It seems to me perfectly natural and right that one should become more conservative as one gets older. It’s not that there is anything wrong with being traditional in one’s youth, but youth is naturally a time for self-discovery and testing boundaries, and it’s important then to develop qualities like courage and creativity, even at the expense of making some mistakes. The older generation, on the other hand, is responsible for preserving and defending the standards and traditions that they know, from experience, to be important to the entire society.
This, though, is probably a matter of maturity rather than conservatism in a political sense. In the political sense, it is by no means true that people always move from liberal to conservative as they get older. With the prevailing liberalization of society, in fact, the default tendency is to become more liberal. This is true of many people of my parents’ generation, who when they were younger would have viscerally opposed the public acceptance of homosexuality or the legitimization of Malcolm X as a social leader. It’s true of numerous public figures like George Will. If you live in a liberal community or work in a public institution where the prevailing winds blow liberal, it is hard to sustain the constant assault on your conservative values. You want to be liked, after all! I myself was at heart pretty much liberal until the shock of 9/11, when I began to see that our inability to effectively respond to the most audacious and flagrant attacks our nation had endured in its entire history was rooted in our moral weakness. That began a process of exploration of self and society that continues for me to this day, some of the results of which are posted on these pages.
I can’t imagine returning to any of my former default liberal stances, because although I may not have figured out exactly what to replace them with, I am sure that as they stood they are wrong. It seems clear to me, for example, that if we don’t get a grip on marriage and figure out some way to get men and women to marry at a reasonably young age and stay married, family life as we have known it, and everything this has meant to us, will be largely replaced by much less nourishing and stable alternative arrangements. I don’t think this is a possibility, I think it’s a certainty. And nowadays, for most social problems, I tend to take a conservative stance – which is not the same thing as wanting to put things back just as they were in the past.
And yet it is a fact that even people who have gone quite far in committing themselves to a conservative or traditional position do reverse themselves sometimes. I’m thinking of a number of male friends of mine who are or were either conservative or libertarian. My assumption, or wishful thought, is that such persons should naturally become more conservative as time goes on and they see more and more evidence that liberalism just isn’t working. To my surprise, though, this is not always the case. One of my friends, for instance, was publicly quite active in the Republican Party up until 2008 and took quite a bit of flak for it at his very liberal workplace, but has lately been complaining about the “extremists” in that party and claiming that national health care may be a great thing. I know another fellow, in his mid-30s, who was very active in his church and, as far as I could see, a rock-solid conservative, but who has lately dropped church entirely and spends his energy trying to pick up women at clubs. (Maybe he finally broke after failing to find a wife at church.) One of my on-line friends, with whom I thought I shared many values, recently told me that he was through with the “far right” and that he thought we may be heading for a “hedonistic utopia,” which he had decided to enjoy rather than resist.
What surprises me about individuals like these is that they seem to have truthfully seen the false and self-destructive nature of liberalism and stood against it, but then somehow changed their minds, at least partially. This, to me, is more puzzling than the case of people with a liberal worldview simply holding on to or expanding that view. How can you see the truth, and then deliberately forget it?
But these persons, if they were reading this, would certainly deny that they are suppressing or forgetting anything. They see reality; I am clinging to unfounded beliefs. Or, maybe more likely: nothing is certain, and they’re choosing to be more optimistic, or to think more flexibly (OK, maybe this is not my strong point!), or to live more in the moment. Who knows how it will all turn out?
I don’t believe it, though. I can’t look at the growth of Islam in our and fool myself into thinking it just might happily resolve itself into something benign without our having to fight it. I can’t look at the efforts of “marriage equality” activists to force their relationships into the institution of marriage, and believe that this won’t harm children, families, and the larger society. I can’t look at illegal “Hispanic” immigrants marching in favor of an amnesty for themselves, and believe that my American society can assimilate their presence. I don’t see sexual hedonism as leading to anything but heartbreak, mutual alienation, and sad children or no children in the long run. A hedonist utopia? A hedonist hell, more likely.
(I feel compelled to interject here that I am no “puritan” and am quite a fun-loving person. But you’ll have to take my word for it!)
Furthermore, all these issues are connected. I believe Pat Robertson said something about 9/11 being a punishment for our acceptance of homosexuality. I do not consider that to be a factually true statement, and Robertson may be crazy for all I know, but there is metaphorical truth in it. There is a connection between our loosening up and de-valuing of traditional marriage (and other relationships and sets of obligations that transcend individual desire), and our ensuing softness and spinelessness as a society that the Muslims observed and correctly saw as an indication that we were ripe for them to prey on.
On such matters, I’m going to continue to try to show people I care about that those connections are real – and I hope this does not preclude also learning from the perspectives of others! It is not that I know much; but all anyone can do is try to express what he sees. Those who feel I’m missing something will, I hope, try to set me straight.