A specter is haunting the American right, the specter of "Dadism." Open any ostensibly conservative American Magazine and you will catch its putrid stench wafting up, with ill intentions, into your nostrils. But what actually is this so-called "Dadism?" What is the source of the offending stench emanating so strongly from their ideological (or rather, "Post-Ideological") garbage can? A dead skunk? An electrocuted housecat? A pile of 3-day old adult diapers overflowing with excrement? One's imagination could run wild coming up with possible hypotheses. In order to know for sure, however, we must pull down our safety goggles, fasten our gas masks, and prepare to shove our gloved hands deep into the bowels of the ideological shit heap known as "Post-Politics."
For clarity we should look to the modest definition offered by the noted anti-"Dad" activist Kevin G., which states:
By "the Dads" we name a psychological type; it has nothing to do with whether or not someone has children.
The essential characteristic of the Dad is anti-anti-ism. There are things about their world they dislike, but if anyone denounces these things the Dads are immediately discomfited, and fall back on arguments about patience and civility. Generally they are smart people, and they don't attempt to defend their reactions as a sort of coherent position, but there are enough of them (or at least used to be) that they might band together and remind themselves that "kids these days" are going about things the wrong way.
They can be sorry figures, and we do make fun of them, but in reality the Dads should have our sympathy. Confronted with the horrors of modern life, they despair of doing good beyond their own immediate households: but within those households they are usually trying to do all the good of which they're able.
This definition is, for all practical purposes, a good one for introducing someone to the concept of what many of us have come to refer to as "Dadism."
Among the precepts proffered by the Dadists one stands far above the rest: the insidious conceit of the "Post-Political." Not to be confused with the concept of "Post-Politics" frequently discussed by such Leftist thinkers as Alain Baidou and Slavoj Zizek, nor the techno-acceleration "Post-Politics" of someone like Nick Land (which, while equally as wrong-headed, is still complex enough to be deserving of its own treatment.) The "Post-Political" project we are concerned with here is that which exists exclusively within the fevered imagination of the hivemind of American Conservativism. This project is epitomized by the likes of such noted intellectuals bumblers as Russell Kirk, Wendell Berry, Rod Dreher, Bill Kaufmann and the entire masthead of Front Porch Republic. A group whose solution to the problem of a modern, atomized, consumerist America whose culture produces nothing but banal obscenities and which is ruled over by an anti-christian, and ultimately, anti-human managerial elite is to retreat from the political struggle altogether and instead focus on reviving local, "human scale" communities.
These thinkers love to quote from Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America," which shamelessly extolls the civic virtues possessed by the hardy entrepreneurial pioneers of early 19th century America, and to read Wendell Berry's sentimental and kitschy paeons to the inherent goodness of a lost American Arcadia. When translated from theory into practice, however, it tends to much more resemble the picture painted by the Catholic News Service's profile of the attendee's of Front Porch Republic's 2016 conference:
"Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, therefore we need to know who they are," said Susannah Black, a Christian blogger who spoke at the conference.
Another participant, Grace Potts, said she home-schools her six children and prefers to buy handmade goods from local vendors.
"Where can I get fair-trade chocolate for the least price and from a local vendor?" Potts asks herself. "And the answer is, there's one guy and he's dealing out of his garage. And this is how I'm doing my grocery shopping."
For Potts, buying locally is a moral act, because "connection and communion is everything, it's the center of who we are" and "having nameless, faceless transactions degrades that," she said.
"Every time we can have a transaction with a human being whom we know, for whom we can express love directly, that's the moral choice," Potts said.
