What Are Conservatives Conserving, Exactly?

"Men may redeem the time only if they apprehend the timeless." - Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk, widely regarded as the "father of American conservatism", didn't confine his writing only to questions of political philosophy -- he also wrote ghostly tales. He did not consider these two occupations to be at all unrelated to one another. He was a keen advocate of cultivating what he called the "moral imagination". Indeed, his posthumously published memoir was even titled The Sword of Imagination. His ghostly tales often illustrate, or at least reflect, his concerns for what it is about our lives that is worth conserving.

One of Kirk's ghostly short stories is called Ex Tenebris. In it he tells the story of Mrs. Oliver, "an ancient little woman with a nose that very nearly meets her chin". Mrs. Oliver is a widow who lives in a dying little village of the kind we routinely now find in what is often derisively called "fly-over country".

"In the last sound cottage lives Mrs. Oliver...She wears a countrywoman's cloak of the old pattern, and weeds her garden, and sometimes walks as far as the high-arched bridge which, built long before the cottages, has survived them."

Thus Kirk paints a picture of a small decaying village in which a single lonely widow occupies the last remaining "sound cottage" and goes about her simple life tending her garden and taking a walk now and then.

Mrs. Oliver, to whom we will return momentarily, came to my mind this week when a different "Oliver" bolted into fame and provoked an intense debate about what might be worth conserving.  A young man named Oliver Anthony became famous almost over night when a local radio station uploaded a video recording of him singing one of his songs - Rich Men North of Richmond. My own initial thoughts about him and his song can be found here. As of this writing Oliver Anthony's song has more than 17 million views on YouTube and three of his songs now occupy slots in the iTunes top 10.  No one had ever even heard of him just one week ago.

Both the fictional Mrs. Oliver and Oliver Anthony are from small communities with the young Mr. Anthony hailing from Farmville, Virginia, population 7,202. Mrs. Oliver, as we shall see momentarily, is being victimized by a government bureaucrat who has decided that, for reasons of economic and bureaucratic efficiency, she should be run out of her cottage and village and forced to adopt a different lifestyle, one more in keeping with the preferences of the bureaucratic class.  Mr. Anthony draws upon similar themes in his song lyrics, sharply blaming the political class ("rich men north of Richmond") for pursuing policies which they themselves prefer, but which are inimical to the needs of working class Americans.

The coastal elites, who currently maintain a death grip on the levers of institutional power, were quick to deny any significance to the reaction received by Mr. Anthony's songs, even as those same elites openly try to dig up dirt to discredit him.

But it wasn't just the left that objected to Mr. Anthony's point of view. The conservative establishment, no less than National Review, pooh-poohed Mr. Anthony as well:

I don’t understand the adulation on the right for this song’s message...

The executive editor of the very magazine which heralded Russell Kirk as one of its original writers, admonished Mr. Anthony that he should just perk up and take a different job somewhere else, because the political class is merely a symptom of our problems, and one which can be safely ignored. Politicos in Washington, the editor suggested, certainly have no culpability for any of the obstacles being faced by the working class in general, or Mr. Anthony in particular.

The sensibility on display by the editor at National Review is, sad to say, very far afield from the conservatism envisioned by Russell Kirk. In his memoir, Dr. Kirk reflects on the words of Sir Walter Scott who had remarked, about the liberal politicians in his own day, that they "will live and die in the belief that the world is governed by little tracts and pamphlets". Kirk elaborated on Scott's ideas, suggesting that what Scott was decrying was the tendency of the liberals of his day "to leave out of their reckoning some of the deeper longings and instincts of the human heart, relying wholly upon private rationality and appeals to self-interest. But really the world is governed, in any age, not by rationality but by faith: by love, loyalty, and imagination." Alas, the tone deaf reaction of National Review to Mr. Anthony's song reflects the purely economic lens through which even establishment conservatives have now come to conceive of historically conservative concerns. They are curiously blind to the underlying, non-economic undercurrent of Mr. Anthony's song and of historically conservative concerns themselves. Mr. Anthony is not lamenting his inability to get rich, he is lamenting the obstacles placed in his way when trying to preserve an approach to his life, and an attachment to his place. Those obstacles, he suggests, are put there as a result of policy actions taken by the political class. (As an aside, those actions have also restructured our economy in such a way that our national strategic vulnerability has greatly increased: we have been made dependent on our own adversaries for everything from energy to medicine to rare earth minerals.) Mr. Anthony's song reflects an intuition that we are not merely here to maximize our own ability to consume things. Nor are we here merely to be fodder for taxes.

Dr. Kirk observed that "an intense preoccupation with economic questions - productivity is all! - has afflicted the liberals from the closing years of the eighteenth century to those of the twentieth century". Could anything more closely describe the sensibilities of those who are now generally described as conservative politicians?

