When I was young and naïve, I thought I was a conservative. Back in the days just before the Internet, when I was first becoming aware of political and social issues, it was the only label available for my way of thinking.
I was probably the only student at my university who, instead of waiting anxiously for the next party, waited anxiously for the library to put out the new issue of National Review.
In recent years, I have begun to feel less comfortable calling myself a conservative. David Brooks’ recent column “The Age of Reaction” shows why.
Brooks defines a reactionary as anyone who, for any reason, opposes the plans of the global elite, who challenges the dominant narrative that claims the direction humanity is moving is the only way we could move.
Later, he claims a conservative is someone who shares the
“the belief that, thanks to the general spread of market freedom and cultural pluralism, our society is becoming stumblingly but gradually richer, more just and more creative. But economic and technological dynamism needs to be balanced by cultural cohesion.”
In short, conservatives, according to Brooks, are just progressives who want to stroll to the promised utopia rather than run. Conservatism, in Brooks’ mind, is just retarded progressivism.
Anyone who has read Brooks for long will know that his writing is an awkward admixture of genuine insight and optimistic pabulum. This column gets marked down in the nonsense column.
According to Brooks’ scheme, I am a reactionary. I am not alone.
Brooks uses the term “reactionary” as pejorative to shame those who do not want to move more slowly toward a “richer, more just, and more creative” destination, but want instead to change direction entirely. It’s not that “reactionaries” don’t desire riches, justice and creativity; it is that we do not believe those terms are defined in a way consistent with human flourishing. Instead, they are empty clichés whose meaning shifts to meet the needs of the progressive elite.
Brooks trots out other well-worn fallacies about “reactionaries” as progressives always do, most notably the “golden-age” canard.
“Reactionaries come in different stripes but share a similar mentality: There was once a golden age, when people knew their place and lived in harmony. But then that golden age was betrayed by the elites.”
This is wrong. Not since Eden has there been a society that is, well, Edenic. Everybody knows this. The charge that reactionaries (defined, again, as those who question the mainstream narrative of progress) want to return to some golden age is an oft-repeated and wholly false charge.
Reactionaries do not want to return to a “golden-age”. We want a future society consistent with the best of the past, that prizes spiritual riches over material ones, heritage over trinkets. Much reactionary thinking, far from being obsessed with returning to the past is quite vigorously focused on bringing that more humane future into being.
As Davila, someone much more qualified to talk about reaction than Brooks is, put it:
“The reactionary does not aspire to turn back, but rather to change direction. The past that he admires is not a goal, but the exemplification of his dreams.”
Brooks puts forward the additional notion, that reactionaries all sense a betrayal on the part of elites, as if it is self-evidently false. It is in fact true. The belief in a treasonous elite is, rather than some reactionary delusion, a dangerous truth.
Instead of upholding the moral and political traditions with which they were entrusted, the last fifty years especially, have seen elites of every kind become increasingly hostile to those values that promote human well being. To believe otherwise, that is the delusion.
The conservative movement has collapsed. Trump has made that clear. In the end, it collapsed because it was, as Brooks attempts to do in this column, swallowed up and made to serve the ends of progressivism.
What remains are those of us unable to find a home in the contemporary world. Now that the scales of conservatism have fallen from our eyes, we can see the road ahead. We can see where it leads. All the New York Times columns in the world cannot cover up the fact what lies ahead is not the promised utopia of a rich, just and free world, but a dystopian existence devoid of memory, soul and meaning.
What lies ahead is the kind of world all sane people want to avoid. But, we live in a time when sane people are scarce. Instead of seeking to return a lost “golden age” we must spend our energy trying to encourage others toward sanity. And, that, my friends, is the true definition of the reactionary task.
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