The central myth of the sixties was that [its] wretched excess was really a serious quest for new values.–George Will
I. The Tragic Vision of Life
I confess to believing at one time or another nearly all the pervasive and persistent fantasies of the sixties. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s anthem for the Woodstock nation, I thought all I had to do was “get back to the land to set my soul free.” I thought that flowers had power, that love could be free, and that the system was to blame. By 1968, I had the whole world figured out. I knew the cause of every evil–America–and I knew the solution to every problem–freedom and tolerance.
If truth be told, of course, I knew nothing, at least nothing worth knowing. I knew how to posture, but not how to stand. I knew how to protest, but not how to protect. I knew how to work up an impressive case of moral outrage, but I didn’t know morality. I knew about peace, but I didn’t know enough to fight for it. I knew about self-indulgence, self-preservation, self-esteem, and self-expression, but I didn’t know about self-sacrifice and self-control.
Worse still, I didn’t even know myself. I didn’t know what Socrates knew about me–that I entered this world in a state of total and seamless ignorance, and that my ignorance could never be breached as long I remained blissfully unaware of it. I didn’t know what St. Augustine knew about me–that the well of my soul was poisoned, and that whatever was down in the well would come up in the bucket. St. Augustine also knew this about my soul: No matter how hard it tried, no matter where it looked, it could never find its rest anywhere but in God. I didn’t know what Edmund Burke knew about me–that no government could fix what ailed me, either by the things it did or by the things it did not. The most any state could do was to help protect me from myself and from others. Most importantly, however, I didn’t know that I was Everyman. When I learned that, I stopped being a liberal.
Like almost all dissidents of my generation, I was a protestor without a plan and a visionary without a vision. I had not yet learned that you see only what you are able to see, and I was able to see only the egalitarian, relativistic, self-gratifying, superstitions of the secular, wayward, left. Please do not think that this was simply a case of prelapsarian innocence. It was not. It was ignorance and it was evil, although I would have denied it at the time.
Only slowly did I come to understand that my fellow dissidents and I had taken for ourselves the easiest and least productive of all tasks, that of denigrator. And only slowly did I come to understand that to destroy is easy, that to build is hard, and that to preserve is hardest of all.
But it was worse even than that, because my fellow dissidents and I were blind to the most obvious truths, especially to what Russell Kirk and others have called the tragic vision of life–the profound realization that evil is not something “out there,” it is something “in here.” The tragic vision of life arises from the fact that we are flawed–deeply, desperately, tragically flawed–and we cannot be trusted. We are broken at the heart; our defect is life wide and soul deep. Though we are capable of reason, because of our selfish passions and our moral weaknesses we are rarely reasonable. We ourselves are what is chiefly wrong with the world. We are this planet’s most malignant and enduring ailment. We have our dignity, to be sure, but we have our horror as well. I can tell you this: I did not wake up until I met the enemy face to face. I met him in the mirror. We all do.
I had to learn to stare squarely into that face in the mirror, into the face of hard, fallen reality, and not to flinch. I did not, in fact I could not, comprehend the tragic vision of life until I learned that the problem of the human heart is at the heart of the human problem. Once I examined with care and honesty the habits of my own heart and those of my dissident friends, I learned that C.S. Lewis was right: to be one of the sons of Adam or the daughters of Eve is both glory enough to raise the head of the lowest beggar and shame enough to lower the head of the highest king. I am a human being. That is my wealth; that is my poverty.
Before that undeception, I was like all other cultural and political liberals. I had fallen prey to what Jeane Kirkpatrick identified as the error of misplaced malleability. I thought that human institutions could be reshaped at will to fit the plans already existing inside my head. It cannot be done. Human institutions arise from human action; human action arises from human nature; and human nature is notoriously intractable. Apart from the grace of God, human nature cannot be fixed, no matter how badly it needs fixing. I finally learned that my deepest need was not more freedom. I needed the grace and guidance of God. Until I understood that, I remained shamelessly superficial.
I had to put my insipid and airy romanticism where it belonged, on the burgeoning junk pile of the fatally flawed and conclusively overthrown fantasies to which the human mind seems continually to give rise. Not romanticism but religion, not Byron but the Bible, not poetry but Paul, not Voltaire but virtue, not trends but tradition, not idealism but ideas, not genius but grace, not freedom but faith could cure me. I had to exchange Wordsworth for the Word and revolution for repentance. Thus, while some of the things I valued were useful and good, they were not properly fundamental. I had to put first things first.
