I’m a huge admirer of Matthew Walther: the enigmatic, pugnacious writer who may well be the long-lost lovechild of H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Day. I was introduced to his work by my friend Helen Andrews when we were both expats living in Australia and writing for Quadrant magazine. She described Mr. Walther as the best columnist of our generation, and since that day, I’ve heartily agreed.
Seldom do I find anything objectionable in Mr. Walther’s writing, but his latest piece for The American Conservative vexed an old wound, and I’d like to offer this humble response.
In his article, Mr. Walther writes:
Like the broadly defined movement of the 1960s and ’70s, social conservatism is a genuinely countercultural phenomenon. In the ensuing decades, the old counterculture was absorbed into the wider one, and today most of its basic assumptions form the mental equipment of the vast majority of Americans, including social conservatives.
For any number of reasons, the new socially conservative counterculture seems unlikely to achieve the same success. Instead of quietly insinuating themselves into the universities, politics, and even commerce, I expect them to continue more or less as they have for the last several decades: gratefully accepting whatever meager concessions are offered to them by the political establishment while contenting themselves with what amounts to a kind of recusancy. If I say it is easy to imagine a country in which religious conservatives will be excluded from virtually every area of civic life, it is only because we already more or less live in one.
There’s some truth to what Mr. Walther says, but one of my biggest pet peeves is when people call conservatism is “counter-cultural.”
Looking back through my own archives, it seems I’ve been carping on this theme since 2017, when I took a swing at the nascent “punk rock conservates” who cast themselves in the mold of Gavin McInnes and Milo Yiannopoulos. To wit:
The concept [of punk-rock conservatism] completely baffles me. To my mind, “counter-cultural” is the very last thing conservatism can be. Call me old-fashioned, but I still think conservatism means fidelity to mainstream values, traditional institutions, and the natural order. It’s about preserving Western culture, not creating a new one.
Anyway, do we really even want to be counter-cultural? Do we want to validate the Left’s vacuous notion that being “cool” or “punk” is the chief aim in politics? Do we want to resign ourselves to being—in the words of Dominic Perrottet—”nothing more than the speed bump on the Left’s eventual road to victory” by lending credence to their perverse value system?
Likewise, last year, I wrote a column for Crisis about the “Weird Christianity” movement. For those who don’t know, what punk-rock conservatives are to politics, Weird Christians are to religion. They try to make (aesthetically) traditional Christianity hip, edgy, etc.—and, in so doing, ingratiate themselves to the Left. So, I wrote,
Let’s be clear. Catholics are not “weird.” Evelyn Waugh put it best: “We are normal—it is the irreligious who are freaks.” From the Edict of Milan until the Storming of the Bastille, the West was predominantly Catholic. The last two hundred years of fitful, fleeting revolutions are nothing compared to 1,500 years of Western civilization, and no enduring social order has ever succeeded Christendom. The last time there was any semblance of normalcy in this hemisphere, we were it.
Now, let me set down the four main reasons why the idea of “counter-culture” ought to be anathema to conservatives.
First, there is no “culture” for us to counter. What the secularists/post-Christians have build on the ruins of Christendom is not worthy of the name. Modern society produces no great literature, music, philosophy, theology, costume, cuisine, statesmen, heroes, saints…. even our sinners are boring and predictable. No: ours isn’t a culture in any meaningful sense of the term. There’s not even a single set of prevailing mores. It’s just a swirling mass of degenerates and barbarians.
Second, we’ll become rebels in search of a cause. If we say that conservatism is the new punk-rock, or if Christianity is the new “Weird,” then we’re going to attract the sorts of people who are interested in punk rock and weirdness. They’ll be the sorts of people who see a virtue in being marginal, or unique, or what have you. So, even if we did reclaim the West, we couldn’t form a stable order. Our movement would become too “mainstream” for our members and they’d go back to being Wiccans or Dead Heads or whatever.
Third, we’re setting ourselves up for a loser mentality. By the same token, if we’re only interested in being “edgy,” then we’re obviously not focused on reversing modernity and restoring civilization. The point of any serious movement is to become a majority, not to remain on the edges. Only emos really enjoy being on the margins of polite society. It’s entirely affected and utterly useless.
Fourth, our greatest weapon is normalcy. What the peoples of the West are looking for today isn’t yet another weird clique or subculture to fit in with. There are hundreds of thousands of those to choose from—more than any man could explore in a single lifetime.
What Christians (or social conservatives) uniquely offer is an escape from our society’s collective identity crisis. We can rescue folks from the never-ending campaign to “discover themselves”—a campaign that’s left Modern Man deeply in alienated, unloved, uncaring, and totally enslaved to the techno-oligarchy through debt and wage-slavery.
We can say to folks, “You don’t need to cut off your penis to find an ‘identity,’ much less a ‘community.’ You don’t You don’t need to worry about hording gadgets and apps to be fulfilled. You don’t need to measure your self-worth in likes and favs and retweets. You don’t need wealth fame to be happy.”
You just need to be normal. If you’re a man, marry a normal woman who likes cooking and wearing dresses. If you’re a woman, marry a normal man who likes hard work and wearing a tie. Together, raise normal sons who like to pretend they’re knight and normal daughters that like to pretend they’re princesses. Make normal friends who like drinking good whisky on back porches. Get a normal hobby, like hunting or fishing. Find a normal church filled with normal people who worship God in a normal way—no projector screens, “praise bands,” or any of that nonsense.
Now, don’t be weird about how normal you are. If you’re a man, don’t become one of those modesty-fetishists. (“I swear, there’s nothing hotter than a woman in a chapel veil.”) If you’re a woman, don’t spend all your time on social media bragging about how virtuous you are because you quit your job and homeschool your kids.
Just relax. Be humble; don’t take yourself too seriously. Be grateful; count your blessings, and thank God for them. And be joyful; make the most of every single one of the blessings He gives you.
I promise you, the very best witness you can give the world is to be normal in the mildest, pleasantest way. Let your normalness radiate so warmly yet so subtly. Stand there like an island of normalcy in our liquid modernity, silently calling to all the modern world’s castaways—those poor souls who drift through the world looking for solid ground, never really expecting to find any.
That’s how we’ll win back the West. We don’t need to be counter-cultural or “punk rock” or any of that rubbish. We can’t out-hipster the hipsters. We can’t out-freak the freaks. Nor should we try.
Just be normal, folks.
Just be normal.