Since Kelse had a music-themed post recently, I thought I would join in. I was taking a walk this afternoon when the Drive-By Truckers’ song “The Righteous Path” came up on my MP3 player.
If you don’t know the song, here’s a video of the band performing it at Austin City Limits:
The narrator tells of his struggles to provide for his family and survive in a world that’s moving too fast. He’s not a philosopher and he doesn’t have answers to the dilemmas he and his society are up against, but what makes the song’s message so poignant is the refrain he keeps repeating in response to every challenge he faces:
“I don’t know God but I fear his wrath
I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path”
“More bills than money, I can do the math
I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path”
“I’m trying to keep focused as I drive down the road
On the ditches and the curves and the heavy load
Ain’t b****ing ‘bout things that aren’t in my grasp
Just trying to hold steady on the righteous path”
I don’t claim to know the political views of Patterson Hood (who wrote and sings lead on this song), but I would argue that the singer’s response to what we can call the “Crisis of Western society” is a fundamentally conservative one.
Western society has undergone a tremendous shift in recent centuries: the economic, technological, and social forces of modernity have brought about immense change. Unfortunately and for whatever reason, the spiritual and social forces that used to support humans have not always been able to keep up with those changes. The spiritual and moral guidelines that we tell our children to live by seem to have been written for simpler times. Traditional communities- filled with people who raised each other’s children, beared each other’s burdens, and felt a mutually-shared sense of responsibility for their neighbor’s well being- are now a thing of the past. The traditional family unit, once the bedrock of society, is now on life support.
This is the “Crisis” that Western civilization is faced with: millions of people in Western society no longer feel as if the world they live in was made for people like them. They feel lonely, alienated, dislocated, and unable to cope with the increasingly-fast pace of their increasingly-materialistic and increasingly-empty lives. Meanwhile, they seem no longer able to turn to those institutions and relationships that used to provide a source of meaning.
This “Crisis” engenders two basic responses: the first is the revolutionary response; the second is the conservative response.
The revolutionary response is summed up well in a line by Karl Marx: “Philosophers have explained the world; it is necessary to change the world.” Tired of feeling like the world he lives in is fundamentally broken, the revolutionary will take it upon himself to redeem it. Moreover, the revolutionary will inevitably feel that contemporary society is so thoroughly corrupted at this point that his only choice is to completely level the whole structure and rebuild from scratch.
It is this desire to change the world and remake it in our own image- in essence, to supplant God- that is the hallmark of every totalitarian philosophy. It’s what fueled Communism and Fascism in the 20th Century. It’s what makes the Islamists strap bombs to themselves in the 21st Century. It’s what makes revolutionary philosophers like Rousseau so dangerous, in spite of attempts by some conservatives to whitewash him. Ultimately, I believe it was this revolutionary response (in a somewhat milder form, thank God) that propelled Barack Obama to the White House in 2008.
The conservative response is much more humble in its ambitions. Like the narrator in “The Righteous Path,” the conservative will attempt to do the best he can to provide for his family, try to live up to traditional standards of morality, and (to paraphrase Mr. Hood) not “worry about things that aren’t his grasp.” Fundamentally, the conservative believes that any resolution to the cultural “Crisis” will be brought about more as a result of his own inward moral development than of any government program or the regulation of others’ behavior.
This is not to say that the conservative never seeks to change his society. Seeking justice always requires some element of social alteration, but the conservative always sees society on the whole as doing more good than harm and will thus be apprehensive about jeopardizing the already-fragile social order through radical action. The revolutionary’s glossy visions of the world transformed hold no sway over him because he doesn’t believe Utopian goals can be attained.
Ultimately, those still fighting for the preservation of that which is best in the Western tradition have a difficult task at hand: they must find some way to make classical/Christian morality and traditional bonds of community and family once again accessible to a culture that can no longer take them for granted.
Until such a time, the fate of Western civilization rests on the uncommon strength of everyday men and women who, like the singer in “The Righteous Path,” try their best to follow traditional morality without understanding it and lacking the accompanying social pressure that used to encourage obedience to it. Our fate rests on the shoulders of people who “fear the wrath” of a God they no longer know, who hopelessly wander through the long-forgotten ruins of Athens and Jerusalem without every fully knowing what a healthy civilization looks like but still somehow sensing that the answer lies in some forgotten tradition.
Let’s hope they can keep it up a little longer. At least until my dissertation gets published…