In one of the music theory classes that I took in college, the conversation somehow turned to the commercial market for classical music. Sure, the audience tends to be older, the professor acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dying form; it has always been thus. Look at old photographs or paintings of classical performances, and the audiences were hardly portrayed as teenyboppers.
Josh Gelernter makes a similar point regarding progressives’ and journalists’ common sentiment that demographics make the future political leanings of our society inevitable:
… in the 1960s, Italian-Americans started splitting their votes evenly between Republicans and Democrats. These days, the Irish-American vote is a reliable 50-50 split too. Why? Because the Irish and the Italians stopped being special-interest groups. After their initial isolation, the Italians and the Irish stopped being easily divisible from the average American. They didn’t want custom-tailored treatment, they just wanted the same shot at the American dream that everyone else had. They’d been assimilated. They stopped being primarily Irish or Italian and became, first and foremost, American. And that meant that Democratic pandering didn’t work anymore. There was no more distinct group to pander to.
As the music professor’s words comforted the roomful of potential professional musicians, Gelernter’s words are sure to be comforting to conservatives. I’ve certainly found it distasteful that influential people talk of races and ethnic groups as if they can never change their way of thinking, as if skin color isn’t just skin deep but rather determines one’s entire worldview. Surely others have the same reaction, and the current emphasis will prove a mere fashion. The risk of this comfort, though, is that the key assumption no longer applies — namely, that new groups may not assimilate quite so thoroughly.
Since the 1960s, the Left has been striving to infiltrate American institutions — churches, schools, entertainment, colleges, news media, and so on — with the apparent objective of making the United States’ traditional culture seem like a shameful one into which none should strive to assimilate and to hinder young Americans’ ability to learn the logical lessons from personal experience. Have they succeeded… enough to make the difference, at least?
David French seems to think we’ve not much time left to right the ship, if any, partly because progressives make everything about politics always and everywhere:
Have you ever served on a board or a commission with a committed progressive? Have you ever sat on a hiring committee where committed progressives have a voice? At all times and in all ways, they are putting their political thumb on the scales. Each and every institution they belong to can (and will, given enough time) become an engine for social justice. And it’s a mistake to believe that they do so as dreaded “scolds” and “social-justice warriors.” Yes, you’ll find those folks, mainly on campus and online. But the most effective progressives also happen to be among the friendliest, most engaging people you’ll meet. Even apolitical colleagues find their idealism infectious.
As much as French’s admonition is worth heeding, he may underestimate the degree to which conservatives’ reluctance to do the same is intrinsic to our belief system. We believe in balancing our lives across institutions; progressives do not. In our view, safe spaces can be entire areas of activity where etiquette suggests other areas shouldn’t intervene; to progressives, safe spaces are coddling bunkers with which they can crowd out contrary ideas even where ideas are supposed to intermingle.
Generally speaking, the temperament of the modern conservative is not simply a matter of personality, but rather is interwoven with our entire understanding of how the world should work. If our only hope is that conservatives will emulate progressives in making everything about politics everywhere and in every way, there is no hope. Progressives seek to force behavior, like office Earth Day celebrations, while conservatives seek to persuade about boundaries and perpetuate our values mainly through attraction, personal discourse, and the example of our behavior.
The progressive movement succeeds among people of a certain temperament because it offers an easy route to a sense of righteousness for the sorts of people who need that. Progressives succeed in groups or small communities because most people don’t care too much about the issues that they put front and center (like recycling and transgenderism), and it’s just easier to go along. Thus is Robert Conquest’s second Law of Politics fulfilled: “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.”
More than anybody has observed, our current moment may most significantly be defined by the separation of what we see as the progressive attitude — this self-righteous, activistic, do-gooder, politically correct personality — and traditional values. In previous generations, such people would have been enforcers of the expected norms; they’re now being put to work destroying those norms and building new ones, defined not with the wisdom of a long-evolved culture, but according to the pretentious wagers of a handful of intellectuals and an aristocracy that has identified the potential for personal advantage in disruption.
If a conservative response is to be effective and sustainable, it can’t try to mimic behavior that is inimical to our philosophy, but must grow from our understanding of the world. That is, we must maintain our respect for boundaries, making it less comfortable and less easy just to go along with the progressives’ demands. If that means the action that makes our apathetic peers uncomfortable is their being forced to ostracize us, so be it.
While we’re included, we must insist on boundaries and proper behavior; when we’re excluded we must fight to carve out a place in which to uphold our values in trust that such place will thrive and shine as a beacon as darkness descends around us.