I’ve never quite understood why people who call themselves conservatives are not more interested in conserving things. Neighborhoods, for instance. Refusing to allow a new highway through the middle of town or a new Wal-Mart on the corner is commonly branded “anti-growth” by many on the Right—and so it is. The thorough conservative does not want certain things to grow in certain ways. He wants Mom and Pop to keep owning their family restaurant, he wants the local clientele to continue to be able to walk there, he wants children who grew up playing in the park to come home from college and find the old oak tree behind the baseball diamond a little broader and thicker. He wants the carillons of the Lutheran Church to keep pealing sleepily every evening at six. He wants children to keep walking home from school, and he wants the school’s teachers to keep considering themselves second parents to their charges. He wants textbooks to survive the Internet, and he wants the humane, purposive message of those books to survive, as well. He wants Main Street decked with Christmas lights from end to end during December—and he wants a manger scene before City Hall.
There are those in this life, I have discovered, who would sell every crack in the sidewalk and every stone cross in the cemetery, putting it all under high-rise office buildings and layered bypasses, if only enough of the haul would find its way into their pockets. And there are those who would die to defend the sound of an autumn breeze through the fallen leaves along a village sidewalk. Unfortunately, some battles are not waged through the ready and willing sacrifice of one’s breath. Their casualties are souls—and these are claimed, not as victims of an aggressor, but as down-payments for material prosperity, and by the Dark Prince who bankrolls the “winners”. One wakes up one fine day and sees a wrecking ball down the street: too late now for muskets and pitchforks.
I saw Austin destroyed in this manner when I was a boy. Ironically, the tsunami that ripped my grandparents’ neighborhood apart was not stirred by J.P. Lucifer & Son Realty, the classic “big business’ villain in all Hollywood “save the idyll” romances, but by the irrepressible deluge of northeasterners looking for fairer weather to set up graduate departments, smoke pot, and sleep around. They liked the city’s ambling pace of life—so they proceeded to throttle it with their numbers and refine it with their imported tastes. They waved aside the protests of crude Texas rednecks who didn’t deserve such blessings despite having largely created them. (After all, these locals had all been segregationists just a few years earlier.) They made everything over, the carpetbaggers, in their own image… or tried to. They seemed surprised when more Boston sprawl resulted, and they were sure that the Texas hayseeds must be to blame. They colonized the place as they dreamed up new college degree programs confronting the evils of American colonization.
But wasn’t that just progress? How could a Milton Friedman have found fault with all the capital brought into town by the “invaders”? Think of all the new jobs! How could Rush Limbaugh, even—our beloved Middle American homey—find anything here to criticize? On the contrary, I rather think Rush would hear in my lament the whining of a tree-hugger. What sense does it make to stand in the way of progress—of economic growth—for the sake of a few dead leaves? Liberals, Rush often proclaims, are the true flat-earthers.
Paleo-conservatives like me would respond that the human hunger for wealth is never satisfied; that the human need of peace and predictability, being beyond price, is priced at nothing on any given day at the Stock Exchange; and that he who acquires more in possessions often grows poorer in self-knowledge. I shall not presume to speak for Pope Francis: I have not bothered to parse the supreme pontiff’s recent pronouncements—and they do seem, disappointingly, to call for a wider distribution of material wealth rather than a reduced attention to it. I shall simply put it this way. A “conservative” who rates the state of the soul as less than primary (let alone nugatory) holds an invalid claim to that title. He is an ideological squatter.
Anyone patient enough to read my weekly scribbles knows that I promised to append to my last posting an explanation of why gay marriage does indeed affect all who are concerned about preserving healthy communities and transmitting spiritual values to their children. I haven’t forgotten my promise. Indeed, everything I have just written is to the point. By this I do not mean anything so facile as that when Austin exploded, it became much more “gay”… though, for that matter, the equation is true. Big cities are less personal than small ones: people engage in more varieties of risqué behavior. Big cities have less conventional values than small ones: their populace is more diverse and lately arrived. Big cities offer more sexual adventures: they’re full of young people mapping out a career path for whom other commitments are dead weight. For that reason, big cities are also less family-friendly: their essential instability favors the footloose and instantly adaptable, not the rooted and tied-down.