The tragic vision of life humbled me. From it I learned that it was not my prerogative to invent wisdom and virtue. That had already been done. My responsibility was to listen to the One who invented them and to those whom He taught. Wisdom and virtue, I had to learn, were not born with my generation, or with Rousseau’s, or Matthew Arnold’s, or even Eugene McCarthy’s. I had to learn in the last half of the twentieth century what was already old news even in the days of Jeremiah, the ancient prophet, who wrote,
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies;
and walk in it, and find rest for your souls (Jer. 6: 16).
Wisdom is found by walking the “ancient paths.” Those “ancient paths” led through the wilderness, through the sea, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and not through Berkeley, not Columbia, not the Village, not Watts, not Haight-Ashbury, not Altamont, and not Woodstock.
The tragic vision of life also taught me that order is the most fundamental of all political and social needs. Because it is, I learned that the police are not pigs. They never were, and are not now, an occupying army intent upon destroying my freedom. Quite the opposite; imperfect as they sometimes are, the police are the guardians of freedom and the paid protectors of life and property. In the line of duty, some of them even died for me, and for you. The tragic vision of life taught me that you cannot reject authority–whether civil, familial, cultural or divine–and yet live in an orderly world. When you “off the pigs,” (of whatever sort) you give birth to an outlaw culture, not to freedom. To live outside the rules, to live outside authority, to live without the wisdom of the ages and of God, is to court slavery and death. Enforceable law and law enforcement are requirements of the first rank. Because human nature is what it is, without great volumes of enforceable law, freedom is impossible. As Dean Clarence Manion observed in the very last line he wrote before his death in 1979, “a society that is not held together by its teaching and observance of the laws of Almighty God is unfit for human habitation and doomed to destroy itself.”
When is freedom not enough? Every time truth and righteousness are at stake. In a fallen world, that is almost always. Freedom must be exercised according to the dictates of truth and virtue, never the other way round. Freedom must be limited by the demands of justice, love and revelation. The most important consideration regarding any action is not “Is it free?” but “Is it good?” When I learned that, I stopped being a libertarian. Freedom, furthermore, is an incomplete concept. Whenever someone insists upon freedom, you must ask “Freedom to do what?” You must ask that question because freedom, like tyranny, has its unintended and unforeseen consequences, some of which are colossally vile. In passing, I name but one–abortion.
From the tragic vision of life I learned that you have to do what is right whether it suits you or not. In the sixties, we hardly did anything that did not suit us. I also learned that the enemy is not the CIA, not the FBI, and not the GOP; it’s the NEA, NOW, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, DNC, WCC and NPR, indeed the entire grab bag of alphabetized, leftist, subverters of culture, of tradition, and of revelation. I learned that those who deprive themselves of the wisdom of western tradition are no more free than a baby left alone by its parents to do as it pleases. I learned that politics is not about equality, but justice; that personal action is not about freedom, but righteousness; and that sex is not about pleasure, but love and privilege and posterity.
Those things and more I learned from the tragic vision of life. I commend them to you. They taught me that in many ways the sixties were twisted and misshapen.
The sixties are over, and it’s a good thing. The sixties were a bad idea, if for no other reason than because the sixties had no ideas, only selfish desires hiding behind the shallow slogans and freelance nihilism emblazoned on psychedelic bumper stickers, slogans like “I dissent, therefore I am.” The only things about which we were intellectually modest in the sixties were the claims of objective truth. We seemed unable to wrap our minds around even the most obvious ideas. We seemed unable to realize, for example, that you cannot raise your consciousness until you have one. The sixties were perhaps the most unconscious decade in centuries. It was a time of suffocating intellectual mediocrity, from which our nation has not yet recovered.
II. Sixties Redivivus
I can imagine a student reading these remarks and wondering, “This all might be well and good, but what does it have to do with me? I wasn’t even alive in the sixties.”
