I was watching a film called Chartres Cathedral and the Geometry of the Sacred the other day. For some reason, the Gothic gargoyles put me in mind of the Republican presidential primaries and their rather odd assortment of candidates.  And not because of any facial resemblance.  No, gargoyles take their name from their function: they’re rain spouts, and water gurgles through them.  Nevertheless, the medieval Catholic imagination could harmonize even the sound of gargoyles with the all-encompassing Music of the Spheres, the cosmic harmony of telos of which the great cathedrals are a visual representation.  But I doubt even a master musician could make harmony of the discordant nonsense the Republican gargoyles are spouting.Take Mitt Romney, to begin with. His campaign is a long series of rhetorical blunders held together by a mountain of cash. From the $10,000 bet, to the $374,000 “not much,” to talking about how many Cadillacs his wife drives and how many NASCAR team owners he knows, he just seems clueless. Romney has a talent for distancing himself from his audience, and never so much as when he is trying to get close to them.  It is not merely that he condescends, but does so without knowing it.

It is not too surprising that the mastermind of Bain Capital is more comfortable with the CEOs than with the line workers, but one can never quite overcome the feeling that to Mitt, you are just a number on a ledger, and one that is played off against another number in another ledger, one written in Chinese. It is not a warm feeling.

That brings us to the “Catholic” candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  The former is a pompous gasbag, despised by none so much as those who had to work with him when he was Speaker of the House. All his numerous allies from those days are conspicuous by their absence, and mutterings have been heard. From his new-found Catholic faith—and I really do welcome him into the fold—he has learned forgiveness, and he has graciously consented to forgive himself for his serial adulteries and heartless divorces. He may have forgotten the penance part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but I suspect the voters will impose their own penance, something more than three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father.

But it is not his adulterous past that will keep him down—we have learned to live with the peccadilloes of politicians—but his tone-deaf present. What he says is always so peculiarly out of tune, so that even when you want to agree with him, he makes it difficult to do so. For example, it is true, of course, that children should take responsibility for their desks and classrooms. This, along with a regimen of household chores, initiates one into the world of mutual responsibilities on which we all depend. But it has nothing to do with race, or class, or wealth. Rich children need it as much as poor ones, and white as well as black. The purpose is to prepare children to be adults, since childhood is the best time to learn this. But Gingrich in his tuneless-ness turns the best harmonies into absolute cacophonies.

That brings us to Santorum. Surely here is an acceptable candidate and a real Catholic, and one with the courage to stand up for basic issues, not merely abortion but even contraception. Indeed, one can say that he has been even more courageous than the bishops on this issue. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I heard a bishop or priest preach about chemical contraception. The issue hasn’t come up in public until the insurance flap, and the bishops are hoping the laity will follow them on something they haven’t mentioned for 40 years.

But Santorum has followed them, and done so faithfully in both his personal and political life.  Indeed, Santorum’s stand has already forced Romney into one of his patented same-day flip-flops, opposing the Blount amendment in the morning and supporting it in the afternoon.  Santorum’s courage and his determination are beyond question. So can he be the founder of a new polity, one that Catholics can and should get behind? Alas, no. Courage he has; sense, not so much. Again, the problem is one of tone, or rather tone-deafness. In his mouth, the best of music is sung off-key.

Take the education flap for example. Here is an issue that deserves some serious re-thinking, something more than the bland platitudes the President has offered. But in Santorum’s response, he came off as a shrill partisan who was, if anything, even more platitudinous.

First, he was wrong on the facts. Obama didn’t call for everybody to get a college degree, but for everyone to get advanced education, including community colleges and trade schools. As such, his position is identical to Santorum’s. But unfortunately, the sneering response of “What a snob!” aside from being inexplicable in itself, made Santorum look petty and partisan, or even a proponent of ignorance.

As such, he not only passed up a moment to have a serious discussion, but he might have made the discussion toxic. For indeed, Americans are seriously over-schooled and horribly under-educated. We live in a milieu of expensive ignorance, where universal education means that no one actually gets an education. We have truly achieved a state where no child is left behind by the simple expedient of assuring that no child will advance.

