Orthodoxy and “Political Correctness”
I was reading in yesterday’s Guardian opinions from some noted conservatives, both pro or con, on the Trump administration. Opinions are divided, but it does show that “conservatism” is as fractious and factional as is “progressivism”. But I noted their often frequently expressed anguish to maintain conservative “orthodoxy”, or whether Trump was following or not following conservative “orthodoxy”.
Now, that’s really ironic given the conservative’s often loud and noisy denunciations of dogmatic “political correctness” in others, with the apparent failure to recognise the same dogmatism in themselves as this cherished “orthodoxy”. Reminds me of a children’s nursery rhyme:
- Tweedledum and Tweedledee
- Agreed to have a battle;
- For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
- Had spoiled his nice new rattle.
What distinguishes this attitude about the “orthodoxy” from “political correctness”? They are, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, only mirror images of one another. It also reminds me of those experiments with birds and mirrors where the bird, not recognising its own image in the mirror, attacks it continuously never realising that the other bird is itself.
Surely we can do better than birds or children?
Dogmatism is dogmatism whether you call it “the orthodoxy” or “political correctness”. But underlying it all is still identity politics and what is to be considered “normal” or the gold standard (and therefore equally what is to be considered bias or deviancy). You saw exactly the same thing in that controversial manifesto circulated at Google by that software engineer (who was subsequently turfed), and which I earlier described as a near perfect instance of narcissism in full bloom.
It is a kind of thoughtlessness all round… so much social energy being expended on the defence of identities from each other, conservative, liberal, or whatever, or what is referred to as “siege mentality” or “fortress mentality” or what we call “hyper-partisan”. Nobody questioning what identity is or why they’re prepared, ironically, to fight to the death to defend it.
This kind of factionalism and sectarianism around identity was characteristic also of the low Middle Ages. It wasn’t always that way. Most people who think or hear of “Middle Ages” think only of its decadent or “deficient” phase when what was then called “Christendom” began to disintegrate — physically, morally, spiritually, intellectually. Then, as now, there was “identity crisis” and the retreat into dogmatic positions, only we called “sectarianism” then what is now called “factionalism” or the hyper-partisan.
Ideology, and consequently “identities” too, have become stale and stagnant. That’s what orthodoxy and political correctness both signify. They’re both dogmatic. That, too, belongs to the problem of “post-historic man”, who feels himself beset and squeezed by the powers of past and future and retreats into his little island of identity and the dogmatic “point-of-view”. It’s actually a fine illustration of the fact that Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality”, as he mentioned, is also subject to contraction. This “orthodoxy” of the conservative or this “political correctness” of the progressive are both signs that the font of creativity has dried up.”Expect poison from the standing water”, as William Blake put it, and we are certainly hearing and seeing a lot of toxic rhetoric today.
So, let’s clear the air of all this bullshit and rediscover the authentic roots of what we call “conservative” and “progressive”.
They are clearly time-orientations, one towards the past, and the other towards the future. They are moods or orientations in that sense before they become rationalised as “ideology”. Rosenstock-Huessy gives these orientations towards the times the formal terms “trajective” (or conservative mood) and “prejective” (or progressive mood), and in that sense, indeed, “time is of the soul” as St. Augustine put it. None of us is 100% conservative (total reactionary) or 100% progressive (total revolutionary). Both end in nihilism — nihilism as regards the future, or nihilism as regards the past. Unfortunately, that is the temptation of “post-historic man” who, on the one hand, thinks and acts like he was born yesterday or, on the other hand, lives and acts like there is no tomorrow. Neither today’s conservative nor today’s progressive can think themselves out of a wet-paper bag, as the saying goes. So let’s bracket off this whole issue of “ideology” (and orthodoxy and political correctness) and examine the specific virtue of each.
Real human beings (and not their caricatures like today’s conservative or progressive) are like the two-faced god Janus, one face facing backwards towards the past and Origin and another facing forwards towards the future and Destiny.
If we are sane at all, we recognise that we are always at the crucial or critical juncture of time where we have to decide between continuity or change. Thus the conservative or progressive moods (or trajective and prejective moods) of the soul have survival value, for they put the question: “do we stay the course, or must we change course?” Clearly, what underlies both is the central question: “what is its value for life?” And if it is not oriented by that question, then it is disease and degeneracy. Most of it, today, is disease and degeneracy and little more than a species of nihilism.
What characterises the conservative mood? One shouldn’t leave it up to “orthodox” conservatives to self-deal in this respect. You hear from them all sorts of answers: “preference for the familiar” (Oakshott); “standing astride the railway track of history yelling “Stop!”” (Buckley); “loyalty” (Royce); These conservatives seem blind to the perversions and aberrations such definitions ultimately lead to, mainly an intense resentment towards impermanence, transience, or death or anything that constitutes change. They become reactionary. They cling to dead forms and dead rituals.
