THE POLITICAL CONSERVATISM which seems at the moment to be in the saddle -- such metaphors come easily as we enter the sixth month of the equestrian president -- may have a much less firm seat than we now believe. It is turning its back on what, until not long ago, was called the unfinished business of America. I believe that America will soon return to try to finish its business.
This political conservatism is so shallow, so empty of any vision, that it cannot satisfy for long. Its representatives remind one of the groups of Pharisees described in the Talmud: from those who wore a cap so that they would not see the passersby -- David Stockman -- to those who shut their eyes when they went yout so that they would see no women -- Jesse Helms. They are sightless men.
But there is no doubt what has hoisted this policital conservatism into the saddle. It is a profound cultural conservatism which has been gathering in Western and so American society for most of this century, although the sheer vitality of America until the middle of the century made it less easy to see here. It is deep revulsion, to put it briefly, against the modern world.
It is a reaction against the Humanism and rationalism, the belief in science, even the idea of progress, which separated the modern from the medieval world. Not only from the mechieval but also from the primitive world. There has been an increasing emphasis in this century, not least in our art and our literature, on what we are supposed to have "lost" by becoming modern, and not on what we have gained.
This reaction has gathered its strength from many sources. One strong influence curiously, has been psychology. This apparently most modern of "sciences," especially in its popular forms, has made people place too much emphasis on the irrational. It has weakened our confidence in the capacity of our reason to help order our lives.It has also made us look inward for answers, rather than outward to our societies.
But I wish to single another of the influences. Anthropology has not only made us aware of the characters of primitive societies, it has not only studied and described them, which is all to the good, it has both intentionally and unintentionally made us lament their disappearance. It has even made many people wonder if primitive societies are not superior to our own.
There was a fiscinating and characteristic example of this in a long story which was recently published in The Washington Post. It was a story about an American anthropologist, Richard Chase Smith, who for 15 years has lived int he Peruvian jungle, among the Ameusha Indians. He is returning home after studying and recording their culture -- in the anthropologist's sense of that term -- at the moment at which it is collapsing under the impact of Western culture.
Such descriptions are by now commonplace. I do not question their interest. But both the anthropologist and the reporter who tells the story turns it into a lament for the disappearing primitive life of Ameusha. They used to speak "a language that had no word for 'paper' or 'money' or 'progress'" -- and we respond to these code words as if they represent something obscene in Western civilization.
We are asked to sigh over the fact that "at dusk the shadow-souls of the Ameusha begin to wander;" over songs about "the old white-haired hunchback who is the waters of the December rains;" over "the manioc beer, the coca, the music and of course the ritual prayers and offerings;" over a witch doctor who with his mouth "sucked away the malevolent spirit of the illness."
And we are of course asked to regret that, as these simple traditions die, they are replaced by those familiar "aspects of the white man's world: the radio, alcohol, consumerism and even evangelism." Why the "alcohol" of the West should be given a bad name, in contrast to the virtues of "drinking boiled tobacco," or making beer from "boiled fermented yucca and chewed corn" is not explained.
It is all a lot of hocus-pocus. What the anthropologist is describing and praising is the lack of complexity in primitive societies; and it is the complexity of "the white man's world" which today makes people wish to escape from "the modern." It is in fact no less an anthropologist than Margaret Mead who made the point when she asked of her own profession:
"How often has our Western attempt to preserve native dress, old customs, different styles of architecture, to respect native laws and customs, been only a thin disguise over an unwillingness to admit a people, newly entering into our way to life, to full participation in a culture which we claim to value so highly?"
We claim to value it so highly, maybe, but we are being taught to disdain it. Its complexity makes us think that there is something intrinsically at fault with it. But its complexity is only its diversity; its diversity means that we are offered alternatives; the alternatives means that we must choose; the opportunities and need to choose are what we mean by freedom. And there is the rub!
By far the best of Erich Fromm's works is "Escape from Freedom," which was, interestingly, published in Britain under the title "Fear of Freedom." (One could write a thesis on the differences between the two countries by examining why the American and British titles of the book have such dissimilar emphases.) But, anyhow: our fear of freedom; and so our wish to escape from it.
Fromm wrote during World War II. He was trying to explain the impulse to totalitarianism in this century: why so many people were so willing to surrender their freedom to the dictators. He focused much of his argument on the character and meaning of Luther, who stands at the gateway to the modern world, apparently a prophet of freedom; and he showed that Luther in fact represented a modern fear of freedom.