Our society is in need of serious de-schooling. Had Santorum reacted differently, he might actually have said something that resonated with the public, a public that already knows, in its heart of hearts, that something is wrong with our education system. As it is, he chose to preach to the choir, but drove the congregation out of the Church, and it will be difficult to bring up the subject again without being accused of being another Santorum. But parents know that throwing together a bunch of kids who don’t want to be in school with a bunch who really want to be there isn’t good for either side. They know that some among the young need to get out earlier and pursue a trade or a career. Rather than stand in their way, we should find ways to help them, ways that are, I suspect, much less expensive than paying for the education we don’t actually give them.

Now, when we see a common theme we may presume a common cause, and this tuneless-ness is too common to be coincidental. We could, I suppose, attribute the whole thing to ignorance and even incompetence. Perhaps the gargoyles are products of our educational system.  And after all, no one studies rhetoric any more, the art of persuasion, the art of making difficult ideas intelligible. If our statesmen are unintelligible, are mere politicians, we should not be surprised. But that problem has been with us a long time now. At this moment, something different is happening.

Some rhetorical skills are called for in handling the contraceptive debate, one that even the “pro-life” movement has more or less avoided for 40 years. Santorum took up the challenge, but handled it badly. I greatly suspect that the Obama administration contraceptive coverage mandate was a deliberate provocation to keep the issue alive. They reckoned that they would only offend the people who wouldn’t vote for them anyway, while being able to spin a narrative that the Republicans were “anti-women.” They figured they couldn’t lose, and Rush Limbaugh has dutifully obliged them by keeping it in the headlines another four days with his vulgar comments.

So why can’t the Republican candidates sing a conservative tune? Why are they all so off-key when they try? Because they are all raging liberals! Not, to be sure, on the so-called “social issues.” Here they are indeed “conservative,” either nominally, as in the case of Romney, or sincerely, as in the case of Santorum, or “who knows?” in the case of Gingrich. But in everything else, they are true liberals, especially in the case of the most radical social and economic liberalism. They are the servants of those engines of liberalism that rule the country and control the public tastes and discourse.  They cannot harmonize their economic liberalism with their social conservatism, and this is the source of the dis-chord.

Liberalism makes certain demands on the soul, and the primary one is that, for economic and social purposes, you must deny the soul. To be sure, you are permitted a “spiritual life,” so long as it doesn’t get in the way of “real” life. And of course there are “values,” and especially “family values.” But “values” are no longer something objectively connected to the nature of being, but merely another subjective preference, another commodity. For example, “family values” must not be allowed to extend to the economic realm in the form of the “just wage,” the economic foundation of family values. If you can afford a family, you can have one, but in no way can you assert that the whole purpose of an economy is to support and strengthen the family. Hence, children are just another consumer choice, to be played off against a summer vacation or a big-screen TV.

This makes the conservatives sound insincere or even hypocritical. Their economic discourse comes off as a defense of corporations, monopolies, outsourcing, finance capitalism, low wages, union-busting, and opposition to public funding of just about anything; there are no shared economic resources, no sense of mutual obligations, only isolated individuals competing for their own private gain at the expense of everybody else. Even on the abortion issue, human life is defended not on the grounds of its sacred and social character, but as yet another Lockean “right” belonging to isolated individuals. But the problem with Lockean rights is that there is no natural ordering. The political process alone is capable of ordering “rights,” and hence the question of whether the “right to life” is superior to a “right to privacy” or “autonomy” or the “right to control one’s own body” can only be resolved in the legislature, and not on the basis of natural law, or even common sense.

Although children are a practical necessity for the success of the family and the economy—China and Japan are discovering the disastrous effects of a “one-child” policy—they are a hindrance to the competitive individual. But while the conservatives are willing to defend the family in certain legal areas, they deny its essential place in the economic realm. Within the confines of liberalism, the family has no natural claims that must respected. But the problem of the family is an economic problem. The social, political, and economic orders are not neatly severable, but are part and parcel of each other. Hence, the “conservatives” cannot speak to families in the situation in which they actually find themselves; they speak fine words in the social realm, but advocate that which destroys families in the economic realm.