My answer is simply this: While the sixties are over, they are not dead, not by a long shot. They live, indeed they thrive, not only in the White House juvenocracy (which is tragic enough), but in the faculty lounges and endowed chairs of nearly every college and university in the United States. Tenured faculty members everywhere have traded their tie-dyed T-shirts and their bell bottom jeans for a cap and gown, if not a cap and bells. Those faculty members are the entrenched purveyors of an unexamined and indefensible hand-me-down Marxism, and of what Allan Bloom called nihilism with a happy ending. They have become paid agents of the very colleges and universities they once tried to burn to the ground, and not because they gave up on the dreams of the sixties. What they failed to do as protesters they have succeeded in doing as professors. Quite possibly they have done it to you, because the entire teaching profession, from the pre-kindergarten level to the post-graduate, has become a political captive of the cultural left. Like roving street gangs prowling the halls of academe, power hungry bands of leftist professors everywhere have instigated countless institutional turf wars, most of which they won. They succeeded in burying the accumulated wisdom of the ages in the name of learning; in overthrowing academic freedom in the name of tolerance; in stifling debate in the name of openness; in exalting egalitarianism above all other ideas in the name of equality; and in segregating and tribalizing the university, the nation, and the culture by gender, by age, by religion, by race, and by sexual preference, all in the name of unity. The schools and colleges that hire and then tenure them commit academic treason. I simply remind you that any intellectual community that is unwilling or unable to identify its enemies cannot defend itself. David Horowitz was exactly right: Those who cherish free institutions, and the culture of wisdom and virtue that sustains them, must stand up boldly against the barbarians already inside the gates.
Because the sixties live, this decade has become irrational, ignorant, and morally illiterate. If the sixties were majestically self-indulgent, this decade is perhaps the most self-congratulatory decade our nation has ever seen, and not because we have succeeded where all other generations have failed, but in spite of the fact that we have failed where all other American generations have succeeded–in learning to learn, in learning to work, in learning to listen, and in learning to worship. This is a decade determined to ignore, if not belittle and malign, beauty, truth and goodness, three things most moderns foolishly believe are in the eye of the beholder. Our decade is the sworn enemy of revelation and of righteousness. If the threefold mantra of the sixties was “tune in, turn on and drop out,” that of today is comprised of that earlier mantra’s four silly children, four sentences that no thinking man ever permits himself or herself to utter in the face of a moral challenge, sentences like: “Everything is relative,” “There is no right or wrong,” “There are no absolutes,” and “Who’s to say?”
If you cannot now figure out why belief in those four sentences is the death of learning and of virtue, then perhaps for that very reason you can understand why I spend nearly all my time and energy as a professor and as a writer defending the ancient liturgy of the enlightened mind–that right and wrong are matters of fact, not matters of feeling; that without God there is no good; that justice is not equality; that new is not necessarily better; and that relativism, secularism, and pragmatism are not the friends of truth and goodness. The denizens of modernity probably do not realize and probably do not care that they are the befuddled and bedeviled lackeys of designer truth, of made-to-order reality, and of ad hoc morals making. If you follow them, you walk into the night without a light and into the woods without a compass. I want to tell you as plainly as I can that their vision of academic tolerance lacks intellectual virtue. It dilutes the high cultural inheritance of the past with the petty and insupportable leftisms of the present.
A moment ago, I imagined a student that might be wondering about the relevance of my semi-autobiographical musings. I also can imagine someone thinking that all I’ve done since the sixties is simply to change sides in the culture war that rages around us. To think so, however, is to assume that flower power and Christianity are morally equivalent and that hippies rank equally with saints, two false assumptions that, if you make them, show just how much a child of the sixties you really are.
I have often wondered why today feels like a sixties renaissance. I discovered the answer to that question in a college cafeteria and in conversations with some of my students’ parents.
First, the parents: I have often noticed my students saying and thinking the same sorts of things their parents say and think when I speak with them. Such things happen because the acorn seldom falls far from the oak tree. That fact is more than a little significant because the parents of today’s college students were probably the young men and women of the sixties. Many of the responses my students learned to give to life are responses they learned from their parents. More often than not, those responses are the stock responses of the sixties. In one way, of course, that is good; I want my students to learn all the truth they can from their parents. But insofar as my students’ responses mimic the responses of the sixties, they too must learn the lessons I had to learn. They must come to understand, with all the clarity and courage they can muster, the truth of the tragic vision of life: We are, every one of us, morally defective, ethically twisted, and spiritually broken. If my students fail to come to that realization and to act upon it, both they and their world shall suffer.
