Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “The New Nonconformist Conscience” — Helen Andrews, First Things
As Helen Andrews noted in the magazine First Things this week, the cases of Mozilla’s Brendan Eich, the Miami Dolphins’ Don Jones, and HGTV’s Benham brothers suggest the left is enjoying newfound success with online and social shaming as a tactic to fight intolerance. Liberals’ defense of this approach, as she characterizes it, is that not so long ago right-wing Christians and other traditional conservatives used these sorts of shaming tactics against the very groups liberals are attempting to defend.
Andrews takes exception to that historical claim by pulling out an episode from British history in which a group of Christians succeeded for a time in applying these tactics — but for Andrews, the purpose of the story is to illustrate what a departure from the norm this sort of behavior actually was for religious traditionalists. You don’t necessarily need to buy this argument to nonetheless find her article a fascinating bit of historical excavation:
It was a specific moment, with a beginning and an end, and a name — the Nonconformist Conscience. The name was thought necessary precisely because such a deliberate, programmatic, and privacy-invading shame campaign was seen at the time as an anomaly in the modern history of Christianity in the English-speaking world.
The term “Nonconformist Conscience” arose in Britain in 1890 to refer to the non-Anglican Protestants (mainly Methodist, Baptist, and Congregationalist) who pressured Prime Minister Gladstone into disavowing Charles Parnell when the latter was named in the divorce suit of his lover and her husband. The same faction had earlier derailed the parliamentary career of Charles Dilke, another divorce co-respondent. Having established a precedent for adulterers, the Nonconformists proceeded to assist in the toppling of Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery, whose well-known fondness for horse racing made him in their eyes scarcely better than a casino operator in his relation to the sin of gambling.
With such scalps in hand, many Nonconformists dared to hope that an elevated moral standard could be permanently established if they kept their dudgeon high. “Rational Christians can already see that debauchees, drunkards, and gamblers are utterly unfit to make the laws of England,” declared Rev. Hugh Prices Hughes. “We must agitate for the rigid exclusion of such enemies of mankind… When we have cleansed Parliament of their polluting presence the task of cleansing minor public bodies will be comparatively easy.”
Andrews points out that small fry and backbench politicians were also targets for the movement, and its not hard to see certain parallels between the unforgiving moralistic groupthink of this episode in British history and, say, the ousting of Brendan Eich from Mozilla. That said, Andrews’ additional claim that “Christianity has always recognized certain limiting factors in its application of shame” is rather hard to swallow. Consider, for example, the treatment gay people endured at the hands of mainstream American society and the police a mere five decades ago.
But she ends by noting that increased politicization had an ironically self-destructive result for Christianity: as political activism distracted and drew people away from the very church-centered life that’s meant to be the religion’s core. However, progressivism is not a religion, so it has no non-political form of life equivalent to the church community. So it faces no similar self-limiting internal tug between politics and any other way of being. It’s an interesting point.
2. “Unschooling: The Future of Education?” — Gracy Olmstead, The American Conservative
The left-right divide over education tends to be embodied by public education versus homeschooling. Liberals value the first for its egalitarian ethos and commitment to a broad and inclusive social vision; meanwhile, conservatives value the second for its localist and individualist ethos, and its comparative friendliness to unorthodox belief systems like Biblical creationism.
But in The American Conservative this week, Gracy Olmstead looked into a third movement: “unschooling,” which allows children an enormous amount of control over the use and direction of their own time, and thus the nature and content of their studies. Given that both public education and traditional homeschooling take the need for strict scheduling and structure for granted, unschooling tends to upend the assumptions of both:
If we let children direct their own education, should we also let them direct their leisure time, social activities, spiritual, or emotional development? At what point do parents say “no” to a given pursuit or inclination? During past interviews on this subject, a few different unschooling parents told me they make sure unschooling does not because “unparenting”: children still receive daily supervision, chores, parental direction, etc. [...]