Now, I can hear some readers at this point shouting, “What about Ron Paul?” The problem with Ron Paul, from the standpoint of the Republicans, is that he is the most self-consistent liberal in the race, that is, a Libertarian. If you are going to be a liberal, only Ron Paul makes sense. But the party cannot permit a self-consistent liberal, because he would reveal too much about liberalism. Should the party run on a pure and undivided liberal platform, it cannot win. So, just as the Democrats cannot run on pure statism, the Republicans cannot run on pure liberalism. Both sides must obscure their own positions and pretend to be what they are not. Paul tells the truth about his own positions, and while the truth may set you free, it will not get you elected. That is why the party will not permit him on the podium, or if they must, will place him at an inconvenient hour.

A true conservatism can accommodate the family and the market, the Church and the State, and put them all in proper order. Just as the Gothic Cathedral could put the saint and the gargoyle in their proper places, and create a great harmony from discordant elements, the Church’s social doctrine can put all the elements of our fractured lives in their proper places. The modern world cannot do this. It demands that we divide everything, and put each thing in a separate compartment: family life is here, economic life is there; political life must be divorced from economic life; the spiritual life must be just a set of private preferences, with no public and social meaning.

An objection would arise at this point that a true conservatism cannot win a national election. This is certainly true, if you are talking about the next election, or even the one after that.  This is a problem intrinsic to democracy itself: it cannot play the long game. Everything is directed to the next contest. But the pseudo-conservatism we see in the Republican primaries is unlikely to win this election, either. If society is to be really reformed, then the public must be truly informed, and not merely educated.  This is a process that takes time. It is not merely a political task, but an evangelical one as well. We must turn off our iPods and listen for something greater. The determination to win must be predicated on the courage to lose; the task is not just for the next election, but for the next generation. We may have four more years of Obama.  God willing, in forty more years we’ll have a symphony.

16 COMMENTS

  1. “Americans are seriously over-shooled and horribly under-educated”. Dammit I hate it when I have to agree with you Medaille, even when you borrow my professed sentiments on the daft “No Child Left Behind” scam, with full support.

    As to assigning Mr. Paul the role as “liberal”, this may be correct on a bean-counting level but politics is more picturesque than mere accounting and so his candidacy amply demonstrates the need to reconsider the definitions of “liberal” and “conservative” because both sides of our current political spectrum are so enraptured by the Statist Agenda. Subsidiarity is the real issue and I believe Mr. Paul is the most astute on it of any of the candidates.

  2. “For example, “family values” must not be allowed to extend to the economic realm in the form of the “just wage,” the economic foundation of family values. If you can afford a family, you can have one, but in no way can you assert that the whole purpose of an economy is to support and strengthen the family. Hence, children are just another consumer choice, to be played off against a summer vacation or a big-screen TV.”

    Although I am not Roman Catholic, and entirely disagree with you on contraception, even on abortion, I’ll take my chances on the sort of politics you are advocating, so long as this coherent and timely observation about the economic foundation of family values is front and center. Frankly, I don’t think there is much chance of either our electoral processes or our courts elevating your sincere opposition to family planning to the level of enforceable law, even in forty years. I will be entirely supportive of your right to offer your perspective to your fellow citizens, and if a just wage inspires many to throw away the contraceptives, well, that is their choice to make.

    You are reminding me of a parody on Jonathan Swift I put together near the beginning of the “end welfare” hue and cry. It occured to me that families falling a little short of the necessary income might put every third or fourth child on the meat market, literally, and as for cries of racially disparate impact, surely the larger number of impoverished black families would be compensated by a premium demand for “white meat.” The free market is indeed a wonderful thing.

    Although Ron Paul would be a disaster as president, I plan to vote for him April 3, because I think each of the Republican candidates should win at least one primary, and he is the only honest man in the bunch. I agree with him about half the time. In the fall, I will vote for President Obama, but I look forward to the shape things may take in the next forty years.

  3. John, this piece deserves more than just four comments, so here you go. Nice piece. I emailed the link to a far-left friend of mine, and gave him the teaser line of “they’re all raging liberals!” and he wrote “This is a much better–richer, more nuanced–piece than the teaser you’ve offered suggests.” Good work. True conservatives must abandon the Republican party like a sinking ship and look to the long future.

