Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Rebels without a Cause

I don’t know what a 21st Century American theocracy would look like and I certainly hope neither I nor my heirs will ever find out, but I doubt if most conservatives would really like the reality of a no-fooling-around American Crusader state. The German conservatives from whom our rightists derive many of their ideas didn’t necessarily want the gangster regime that emerged from the last great defeat of liberalism, either, though their support was essential to the triumph of the Nazis. People like Carl Schmitt, Martin Heidegger, and Hans Freyer were far clearer on what they hated about soulless modernity and parliamentary government than on what kind of new dispensation could underlie a new and unified Germany. People whose political program amounts to waiting for a miracle aren’t likely to be very choosy. Which is probably also accounts for the surprising enthusiasm so many conservatives evince for authoritarian forms of traditional religion. It isn’t that any of these decrepit belief systems have become even slightly more plausible over the last decades—if anything, just the reverse. What has changed is the level of cultural anxiety. The right doesn’t know what it wants. It just knows that it wants it very badly. If you’re impatient enough for the Second Coming, you can even manage to be rapturous about the Reverend Moon.

For a long period after the end of the Second World War, conservatives in America and Europe accepted that welfare state capitalism and the extension of human rights to minorities were irresistible and that a meaningful conservatism should dedicate itself to preserving what remained valid in tradition while countering the utopian and potentially despotic tendencies of the dogmatic Left. That’s not enough any more.

Unfortunately, the real enemy of these folks is not the political ideology of liberalism, but social, economic, and cultural trends that are far more stubborn than a few Democrats. Religious enthusiasm can perhaps cow the feminists, but it doesn’t change the fact that the economy depends on everybody working. One can resist gay marriage and call for family values, but the demographic fact that most people aren’t going to have more than a kid or two isn’t going to change. Kansas may not teach evolution to high school kids, but using religious politics to squelch the autonomy of the sciences gets self-defeating very quickly. Does anybody really think that the spiritual situation of the age is going to be fundamentally altered by outlawing condoms and stem-cell research?

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