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Against Conformity by Bradley J. Birzer


Against Conformity

by Bradley J. Birzer

This week, on Facebook, The Imaginative Conservative republicized the late Joseph Sobran’s article regarding the supposed errors of Abraham Lincoln. While one should never have too much faith in commentators on the internet, especially those who hide behind anonymity, one rather outraged and intelligent young man posted something to the effect of “I don’t know why The Imaginative Conservative hates Lincoln so much.”

I couldn’t disagree more with the tone of this comment. As Peter Lawler has reminded readers on more than one occasion, The Imaginative Conservative is one of the—if not the—most open minded, broad, and ecumenical websites in the conservative, broadly understood and defined, world.

If this young man thought this through, one must wonder what he believes happens at The Imaginative Conservative headquarters. Does he have an image of Editor-in-Chief Winston Elliott as a sword or whip-wielding editor, forcing every post through some ideological churn, separating the “pure” from the “impure”? Frankly, the idea of the writers of The Imaginative Conservative having a group mind or some kind of conformist view of things is simply absurd.

Aside from this, I believe it critical—absolutely critical—to note that a conservatism that embraces conformity or group think is no conservatism at all. It is merely a bizarre and unthinking traditionalism.

Any real conservatism must take into account several things. First, conservatism must accept the principle that each person is a unique reflection of the infinite. That is, each new person in the world arrives in a certain time and place, armed with certain gifts and weighed down by general faults. This person will never be repeated. She is unique, a particular manifestation of the Infinite and loving face of God.

Second, a real conservatism must accept that there are limits not only to the knowledge and wisdom any one person or group of persons understand or possess, but also a limit to what humanity—from Adam to the last man—can understand.

For as far back as I can remember, conservatism, broadly defined, struck me as the only sensible and humane way to view the world. The liberals I knew and saw in the news (Tip O’Neill and others) were among the most conformist, intolerant, and unimaginative lot…imaginable. When I heard others argue that liberalism (classical or modern) is good because it defends free speech, art, etc., I found it highly implausible. Anyone with the power of reason and observation knew these things to be blatantly and utterly false.

Of course, I read like a madman. In particular, I credit the reading of 1984Fahrenheit 451, andBrave New World as well as the discovery of the rock band Rush at the age of 13 with dramatically shaping my own skepticism regarding conformity and my dread of authority.

Indeed, one of the things I love most about the “right” of the 1940s and 1950s was its desire to fight authority and proclaim the dignity of the human person. Think of Bernard Iddings Bell’s amazing book, Crowd Culture, Kirk’s struggle against “capitalists, socialists, and communists” in a Prospects for Conservatives, Eliot’s call for a “Republic of Letters,” Bradbury’s chastisement of the censors, and, especially, Thomas Merton’s claiming that the mass man is somehow even below fallen humanity.

As I grow older, I’m no longer as sure that conservatism is the protector of real diversity. I’ve not changed my mind about liberals or liberalism as a whole. Liberalism, or what remained of it, ran its course by the beginning of World War II. But, recently, I’ve seen the same trends in those who call themselves conservative or who embrace what they call “conservatism.” Now, I must wonder if what I saw in the 1980s was merely that the conservatives had yet to succumb to the forces of mass thought, group think, etc.

So many people among modern conservatism are, frankly, buffoons. Think about the governor of a western state who became a candidate for a major office and then the “star” of a reality show. Really? Or, how about the well-endowed plastic people on FOX? Or how about those with grand media access who claim to speak for the rest of us? These so called conservatives denigrate the liberal arts, mock women, and undermine our most sacred traditions. Give me a Kirk, a Bradbury, a Merton any day over these fruit-nuts.

I am not a name or a number, I am a free man. And, so are you.


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