little platoons, without rendering either useless?
- At what point does market inequality amount to de facto duress for the economically disadvantaged?
- What is the proper response to a person who is biologically female but professes to be male in gender?
- To what degree are people free to make choices that may not redound to their long-term advantage (smoking pot, eating too many cheeseburgers, avoiding dental exams, driving without a seatbelt, etc.)?
We can hope that the Zombie Apocalypse never comes, despite history’s ample lessons. But while we maintain this foolish hope, will we think prudently about what kind of life ought to persist between our cyclical catastrophes, or will we duck our heads in the sand and continue pretend that today’s hot-button social issues really do have meaning?