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Red America, blue America. It’s a crude categorization, but useful. According to Rachel Lu, the red tribe is the tribe of traditional, transcendent bourgeois values, while the blue tribe is the tribe of neo-Epicureanism, which by its nature is shallow and tepid. According to Charles Murray, the red tribe professes traditional values while struggling to practice them, while the blue tribe, for the most part, lives out these values while failing to profess them. According to Mark Regnerus, when it comes to the specific traditional values of chastity and stable family formation, while both tribes are far from paragons, on average the red tribe fails a lot harder than the blue tribe does, even though it’s the red tribe, not the blue, which promulgates language like “chastity” and “family values”. If you stop looking at averages though, something interesting happens: the red tribe splits. Red-tribe children who inherit exceptional amounts of social capital (which arises from networks of shared social norms, including trust and reciprocity) are more sexually virtuous than their blue peers, while red-tribe children with low social capital are so much less sexually virtuous than their blue peers that it drags the whole red average down below that of the blue.
This sexual split points to a more general split among conservatives: the red tribe can be crudely divided into two tribes, both of whom profess a zeal for cultural capital, but only one of which has secure access to cultural capital. (There’s not complete agreement on what social and cultural capital are, but for this essay, cultural capital includes social capital, along with other accumulated cultural riches.) As much as blue-tribe language tends to denigrate the value of the West’s cultural capital, blue-tribe children enjoy better access to that capital than many red-tribe children do. However, there’s a class of purple children – typically red-tribe children raised in blue milieus – who achieve cultural-capital royalty: whatever struggles they face, access to cultural goods, whether moral, intellectual, or aesthetic, isn’t really one of them. They inherit not just the red-tribe zeal for cultural capital, but blue-tribe access to it, an access which differs not only in quantity (more of it) from average red access, but also in kind (probably less NASCAR and more Shakespeare – brows a little higher rather than lower).
Blue-tribe access to it. How does the blue tribe maintain good access to something it publicly professes not to value much? Evidently, it must be by doing rather than saying. Culture isn’t just something you have worthy or unworthy opinions about, it’s also something you do. And a lot of blues still do it, even if their opinions about why it’s worth doing are unworthy. To be too much in enmity with the blues is to put yourself at odds with many of the vehicles still left for passing on the great achievements of our culture. Reds routinely decry the corruption of academic and arts organizations, for example, but so far have had scanty success forming organizations of their own to pass down the treasure of Western knowledge and beauty. For all the nonsense on college campuses, for all the schlock modern arts organizations promote, colleges still harbor teachers with genuine love for whatever little corner of Western heritage is their expertise and arts organizations still exhibit works of transcendent beauty. These dreaded blue, “elitists” milieus might make piss-poor advocates of the traditions they enjoy, but many in these milieus still enjoy aspects of those traditions, and in enjoying them, keep them going, at least for another generation.
Another Murray, Douglas Murray, worries about the suicidality of Western elites, sensing in their blue hearts neither political nor aesthetic zeal for the transcendent cultural values he is so zealous for:
In particular, it [the art of our time] has given up that desire to connect us to something like the spirit of religion or that thrill of recognition – what Aristotle termed anagnorisis – which grants you the sense of having just caught up with a truth that was always waiting for you.
It may be that this sense only occurs if you tap into a profound truth and that the desire to do so is something of which artists, like almost everyone else, have become suspicious or incapable.
Murray is, like many well-educated and successful conservatives, a purple princeling, enjoying both red zeal for his culture and blue access to it. When your zeal is especially ardent, the gap between your zeal and insufficient zeal can seem so great that insufficient zeal seems like no zeal at all. The most zealous of the purple tribe seem prone to a despair born from outstanding love. This despair for their culture is realistic, they argue: the elites’ blue heart are frozen hearts, whose love for their own culture is dead. But, to paraphrase Wodehouse, if you’re so warm-hearted you should have to wear asbestos vests, how good are you at telling a frozen heart from one that’s merely tepid?