This has always been the worm that eats at the vitality of our Western and modern societies. Freedom is not easy. It is difficult to have to make choices all the time in our day-to-day lives. So we are tempted to cry: "Bring back the priests -- and the witch doctors; let us have gurus." Instead of the complexity of our reasons, we want to return to the simplicities of "ritual" and "myth."
Those who praise primitive societies often do not seem to be conservative. They appear, in fact, rather liberal, "advanced" in their opinions. Yet they are profoundly conservative. One may even say that they are reactionary. They are reacting against the complexity of the modern world. They reflect in a different aspect the same cultural conservatism as does the Moral Majority. They both wish to bring back old traditions and customs and beliefs: to submit to some simple authority in order to escape from the burden of freedom.
Unless we recognize that this cultural conservatism has been deep into the minds of even those who supposedly are liberal, we will not recognize what a profound force it is in sustaining the political conservatism which is now apparently so triumphant. I attacked this cultural conservatism as it was represented in the Repulbican National Convention last year, and was boxed around the ears for it by William F. buckley Jr., and some lesser fry. But the fact is that it has formed the political culture of today. And it is dangerous.
The anthropologist wrote in his diary that, "The traditional feast, the gathering to drink manioc beer and to perform coshamnats music has been secularized." tFor all the world, it sounds to me much like a night at a rather tacky disco; and I would prefer the letter, I only because I could leave when I wished, and take a car, or a bus, or a train or taxi home, or even just walk; and there choose some other entertainment.
Much which we call the "sacred," in both primitive and our own societies, is simply that for which we have no alternative. What we think is "scared" is often only what we cannot do without. If we have only a primitive technology to enable us to feed ourselves when there is a drought, then we will have to imagine that the December rains are brought to us by a white-haired hunchback.
We will sing to him, and dance to him. We will invent rituals in his honor. We will pray to him for rain. But if our science tells us that there are natural forces which bring or withhold the rain, then we know that it is pointless to pray to either a white-haired hunchback our own straight-back God to bring us rain. To say that rituals become "secularized" in modern societies is only to say that we know more.
What the cultural conservatives of all breeds will either not see or accept is that our manners and customs and morality are not worse that before; they are simply more diverse, so that people behave often in ways to which we are not accustomed and sometimes conflict with and seem to threaten our own ways of behaving. I do not like some contemporary behavior, but I do not think it is necessarily worse than mine.
Jesse Helms would be surprised to be told that he is full of primitive urges. But he is far more full of them than many of the people to whom is so unpleasantly objects. David Stockman would be surprised to be told that he is creating a primitive society. But he is impelled by an assumption that there are severe limits to our control over our lives. An undiscriminating attack on government intervention is a primitive assertion that our societies are controlled by unknown forces.
The anthropologist would be, no less surprised to be told that he is supplying some of the inspiration for the political conservatives. Yet that is what he is doing, and the influence may be found elsewhere. All the misdirected energy put into the efforts to revive ethnic heritages -- all the blabber about "roots" -- is simply an effort to escape from the complexity of the modern world into some handed down authority. It tempts us to nostalgia, which is an escape from freedom.
If the liberals are to get back, if America is to return to its unfinished business for which the world is waiting, they must realize how deep they must go. They have to start restoring the confidence of our societies in reason; in humanism; in the secular; in our capacity to control and improve our lives and our societies by thought. They must drive hard at the cultural conservatism to combat the political conservatism.
One example will do. They should not have allowed the cause of disciplined and strenuous education to be taken over by the conservaties. It was when liberals began to think that it is the task of education to enable children to "express themselves" that they lost their inspiration and their vitality in pursuing every other cause. Children's dribbles of paint are as much and as little interesting as primitive dribbles.
When you think that it is enough to encourage children to dance merrily round maypoles, so to speak, you have lost every reason for being a liberal in the rest of your political activity. You have abandoned your belief in the ability of the Western, modern, secular intellect to alter for the better the conditions and quality of lives.
Primitive societies are poor societies. All praise of primitive societies is praise of their proverty. The liberal says: "We can build good houses for the poor." The conservaties say: "The poor like grass huts without plumbing." The liberal says: "We can build hospitals for the poor." The conservative says: "The poor can do with witch doors." All the way through, that is the difference. The liberal will recover his energy only by using mind.