By contrast, in one of Mr. Anthony's very first public statements, he observed that "You weren't just born to pay bills and die." Perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves at this point that the political elite will quite happily refer to the rest of us as "consumers" or "taxpayers", but almost never as "citizens". Maybe Mr. Anthony is onto something. Just a guess.

Dr. Kirk wrote that "Men may redeem the time only if they apprehend the timeless...The real aims of the game of politics are order and justice and freedom, not the winning of polls and primaries." Nor, I might add, the amassing of fortunes. Mr. Anthony has apparently synthesized, from his own experience and his own eyes, that there are some timeless things which are being sorely neglected. With his poet's sensibility he has turned his observations into a catalog of songs. But the longstanding conservative concerns expressed in his songs are apparently no longer comprehensible to the editors at National Review.

The globalization mania in pursuit of economic efficiency has not been uniformly beneficial. Suggesting that everyone should, or could, happily uproot, leaving home and family, to find work in a foreign culture - coastal urban areas are a foreign and unappealing culture to many Americans - reflects the kind of smug cosmopolitanism that used to characterize only the left.

Which brings us back to our aged widow, Mrs. Oliver.

Mrs. Oliver's nemesis in Kirk's Ex Tenebris is "Mr. S.G.W. Barner, Planning Officer."  Mr. Barner is an officious bureaucrat who is concerned that his policies and plans be fulfilled, and views the likes of Mrs. Oliver as nothing so much as an obstacle to efficiency. "On Mr. Barner's maps of the future, there remained no vexatious dots to represent cottages by the old bridge, nor was there any cross to represent the derelict church."  Thus Dr. Kirk paints a picture of stereotypical government bureaucrats whose interests diverge from the interests of those people over whose lives and fortunes they hold great power. Reading Kirk's character development of Mr. Barner, one is reminded of nothing so much as the complaint in the Declaration of Independence that "He has sent forth swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance."

Mr. Barner finds Mrs. Oliver, private citizen and property owner, an obstacle to his plans, as he also finds the local church nearby. Such a story, one which posits a government bureaucracy that will align itself against both its citizens and the church, is one that seems quite prescient in light of recent events. Spookily prescient.

Mrs. Oliver's good fortune in acquiring her little cottage next to the old church has brought good health, joy, and vitality to her existence. Social planners like Mr. Barner see her only as an obstacle needing to be managed (the reader won't be surprised to learn) by someone like himself. But his plans for maximizing social efficiency, of course, were not in the interest of the elderly widow he was determined to displace.

The hero of the story, if you will call him that, is a ghostly vicar who can only be seen and heard by Mrs. Oliver and Mr. Barner. The vicar has apparently been sent to defend the interests of the widow - something the biblically literate will easily recognize as an item that has always been very high on God's list of priorities. The vicar has resolved to put a stop to Barner's bureaucratic depredations. He allows Mr. Barner the chance to relent from his officious ways, but he is prepared - even eager - to resolve the issue by force if the opportunity presents itself.

"Who are you, sir,' the vicar went on – his throat seemingly dry as an oven – 'and what am I, to meddle with an old woman's longing?  She called me from a great way to do her this service: and I must have your charity, or else you must seek mine, and now I have none to give. "Cursed is he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless and the widow."  Do you know the verse which stands next to that man?  It is this: "Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbor secretly." In the universe are vicars of more sorts than one, but I am bound by special ordinances; and therefore I entreat you, sir, to call it to mind that this woman's house is as the breath of life to her.  The breath of life, man. Think what that means!"'

Kirk suggests that awareness of the importance of human longing and love of place and community, and a way of life and livelihood that connects family and neighbors, is central to the conservative mind. These are things well-worth conserving. All the economic efficiency and money in the world are ashes by comparison.

What is it then, exactly, that the modern conservative establishment hopes to conserve?  Anything at all beyond their own sinecures?  It is curiously hard to tell.

In Mr. Anthony's first concert since his recording blew up the internet, he opened with these words from Psalm 37.

The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.

14 The wicked draw the sword
and bend the bow
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those whose ways are upright.
15 But their swords will pierce their own hearts,
and their bows will be broken.

16 Better the little that the righteous have
than the wealth of many wicked;
17 for the power of the wicked will be broken,
but the Lord upholds the righteous.
18 The blameless spend their days under the Lord’s care,
and their inheritance will endure forever.
19 In times of disaster they will not wither;
in days of famine they will enjoy plenty.

20 But the wicked will perish:
Though the Lord’s enemies are like the flowers of the field,
they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke.

Mr. Anthony struggled against tears at the end of the reading.

Now why do you think he would do that? We can be confident the editors at National Review will draw a total blank.

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