Tepid isn’t good enough. But neither is it as bad as freezing to death. According to Roger Scruton, “[T]he Left is united by hatred, but we are united by love: love of our country, love of institutions, love of the law, love of family, and so on. And what makes us conservatives is the desire to protect those things, and we’re up against people who want to destroy them, and it’s very simple.” If Lu’s formulation is correct, though, and the blue tribe is a bunch of neo-Epicureans, while it’s obvious there are blue haters out there, it seems unlikely that the blue tribe would be united by hatred: Epicureanism is too tepid to love fiercely, but that’s not the same as hating. While I suspect many blue individuals harbor yearnings which transcend Epicureanism, I agree Lu’s label “neo-Epicureanism” is a fair description of what blues as a whole can admit to having in common with one another. Some blues are colder than Epicurean, and in my personal experience (perhaps I’m just lucky), several are warmer. But whatever the temperature of individual blue hearts, the blue elites as a population strike conservatives as spoiled and listless, listless even unto death from the perspective of the most warm-hearted conservatives.
This listlessness, even if it’s not suicidal, entails a certain cruelty. It seems to me that conservatives are split on whether this cruelty is deliberate or inadvertent. Those who side with Scruton see it as deliberate, as hatred. I see it as inadvertent. This cruelty involves having – often controlling – access to the West’s cultural wealth, but failing to “spread the wealth around”, as it were. Charles Murray calls it blues failing to preach what they practice. Purple conservatives may merely feel cruelly isolated, little islands of red zeal awash in a blue ocean that’s teeming with cultural capital but coolly indifferent to its own riches. To “angry red” conservatives (“angry red” describes an oranger red hue untinged by blue) more alienated from the cultural capital blues enjoy, blues’ unwillingness to advocate for the West’s cultural heritage despite enjoying it for themselves seems far more sinister:
If you’re deep purple, because your access to the riches of Western culture is secure, you can more easily bond with blues over preservation of that culture, even if the blues are only preserving it for Epicurean reasons. The bond may come so easily that it’s easy to overlook that these blues are cooperating with you to sustain something you love: instead, what’s easiest to notice is that they do not love it as you do. The warmer your purple heart, the more understandable it is to feel lonely in your transcendent zeal among a bunch of Epicureans. Nonetheless, you’re not alienated. If you’re angry red, though, your access to these cultural riches is not secure. You’re more likely to be alienated, to feel cut off from the cultural capital that blues still enjoy and hence pass on, even if blues haven’t got a grand defense for why they pass it on. Indeed, the fact that blues still enjoy it and pass it on makes it seem as if blues are asserting their power to take your culture away from you!
A purple conservative might meet a blue Shakespeare enthusiast and thinks of the blue’s enthusiasm, “Awesome, Shakespeare!” In this scenario, shared love of as little as one strand of the West’s heritage can serve as a common bond, despite politics, opening the way for a cooperation which actually does quite a bit to pass on that heritage. Angry red conservatives meeting a blue Shakespeare enthusiast are more likely to suspect the blue’s enthusiasm of corrupting and depriving – “The blues took our jobs and our guns, now they’re taking our Shakespeare, too!” That is, if they can even conceive of Shakespeare as “theirs” anymore. When your own connection to your cultural heritage feels insecure and alienating, the defensive posture that views what might just be a cultural interest in common as attacking and subverting the last shreds left of your culture is much easier to adopt. This goes for moral alienation, too. Angry reds, deprived of blue levels of social capital, feel abandoned and morally threatened by current culture – unprotected.
Blues tend to suspect that angry reds’ alienation from both social capital and the West’s higher culture is, at bottom, angry reds’ choice. Angry reds must not be interested, blues think. Angry reds must even be opposed leading civilized lives! After all, if they weren’t opposed, wouldn’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and join the civilized world? The red tribe prides itself on being the bootstrapping tribe, after all.
