Giving a Whit about Convention

— Julia Magnet’s thoughtful paean to the films of Whit Stillman moved me to dwell on tensions in my own character that reflect, I think, the uneasy integration of fairly traditional (read: conservative) values and the values of the “sexual revolution.” Magnet enthusiastically approves of Stillman’s rearguard defense of traditional conventions, and his indictment of the move to overthrow them in an attempt to, you know, liberate us from their strictures, to free us to strike out boldly on the journey of self-actualization. I too approve, sort of. But not at all enthusiastically. I am composed of too much of what they condemn.

Despite my own selective conservative streak, conservatives often make me uncomfortable, because they so often lack the sort of discerning judgment they laud. (This is, needless to say, not a lack exclusive to conservatives.) In her discussion of the characters of Metropolitan Magnet writes:

What really riles Charlotte is the fact that Alice still has standards, judges people, and rejects postmodern equivalency. “I’m sorry,” Alice unhesitatingly pronounces, “but I don’t consider the guy who did the Spider-Man comics to be a serious author.” In Stillman’s eyes, what makes Alice so attractive is just this refined capacity for judgment.

Perhaps refinement is required to omit Stan Lee from the Canon. But this sort of judgment is very often rote, reflexive and unrefined, not unlike Magnet’s casual use of ‘postmodern’ as an epithet. I’ve met enough St. John’s and Hillsdale grads, quasi-Straussian pseudo-intellectuals, and martini quaffing, cigar puffing, Burke quoting suspenders-wearers, to see that, these days, endorsement of a conservative weltanschaung may be no more than a particularly luxurious form of transgression, and that the stoutly anti-postmodern judgments that Stillman and Magnet so admire may be simply what one says.

It’s true, conventions allow us to coordinate and constrain our behavior so that we are able to pursue our various ends without coming to grief. But it’s also true that conventions retard, stultify, and oppress. The trick is judging which conventions do which, or if they do the latter, whether there is a compensating benefit. Such refined judgment is surpassingly attractive because it is surpassingly difficult. However, I worry that it is in the nature of conservatism to be indolent in judgment about the cultural patrimony. Some, perhaps many, of our conventions are worth defending, and so conservatives will often be right to defend them — but right by default, and not by any discernment about the particular case. Yet some of our institutions are “peculiar,” as they say, and demand our unreserved opposition. The Grimke sisters’, for example, were not wasted lives.

Discussing Stillman’s lament over lost mores in The Last Days of Disco, Magnet write,

The adherents of the sexual revolution presented a world without consequences. Freed from the restrictions of convention, we would satisfy our every desire and increase the store of human happiness. This proved to be a lie: sex has profound consequences–emotional, moral, and physical–as Stillman dramatizes in the final twist he gives to Alice’s story. Her one encounter scars Alice for life–Tom gives her herpes. Though Tom imagines himself a critic of the sexual revolution, in this instance he embodies its wounding irresponsibility: he knew he had a venereal disease but took no precautions, assuming that Alice?s promiscuity excused his carelessness.

This is a powerful, perceptive scene. But Magnet betrays a lack of refinement in her insistence on overstating its lesson. Convention as such was never abandoned. Traditional conventions were effaced and transformed to create new ones. That sex has profound emotional, moral, and physical consequences was never in dispute. The question is whether it’s marriage or nothing. Few believe that wanton promiscuity adds to “the store of human happiness.” But it’s not clear that the loosening of sexual constraint has not. The emotional, moral, and physical consequences of sex on my life, and the life of most of my unmarried friends, men and women, has been far from disaster. I don’t doubt that the transition to new conventions created human wreckage. I don’t doubt that herpes got around. But I do doubt that we would be better off overall with the old constraints.

Some of which, by the way, are with us still, and which, by the way, are cruel, demeaning, and immoral. Ask a couple of loving men or women who would like to be afforded the benefits and protections of a legal marriage. A conservative who has developed even a weak capacity for moral discernment and social judgment should see through to the logic of the institution and endorse gay marriage. But instead we get vehement, unrefined declamation of prejudice, which is not, I believe, the same thing as having standards.

The point is that we should all be conservatives insofar as there are conventions and standards worth conserving. (There are.) And we should be hesitant to throw off norms we find inconvenient, because they may serve larger purposes we don’t understand. But some of our conventions are perverse and wrong. So we’ve got to have standards that allow us to pass judgment on them, and we have to be willing to change the conventions and norms if need be. The choice isn’t between the conventions history happened to pass down to us and the relativist abolition of all standards. The choice is between the intelligent application of social judgment and apology for injustice.

So let us all abhor the cheap confession of low feeling, admire the stoic virtues, preserve the conditions for love and family, praise the ennobling and beautiful, love our freedom, hold one another responsible, and treat each other with respect, courtesy, and due deference. And then… screw like the end is nigh.