“Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” — G.K. Chesterton
Recently, while talking up the rapturous joy of owning one watch or another to a young customer, I was afforded a glimpse into the mind of an utterly charming and precocious young lady. A military veteran who has seen enough of the world to both appreciate and seize the opportunities here at home, she exhibited that rare brand of open-mindedness which actively seeks out new points of view — or more correctly, points of view that are new to her.
You see, she was shopping for a watch for her father who, it turns out, is a year or two my junior. Did I have some insight, she wondered, into what kind of watch someone of “his generation,” might prefer? On cue, I raised one hand, cupped it to the side of my head and bid her to “talk in my good ear, will ya?” She laughed and volunteered that her father was not humorously inclined. “Then he’s normal,” I replied.
But it seemed a dynamic of some sort was unfolding as she began regarding me less as a “watch guy,” and more as a confidant of sorts. After explaining her father’s understandably exacting standards for who should and should not date his daughter, she asked a question as refreshing in its candid honesty as it was alarming in its scarcity of insight. “Do you think,” she asked, “that maybe all the things we heard growing up — about settling down and getting married, about not having sex before marriage, about how our grandparents raised kids — do you think that’s all outdated now and it just no longer applies?”
“Do you think gravity still applies?” I answered. “You and I can decide that we’ve evolved beyond gravity, but if we step off a building the consequences are going to be pretty painful, right?”
“But that’s physics,” my new friend replied with a smile. “And it’s no more changing,” I continued, “than human nature itself.” I invited her to reflect on her history classes and consider the examples of heroism and generosity of spirit along with the many examples of dishonesty, lust for power and control over others, and the general mischief that has sparked wars, rebellions and the like. “Has human nature changed all that much?” I asked.
“I hadn’t ever thought of it that way,” she answered, prompting me to haul out the above quote from Chesterton and observe that we really do ourselves a disservice when we fail to consider the experiences and hard lessons of those who came before us. “Do you think human nature has changed much over time?” I asked again. “No, not really,” she said. “You see,” I pressed, “I think that thousands of years of human experience have yielded valuable lessons that previous generations are handing down to us, and that the chaos we see today is the result of our ignoring those lessons — sort of like walking off that building.”
While the young lady left the conversation without buying a new watch (more’s the pity), she expressed appreciation for a point of view that she had not encountered before, but which she deemed immensely reasonable. Resisting the urge to congratulate her on her first baby steps toward conservatism, I nevertheless left the conversation with a simultaneous sense of optimism and pessimism. I was optimistic in the micro sense, that this particularly delightful and smart young lady was so open to the ideas I presented — but pessimistic that she should have gone through high school, college, and several years on active duty without ever encountering perspectives as old as civilization itself. It is possible, I suppose, to smile in admiration of the advancement of a single individual while surveying the cultural landscape and concluding that, “we’re screwed.”
Of course, it is no less a part of human nature that the young can be reluctant to embrace the hard-won lessons of their predecessors, depending on the extent to which those lessons were instilled during their formative years. More difficult to understand, and more taxing on one’s patience, are those who really ought to know better.
Which is not to say that the young should be immune to any number of indiscretions and missteps that seem especially reserved for that time in life when everything seems fresh and one is tempted to think that history itself began on the day of one’s birth. In truth, I could fill a library with volumes the size of boat anchors, all overflowing with my own blunders and wild-eyed stupidities, some of which are humorous, and some of which are colossal monuments to the human potential for idiocy. But I don’t recall being tempted to follow the pied pipers of progressivism in college who argued, from their tenured comfort, in favor of Keynesian economics or the centralization of power at the federal level to the exclusion of the rights of states, localities and the individual.
Indeed, as soon as my studies would permit, I could be found in the library, curled up in a chair with the latest issue of National Review, or one of Bill Buckley’s anthologies, or similar works by conservative authors so as to balance out the ideological tendencies of certain classes. Granted, this was during the 1980s, and the liberal academics to which I was exposed had a tough time denigrating the Reagan Administration and extolling the comparative virtues of Jimmy Carter’s economic and international record. Still, I found myself amazed at the insistence that Constitutional limits on the power of the state should be eschewed in favor of the prescriptions of a collection of faculty masterminds.
