Magazine article The American Conservative

Power without Politics

Magazine article The American Conservative

Power without Politics

Article excerpt

Reshaping America isn't all about elections.

ST. FRANCISVILLE, LA.Living in a small Southern town, it's easy to forget that politics exists.

When I was working in Washington, D.C., as a journalist in the 1990s I would return here from time to time to visit my folks. It never failed to irritate me how disconnected everyone here was. Didn't they know there had been a Republican Revolution and Speaker Gingrich was going to set everything aright? I was on Capitol Hill watching it all go down - and nobody cared to ask me what it was like. What was wrong with them?

Now that I live in my hometown, I see this disconnect not as a vice but as a virtue. A limited virtue, and a risky one: living here, it's easy to believe politics doesn't matter much and to give oneself permission to disengage. When the only political talk you hear is the Hannity-Limbaugh line, it's tempting to turn away and focus on private life.

This suits my temperament. I tend to be a decline-and-fall pessimist. Perversely enough, little makes me happier than devouring a freshly baked Spenglerian meditation on how our civilization is staggering towards decrepitude. But then I think about a dinner I had a decade or so ago in my Brooklyn apartment. As usual, my guests and I were decrying the decline of Christianity. One of us, a Catholic priest, agreed that our gloom and doom was justified but accused us of lacking perspective.

"You only see the rot, and it is very real," he said. "But you don't see the possibilities. When I was a teenager in the '70s, the only option you had for catechism was the liberal priests and nuns in the parish. Nowadays, you can go online, tonight, and have Amazon.com send you in less than a week a theological library that Aquinas could only have dreamed of. Do you realize how fantastic that is?"

He went on, talking about how our contemporary age, for all its chaos and breakdown, also contained the seeds of renewal - if only we had the wit to see what was in front of us.

People who think small towns are a refuge from the crises of our civilization are deluded. You're probably better off here than living in a city, but you see the same patterns of social change, including the same dysfunction and pathologies. When I was a kid, out-ofwedlock childbirth, unemployability, and intergenerational poverty were almost wholly black problems. Not anymore. The barrier between healthy and diseased doesn't follow the color line.

To whom can we look for relief? The government? Please. Politics? The Republicans and the Democrats are, to paraphrase the poet, ignorant armies clashing by night.

Besides, the rot is not primarily a political problem. You can't pass laws to change the character of individuals or communities. Given the realities of our postmodern, post-Christian culture, the best we can hope is to create a legal and political framework in which people are free to make good choices.

But how to choose? This is the heart of our collective dilemma: we have come to value choice over what is chosen.

It's wrong to yield to fear and paralysis. As Gandalf counseled Frodo, we are not responsible for saving the world, but we are responsible for doing what we can in the time in which we are given. That's moral realism. And as the philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre counseled the readers of After Virtue, the time may come when people of good will lose faith in a debased system and look elsewhere to construct "new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. …

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