An orthodoxy of negation

I thank Aziz for the generous opportunity to brazenly and even impetuously present my mostly inchoate views before his readers: a very different audience from that with which I am accustomed; and I beg these readers’ indulgence to present them as brazenly and even impetuously as I feel I must. For I am, of course, a Christian and a Conservative; and as such I can only be impressed by the dogged persistence of our esteemed host in believing that he and I may truly become collaborators and even comrades.


Every society includes a public orthodoxy. Here we touch an elementary fact of political society which our own peculiar fashions and prejudices have obscured from us.

Without an orthodoxy, there is no society, but simply a decay, slow and excruciating, or rapid and sanguinary, into chaos. “Orthodoxy refers to any public doctrine accepted unconditionally by a community,” wrote Frederick D. Wilhelmsen and Willmoore Kendall in a very substantial essay (pdf format, and rather difficult to read, I’m afraid) from some 35 years ago, “even if the orthodoxy in question is somebody else’s heresy; and the emotional reaction of positivists to the word ‘orthodoxy’ is only one aspect of their orthodoxy.”

Modern Liberalism is our orthodoxy; or is very near to becoming it, notwithstanding the resistance that still endures. This is, in my view, the basic question at issue in our political and cultural disputes. And the emergence, maturation and ascendance of a new orthodoxy necessitates a severe reshuffling of ideological alliances among the constituents of the society which is undergoing this change. It cannot be otherwise.

It is increasingly clear that the big fault lines of this ideological shift are on the Right. For it is the Right whose duty and vocation has usually been to defend the orthodoxy, just as it is the Left whose vocation has usually been to criticize the orthodoxy, whether overtly (when the orthodoxy is weak), or subtly (when it is strong).

The terrible conundrum for many on the Right is that the new orthodoxy is repugnant to them. So Conservatives, under this new orthodoxy, cannot be conservative; indeed, the day may dawn when they will be revolutionaries. Yet some will remain mere conservatives, mere men of the status quo, and turn with loathing on what they see in their former comrades as a new threat to the established order which it is their business to defend. In brief, there will be conservatives whose project is to conserve the status quo, and Conservatives whose project it will be to restore the status quo ante; those loyal to the established order, and those loyal to a transcendent order that is no longer recognized. And they will emphatically not be allies. Wilhelmsen and Kendall go on,

Such a dilemma certainly faces any man who is aware both of the demands of the transcendent and of society, any man whose soul is turned out towards the truth of things as they are (that is, apart from political considerations), but also faces his responsibility as a member within a society that incarnates a way of life involving a certain (at least apparent) commitment to the Absolute.

But the situation today is exacerbated by the fact that modern Liberalism’s Absolute is a denial of the Absolute. Men are asked to venerate a negation.

It is in this context that politics in postmodern America will be best comprehended. In this context the strange and explosive fractures within what was once a more unified Conservative party will become clear in their causes and meaning; as, for example, it clarifies why some on the Right reacted so sternly against a symposium in the pages of First Things about “the judicial usurpation of politics,” which I encourage anyone interested in the true pressures and lineaments of the American Right to read with care. The symposium and the reaction against it, in short, presaged a fracture into a Right that would become revolutionary in its opposition to a tyranny of courts and judges, and, against that, another Right that would be conservative of the status quo, even if the status quo included lawless courts and “robed masters.”

Other controversies which perplex may be illuminated by this dialectic. The fracture over amending the Constitution to prohibit homosexual marriage; the fracture over immigration; the fracture over what is called globalization, the fracture over what we might call democratic imperialism — all of these, I perceive, are related to the transformation of the public orthodoxy of this nation, and the response to that transformation of the men and women of the Right.

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