Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Dr. Pat Deneen on the New New Right

It’s pessimistic (=realistic), non-triumphalist, and identifies patriotism with traditionalism and localism. So it’s not patriotic in the senses of Reagan or Lee Greenwood

The models of virtue for these American conservatives can be found on THE WALTONS. I admit that I enjoy the Waltons (except for that annoying John-boy) in a romantic and selectively nostalgic way. I find LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE more realistic, though. And for a contemporary model of American virtue, I’m more likely to turn to KING OF THE HILL. Let me add, though, is that one fine thing about the Waltons is that the virtue it displays is southern, and so Pat is acknowledging that there’s something good about the South.

Discussions - 21 Comments

When did I ever say there was nothing good about the South? The fact that I'm a New England chauvinist (based in circumstance of birth, not choice) does no discredit to the rightful cultural chauvinism of any Southerner - a prejudice I respect, at least its non-racist variety. And, now being a transplant to Virginia - the home state of the Waltons - allows me to make some claim on Southern chauvinism as well, although I am transplanted in the carpetbagger part of the state. Beyond that, my wife is a Southerner (southern Germany, that is), so we're covered.

Peter, I think what you preferred about "Little House"--what you called the more "realistic" aspect of it--may have been their set-jaw determination and Yankee-like striving in spite of long odds combined with a pious recognition of the limits imposed by a recognition of God's laws and yet another kind of striving . . . toward virtue. If we want to set about the subject of regional prejudice, I'd say that's why the Ingalls family had to move to the Midwest. There was no room for the striving toward virtue in the northeast and there no room for the ambition in the South. But that's probably simplifying things a bit but I think there's a tell in it that gets to Deneen's point which--as usual--is provocative and thoughtful, but too readily dismisses ambition and the products of great ambition as crass or debasing. He seems to suggest that it cannot be tamed, is too dangerous to tame, or that it is incompatible--in the end--with good principle. It reminds me, again, of our discussion of It's a Wonderful Life.

But I guess I don't really want to stir that pot again! For what it's worth, however, I always preferred the Ingalls family to the Walton family too. The Waltons seemed like nice enough people in their way, but they were boring. Their exploits--such as they were--were too homey. And John-boy was a cartoon like figure to me who betrayed nothing real to me as I watched (and I was very, very young when I watched it). Of course, I'm working off of very old memories about the Waltons because that show has not survived in re-runs the way that Little House has. I think there's a good reason for that, however.

I cannot speak at all to KING OF THE HILL, having never seen it. But, if I had to stretch my imagination to something like a contemporary version of these virtues I might propose the Bernie Mac Show (before his untimely death). The problem with that show, however, was that it was not consistent and Bernie's success (as an entertainer) was too wrapped up in luck and fame to be considered strictly the product of virtue and hard work. Yet, he had these habits and exhibited them for the benefit of his sister's children whom he took in to raise up right. And maybe it is also telling that Bernie's success also came as a result of moving West . . . and maybe it also demonstrates the limitations of this kind of societal movement--looking for a place other than your own to be more successful. When Bernie Mac was good though, he was excellent. But one wonders whether he might not have been even more excellent had he cast down his buckets where he was. Of course, our culture being what it is, then we'd never have known about it.

Always happy to revisit a good debate about popular culture - or any topic - with Ms. Ponzi. I would credit the reason both you and Peter prefer Little House to the Waltons to the restlessness that defines the series, and more, the books. It's not that the mid-west is where Pa needs to be to achieve his great ambition - it's that the damned man can't stay still. Recall that the series begins NOT in the East, but in Wisconsin - they are already in the midwest to begin with ("Little House in the Big Woods"). Ma Ingalls has to say a permanent goodbye to her family when Pa decides that he can't stand still any longer. The books are a successive set of re-tellings of the effort of the women-folk - Ma Ingalls especially - to set up a household, and Pa deciding that they've been still long enough, thank you very much.

I suspect if there's a reason for the longevity of the "Little House" series in re-run afterlife (though I wouldn't overstate it), it has something to do with its close identification with American mobility. The Waltons, on the other hand, stresses PLACE - by gum, the whole series takes place on a mountain NAMED for the family. Its adventures are "homey," yes, above all because so often it involves coming to terms with being in, living with, and accepting what it is to have a home. I think the Waltons are due for a big renaissance - first and most obviously, because it is one of our few great shows about living through a Depression - but moreso, because it is in no small part because of our restlessness that we are in our current plight - perhaps above all because we came to view home as "investments" - and many people will have to re-learn what it means to live in a place on a more permanent basis. and with multiple generations of family, than has been the case over the last 30 years. The Waltons will help in that re-learning.

