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This is Another Article About the Decline of the West
Brian Carney • January 1997

“If Socialism is that which seeks to carry out its own views on behalf of all, then we are all Socialists. All world-improvers are Socialists.”
—Oswald Spengler

MONHEGAN ISLAND—What, after all, drives a 19-year-old to be conservative? Wherefore all the curmudgeonliness, the stubborn pessimism, the premature maturity and affectation of age?

And don’t we know that ours is a lost cause, a hopeless, quixotic, self-destructive bucking of the current? Even old Buckley’s “standing athwart history” bit ought to tell us enough for us to realize that ours is a doomed enterprise. So why do we do it?

Don’t we want to save the world, like other, better-adjusted young adults? Don’t we believe, like our fellow college activists, that human striving and benevolence can make our world better, kinder, gentler, faster, more humane? In fact, many “conservatives,” especially young conservatives, do harbor visions of a brighter, bionic future. That is to say, most of us are not particularly conservative at all. They are not because they do want all those things for mankind, and furthermore they believe they can be gotten.

These right-wingers have been told they are conservative because the better, brighter, stronger bionic future they want will be provided not by taxing and spending but by supply-side economics and the Third Wave.

But libertarian utopianism is still utopianism, and heaven on earth is still a lie. It doesn’t matter whether the train you take there is called The Free Market or The State.
There are others who part company with me even earlier, who think that I am wrong to say conservatism is doomed, who think that there could be a successful, non-utopian, genuinely conservative politic (assuming that even this faith is not overly utopian).

But politics, in the modern, Western world of which America is a part, is identical with the delivery of one’s messianic vision to the masses; it must mean that as long as we as a people are looking (or can be convinced to look) for a messiah. No one who tells us that they are not our savior has a prayer, so to speak.

One need look no further than Bob Dole’s disaster in November to see what happens to a man whose vision is less than visionary.

The only legitimate political choices we face are choices between evils; that is, between different ways of carrying out one or another set of views on behalf of the whole—on behalf of those whose fate we appropriate unjustly. The missing alternative—that which is condemned by both sides as barbaric, primitive—is that of not carrying out one’s views at all on any scale larger than the palm of one’s hand or the width of one’s lot.

A conservative knows that he wants what it is no longer possible to have, and knowing that, invokes the ancient and unfulfillable desire never to have been born into politics at all.

Given this impossibility, there are putative conservatives who will nonetheless argue that we must strive to accomplish what is possible within the given limitations. Failure to accept those limits is a political insanity—it is Hamlet’s choice, and like Hamlet, we will be overrun by circumstance through our own inaction. To Hamlet, Denmark is a prison, but having fled his prison, he finds on his return that the prison has become a gallows.

To the genuine conservative, Speaker Newt’s Opportunity Society is no less a prison than Roosevelt’s New Deal or Clinton’s New Democracy.

On this curious, backward, doomed little island to which I (though no prince) have sailed, the scale is still human. The 65 people who live here year round look out for their own, and care for others who need it, but there are as yet few opportunities for anyone to play God in this tiny fishing town.

There are no police, no public roads, no hospital, no cable television. Monhegan has foregone these “necessities” of modern living, and the impression is that of a simpler age, I mention this not to romanticize this island in contrast with other places—Monhegan’s intransigence has made it a curiosity as well as a dinosaur, and hundreds of people tramp its trails every day all summer, and I suspect it will not be safe much longer.

The residents have now begun forming committees to work out the problems posed by modernity, and it seems inevitable that the rest will follow quickly downhill. (Committees are one of those dialectical complications of which we all need beware. They are only ever formed to offer a mien of legitimacy to an individual’s efforts to effect his will, or impose his personal idea of The Good.)
The conservative position in a progressive age is one of insanity or impossibility or both. This place will fall in its time to the all-consuming vision of Paradise, and attempts to shore up the walls will only speed the armies of progress on their way through the gates.

What would drive a 19-year-old to conservatism?

—Brian Carney, Editor-at-Large, was Editor-in-Chief 1995-6


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