Conservative Thinkers So Heavenly Minded They’re No Earthly Good
Outside the ivory towers of prestige publications and think tanks, something interesting is happening — or rather, not happening.
The somewhat hard to define realm of higher conservative thought has spent the last week engaged in a battle between Sohrab Ahmari who attacked the previously never-heard-of “David French-ism” and the response “Against David French-ism “ as written by the actual David French. Now aside from driving traffic to First Things and NRO, the row also spawned dozens of other articles for, against, supporting, and opining on the various matters related to the discussion. In case you missed it, or didn’t particularly care, last week’s version of intra-conservative warfare is readily available via interwebs search if you feel compelled to delve into the particulars. I will not do so here because it mostly boils down to a recurrence of a very old debate: (Fill in the blank X) is an existential crisis du jour threatening to wipe out (fill in the blank Y) and if you do not have the same amount of exothermic chemical combustion process of your protein filament that grows from the follicles on your head, well then, you are an even bigger existential threat than the first existential threat.
Yes, that is over simplification, but simplification is what is needed, not more hair-on-fire same-team rhetorical flagellation.
I love reading, pondering, debating, and kicking around such things on both on a thinking level and a practical level. Thinking about it is good intellectual exercise, and keeping a curious mind busy and fed with such problems to hash out is healthy. Interacting with folks on such things is likewise good and healthy, both personally and for the great good of the country since we should always be questioning, testing, and challenging. I even have the privilege and platform of writing about it and sending it out to the wider world online for folks to react too.
But that is also why I temper myself; writing online, commentating, opining, all of that is well and good but it is still just words sent out into the ether. Meanwhile, there is real world stuff going on that is beyond the power of mere words to control.
Inevitably, the true motives behind such a debate start to come out, since commentators feel compelled to not only tell you what they are thinking, but must continually explain why in ever-widening detail. Thus we come to this nugget of wordsmithing:
This is amazing. Something that started with ranting over drag queen story hour at local libraries has now become a defense of Aristotelian tradition. I had never honestly heard the term “bog-standard” before. I know what a bog is, Cranberry Glades being one of the real wonders of the natural world, a rare east coast highland bog, and close to where I grew up. I had the benefits of a classical education and a father who was pretty adamant about his Greek studies so I picked up on the Aristotelian part, but the rest is a mess of really important sounding words whose meanings escaped me. And probably most other folks. There have been men dressing as women for as long as we have recorded human history, so I’m skeptical this will change anytime soon on a mass cultural level. Nor do I think a drag queen reading stories to children in a public library — a voluntary participation thing as far as I can tell — is the meteor that will destroy the republic and leave a gaping crater where democratic life once flourished.
But that’s just my narrow intellectual range to not understand the awesomeness of the cause, I suppose. Luckily I do have the capacity to Google “bog-standard” so that I can learn it is a Britishism of some debatable origin. So thank you, Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz, for that “today I learned.”
Since the vein of religious scruples is running all throughout this debate, it brought to mind something from my own church upbringing that I wish the bringers of conservative light would keep in mind. Theology can be an overwhelmingly daunting topic, and there are folks who spend a lifetime on the concepts. Seminaries brim with such high debate and vigorous dialogue. But take a seminarian and place them in a small church and those same debates and terms will gloss over the eyes of the people who come to worship for fellowship, healing, haven, pot luck, and encouragement. The concept from scripture, and experience, and an excellent Johnny Cash song, is codified in the saying “so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.” Variations include the uber-pious who cannot understand the struggles of others, the intellectual who berates the simple faith of the unlearned, and even the annoyingly showy person making sure their faith lives out loud louder than any others.
Come heed me, my brothers, come heed, one and all
Don’t brag about standing or you’ll surely fall
You’re shining your light and shine it you should
But you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
If you’re holding heaven, then spread it around
There’s hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
Move over and share the high ground where you stood
So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good
Those with the aspiration and monikers of “Conservative Thinkers” do themselves and the beliefs they are purportedly trying to proclaim no favors when they forget that what is perfectly acceptable in an academic debate is not only unhelpful but off-putting to the population at large.
There is a segment of the population, a loud one at present, eagerly knife-and-forking all the red meat being tossed suggesting that all-out ideological war is demanded upon us by the seriousness of the present threat to beliefs. There is a vastly greater number that aspire to get along and live in peace.
There are those who really want to know the classical underpinnings of modern liberal tradition. There is a far greater host that want to know if your idea is going to make their life better or worse.
There are some folks who are very concerned with the pluralist origins of American religious liberty and it’s affect on the meaning and scope of separation of church and state. Most everybody else just wants to believe and worship — or not worship at all — as they see fit and be left alone about it.