Sorry, should have proofread that last comment. But you get the drift, in spite of run-on sentences and the like. NB: should read "is the restlessness," not "to the restlessness"...

You may be right about the books, Prof. Deneen (I never could read them, however, so I can't say). Perhaps it was Wisconsin from which they moved . . . I don't remember. I thought they had originated in the East at some point, however. Were Charles and Caroline born in Wisconsin? But the TV series "Little House on the Prairie" all takes place (more or less) in the frontier town of Walnut Grove. They do move to the big city (Sleepy Eye!) when an economic downturn comes and they learn to adapt and get a little more cosmopolitan in their idea of earning a living. Caroline becomes a restaurant entrepreneur at one point. And they grow their family by accepting an orphaned boy--an outsider--as one of their own. But even with new people and new ways, they still prefer Walnut Grove as their "home" and they go back as soon as conditions permit. They don't begrudge the city and they always admit of its usefulness to them--particularly when the small town atmosphere of Walnut Grove cannot accommodate the needs of their blind daughter, Mary--but even she moves back (improved and, more important, ready to improve her town) in due course. As to the question of undue spending and credit, I recall that one of Charles Ingalls firmest principles was not to purchase things on credit. But, I think I also recall, that he bent this and most rules like this when the circumstances of the family (or the thing for which the principle itself had been developed) demanded it--but he was firm about making his own way and paying his debts when they were contracted. I'd also like to add that there is something a little telling about the Waltons and their powerful attachment to home. Isn't it rather easy to be drawn to the charms of your home when your home is a mountain named for you? And what did the Walton family have to do to achieve that distinction? Didn't their ancestors have to be kinda restless and ambitious? I'm just sayin' . . .

Well, it's true, we all come from somewhere else - the question is whether, once we got here, we became "boomers" or "stickers." Ingalls were boomers; Waltons were stickers. George Bailey wanted to be a boomer but fate conspired to make him a sticker (as I'm guessing it's going to do for many more of us).

I don't know that we know why the mountain is named for the Waltons - but it may be less for any significant achievements than the fact that they were just there for so long. Even "stickers" can have things named after them. Where I'm residing this year - Princeton University - there are lots of new buildings named for boomers (e.g., Lewis Science Building, designed by Frank Gehry, named for Progressive Insurance CEO Peter Lewis) and older buildings named for stickers simply because they spent their lives here and made major contributions to the institution (e.g. Edward Corwin, for whom Corwin Hall is named - where the Politics Dept. is located). Guess which principle I prefer for naming buildings. But then, I'm a conservative...

One thing that always impressed me about the Ingalls were their nearly unshakeable sense of gratitude in the face of some amazing matter what happened they never let despair overcome their faith in Providence. And while they were certainly restless, it wasn't the kind of cosmopolitan rootlessness you often find today which is partially premised on a disdain for small town values

How, by your definition of conservative as "sticking," would the United States ever have gotten a start? Weren't the founders "boomers" by your lights? I guess I see the dichotomy you paint as a useful heuristic device but also not really capturing the fulsomeness of reality. It is good to remember where you came from (as my grandmother still likes to say to me) and it not good to be so restless that you never really dip your buckets and see what they can hold. But sometimes there is just as much irrationality in sticking as there is in booming.

Patrick...gotta love the Waltons..that was THE family show to watch when I was growing up in the 70s. Three hours down route 29, b/t Charlottesville my current residence of Lynchburg, you can a take a little side road to the Walton's museum in Schuyler, the home of the writer of the Walton's series, Mr. Hammer. Appropriately, it's a 5$ affair tucked in a warehouse-like auditorium that serves as a community center.

Nothing more than some memorbilia artfully arranged, but this SoCal boy couldn't help but be impressed by how damn BROWN Walton's Mountain looks on the TV show, compared to the actual lush green of Virginia. I thought all forests were colored drab olive where I grew up! Also notable, however, is why Schuyler was on the map in the first place, and why families like Hammer's (the model for the Waltons) could sustain themselves there in the first place, before the Depression made things rough, and caused a bit more scrimping, hunting, simple-living, and community self-help. Mining. Commerical mining for soap-stone. Some still occurs, and the quarry is still there. Once upon a time, Schulyer was a, there's little there for the "John Boys'" or even the more "sticker" types to stick around for. Great people, though.

