Milo, Virtue and the Corruption of the Conservative Movement
Have we forgotten that it's possible to gain the whole world, and yet lose one's soul?
Some of us have seen the gradual moral collapse of the “conservative movement” for a long time. I have personally been writing about it since 2014. The recent events surrounding Milo Yiannopolous would seem to confirm at least some of those fears.
Many good, wonderful, and amazing people remain. But critical problems also remain. I am heartened by CPAC disinviting Milo Yiannopoulos, as I am encouraged that Simon & Schuster (and their conservative politics imprint Threshold Editions) have cancelled Milo’s book contract. But the truth is he should have never been invited in the first place. Conservatism without virtue is not conservatism.
The Adoption of Conservatism Without Virtue
Milo, on occasion, has very valid points to make. I am as pro-free speech as one can get. So long as it does not incite violence, I welcome the speech of anyone in public forums, such as publicly-funded universities and colleges. There is also no doubt that the Left has become increasingly authoritarian in its attempt to maintain its intellectual monopoly over the secular temple, the university.
To the extent Milo has been Samson-like in his attempt to topple this Leftist temple, I can support him and many others — in theory. But those attempts have often been so mixed with error and vice as to amount to little more than a grotesque caricature of conservatism. It is true that he never claimed to be a conservative. It is also true that on occasion what he has said has been very much misconstrued and lied about. There is little room to doubt that in the age of Twitter and 24/7 media, lies are quite capable of circumnavigating the globe before the truth can even get dressed.
Too many conservatives welcomed Milo as one of their champions, and thus in some ways made his brand their own.
However, this fundamental truth remains: Too many conservatives welcomed this confused and lost soul as one of their champions, and thus in some ways made his brand their own. This was unacceptable. Free speech and “free expression” as absolutes are not virtues. While they should be as absolute as possible legally, the conservative philosophy has always asserted that regardless of the legal limits of our actions, the moral content of them is just as, if not more important to the maintenance of a free society.
No conservative, if they intend to remain a conservative, can claim that any exercise of a legal right is as equal as any other with respect to its effect on a free society. We believe a free society allows flag burning, but that a society of flag burners is headed toward destruction.
To Be Free, A Society Must Be Good
For centuries, even millennia, conservatives and their forebears have defended the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition that holds that true happiness, and thus true freedom, is found in virtue; not doing as we want, but as we ought — and while the law should allow the vast majority of what can be comprehended under the former, conservatives believe that the destiny of any society intent on being free ultimately depends upon its citizens’ commitment to the latter.
This tradition runs deep, and includes votaries such as Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas and many within the Anglo-American tradition. This is the true meaning of the “happiness” referred to in our Declaration of Independence.
Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions hold that true happiness, and thus true freedom, is not doing as we want, but as we ought.
Thus, offending because you can, and engaging in puerile, prurient bombast because you can is not liberty, and no amount of vile Leftist reaction, and no panegyric in favor of “free expression” can make up for that fact. The noxious abuse of liberty only teaches people to view genuine liberty with suspicion, and confuses a free society’s conception of itself.
Our Founders, and many in the Judeo-Christian tradition from which they came, knew that a free society at the end of the day must be a fundamentally good society, for they knew that the most absolute enemy of freedom is freedom that is absolute. Narcissistic, nihilistic notions of limitless, solipsistic “free expression,” though entitled to legal protection in the vast majority of instances, are therefore completely incompatible with this fundamentally conservative vision of a free society.
Edmund Burke provided perhaps the best summary of the conservative position on the role of virtue in a free society in a letter he wrote to a member of the French National Assembly during their Revolution:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
Virtue Isn’t Optional
Conservatism that abandons, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that virtue is necessary, not optional, for a free society, is conservatism that has lost its way and ceased to be conservative. Conservatives who maintain that “moral chains” are not all that important so long as they get in the way of temporary “winning” are not conservatives, but anti-conservatives. They know not what they do. They have forgotten that one can gain the whole world, and yet lose one’s soul.
Conservatives must not let that happen.
I pray for Milo, that he would have a genuine encounter with the Lord and find healing. I also pray that all the advocates of virtuous liberty will act with greater wisdom and discernment going forward. Slow but solid growth of a movement is always better than a flash in the pan that arouses great activity only to collapse into its hollow and self-induced vacuum.