Where to go?
It may be true—I believe it is—that American society is mostly good, if only because no society could last a day that wasn’t mostly good. Still, if that’s true then it must be possible for a society that’s mostly good to be pointed in a radically wrong direction and to adopt a fundamentally evil system as its public orthodoxy.
So what to do? The mainstream conservative approach is to participate in ordinary life but stick to the conservative side of things. That becomes increasingly difficult as time goes by. What, after all, counts as ordinary life today? Sending your children to public or mainstream private schools? Having a TV and letting them watch it? Attending a mainline church? Accepting a responsible position in a large organization that requires you to express personal enthusiasm for “diversity” and act accordingly? Reject those things and you’re an extremist; accept them and most likely you’re no longer living as a conservative.
Independence and integrity have become far more difficult than in the past due to improvements in communications and the growth of comprehensive bureaucratic organization. “Ordinary life” now includes acceptance of the mass media and the socially interventionist liberal state, and tolerance of the things they stand for. Most of us are employees now, and must sign on to an institutional program. It’s hard to escape individually except by becoming an eccentric or hermit, and not everyone—especially, not everyone with children—can live like Thoreau.
In order to avoid mere personal eccentricity one needs a place to stand—some understanding of things that’s fundamental enough, comprehensive enough, and recognizable enough to justify, in a manner that can be publicly understood and shared with others, a way of life at odds with that other people carry on. Possibilities include:
Joining the Pilgrims is not an altogether pleasing prospect for those of us who would temperamentally prefer something less ambitious, the Confucian approach for example. The problem is that in the absence of the necessary social setting an attempt to live like an out-of-office Chinese literatus becomes an attempt to live like Thoreau, but in surroundings that are much less favorable than Walden Pond and mid-19th century Concord. There is no easy out for those who want to avoid participation in modern corruption—it has spread much too far. Modernity is intrinsically extreme, and in the long run leaves no choice but capitulation or active radicalism.