If you come for a look, Patrick, let me know...

And Patrick, did you, in comment #3, and by publishing (great little piece) in American Conservative, finally declare yourself a...c-c-conservative?

"Once upon a time, Schulyer was a boomtown..."


Nice discussion. I have been to Schuyler and experienced all that it has to offer--between breakfast in Charlottesville and lunch in Lynchburg. I didn't say I liked LITTLE HOUSE more. I have should have made clear that the BOOKS are more realistic. I agree completely with Patrick that the realism has to do with the restlessness, which gives those books a kind of brutal subtext. The TV show with the semi-lobotomized Micahel Landon (nothing like pa in the books) is, of course, sappier than the Waltons and the restlessness very domesticated into promsicuous gratitude. One message of the Waltons, of course, is the unsustainability of that way of life, and that the greatness of Walton's Mountain was in the past. But who can deny that there's lot good that we've lost, but what wasn't so good is romanticized out of existence by the selective nostalgia of the sentimental author. I don't know much, but we're not going back to those days. We're not in the midst of a techno-collapse and pessimism is only realism some of the time.

Julie, you point to one of the great paradoxes of America. Some came here originally to make their fortunes, often by exploiting the land; others, to form cohesive communities. The contradictory impulses of those who supported "America getting its start" is an example of overlapping consensus: some people thought it would result in sustainable, self-governing communities; others, the capacity to escape from those, even to render them irrelevant (some of the Federalists basically wanted to gut the States). We have become decidedly more the latter than the former. I think that's a big problem. Our debate is an echo of the one that defined the difference between Harvey Mansfield and Carey McWilliams. Harvey's festschrift was entitled "Educating the Prince"; Carey's was "Friends and Citizens." Nuff said.

Carl, we've been by Schuyler but never stopped to look around the museum. We will soon, for sure. I'll let you know. As for its once having been a boom town and having no place for the Waltons now, a major part of our problem is our attraction to boom and bust, not to making sustainable homes in the places where we are. The definition of a boom town is one which has resources still capable of extraction. A bust town is one whose resources have been depleted.
Writ large, we are fating America to a future as a bust nation. Or, perhaps that is how we need to understand our current situation. We may not be returning to "the old days," but nor does it seem we're about to enter a bright shining future. People will be poorer. They will not be able to move as much. Children will live longer with parents, and parents will need to live with children. Sounds more like the Waltons than "Friends."

As for how I'd label myself, I'm sure as heck not a liberal - that should be obvious. I'm not a Republican - that should be obvious, but then again, they're not terribly conservative. Can one be a conservative in a liberal nation? I don't know. I'm in need of another label. I'm open to suggestions.

The American experience with chronic povery is largely the post-Civil War South. It was less good for social stability than people remember. People moved where the work was, often off the farms and to the mills, where they were often better off. And lots of southerners black and white moved to the opportunity of the industrial north. Even in this part of the country, people whose default position is family, land, and place are still displaced because jobs are scarce. (And we now have a lot of displaced, basically very traditional Mexicans and Guatemalans among us for that reason.) Even the Waltons were saved that fate at one point by the family lumber mill getting military contracts. Mobility is caused as much by poverty as by prosperity, and that was true when all we had were horses, wagons, and feet to get us around. We're not about somehow regress back to a simple agricultural way of life for most people, and if we are entering a period of a new or really unprecedented period of somewhat hopeless chronic poverty then the result, I can't help but think, will be increased displacement and instability. And I really don't believe that a new period of harsh necessity will discipline the extended family back into existence. But nobody knows whether our future is going to be some kind of techno-implosion, because the real evidence points in both directions. It's true enough that all natural resources are finite, but we're mighty ingenious in discovering and inventing alternatives to ones that have become scarce. Much of what ails us now is caused less by a dearth of virtue than really bad government policy that's correctible. I'm more worried about the problem of an aging society with very few children, just as I'm more impressed by the continuing presence of Christian virtue in the southern suburbs. I don't agree, of course, with the libertarian narrative of inevitable progress toward the conquest of scacity for personal self-actualization, but I don't demonize it either as the cause of everything that ails us. We shouldn't hope for a techno-meltdown for virtue's sake. As Walker Percy says, hope that a catastrophe will suddenly make it clear what we're supposed to do is really a fantasy that gets our minds off our real problems.