Such banal sentiments1, while adorable when coming from the mouths of clueless midwestern housewives, truly curdle the blood when they are being spouted from those of supposedly serious people. Yet even the ostensibly illiberal Patrick Deneen (the most intelligent and capable of the "Dadists"), when attempting to offer "a plan of action" for finding an escape from the totalitarian neoliberal order he criticizes so well, could only offer the following, impressively flaccid, recommendation (which is worth quoting at length):
What is needed today is not better theory, but better practice. When Tocqueville visited America in the early 1830s, he marveled at Americans’ political do-it-yourself spirit. Unlike his French compatriots, who for centuries had acquiesced in a centralized aristocratic order, Americans would readily gather in local settings to solve problems. In the process, they learned the “arts of association.” They were largely indifferent to the distant central government, which then exercised relatively few powers. Local township government, Tocqueville wrote, was the “schoolhouse of democracy,” and he praised the commitment of citizens to securing the goods of common life not only for the ends they achieved but for the habits and practices they fostered and the beneficial changes they wrought on citizens themselves. The greatest benefit of civic participation, he argued, was not its effects in the world, but those on the relations among people engaged in civic life: “When the members of a community are forced to attend to public affairs, they are necessarily drawn from the circle of their own interests and snatched at times from self-observation. As soon as a man begins to treat of public affairs in public, he begins to perceive that he is not so independent of his fellow men as he had at first imagined and that in order to obtain their support he must often lend them his cooperation.”
For a time, such practices will be developed within intentional communities that will benefit from the openness of liberal society. They will be regarded as “options” within the liberal frame and will be suspect in the broader culture, largely permitted to exist so long as they pose no threat to the liberal order’s main business. Yet it is likely from the lessons learned in these communities that a viable postliberal political theory will emerge, one that begins with fundamentally different anthropological assumptions not arising from a supposed state of nature or concluding with a world-straddling state and market, but instead building on the fact of human relationality and sociability, and the learned ability to sacrifice one’s narrow personal interest not for abstract humanity but for specific other humans. With the demise of the liberal order, such countercultures will come to be seen not as “options” but as necessities.
Anyone familiar with Deneen's work (especially beyond his, more recent, critiques of Liberalism) will recognize his fetish for Tocquevilleian civil society. A revival of which, he and other "Dadists" have long lionized as the only way to effectively counter the threat posed by the twin menaces of the Warfare/Welfare State and the Neoliberal marketplace, which turn "all that is solid into air." We must abandon the futility of "the political", the Dadists contend, and instead turn our gaze homeward to our local communities and attempt to revive the concept of "place," in order to shore up those mediating institutions which make the civil society described by Tocqueville possible and life worth living. It's a romantic narrative which can be powerfully compelling to many, even if only rhetorically.
It is, also, a narrative that has come to be shared, even if only in part, by many other scions and sub-scions of the modern Conservative movement. Including James Poulos who recently penned a tedious and self-indulgent pseudo-memoir whose subject was, you guessed it, Alexis de Tocqueville. Poulos' book is not of any real interest to us here, however, as he remains a notorious intellectual bimbo whose work contains all of the profundity and insight of an emergent church bible study. That being said, Helen Andrew's brilliant review of his book, on the contrary, certainly is. No doubt Andrews' considerable talents were wasted reviewing such bland drivel, nevertheless, she is able to slip past Poulos' tedious prose and land punches on her real target: Tocqueville himself. From the review:
Two decades after Putnam first published his findings, declining social capital has become harder to deny. A third of Americans have never met their neighbors, more than a quarter live alone, marriage rates are still down, opioid overdoses have quadrupled, one in six working-age men is out of the workforce, and a quarter of those men use three hours per day of their abundant free time to play video games.
What killed civil society? Prosaic factors such as technology played their role, as did the shift of women into the workforce. Almost everything that once made American communities cohesive, from child-minding to neighborly casseroles to driving Widow Jones to the grocery store, was powered by the labor of stay-at-home wives, for which they were not paid but for which they will surely be blessed hereafter. Other changes have occurred at that spiritual register to which Tocqueville was so attuned, striking at not just the logistics but the very spirit of civil society.
Andrews goes on to observe the obvious, that the rise of meritocracy, excessive individualism (that most American of attributes) and the declining social trust that is an inevitable by-product of mass immigration have conspired together to make the very idea of any kind of meaningful civil society little more than a pipe dream for most Americans alive today. An observation that leads Andrews to conclude:
Certainly Poulos’s reading is preferable to yet another book citing Tocqueville in support of the same quaint clichés. But if we are going to resurrect a nineteenth-century author to speak to our time, our first choice should not be one who celebrated America for qualities that it has ceased to possess.
The fact of the matter, as Andrews subtly points out, is that the America Tocqueville described so famously, the one so eagerly fetishized by the Dads, simply no longer exists in any meaningful sense. To contend otherwise, by pointing to exceptions that prove the rule, say in rural Iowa or small town Pennsylvania is to actively practice self-deception.
