The good folks over at The Weekly Standard deserve a ton of credit for their fast work in relaunching a new publication, The Bulwark, in the aftermath of their untimely shuttering last month.
What follows will be mostly critical so I want to note up front that I really am pulling for them to make their project work long-term. All the praise heaped on TWS throughout December was deserved. It was a sharp magazine that routinely featured great feature writing and that regularly gave talented writers the freedom to use their talents well. That’s a rare thing in print media and I’m grateful for it whenever I see it. So let that be Note #1 on this new media venture: I like the people running it, admire their work, and hope it succeeds.
Note #2: I really wish they had chosen a different name. One of the besetting sins of conservatism in the United States is its defensiveness. Admittedly, this can seem an odd criticism of a movement whose very name implies the protecting of endangered goods—how could such a movement not be defensive?
But one can conserve without being fearful. My father is a conservationist. He loves the natural world, is a keen hunter, a gifted teacher, and he manages all of this without being the least bit fearful or defensive. Indeed, the lack of fear is a large part of what makes him so good at what he does. He’s a person who enjoys something and has cultivated that enjoyment in ways that now allow him to draw others into it. This is what conservatives ought to be—people who love the natural order and invite others to participate in that with them.
When American conservatives brand themselves, in the tradition of Buckley, as those who stand athwart history yelling “stop,” we place ourselves in an inherently unstable rhetorical position. We concede a certain momentum to our opposites—indeed, if one wished to be cheeky one could note that Buckley’s aphorism isn’t that far from the justly mocked notion of being on “the wrong side of history”—and then try to arrest that momentum while standing on our heels and leaning backward. Small wonder we routinely find ourselves run over by “history.”
If conservatism is to have a future in America, it will be because we rediscover joyful confidence. This will not be the mocking confidence of those who have made a hobby of owning the libs, which is really just another name for the triggering style that revels in a lack of charity and a default posture of hostile mockery. Rather, it is the confidence that comes from a person who knows what they stand for, knows that it is good, and will not be made to feel ashamed or intimidated for finding it good.
It is the posture of someone who possesses an inner clarity, who is surrounded by a sure horizon. In a world of alienation, fear, and loneliness this posture is inherently attractive and true conservatives should have no difficulty in assuming it. But, then, perhaps that is the problem: How do we define a conservative?
Note #3: Perhaps such a defensive posture is inevitable for the sort of conservative one often finds at projects like TWS or National Review. Here is what I mean: My inner clarity is a product of certain dogmatic convictions I have come to hold after much reflection, conversation, and prayer.
For starters, it comes from a dogmatic conviction that God has made an orderly world, that this order is coherent and complete and beautiful, and that it cannot be permanently ignored and attacked. What’s more, because this order is given to us, it imposes certain burdens and restraints on our behavior. These burdens inevitably limit our “freedom” in both the social sphere and the economic sphere.
When I argue against environmental desecration or revisionist notions of marriage and gender or against the abuse of workers or against abortion, I do so with confidence because, on each point, I believe that I am arguing for a position that really does agree with how the world actually works. I am assuming many given things in the world and am arguing out of those assumptions.
That said, post-Reagan movement conservatism seems to me to be trying to stand within late modern liberalism, a philosophical system that mostly rejects any notion of a given order in nature, and then to conserve certain things from within that system. Specifically, it seeks to conserve a certain way of living while also affirming the economic individualism that has played no small part in unraveling that mode of life. Certainly that is my understanding of Buckley’s legacy and to whatever extent The Bulwark stands in a similar tradition it seems to inevitably be his as well.
If you begin with individualistic assumptions about man’s work in the world, then I don’t see how you can possibly conserve any of the things that movement conservatives claim that they want to conserve. (One way of resolving this problem is, of course, to simply give up on conserving the family and the lives of the unborn. This is the telling move that Senate and House Republicans made over the past two years.)
Thus their defensive posture is inevitable because they really are standing on their heels and leaning backwards as the progressive liberals steamroll toward them. It probably doesn’t have to be this way. You can try to argue, if you want, that someone like Russel Kirk is upstream from what became today’s movement conservatism. But I suspect that any conservative who looks to Buckley more than to Kirk is going to find themselves inescapably in a position of defensiveness because there is no other alternative for them given their priors.
Anyway, my admittedly sharp criticisms aside, I do hope that the folks over at The Bulwark are able to build a successful publication that keeps all of them writing and thinking for a long time. Even if the only point in their favor were that they are sincere conservatives who shun both the overt racism of the new alt-right magazines as well as the lame triggering style of outlets like The Federalist that would be enough to make their success a desirable good. But, of course, there are many other points in their favor as well. They have a good group of writers with a history of both doing and promoting great work. So I do wish them well—and I should say the same for the good folks at National Review. There should be a place for both projects in the conservative media world.
But I also wish that we could have more conservative writers and publications who reject both the decadence of movement conservatism and the nastiness of many upstart conservative mags that stand outside of the movement. To the credit of the late TWS and NR, they mostly do the latter. But I question how relevant their project can be until they begin doing the former too.