In a way, the true conservative is the inveterate enemy of big cities. Monuments to insatiable capitalism, they breed expansion without design, competition without rules, arrogance without limit, crime without solution, poverty without exit, and children without parents. To an Arcadian, every big city is Sodom and Gomorrah. I am an Arcadian, and to me the transplanted Yankees who appropriated my childhood village all carry the infection of the Sodomite.
The word “village” has been sullied for the indefinite future by one whose lubricious keyboard and writhing mouth would argue that hell is heaven… but let me explain the life of the village. People know each other. (In Hillary’s village, only the government knows you.) People watch out for one another’s children. (In Hillary’s village, the government is your child’s nanny and yours, too.) Homes stay in the same family for generations. (In Hillary’s village, the government “creates jobs” and residents move, singly or en masse, as directed.) Certain behaviors—blasting obscene music out of amplifiers, wearing shorts down around the knees, ringing and tattooing the entire visible epidermis—are locally recognized as “just not done”. (In Hillary’s village, all such things are permitted—only the tastes of the mainstream are absolutely proscribed.) The ethos of daily life in general results from an elective affinity: that is, a free choice on the part of residents to play by the same unwritten rules. (In Hillary’s village, all rules are written—hundreds of thousands of them—by elite experts who are presumed to know vastly more and be distinctly better than the rest of us.)
It may be that such a thing as a “gay village” can exist. It never has… but the future will soon show us how viable the gay colonies of the West Coast are as durable communities. The more conventional sort of settlement, however, cannot tolerate the overt embrace of gay marriage. Simply imagine the life of a child in such a place. I shall dismiss the possibility, merely for the sake of the more abstract argument I seek, that gay men prey on children. Let’s say that they don’t. I myself was propositioned by a man one afternoon when, as a slender adolescent, I was jogging around an elementary school: the fellow lived right across from the playground. But let’s call him a statistical anomaly.
What does Mommy say when little Jimmy asks over supper, “Why do Mr. Bob and Mr. Vince hold hands when they’re out walking?” Does she say that they love each other? Fine. Then Jimmy asks, “Daddy, don’t you and Uncle Carl love each other? How come you never hold hands?” So Mommy explains (after Daddy leaves the table) that Bob and Vince love each other the way she and Daddy love each other. Naturally, Jimmy next asks, “Then why don’t they have kids?” Mommy laughs (or scowls) and explains (without explaining) that Jimmy’s biology teacher will provide that answer when the school decides it’s time.
And, of course, the biology teacher will indeed explain sex—probably as she passes out condoms to her second-graders. Yet this won’t really answer Jimmy’s question at all. Revealing that Vince doesn’t have a vagina doesn’t explain the strange attractions of his anus to Bob. It doesn’t to me, anyway—not in any biological sense, which is the only politically permissible sense—and I doubt that it will to Jimmy, either.
I sometimes wonder what happened to the man who propositioned me. At least he was “under cover”, hiding behind the facade of a wife and kids. I wouldn’t necessarily want anything to happen to him as long as he stayed in hiding—and I, at least, was old enough to say “no” politely. I have no reason to believe that he ever targeted the children on the elementary school’s playground. Or that he didn’t.
And that, you see, is the point. Gone, the trust in your neighbors. Gone, the willingness to let your kids play in the public park. Gone, the evening walks to the corner drugstore with your all-noticing little tykes. Not that you fear for the safety of your children so much—not their physical safety; but with how many questions will they return that you can’t answer at a child’s level; and left unanswered, how deeply will these questions nestle in a childish imagination, and in what improbable and dangerous corners? Gone, the village. Gone for good. Soon people start to sell up, and one fine morning you’ll awaken to a wrecking ball.
We all know that conventional neighborhoods can also be suffocating, bigoted, intrusive, and stultifying. They mount their own little crucifixions every year—and not at Easter in front of City Hall. If we could all live by reason alone in Cosmopolis, we wouldn’t need to hope for heaven. But Cosmopolis—Hillary’s village—is Utopia on the drawing board and Inferno in concrete. Here on earth, we’re stuck with infancy, childhood, maturation, aging—and with greed, lust, fear, envy… we’re mired in insurmountable fallibility. The best plan is, and has always been, to seek novelty and difference from a firm basis in the past’s tried-and-true habits. To the conservative, it is not tradition which must keep proving its worth in the jungle’s lawless power struggle, but creativity which must demonstrate its depth by accommodating the tastes of the past.