My favorite of Russell Kirk’s many books always has been Enemies of the Permanent Things. This wonderful, at times ironic, volume is a collection of social commentary, hopeful reminders of work still being done by important thinkers, and biting criticism. The book signals its central theme in its subtitle, “Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics.”
Like much of Kirk’s best work, Enemies is an exploration of social norms and their disintegration in modern public life. “Abnormity” refers to the abnormal, which also can be taken as the irregular, or even the monstrous. The nature of Kirk’s concern guarantees disinterest from elite and even mainstream readers because it focuses on the objective good (“permanent things”) and how it is being rejected. Other than in purely clinical settings, where, for example, an abnormality on an x-ray may indicate disease, we don’t like talking or hearing things called “abnormal” these days. We certainly don’t want to think about something “abnormal” as monstrous. But our very desire to avoid reasoned consideration of abnormity and its consequences is yet another sign of our having too much of both.
In addition to the monstrous politically-motivated evils of genocide and tyranny, modern literature also is full of the monstrous. What is missing is the capacity and will to judge day-to-day behavior as either good or bad. Our judgment is impaired to the point of disappearance because my considered juxtaposition of abnormity with the normal is difficult to fathom in contemporary society. Normality, to most moderns, means the average, the typical, the common, and the boring. It is, in short, something to be avoided. In such terms even the monstrous may be seen as “unique,” “misunderstood,” or merely useful commentary on the faults of the “normal,” taken as the boring, conventional average.
This isn’t to say that there is no longer a demand that people conform. Few make more stringent demands for conformity than the mavens of “nonconformist” political correctness. And, after all, social life is, well, social—be it at the church, the “fair trade” co-op, or the gaming console. Even or perhaps especially those who see themselves living “beyond” accepted standards of good and evil follow, impose, and uphold social standards of some kind. The question, then, is not whether but what kind of “normal” one will seek to be.
Properly understood, normal doesn’t mean merely the common or average. It refers to a norm—an authoritative standard, a “principle of right action” according to Webster’s, that by its nature intends to guide us in our conduct. Every subculture in the world has its own principles of what it considers right action, from the Boy Scout Oath (now sadly empty words even for that organization) to liberal demands for “sensitive” language usage. What Kirk’s juxtaposition of the Permanent Things with abnormity points out is that a proper norm is not merely whatever standard happens to exist within some subculture, but an authoritative standard rooted in the nature of existence.
My purpose, here, is not to provide a review of Kirk’s book—it’s good, go buy it. Rather, my purpose is to examine one of the central causes of our culture wars, namely that where some people believe norms are what we make of them, others believe that they are, by nature, something more. Traditional conservatives do not seek to preserve traditional norms simply because they are “ours”—though their having been ours for a long time is a sign that they probably have much good to be said about them. Conservatives seek to preserve norms because they are in an important sense objectively right. Sound arrogant? Sound like a claim to god-like knowledge that a group would use to impose their views on the rest of us? Of course it does, to modern ears. Such a view rests on the conviction that we cannot merely “choose” what is good; we may, in fact, choose to call good what is evil (reproductive “choice” comes to mind, here). And such choices have consequences for both our souls and our societies.
Appeal to objective standards of good and evil in regard to everyday conduct is rejected as preachy at best and more likely a sign of the desire to tyrannize over others. This is so, not because anyone who seeks to uphold proper norms does so out of a lust for power, but because the very notion that we have a duty to uphold common standards goes against an essential liberal myth: that society can be “neutral” in its treatment of basic moral choices, punishing only actions that clearly harm innocents (with certain exceptions, of course) while allowing us to create our own “lifestyles.” We have become so accustomed to the view that norms are “mere” custom, and that tradition is merely customary, that we have forgotten the relationship between the historical and the permanent. As Kirk explains, permanent goods like beauty do not exist in this world as mere abstractions; they are made concrete in actual objects (such as Michelangelo’s Pieta). In the same way, truth exists in our truth-tellings. And virtue, the permanent good of right character, exists in conduct that follows the right standards of conduct.
What are those “right standards?” There is the rub. Virtues as diverse as justice and generosity depend in part on circumstance and history. It would not be just to return a borrowed gun to the lender at a time when he was not in his right mind because of the potential danger he would pose to himself and others. And cultures impose differing standards regarding the proper level or type of generosity depending in part on the level of scarcity they face (for example, some emphasize the duties of guests, and some the duties of hosts).
These variations lead all too many people to believe that norms are merely commands that we can and should change at will to meet current needs. But, while our practice of permanent norms can and should take circumstances into account, the norms themselves are permanent and beyond choice. They also are fundamental to our society and even to our existence as decent persons. Thus, to establish a new norm that celebrates the monstrous in art is to degrade art and with it our society. And to “redefine” social norms regarding such fundamental institutions as the family and the church is to degrade us all in pursuit of an acceptance that cannot be given without destroying the source of norms itself.