While it is certainly a worthy and noble goal to attempt to work, on a grassroots level, to establish small communities of sanity in which to raise families in, especially in a nation of increasing perversion and pathology, it is by no means an actual solution to the crisis of our time. Instead, it is, at best, a temporary stop-gap or self-defense measure which, by its very nature, does not even approach to being sufficient. The fact of the matter is that the long-term viability of the small towns and cities, of the "civil society" of mid-century Middle America so beloved by the Dads, was and is dependent on political and economic policy decisions that are made at the highest level of the U.S. Government. Therefore the only way to possibly reinvigorate the social fabric of this, now semi-mythical, small-town America is by altering the policies of the Federal government to properly incentivize this outcome.
This observation isn't political rocket science and should be rather self-evident to those observers with more than a few brain cells to rub together. Still, the allure of the comforting lies told by the Dads remains strong indeed and has served, time and again, to cloud the minds of many, otherwise promising, individuals.
There is a notable scene in Joe Dante's underrated, 1989, black comedy "The Burbs" which nicely illustrates this point. The plot of the film centers on a group of hapless suburbanites as they become increasingly paranoid about their new, eastern European neighbors, who they begin to suspect may actually be serial killers.
Towards the middle of the film, the neighborhood teenage delinquent Ricky Butler describes the various characters inhabiting the block who are part of the impromptu serial killer investigation in the following way: "Okay, the show's started. Check it out. You see the guy with the curly hair? That's Mr. Peterson.
He's this skeptic. He's basically grounded in reality...and he doesn't want to believe his
neighbors are up to something strange.'Cause if they were, he'd have to deal with it."
Is this not the essence of the Dadist conceit? One thinks particularly of notorious Dadist pundits like Michael Brendan Dougherty and Rod Dreher here. The evidence of the complete inadequacy of their projects continues to stare them directly in the face yet they simply refuse to believe their own eyes, and for no other reason than that it would simply be an immense material inconvenience in their otherwise comfortable lives if they were to do so. Of course, most dads aren't intellectually honest enough to admit this to themselves, choosing instead to attempt to use their preferred localist ideology in a convoluted, but completely transparent, attempt to justify their desire for "the good life" which for most of them, especially in practice, amounts to little more than obtaining sinecures at Conservative think tanks and using their bountiful free time to post selfies of themselves enjoying local artisanal cuisine on their blog.
It is this obsession with bourgeois living that truly characterizes the dads and their fellow travelers and it is this obsession (which they misleadingly refer to as "the good life") which they use as an excuse in their attempts to eschew politics entirely, in favor of a pathetic quietism which seeks to maintain the status quo (and thus their comfortable existence within it.) And we must not believe their rhetoric here, which is entirely self-serving. The "politics" they eschew are not merely the, supposedly vulgar, mob politics of modern American democracy itself but also politics in the Schimittian sense, which entails the basic and essential friend/enemy distinction. It is this distinction which they reject and which they ultimately must reject if they are to continue their comfortable if unremarkable, existences. As accepting this essential distinction, would require them to acknowledge the obvious fact that the liberal
propagandists pundits that comprise much of their peer groups and also just so happened to have dedicated their lives and careers to the destruction of the traditional families, communities, and the entire faiths our class of Dads claims to love, aren't actually friends with which they can or should be indulging in tasteful banter with, but are rather, in fact, enemies to be destroyed.
Can anyone, at this late stage in the game, who is not either a fool or a liar, seriously claim that this is not the case?
There are certainly many criticisms one can level at Steve Bannon, but being ignorant of the essentially political nature of our current situation is not one of them. If you ever talk to anyone who ever worked closely with him, they will tell you that he was a workaholic who was rarely ever satisfied with small or medium tier successes and that he would regularly make the observation that "we are at war." Bannon's private observation has only become more true, and more obvious, as his star has faded from view. The fact is that we are at war, and no level of self-deception, sanctimony, or wishful thinking from the Dads, or anyone else, will change this.
Thus there is only one real choice left for the Dads and their ilk: get in the fight, or get out of the way.