  4. DW, I’m grieved that you hate to agree with me.
    Siarlys, Since laws still depend on the will of the people, whatever the regime, we can’t have an anti-contraceptive law until people, by and large, shun chemical contraceptives. So I would not look for a political solution in the first instance.
    As for Paul, he is as hypocritical as the rest; he gets all the goodies for his district, insisting on earmarking them for the budget. Then he votes against the budget to maintain his ideological purity. I am not impressed. That being said, there are two good reasons for voting for Paul: he is not one one of the others, and he cannot win. That’s got to be at least as good as turning in a blank ballot, which is what I do, unless some friend is running for some office. “None of the above” should be a ballot choice.
    Jon, indeed. The best way to be a conservative is to stop voting for liberals, which usually means a blank ballot.

  5. Mr Médaille, you finally put into words, what I was thinking, but couldn’t verbalize, why I hate so called “conservatives” these days.
    I consider myself deeply traditionally conservative, but today’s “Right” alienates me.
    Today’s republicans remind me of the Monty Python skit of the medieval villagers trying to see if a lady was a witch, by dunking here. Until the authorities showed up, put on an air of being against such superstitions, debated it all, and then went ahead and dunked the “witch” anyway . Some of us feel like the poor witch.

  6. I like and agree with the thrust of the article. Well done.

    For my part, in this particular election, I’m a Santorum supporter, though I would be overjoyed if any of the imperfect candidates mentioned above were able to remove Obama from office in November. Ron Paul is intriguing and agreeable on some fronts, but he annoys and scares me the rest of the time.

    Sometimes, alas, the lesser of evils is the only responsible choice one can make. I believe very firmly that the thoughtful citizen has to bite the bullet and make a decision, even if he has to hold his nose while marking it down on the ballot. Turning it in blank only means that those who make the tally throw yours away. It’s as bad, in my view, as Paul’s brand of ‘ideological purity.’

  7. A sound and principled view of representative government, Mr. Medaille. It is easier for all of us to accept that we each have a right to advocate for our principles, when we each acknowledge that our preferences won’t be written into LAW until most of our fellow citizens agree, and won’t be very effective law if 48 percent disagree. I don’t think Santorum has a clue about that.

  8. Sir, I cannot join you in condemning Newt Gingrich with the dismissing epithet: ‘pompous gasbag’…

    A repentant Newt Gingrich, a consistent warrior for conservatism, pro-life even in his worst days, is far better than an unrepentant liar, who embraced and implemented every radical social agenda, and has used public funds by the billions to shore up his business, olympics (a private enterprise largely run by Mormon colleagues) and political projects. Besides, he cannot even debate. He stammered out eight documented lies (one proven on stage by Wolf Blitzer) in the last two debates alone. His tactics are strictly out of Alinsky’s playbook. His supporters have used the same ‘gas bag’ and other epithets on every blog. This ‘he’s a poo poo head’ language is infantile and does nothing to prove the worth of their candidate – rather the opposite.

    The Republican party has slipped into a mire of its own corruption and Romney is the symptom of its illness. They and he will be unable to defeat the similarly oriented Obama. Romney has nothing to offer. Not resolve. Not integrity. Not success without cheating or bail-outs. Not proven conservative principles.

    Romney does not have a principle that he has not altered or compromised for a vote or a dollar.

  9. Regretfully, There is ample documentation for every word I have typed about Mitt Romney, in video and print.

  10. Newt Gingrich is a good example of why repentant souls are not allowed to sing in the choir for several years — you just don’t know what would come out of their mouth. Conniption is right about Romney, the first candidate to inspire a Quantum Theory built around his principal uncertainty principal. Santorum is quite honestly deranged. That leaves Ron Paul or the first president in many years who actually thinks before acting, and has acted rather well.

  11. I try to refrain from peppering other people’s web pages with my favorite links, but I should perhaps have mentioned that the Quantum Theory of Romney appeared in the New York Times. Rod Dreher reviewed it here:
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/2012/04/03/protons-neutrons-mormons/
    and provided a link to the original article. It was one of those rare writings that kept me literally laughing out loud, alone in a tiny studio, from beginning to end.

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