No, none of that is the specific conservative virtue. It’s respect, and especially respect for limit that is the conservative virtue. And that’s all well and good. That has survival value. It comes from mankind’s long painful history of the problems of excess — of hubris and Nemesis. And for that reason, conservatism is also characterised by “prudence”. Prudence does not mean “no change” or stasis. Neither Buckley’s nor Oakshott’s nor Royce’s definition of conservatism is prudent. Prudence means change at the right time, and the right time means none-too-soon on the one hand and none-too-late on the other. Respect for limit and the past, and therefore a preference for continuity over change, has survival value until it becomes reactionary. When change, transformation or metamorphosis has become urgent and the conservative becomes obstructionist — that is what we mean by “reactionary”.
That’s where the progressive or “prejective” mood takes over. The prejective type is prepared to build a new ship in a crisis or historical emergency, as Rosenstock-Huessy put it, and to try untried waters and an unknown and untested future. That is the “leap of faith”, and that is what characterises the specific virtue of the prejective type — “faith”. In a sense, faith and belief, although treated as synonymous, are actually contraries. Faith is the power that sustains the soul through crisis and darkness and bears us into a new future even as our intellect tells us that everything is hopeless and impossible and that all is lost. It, too, has survival value. We see quite a lot of this kind of faith expressed today — Joanna Macy, Carolyn Baker, Edgar Morin among others, who know that the fight for life is worthwhile despite their mere belief that it is hopeless. This attitude of “nonetheless” is noble, and is the gist of this passage from Morin,
All the great transformations or creations have been unthinkable until they come to pass…All the happy events of history have always been a priori impossible…[but this gives] no assurance. Life may accidentally meet death. The unthinkable will not necessarily come to pass. The improbable is not necessarily felicitous. The mole may destroy what ought to have been preserved. Rescue may be unequal to the peril. The adventure remains unknown. The Planetary Era may possibly come to naught before it has even begun to bloom. Perhaps humankind’s struggles may lead only to death and ruin. However, the worst is not yet certain, and the game is not yet over. In the absence of any certainty or even probability, there is the possibility of a better world. The task is huge and unassured. We cannot eschew either hope or despair. Both holding of and resignation from office seem equally impossible. We must have a ‘passionate patience.’ We stand on the threshold, not of the last, but of the early stages of the battle (Morin, 1999, pp. 148-149).
Faith is what allowed Nietzsche to endure and survive his “stare into the abyss” when his intellect alone was telling him it was all for nothing and that it was logical to commit suicide. It’s a kind of boldness and a willingness to dare the unknown. The prejective mood is connected with the “leap of faith” into the unknown, the untried, the untested, the unfamiliar because in all other respects mind has already reached “the end of its tether”.
So, you can see why conservative “orthodoxy” and progressivist “political correctness” are both farcical — caricatures of the authentically conservative (or trajective) and the authentically progressive (or prejective). The “times are out of joint” means, we are timorous when we should be bold, and we are audacious when we should exercise respect and show prudence. The disease of the trajective type is “too late”, and the disease of the prejective type is “too soon”. In essence, this bears on Jean Gebser’s statement that everything today hinges on knowing when to let happen and when to make happen. And that is a question of timing.
That is the very gist of don Juan’s complaint to Carlos Castaneda about “Western man”. “You rush when you should wait, and you wait when you should rush”. That is what “times out of joint” signifies. Jean Gebser’s work, as well as Rosenstock-Huessy’s, shows that they understand the issue of times and timing perfectly well and that they have integrated these moods of the trajective and the prejective in themselves, and are thus paradoxical (and also value the paradoxical). They are the Janus-faced god himself, weighing Origin and Destiny and balancing the requirements of each in terms of conservation or revolution, guided by the single imperative question: “What is its value for life?” How does this serve life?
Quite obviously, a lot that goes by the name “conservatism” or by the name “progressivism” has lost the plot completely, reflecting what Gebser calls “the deficient mode” (or decadence) of a consciousness structure. We don’t have to define ourselves or frame our “identities” in such narrow and constricted terms. We only have to know when it is necessary to rush and when it is necessary to wait and thus continuously try to rebalance or restore the “cross of reality” or “Sacred Hoop”. Relying upon dogmas of conservative “orthodoxy” or “political correctness” are not helpful and are even quite debilitating. And if you understand Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy and also the ideal of “time-freedom”, you will not be tempted to overidentify with one or the other, but only ask the question: what is its value for life? How does this, here and now, serve the purposes of life?