Even the most pencil-pushing of libertarian economists, though, acknowledge that it’s harder to get more capital when you’ve got less capital to begin with, something which applies to cultural capital, too. Blues, if they know any reds at all, probably know purple reds, not angry reds. Purples largely share blues’ cultural capital, and until quite recently, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to blues that angry reds might differ from purples in this respect without having chosen turn their backs on civilizing culture. To blues, it seems as if angry reds are angry because they’re petty, bigoted, shiftless, and ignorant through willful perversity, which is of course a remarkably cruel way to view your fellow countrymen, far crueler than merely leaving a purple heart a little lonesome in its zeal. Meanwhile, angry reds have cultural zeal that, without adequate cultural capital, is hard to know what to do with, resulting in a touchy pride which, as far as the blues are concerned, affirms the blues’ worst stereotypes of angry reds. This touchy pride may even alienate purples, too, leaving angry reds even touchier, because now they feel betrayed by their own tribe’s cultural leaders.
In a free and equal society, even one where equality before the law permits unlimited inequality in other respects, pretty much everyone finds it contemptible to treat others with a contempt they don’t deserve. When treating others with undeserved contempt is universally found contemptible, we give ourselves permission to show contempt for others by believing they showed contempt for us first. Blues believe angry reds showed contempt for blues first. Angry reds believe blues showed contempt for them first. Purples are stuck in between, increasingly aware that angry reds’ contempt for blues includes purples for their blue attributes, and usually pretty sure that blues’ contempt for the “angriness” of reds includes purples as well. What everyone seems to agree on is that their own contempt is merely a reaction to the other guy’s contempt, which is about the most disagreeable agreement possible.
Fusionist conservatism has in the past referred to a fusion of ideologies. Different social classes might have been more or less attached to differing ideologies, but the focus was on a mix of ideas, traditionalist, libertarian, and hawkish. Conservatives today, though, are splitting into two tribes by cultural capital, purple and angry red, with the blue tribe’s tepid Epicurean, but nonetheless substantial, access to cultural capital coming between them. How to fuse these two tribes isn’t obvious. Deep purples with strikingly different ideologies from each other may nonetheless fall into affinity fairly easily, in part because past fusionism has been so successful, but also because neither is likely to feel dispossessed of the cultural riches the other one enjoys. Angry reds, on the other hand, do feel dispossessed, and while they blame blue elites for this, it’s hard for that blame to avoid including the purples, especially since, if you measure “blueness” by access to cultural capital (something I suspect many instinctively do), purples are even “bluer” than blues, their blue cultural access enriched by red-tribe teachings.
Purple hearts, for their own part, seem to risk a lonesome ardency which breeds despair. I don’t know how much of this lonesomeness stems from feeling like the odd warm heart stranded amidst cold blue hearts and how much of it stems from the high value that purples – often quite rightly – put on emotional reserve. I’m sure it’s usually a good thing for a heart aflame with love to be primly contained in an asbestos vest rather than flung about on one’s sleeve to catch random things afire and burn them down. But if Scruton is right about conservatives being united by love – and I hope he is – we often have obscure ways of showing it to one another, mutual contempt being the strangest way of all.
Moderators at Ricochet are naturally on the lookout for mutual contempt, in hopes of quelling it. Contempt is of course quite the prima donna, easily swanning in to upstage more wholesome engagement. But despite having to actively watch for contempt, I see lots of love on Ricochet, too. This love is quieter, more reserved – this is the internet and we are conservatives, after all. Because it’s so self-effacing, the love attracts less attention. I’m unsure, honestly, of how to draw attention to this love without spoiling what makes it wholesome and true rather than vain “virtue signaling”. But I doubt the two red tribes can stay together unless it’s possible to draw attention to love between them, rather than contempt.
This is a response to @rachellu’s piece, “Bourgeois Culture Isn’t Coming Back”.