And it seems that the unschooling method, when developed along these parameters, may indeed lead to healthier, happier kids: kids who have time to play, get exercise, develop their reasoning and problem-solving capacities, to discover and develop their pursuits with alacrity and passion. They can learn at their own pace, without the pressure and competition of a classroom. Some more extroverted or competitive children may find this method less palatable, but for highly self-motivated or introverted learners, something like the unschooling method may help them flourish and grow intellectually.
It’s also worth noting that, in today’s challenging job market, students may need a method such as this to thrive. Many of the grownup unschoolers I’ve met have become truly excellent at their given pursuit, whether science, veterinary work, farming, engineering, or what-have-you. These young adults were given the freedom and tools to build their own career out of passion and excitement, rather than squeezing such pursuits in between mandatory English and Chemistry classes.
The one issue Olmstead raises is the idea that such focus in pursuit can be taken too far, and that modern America has already fallen into a kind of conceptual trap of thinking that anything that doesn’t obviously advance career skills — topics like the humanities, literature, history, or the arts — is dispensable in a child’s education. In contrast to that, Olmstead points to the classical liberal arts education tradition, developed from the Greeks and Romans, which gave students knowledge that “transcended the professional, vocational, or technical, and sought to craft superior intellects and souls.”
But she also allows unschooling could embrace such principles in its own way, and thus perhaps achieve the best of both worlds.
3. “The Anti-Statist Alliance That Wasn’t” — Peter Blair, The American Interest
A recent theme on the right has been the growing alliance between civil libertarians and social conservatives, which is seen as a reaction to the popular success of social liberalism and the growing tendency of law and federal policy to reflect its norms and assumptions. But in The American Interest this week, Peter Blair argued the alliance is unsustainable.
First off, Blair notes the erosion of traditional local communities has led to new forms of nebulous social trust through technology: we have Yelp rather than a neighbor’s opinion, we have our Google profiles instead of business owners who know us personally, and instead of the proverbial moralistic church lady we have a surveillance society. The problem, as Blair lays it out, is that social conservatives and libertarians want to take this situation in two different directions. The former want a return to that personal fabric of the local community, while the latter merely want to reform the new state of affairs:
[W]e don’t all necessarily always prefer the old-fashioned, traditional way of going about business to the new way. A neighbor watching our child while we are at work obviously seems preferable to a cop “protecting” a child by arresting her mother. But lots of people very much value the greater anonymity and freedom that come from a society where matchmaking, shopping, and surveillance are all more impersonal than they are in a dense, nosy community — where everyone knows everything about you and your personal affairs.
And this is where the inchoate civil libertarian-social conservative synthesis tends to break down. What civil libertarians seem to want is to preserve the new, more indirect models of social trust, but with minimal infringements on privacy: no overweening state, no cop raids, no panoptic companies. As a general feeling, this is sensible enough. Certainly some discrete reforms for the worst overreaches of Leviathan are possible and necessary. The first steps taken by Congress to reform some of the NSA’s operating procedures and the broad-based outcry against ongoing police militarization are certainly welcome and necessary developments. [...]
[But] civil libertarians ultimately want latitude and freedom from restraint. Insofar as the motivating worries of the civil libertarians are about limiting the power of others over the autonomous self, the social conservative has little to offer him. The dense local communities that social conservatives pine after and advocate for as an alternative to the nationalized panopticon society ultimately point in the opposite direction: more restraint, not less. The restraint they advocate for might seem less scary when paired against some of the worst abuses of the panopticon society, but when paired against the civil libertarian dream world, they might appear very undesirable indeed to those same civil libertarians.
In an immediate sense, this is an internal debate on the right to which liberals are mere observers. But plenty of liberals also bemoan the spread of social atomization and suburban sprawl, and are embracing things like community revitalization and sustainable and walkable urban renewal as ways to get back to dense local communities.
And as the First Things piece above implied, many of the values liberals hold to — environmentalism, conscientious consumption, the organic movement, avoidance of smoking, acceptance of a broad range of lifestyle choices or sexual orientations, and so on — are themselves restraints that rely on the social pressure of a “nosy community” for enforcement. Yet social liberalism’s rhetoric still ostensibly embraces civil libertarianism and rejects social conformism as a good. So in a deeper sense, this is a tension and debate in which the left is also fully implicated.