All of which leaves me perhaps more poorly equipped than most to react patiently to those, some of whom I regard with considerable affection and respect, whose otherwise fine minds become seduced by Orwellian evasions like “Affordable Healthcare Act,” or “Social Justice,” or “A Woman’s Right To Choose.” Who, after all, could be against health care that is affordable, or some ethereal notion social justice, or freedom of choice? The key lies in viewing things from the other end of the polemical looking glass and asking who would be in favor of these initiatives if they were stripped of their euphemistic finery and stood revealed in the dull and mediocre garb of the Mandatory State Control Of Your Health Act, or the Compulsory Confiscation and Redistribution Of Your Earnings and Property, or A Woman’s Right To Have Her Children Dismembered.
But the mastery of progressive evangelization requires first and foremost the mastery of euphemism. In his 2008 book, The Political Mind, Professor George Lakoff warned that “conservative modes of thought and language have come to dominate political discourse.” While urging the reader to guard against thinking in terms of left-right metaphors, Dr. Lakoff recommends that we instead face the flat-footed truth encapsulated in his own objective descriptions of the conservative and political minds as, “Progressive Thought and the Politics of Empathy,” and “Conservative Thought and the Politics of Authority,” respectively. Because naturally, the progressive impulse to confiscate your earnings, order you to purchase whatever the state thinks you should purchase by virtue of you having a pulse, and otherwise treat you like a pawn on the federal government’s chessboard is nothing if not empathetic with all the poor schlubs who need to be micromanaged and led about by their betters in Washington DC. And of course the conservative impulse to protect the sovereignty of the individual to live his or her life free from the whims and dictates of omnipotent governmental busybodies is purely an authoritarian power grab, right? From such a lopsided philosophical foundation, it’s a wonder that everyone under the age of 25 hasn’t fallen into the ideological abyss and landed on their heads.
“In the hands of a skillful indoctrinator,” William F. Buckley Jr., wrote way back in 1959, “the average student not only thinks what the indoctrinator wants him to think (assuming there are no prepossessions in the way), but is altogether positive that he has arrived at his position by independent intellectual exertion.” Then, as if predicting today’s Twitter mobs, Buckley adds:
That man is outraged by the suggestion that he is flesh-and-blood tribute to the success of his indoctrinator, and gets really sore when you cite his yelps of protest as still additional evidence of how good a job was done on him. Yet anyone who turns his attention to it can gather a reliable impression as to the political and intellectual atmosphere in representative American colleges and universities. These institutions are heavily staffed with liberal indoctrinators, and expert ones at that.
Bill Buckley’s diagnosis, delivered over half a century ago, is accurate enough to have been written in “High Def,” but will be greeted with predictable protests which serve to underscore the validity of Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” in which those who went before really ought to have a vote. Indeed, to deny that vote is to leave exposed the vulnerabilities of the young — who quite naturally wish to be agents of change — to the adroit indoctrinator who labors to convince his apprentices that Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to say nothing of parents, family, and faith, have all failed to reach a single trustworthy conclusion. Thus, having tossed history itself from the Tarpeian Rock, the student is left to hold fast to,…to what, exactly?
Unfortunately, too many embrace ideological afflictions that are underwritten by the hand of government. Thus, the Bill of Rights becomes a defective list of “negative rights,” and the latest ideological fad becomes another in a series of existential crises which must be acted upon without further debate or consideration of evidence to the contrary. But in the democracy of the dead, as Chesterton reminds us, “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” Neither, for that matter, ought we to neglect the dead whose voices were extinguished in the ghastly ripples emanating from the dumb arrogance of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Soviet Gulags, or the pages of Mein Kampf. They deserve a voice. And a vote.Published in