Redefinition of the family began with a humane justification—to end disadvantages placed on children of unwed parents and recognize the breakdown of certain marriages so that the former spouses might move on with their lives. Redefinition of the church (that is, of its role as an organizing institution for public life) began with the desire to establish public peace and the right of all persons to follow their consciences in determining how best to worship God. These reforms could be seen in Burkean terms as the elimination of abuses and the fostering of a society of mutual affection better able to provide for personal and common virtues.
But somewhere along the way (much earlier than most of us would like to think) moderns began to believe that family and religion themselves were individual choices which should be defended against any public norm save the vaguest, most insipid and harmless call to “love” and to “do the best we can” (without, that is, too much effort or suffering). Society increasingly is seen as a collection of individuals following their own desires, requiring a state that prevents violence, insures against bad consequences, and prevents any person or institution from “imposing values” on anyone else. This is the source of contemporary doctrines of “non-traditional” families and of “separation of church and state.” No authoritative standards are to be allowed where choices of family and faith are concerned, and this is seen as maximizing individual liberty and, of course, reducing all kinds of unpleasantness, preachiness, and attempts to “force” one’s own norms on other people.
But, of course, public life is not neutral. A public school that wishes to have a wall “separating church and state” will punish students who dare express their faith on “neutral” public grounds. As all but the most willfully blind recognize, the school quickly descends into hostility toward religious expression and a fostering of anti-religious rhetoric and sentiment as the wall must be built ever higher and guarded ever more closely to prevent “invasions” from people of faith. As a result, the beliefs and habits spawned and maintained by religious faith and tradition atrophy and even come into disrepute among the increasing number of people subject to the delusion that one can have a sane, moral public life without common norms rooted in a common understanding of the order of existence. The faithful become the outcast, and religious norms disintegrate, to be replaced by the false, thin, and empty norms of individual autonomy and liberal ideology.
And the family? It becomes merely one social unit among others the state may or may not take into account in dispensing benefits. The natural family (husband, wife, and their children) becomes just one possibility, with no special status, as individuals seek to couple in whatever ways give them pleasure and receive public recognition and support for their choices.
The problem with our loss of a norm where the family is concerned is not just that, increasingly, families fail to form, or conform to the norm. It is that we lose our understanding of the central purpose of the family, which is to raise children to be virtuous adults. And, having lost our understanding of this purpose to society’s most fundamental institution, we altogether lose our understanding of what it means to form children into virtuous adults.
Virtue itself is no longer recognized as a permanent good, now being seen as merely “normal.” And we all want, apparently, a “new normal” that is, well, whatever we want it to be at the moment. As a result, our society more and more sees children as a burden to be indoctrinated into autonomous self-sufficiency as quickly as possible so that we will not have to tend to their needs—by staying married, foregoing personal enrichment, or even keeping smut off the television during certain hours of the day.
No longer recognizing our duty to form children’s character to fit the norms of virtue, we instead see them as mere small adults, who need no special protections against adult society. Now even the Boy Scouts, for so many decades dedicated to forming virtuous young men, sees itself as just another organization for leisure activities, in which the sexual conduct of its members is to be taken as irrelevant. After all, does one have to be straight, or religious, to camp, or tie knots?
Of course not. Only if groups like the Scouts have as their purpose the formation of virtuous young men do such things matter. And only if young men’s virtue includes not engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage does the issue of homosexuality matter. So, of course, today’s Scouts see no problem (or at least admit to seeing no problem) with practicing homosexuals participating in Scouting.
There remains, for now (and it will be a brief time) a ban on openly gay scoutmasters as a sop to traditionalist fear of sexual predation. But the core of the Scouts is now gone. And what is most sad is the extent to which this picture of youth organizations as just another recreational outlet, devoted to a virtue that rejects traditional religious and family values, truly is the “new normal.”
When the scouts’ decision was made, it was trumpeted in the mainstream media. I happened to look through the Fox News homepage that day to see what kind of coverage it would provide. The answer is essentially none. An AP story, largely laudatory, ran as a minor headline for a couple of hours, then disappeared. Apparently “conservative” opinion leaders have decided to maintain their commitment to the mantra of abnormal societies everywhere—put money in thy pocket, and again put money in thy pocket. With material well-being as the only goal, potentially divisive social issues that might cause dissension because some of us are foolish enough to see them as important, must be buried.
And with such concerns virtue itself is buried. And the new normal makes all of us, in one way or another, monstrous.
This essay first appeared May 29, 2013 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.