There are those who are zealots about defeating their intellectual enemy before the enemy defeats them and ruins the country. Most everyone else wishes both sides would just shut up about it.
I fully understand that all those issues are important to hash out. But outside the ivory towers of prestige publications and think tanks, something interesting is happening — or rather, not happening.
While we in the commentariat throw around terms like liberal, conservative, progressive, and hundreds of others there are 7 billion people on the planet, most of whom are more concerned with where their next meal is coming from than what label is attached to them. Even once winnowed down considerably to the 320-odd million Americans, only a small slice of them keep up with politics with regularity, and even less with the ideological theory that underpins the debate surrounding said politics. Consider: after 2 years of the omnipresent Donald Trump presidency, more than a decade of social media, nearly 40 years of 24/7 cable news, and a relentless technological march of more information more of the time, the ideological divide in these United States of America changed in 2018 from the previous year…
Americans’ assessment of their political ideology was unchanged in 2018 compared with the year prior when 35% on average described themselves as conservative, 35% as moderate and 26% as liberal. Although conservatives continue to outnumber liberals, the gap in conservatives’ favor has narrowed from 19 percentage points in Gallup’s 1992 baseline measurement to nine points each of the past two years.
Since 1992, the percentage of Americans identifying as liberal has risen from 17% then to 26% today. This has been mostly offset by a shrinking percentage of moderates, from 43% to 35%. Meanwhile, from 1993 to 2016 the percentage conservative was consistently between 36% and 40%, before dipping to 35% in 2017 and holding at that level in 2018.
Before you decry, “that’s just one poll’s opinion!”, Pew and virtually all other firms have it pretty much the same.
I rather suspect so much of the debate that centers on finding the purist strand of conservative, or classical liberal, or libertarian, or progressive, or whatever other ideology one is debating isn’t changing anyone’s mind as much as it is rearranging the same room over and over again. The plateau in the movement of ideological numbers may very well be that with the information age at its apex, and just about anyone who cared to know and engage has at this point. And inevitably, when a writer goes after another within the commentariat with no apparent pretext, there is usually something personal between them, or at least between the aggressor and the group that individual is using as a proxy for whomever the personal issue is with.
The biggest problem with what Sohrab Ahmari does here isn’t just his premise, which is a fine enough thing to debate I suppose, but the intent of it. Such writing and issues come off like a seminary debate, where cloistered folks argue over some obscure something that 99% of the real world population will never spend a spare moment considering. It matters among writers, and thinkers, and commentators — and probably does have some intellectual value in working through — but in the real world it has no practical value. Add in the gratuitousness “he’s too nice” nonsense as if that is some great heresy and you can quickly drill down to this being less about David French and much more telling of Sohrab Ahmari wanting to justify what he has already determined to be righteous in his own mind, then seeking out the Frenches of the world to contrast it with. And if your conclusion and faith isn’t up to snuff with his, clearly it is the problem of “how narrow their intellectual range of reference is, how dogmatic their commitment to their own Highest Good” is and not his own mistaken thought process.
And he is perfectly free to do so. As was David French, who is more than able to write his own defense, and did. But most everyone not invested in the conservative commentariat are just as likely to sing another round of “No Earthly Good” as they try to navigate the ever-shifting sands of reality under their in-real-life feet.
In the meantime, since I am not a great and vaunted thinker with cool letters after my name, I’ll continue to do what I’ve always endeavored to do: seek truth, call it like I see it, worry about getting it right. I love my country, and with a quarter of my country being made of liberals/progressives I have zero desire to hate or own any of them since loving my country means caring about them, too. My conservative brethren who think me a squish for that are fine and dandy and I care about them too. And if you can figure out what the vast swath of the middle thinks, well…there is a lot of money for you to make since folks spend a lot of time and filthy lucre trying to do just that.
For conservative thought to make gains, real meaningful gains, in the real world, will require a lot of grunt work to explain in plain language why those ideals would leave people better off if applied in a democratic republic. Maybe things like socialism start trending upward in popularity because the belief system that should be set against it has been running on reputation more than accomplishment for years and folks have noticed and started tuning it out. How they can be freer, happier, and deal with temporal issues with something other than ethereal platitudes is what folks want to hear. Otherwise they will find a faith, and belief system, that reaches them where they are. Something that is earthly good, not just printable and sharable among the right sort of ideological circles
And if so, the conservative ivory towers debates will go from intra-conservative, as in among them, to inter, as in the verb to lay something at rest in a tomb. Then they will be isolated, indeed.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on June 11, 2019.