Is progress possible without the historical mind of conservatism?
How Young Conservatives Can Topple Woke Ideology
I’ll never forget that bibliography class in university.
We got a whole lecture on sources and analysis from a seasoned teacher, with lots of interesting stuff to chew on. Then someone, I forget who, asked how to start studying a subject from the beginning.
It was such a simple question, yet our professor seemed utterly floored by it, and his only response was something along the lines of “jump into the deep end and learn how to swim”―as if just starting to read thousands of books without any real direction, guidance, or mentorship would magically help.
He didn’t seem to have the first clue how to explain to someone who needed to start from zero; his world was one that took some prior knowledge, some basics, for granted.
My admittedly anecdotal experience is I daresay similar to that of many conservatives in a lot of classrooms, especially among the younger generation. Conservatives in our parents’ generation and before may have lost battles to conserve or protect values, institutions, and traditions―but they at least had a clear notion of what those were. They’d grown up in a world that still had some sense of shared values and ideas, some sort of common language, some idea of what they were fighting for.
But our generation came after the Great Awokening, after the self-discrediting of many of the formerly serious conservative thinkers, after the collapse―started during the baby boom and accelerated under millennials―of all the institutions and ideas and camaraderie that once was loved and fiercely defended.
A Better Conservative Ethos
Conservatives and civilizational thinkers often used to obsess over the fall of Rome; for us, Rome has fallen.
“The Woke” now occupy the commanding heights of culture—or will occupy it soon enough—and maddening as their zealotry is, infuriating as their hypocrisy can be, like Walter Sobchak would say: at least it’s an ethos. They fight for something, they have an ethical code―as constantly subject to change as it is―and they have a real sense of camaraderie (as fragile as it may be in the age of cancel culture).
What on earth do we have?
The overwhelming majority of conservative punditry and thought today is obsessed with government―the virtues of governors, legal rights, proper economic policy. To the extent that anyone speaks of individuals and communities, it is almost exclusively in terms of “freedom” but not what to do with it.
Conservative thought has plenty to say to governing elites, but to ordinary citizens? Surely they have families and communities and institutions to teach them, right?
Well, not so much anymore. Certainly not anything specific and binding outside bare-bones versions of the harm principle and bromides about being excellent and sympathetic to one another.
And let’s get real here: most Americans are not going to solve the deeper questions of existence or governance that conservative thinkers tend to fret about. For that, a small, highly talented elite―perhaps in communication with a broader educated, lay public―is more than sufficient. Nor will many be all that ideologically minded. If the last few years have been any indication, sentiment and disposition (feelings) drive most people more than direct argumentation from first principles.
What we need is a conservative message not for the high intellectual but the ordinary citizen. What is it?
In one word: tradition.
This is a complicated and multifaceted term whose unpacking would require a great deal of inquiry, more than can be done here. But it is a watchword that best reflects a way of thinking and speaking that could reach a broad audience. It is the revival of traditions and traditional thinking that I believe can help provide conservatives a sense of mission.
How Tradition Changes Perspective
For starters, tradition is a fairly expansive term. It flows across the generations naturally, from families and community, from recorded past wisdoms, from universal ideas situated in local contexts. It can be religious, but it can also encompass many a secular or material habitus. It is diverse, but in a sense uninterested in quotas and more open to inclusion than woke mathematics.
Furthermore, and no less importantly, traditions are something that can belong to a person inheriting or adopting them but are not theirs to throw away as they please. Tradition binds a person to a long chain of generations in both directions―it was there before him, and it is his to hand down to those who succeed him.
To be part of a tradition and to engage in it is to be bound to something greater than yourself. The question is no longer just “How shall I live?” as an individual, but “What shall I preserve and hand down?”
This in itself changes perspectives. It forms emotional and personal attachments and commitments in a way raw analysis of economic data can’t.
A tradition, broadly and properly understood, should be binding on your behavior―traditions that contain real ethical precepts are preferable here. There are things you do and do not do, simply because of your traditional commitments. Anyone can be an ideologue and demand the government force everyone to their will. To be a traditional person—not a “trad,” that ugly historical cosplay often seen on social media—is to realize you are not an outsider but an active partner in whatever endeavor you have chosen.
Most important, traditions are an anchor, the sort of thing my professor assumed we had but many didn’t. They provide you with a starting point, a place from which to set out to explore the world and a solid home to return to. Study the great wisdom of the world in the abstract and you may have great insights that are as important to you as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun is to Sherlock Holmes. Study them as one belonging to a tradition, and it becomes a personal but fruitful struggle—do these challenge my traditions? Do they force me to adopt another or adapt my own?
To be a conservative politically is to be an epistemic skeptic or at least epistemically humble—we can’t demonstrate ultimate truth as if it were a logical syllogism, so we stick with the tried and true, with the restrained and with what has proved to further human flourishing. In normal times, we conserve and protect the good in the world while fighting against the bad.
But when the tried and true has been burned down or at least driven out of the public square, we need to seek it out, dust it off, and start the arduous work of rebuilding and reviving it in a way that meets the needs of this generation—but not so much that it would not be recognizable to previous generations or later ones.
History is full of many examples of such works of revival and reconstruction of tradition and traditional mission, so instead of squabbling over tax rates or the latest election, we would do well to study those examples and apply them for our day, each based on his or her own lights.
About the Author
Avi Woolf is an editor and translator. He has been published in Arc Digital, National Review, Commentary, and The Dispatch.
Image by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.
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