It’s one of the agonizing ironies of our moment that even as foreign powers such as China and Russia seem to possess a clear understanding of the forces tearing America apart, Americans themselves do not. The course of the pandemic, as portrayed by the media, shifts from minute to minute; the future of American politics shifts by the day; the fate of the social order is, depending on the week, in the hands of one faction or another. If Communism offered a dreary eternity of monotonous routine, American freedom seems to consist of a perpetual attack on the sacred ballast of the familiar.
Progressives mistakenly believe that the country can bear one terrific change after another: in the areas of social identity, sexual identity, education, law and order, work, and the language itself. Maybe this deranging pace of change is why the media mark time by proclaiming so many doomsdays: the anniversary of the January 6 riots; November 2022; and the biggest Armageddon of them all, November 2024, when, we’re told, no matter who wins the White House, the country will explode into civil war. This apocalyptic anxiety is like some unselfconscious wish on the part of progressives for the ultimate transformative event that would justify a totalizing transformative response.
T. S. Eliot famously wrote that “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” a sentiment that any psychiatrist will affirm. But these days, the reverse of that observation seems to possess even more truth: social engineering, under which the majority must restructure their personalities in order to accommodate what we are told are the preferences and desires of the most fractional minorities, is untethering people so extremely from their familiar perceptions that what was once real is now utterly unreal—and therefore unbearable. For if no man is an island, no man is a stretch of rapids, either. People need solid ground, if only to move forward. It is not a question of making American great again; it is a question of making America stable again—of providing people, and especially children, with a steady ballast that makes them confident of moving into the future.
Democracy totters on grave uncertainties. So what mental orientation does one use to take hold of our present moment and wrestle it down long enough to make sense of it?
Here is one possible response: A “Left Conservatism,” in which you “think in the style of Marx in order to attain certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” The term and accompanying definition are from Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night, his autobiographical account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon, in protest against the Vietnam War. It is a strange, wild book, not to everyone’s taste—Mailer’s grotesque caricature of the people who live in America’s small towns is obtuse—but what I find most admirable about it is that it exposes, again and again, liberal pieties that have illiberal consequences.
Mailer writes that the liberal intelligentsia inspired in him “the deepest detestation.” Loathing their hyper-rationalizing faith in overweening bureaucracies, he castigates their “overpsychologized loins” and describes them as “the natural managers of that future air-conditioned vault where the last of human life would still exist.” It was just such sterile faith in the technological reordering of humankind that, in Mailer’s eyes, had led America into the blind optimism of the Vietnam War.
“They were,” Mailer writes of liberal intellectuals, “servants of that social machine of the future in which all irrational human conflict would be resolved, all conflict of interest negotiated, and nature’s resonance condensed into frequencies which could comfortably phase nature in or out as you please.” (Siri: play the sound of a rainforest.) He continues: “They were brusque to the world of manners, they had built their hope of heaven on the binary system and the computer, 1 and 0, Yes and No—they had little to do therefore with the spectrum of grace in acceptance and refusal; if you did not do what they wished, you had simply denied them.” And over half a century later, if you do not do what they wish, they will simply cancel you. “Their enmity,” Mailer concludes, “could be venomous.”
This is how Mailer thought “in the style of Marx”—the style, that is, of dialectics, invented by Socrates, perfected by generations of Talmudic scholars, and reincarnated in Marx’s appraisals of industrial society’s smiling veneers—appraisals not dissimilar from today’s conservative criticism of happy-talking social media executives and woke-spouting CEOs. In the spirit of dialectics, Mailer presents liberals’ intentions to transform the world, turns these intentions inside out in order to reveal their unforeseen consequences, and then searches for some human freedom beyond both constricting premises. This brings Mailer to “certain values suggested by Edmund Burke.” It’s worth quoting from Burke himself to make explicit just what those values were that Mailer cherished:
The coercive authority of the State is limited to what is necessary for its existence. To this belongs the whole order of Criminal Law. It considers as crimes (that is, the object of punishment) trespasses against those rules for which society was instituted. The Law punishes delinquents, not because they are not good men; but because they are intolerably wicked. It does bear, and must bear, with the vices and the follies of men, until they actually strike at the root of order.
It is worth repeating: the law does not punish people because they are not good. On the left these days, however, not being good—as the Left defines it—warrants the sternest reprisal. Not being good has become indistinguishable from being intolerably wicked.
But for Burke, and for Mailer, society must tolerate the vices and follies of individuals “until they strike at the root of order.” This involves what used to be called a moral imagination. That is to say, life is complicated. People are amalgams of sheer unquantifiable human matter. As Mailer once wrote, some years after Armies of the Night, about the liberal reaction to John Erlichmann’s testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee in July 1973: “[Erlichmann] acted as if he were proud to be on the side he was on; his pride was what could not be suffered. For it spoke of a world whose real complexity could savage a liberal brain. Liberals could certainly live with the hot idea that they were fighting Mephisto’s own Nixon, but they couldn’t support the Kierkegaardian complexity that the good guys might be next to the bad guys on the same team.”
A grasp of real complexity is why, after denigrating the hippies among the protesters all set to storm the Pentagon, Mailer writes about them with tenderness. It is why after caustically portraying the U.S. marshals enforcing the law at the protests, he describes their humanity. I often wonder how Mailer would have characterized some of the people storming the Capitol last January. He might well have placed them, with humanity, perhaps even tenderly, on the continuum of American reaction and dissent, right there among his marshals and his hippies.
The average observer of the standoff at the Pentagon in 1967 might have seen only the dialectic’s naked thesis and antithesis: shaggy demonstrators confronting rigid, rifle-bearing soldiers. Mailer provided the synthesis. For him it meant a “whole crisis of Christianity in America that the military heroes were on one side, and the unnamed saints on the other.” He himself delivered a speech on that day out of, as he writes in the third person, “a sharp searing love for his country,” in which—nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn that he was—he declared to the assembled protesters, most of whom bore no great love for America or Christianity, that “we are burning the body and blood of Christ in Vietnam. Yes, we are burning him there, and as we do, we destroy the foundation of this Republic, which is its love and trust in Christ.”
Mailer’s startling outburst was enough to savage a liberal brain—“Mailer is a Jew,” the Washington Post concluded ironically after quoting from his speech. But Mailer’s declaration makes a ferocious symmetry with the Christian idea that society must bear with the vices and follies of individuals until they actually strike at the root of the social order. It is not the worst approach to take to our tortured moment, this using the dialectical materialism of Marx to arrive at the tolerant Christianity of Burke. If nothing else, it could yield a conception of America that might complicate the one our enemies currently hold.
Photo: Anton Melnyk/iStock