Second, the cafeteria: I often notice my students echoing some of the things they hear their teachers say. When talking with students in the cafeteria, for example, I sometimes have the eerie feeling that I’m not in the cafeteria at all; I’m in a faculty meeting. I say so because I frequently hear the clear and unmistakable intonations of my colleagues’ voices, but coming from other people. Sometimes I even hear my own voice. Again, that’s good; I want college students to learn all the truth they can from their professors. But here’s the rub: Like me, many of their teachers were children of the sixties; and like me, many of those professors have made only an incomplete break with the mistakes of that era. From their other professors and from me, my students have gotten many of their ideas. Like my students themselves, their ideas have parents. Worldviews and attitudes, just like the people who have them, show marked family resemblances. For that very reason, I often want to ask my students this question: From where do you imagine your rampant relativism and your not-very-carefully-hidden contempt for authority arise? In most cases, when I consider asking such a question, I already know the answer–from the sixties and from the people (like me) who reached their emotional and intellectual maturity at that time.
III. Undeception Redivivus?
Here’s my point: If you believe in the sixties, or if you believe in today, you believe a lie. As I did, you need an undeception. In order to get it, you need to go back well beyond the sixties, back to a wisdom that is older than time. You need to go back to God and to the wisdom that spoke this universe into existence. You need to go back to the God who made you and redeemed you. Real answers are found nowhere else.
It should not surprise you when I tell you that, if you do what I suggest, you shall meet energetic and determined opposition, sometimes even from those who call themselves the friends of God and of tradition. As Socrates observed long centuries ago, most men do not take kindly to the preacher of moral reform, to the pursuer of the good. There is no telling, he said in the Gorgias, what might happen to such a man. But do not let that stop you. Do it anyway. Do it because you need it; do it because it is right; and do it because it ought to be done. Your task will be difficult. It’s always easy to be a modernist; it’s always easy to go with the spirit of the age. But in the face of the world’s downward slide you must be vigilant, strong, perceptive, and courageous. The world needs people like that, people unafraid to turn around and walk back into the light. Our world needs people like that more now than perhaps it ever has because everywhere you look the adversary culture of the sixties has become the dominant culture of today.
Our cultural patrimony is being embezzled from under our very noses. If you think of yourself as a Christian, or as a conservative, or as both, the view from here is haunting: We don’t own the public square; we don’t own the media; we don’t own the arts; we don’t own the sciences; we don’t own the arena; we don’t own the marketplace; we don’t own the academy; we don’t own anything. We don’t even own the Church. It’s all owned by the sixties.
Therefore, if, as I did, you find yourself an unwilling or unwitting child of the sixties, I invite you, I exhort you, to turn with an open mind and an open heart to the prophets and apostles in Scripture and to the great poets and sages outside Scripture. They are your only liberation from modernist thralldom and from slavery to your own fallen desires. (Did you know that you can be a slave to your own will?) Put yourself on a quest for eternal truth, and never give up until you find Him.
While you are on this quest, you must always remember that most of the powers that be are of no help to you. Those who loved the sixties own today. The left still hates America, and it still hates what made America possible: faith in God, the sacredness and inviolability of the family and of life, individual responsibility, local and limited government, and traditional morality. The leftists of today are the enemies of heartland values. They want you to keep quiet. They want you to sit meekly in the corner of the room, hands folded and mouth shut. They want you to be nice. They want the friends of beauty, truth, and goodness to speak only when spoken to and, when they do speak, to speak only those things that offend no one. That they have offended you seems not to matter. They want you to stick to the script. They want you to keep your views to yourself and to act as if your views were not true, indeed as if there were no truth. That’s what political correctness–Or should I say political cleansing?–is all about.
Consider it for just a moment: What kind of man or woman would you be if you let yourself be controlled by the empty criticisms of the rootless left, and what kind of world would you be creating for those who came after you if you neglected to restore realism to human thought and turned your back on the only thing that can make you content even in dungeons, even in slums, even in the face of death?
My desire for you is that you throw off the vestiges of leftist cultural subversion, that you make yourself a devotee and guardian of the wisdom of the ages, that you become the sworn enemy of nonsense in all its forms, and, most importantly, that you become the faithful and ardent friend of God. Then, and only then, can you be free.
What has been given you as a heritage you must now accept as your quest. If you wish to be wise, you must learn to learn from your ancestors. You must learn to make peace with the wisdom of the ages and with those who gave it, regardless of their sex, their race, or their ethnic background. You must do so because wisdom and truth are not gender based, race based, or nation based. They are thought based, and thinking is very hard work. Knowledge is not parochial. It is not the private property of any race, any gender, any era, or any ethnic group. It belongs to those determined to get it, to those who seek it resolutely and who will not be denied, no matter how difficult the circumstances arrayed against them.
In that light, I invite you today to make one of the most important choices of your entire life: Which will you have, truth or rest?
You cannot have both.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is by Ric Manning, and is licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.