Good response, Pat. Right now I'm teaching a little McWilliams and Wendell Berry to the HSC boys, and it's hard to get through the "truest American = most self-reliant individualist" dogma that many of them hold to. Funny, that, because they seem to need the its so American line to defend individualism. The inclination to defend individualism(which by McWilliam's def, involves the old democratic error that being free means one must be living "as one likes") purely on its own merits isn't there. To mess with John, they defend the dogma of placelessness by way of the authority of place.

Peter, great take-away moral-of-the-story for Percy's Love in the Ruins. I'll have to think about that next time I read it.

Carl, I sure like that defending the dogma of placelessness with the authority of place--that's surely what we do when make the basically Lockean Declaration into a civil religion. This might be yet another reason why the astute Tocqueville disses by neglecting the Declaration. And it's true that I prefer Percy to Berry.

Still haunted by the King of the Hill episode involving the garden gnome. The less said the better, I guess. Plus Hal Holst will attack if I clarify.

King of the Hill is decent, my favorite episode involves Hank getting tired of being mocked for using good ole american earth worm. In search of something better he visits his old bait shop only to find the owner becomming an arsonist. Driving around the seedier parts of town asking about "bait" puts him in connection with a crack dealer and by sheer luck he discovers that this crack rock is the most amazing thing for catching large mouth bass. What is more American than finding new uses for chemical compounds? Unfortunately he is busted in a drug sting and concurrently the fish have become numb to the crack...a judge gives him a chance to prove his case by fishing with crack, but he escapes a jail sentence by cheating and using real worm, of course he views it as cheating that he ever looked for something to replace his trusted and traditional bait.

King of the Hill and Bernie Mac are both alright, but don't you risk killing entertainment by reading too much into it? In this regard I still like the words of warning Mark Twain opens with, and while some folks lament the popularity of crass zombie or halloween movies...the problem would be to even suggest that folks look towards these movies with any intent of finding a message for raising children in the first place.

Also I know Julie and Patrick Deneen are both right in regards to Little House on the Prarie...everything Dr. Deneen says about the chronology is correct in terms of the Inglalls, but Almanzo Wilder does come from a big farm in New York, see "Farmer Boy". The series is not just about the Ingalls but about the Wilder boy...and farmer boy is probably my favorite book in the series...from Almanzo's love of horses to his decision to forgo spending his money on treats and amusements at the fair(which is built up as a significant event in his mundane life), defering his gratification so that he can buy a pig to raise. The series is about how a girl and a boy grew up one in Wisconsin/Kansas the other in New York but found themselves facing and overcomming starvation in the Dakota territory.

The series impressed upon me a love of gardening(in the abstract) of course after persuading my parents to start a garden I quickly figured that authors were real cheats at making things sound better than they are. While "the Long Winter" does mannage to deserve the praise that Ivan K lavishes upon the Ingalls for never letting despair overcome faith in providence/or the clever and courageous actionable thinking of that Wilder boy...I mean it is just words until you back them up, and nobody that qualifies as sane wants to endure Dakota territory winter starvation, even if it would confer a moral status, because such is more easily co-opted by those with golden pens and silver tongues.

Churchill was a great man of word and action, but his quip that history would look upon him foundly because he intended to write rings true, and I have nothing bad to say about the south, where folks are friendlier and eat better...but Lincoln's condemnation of the Reverend for justifying slavery as good for Sabo, should redouble more often upon the authors of virtue.

If hypocrasy starts the moment you lay pen to paper or fingers on a Qwerty then King of the Hill seems like a safer bet than Little House on the Prairie, still some folks I would consider conservative might find it an offensive show, the same goes with the Simpsons which while interesting on many levels portrays the Flanders household in a negative light and repetitively uses the Lords name in vain.

It all seems to revolve around what sorts of things ones attention is drawn, and while being politically correct (sucks) is disagreeable, getting bogged down out of carelessness is more annoying.

In one sense I think this is related back to being from a "place" as opposed to being a "boomer", if you are from a "place" and you know the people of that place, then you know what is conservative in that place, you know the things that are conversation starters and stoppers, because you know the things to which attention is drawn. As a "boomer" you are always less sure. It could be that "liberalism" is the conservatism of "boomers"...Liberalism in this sense being essentially the aristotelian notion elaborated by Jaffa that has getting along with others and the potential for friendship and getting along with strangers as its ideals. Of course refashioning what is conservative, has to be a boomer endevor. No one has or can exaust the number of heurestic devices as Julie puts it, but that doesn't mean folks around you will see it that way. If it is how folks around you see it then it isn't a heurestic device but an opperative force in your place. It could be that ADD is the boomer disease, that it is tied up with restlessness and cosmopolitan rootlessness, that it is also a question of fear of commitment both intellectually and physically.

Still I don't know if it is possible to be a proffesor and entertain thoughts on Place, the very fact that you quible over "conservative" and raise distinctions...means that you aren't talking about what is conservative in a place(which is specific like the women in the baptist church I frequented as a child who deplored the simpsons and knew exactly what a conservative was without question!) While this isn't how Ivan K might put it, Socrates destroys Place. In other words I submit that almost everyone but proffesors know what conservatism is, as a community folks know what they want to preserve. The conservatism of place then is the way of thinking typical to a place/group/audience/mind. It is above all a place where ideas about the good are firmly rooted. I don't know of any place where ideas of the good revolve around a self-conscious understanding of a tension between Mansfield and McWilliams...I suppose I can no longer plead ignorance and will have to list this among the many places I know exist. I should assign it a population of 150 which I think is generous, and as for its location, again I think place is obliterated perhaps some holding to this placement live in Paris and others in Chicago or Princetown or Cape Cod...perhaps they share a common domain/place on the internet.

Commment 13 just reveals what I already know about the good Dr. he is a proffesor and doesn't have a geographical place. I suggest the following political label for you: Proffesor.

Whenever I see the name Ren I think Stimpy....that is a location in my mind, I assume it involves an Association of Ideas. It also gives me a place in time. Older folk might not know of Ren and Stimpy and really young ones might not either. To be fair to Ren I like the garden gnome episode, but not as much as the fishing with crack or the Archeologist episode. Sometimes I think Hal Host is simply a strawman deployed by Ren or is hard to know if he is a real person, if this wasn't an internet dialogue without place, then the idea of location would be more pertinent, and his existance as a person would be clear. Albeit if Hal Host is real I think Ren should hide or keep his identity veiled in such a way so that the two characters never meet...never have the same location. In any case on the internet ideological differences are drawn clearer and starker than they would be in person...unless both sides have been drinking and enjoy the prospect of comming to blows...which is fun to watch if you don't own property in the location of the fight.

I am not sure why Carl Scott wants to overturn in the minds of his students the dogma that the truest american=the most self-reliant individualist. I also don't know why being free doesn't mean living as one likes.

I also don't know that adherence to either proposition ends up producing anything definite, there are a lot of ways to think of or live out self-reliance, among them one that believes itself above dogma/ousiotic structure/tradition/habits of mind/common might mannage to produce philosophers Cartesians/Kantians...I don't know what happens when you break through dogma, but if you mannage to do it you are re-orrienting common guess is that you make "book smart" folks whom others resent.

Alternatively to mention the astute Toqueville, if succesfull you simply create "surplus aristocracy", and seperated from natural prejudice and dogma they find it harder to connect with the american people.

In other words just another class of folk who speak over connection to which I don't know why you were suprised or misinterpreted the comment to the effect that one cannot objectively say that a life counting blades of grass is inferior...the exact comment is unimportant, but you posted it in a Lincoln thread, obviously his meaning hinged on his standards of warrant for "objective" and following Kant closely we can know that this is not a synthetic apriori statement thus it has empirical/anthropological elements thus it is not "pure philosophy" thus it is not something that can be said objectively.... but again what I think of Kant is to say that he is so rareified that only a small number of folks live in his zip code...he is interesting...but only academics live have to get rid of your dogma's and embrace a pure analytical philosophy...from my vantage I am not sure there isn't much to gain in the trade...for one thing you can be clean forever of having to get rid of your dogma's so if you finally get sick of mucking start clean with Descartes or Kant.

This discussion shows the greatness associated with technology and the foundation to modern america. While I agree with Deneen on the downsides of it, i.e. that we cannot really do anything, great power combined with great apathy, I think it will be OK as long as people like us exist to bring us back to our roots.

My name is not from a cartoon but is short for ren-dition.

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