Reactionary History Requires a Reactionary Thinking Class
David Staloff concludes in his Making of an American Thinking Class (1998) that the Puritan founders of Massachusetts Bay created a “new form of political authority” he calls “cultural domination.” Meaning, the colonial elites simultaneously established a new polity and installed themselves as the leaders of the same not by any claims of hereditary right, but by “claiming to be the authentic bearers of the Puritan cultural and religious tradition” which supplied the impetus for the colony itself. By the Puritan tradition—a bit anachronistic for 1630—we could say, English Protestantism of the dissenting yet not separationist variety.
Staloff considers social power a “zero-sum game. Within a given institution or society, the growth of power of one party means the relative loss of power of another… nihil ex nihilo.” Implied is that power is “convertible” or transferable as a finite currency. Power also “requires legitimation.” This is supplied by an elite “thinking class,” an unavoidable socio-political occurrence, i.e., those who produce “high culture” which dictates the norms, mores, and expectations of society. We might say, there will always be “regime theologians.” The only question is whether a regime is good or bad.
This maneuver by the Puritan thinking class to direct the colony’s ethos and telos required, or rather assumed, a high degree of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic homogeneity, to be sure, but the central, indispensable component was a combination of shared belief or religious commitment—a theological-ethical dialect, we might say—and an historical narrative, both a local narrative to justify the then present errand into the wilderness as well as a grand or meta, even eschatological narrative to situate said errand in the scope of Christendom. And, most importantly, the narrative connected to and was shared by the people; it was written for them, fostered by the thinking class, the elite (an “East Anglian intelligentsia”), in real-time as it unfolded. Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) could be considered a last-ditch effort at Puritan narrative construction.
Of course, the leaders of the Bay Colony were elite in the objective sense, viz., they were excellent and experienced not just in government and economy, but in projects of “cultural virtuosity.”
Again and again, John Winthrop, “when faced with a struggle against substantial rival interests, invoke[d] the legitimating judgment of the ministry.” In other words, within the Bay elite, the clergy class served as the conveyors and purveyors of legitimacy predicated on their propagation of a controlling narrative, the narrative which defined and justified the entire project and the leadership not just of Winthrop, Endicott, and the rest of the political governors, but also of Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, and the rest of the ministers themselves.
This maneuver was key, especially early in the planting of the colony when investors were asked to defer return on their investment for seven years even as they were informed that the aim and interest of the new plantation would be decidedly religious and political, not strictly economic— a selling point that “required the aid and support of ministerial intellectuals.”
Throughout the history of Puritan hegemony in New England, the ministers repeatedly referred to the historical significance of the plantation in millenarian fashion, which supplied collective moral purpose. Maintenance of unity and purpose demanded enforcement of an orthodoxy, again, predicated on a shared story of struggle and success, but also origin and end.
Without proceeding into the weeds, a simple lesson is apparent: control and maintenance of a national historical narrative is indispensable to directing the character and orientation of a polity. The elite of seventeenth-century New England recognized this; the Nazis and Bolsheviks recognized this; the cold warrior, progressive historians of the American founding recognized this; the leftist authors of the 1619 Project recognize this.
Returning to our New England theme, nineteenth-century WASP elites, the progeny of the Puritan founders, may have markedly departed from the morals of their parents, but not the mood. This included attention to their own narrative unto justification of their station. And so we see a smattering of increasingly liberal histories of New England in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries authored by WASP establishment representatives. Charles Francis Adams and his 1894 Three Episodes in Massachusetts History, for example. The triumphalist and progressive Short History of the English Colonies in America appeared in 1881 by Henry Cabot Lodge (and dedicated to Henry Adams). And so on. The frequency of such works only increased in the post-war period. Perry Miller, who was a much more reliable historian to be sure, self-professedly set out to form an exhaustive American history. He barely made it out of the seventeenth century, but the reason for his ambitious project was to address a crisis in American confidence in the aftermath of two world wars and in the face of the then-ascendant Soviet bloc. Miller was not quite of elite stock like Samuel Eliot Morison or Samuel Huntington. But he gained admission to WASP world through their institutions, and the man trained in OSS propaganda techniques knew exactly what was required of the moment.
The class that conveys a compelling, actionable national narrative, as shepherds of a sort of moral metric, almost by definition comprise the elite thinking class. All of this is inevitable. In whatever era, these elite historians, as it were, are the priests, the ministerial class, of the polity.
The production and maintenance of a morally charged, historical narrative is the mainstay of any elite class, whether hereditary or not. It supplies not only a justification for their status but societal fuel, moral purpose, within which elites function unto designated ends congruent with the narrative in view must be central. Most importantly, as stated at the outset, the narrative presented must lay claim to national origins. And the purveyors of the narrative must, at every step, demonstrate continuity therewith by elites in their contemporary policies. Filial piety is powerful; it is still compelling even in this late-stage republic. Even our current elite class, as contemptuous as they are of America as it really was and as it really is, must play this game.
But the measuring rod, as it were, remains controlled by the elites, even when they discover within themselves sympathy for the plight of those they rule. Michael Knox Beran’s WASPS: The Splendor and Miseries of an American Aristocracy (2021) features well the near neurotic uncertainty, a diminished self-confidence of the Puritan progeny of the twentieth century. David Brooks’ highly qualified mea culpa for his class might be the most elitist thing he could have done. Intramural self-criticism of that type is an attempt to justify class status in the face of potential or actual opposition, and has marked the slow, increasingly decadent decline of coastal elites for almost a century. It signals class weakness, but it also reminds everyone of current class demarcations and status hierarchies. Representatives of Brooks’ “populists,” even if they were so inclined, cannot write a piece like Brooks’ because they aren’t in power, meaning, there is no occasion, no instigation to do so. Only elites can issue half-hearted apologies for things gone wrong on their watch.
Returning to the problem at hand, the problem is that the narrative set up by post-war progressive elites is structured to their advantage and the disadvantage of political opposition. What is worse, the opposition has succumbed to this disadvantageous (from their true perspective) history; they have buckled under the sheer force of will of the reigning elites who have infused all discourse with their ideological priors which have been magically located in “the Founding,” in the original American ethos. It is pure alchemy. But, for the untrained eye, fool’s gold is difficult to distinguish from the genuine article. Conservatives (the opposition) have, for at least the past 75 years, tried to play a game designed for their failure. When the hallmarks of the American narrative are perpetual leveling, libertinism, and progress, a “conservative” history that merely presents a slower version of the same is necessarily anemic. Research priorities are also dictated by the governing elite narrative both directly (through institutional control and funding), and, more importantly, indirectly.
Under an elite controlling narrative, the opposition should always be suspect. This is an unavoidable feature. This not only forces the opposition to play by the rules and limit their scope, but to also occupy a defensive crouch.
Hence, ostensibly conservative historians spend most of their time either defending historical figures from modern, usually anachronistic, charges of idolatry and immorality—per present pieties and priorities—or attempting to interpret figures favored by the regime as supportive of the oppositional perspective. Perhaps most egregious is the limited historical scope. The PsyOp that was the mid-century persistent limitation of “Founders” or “Framers” to five men and whatever was going on in Virginia at the time (orchestrated by two of the five) has been uncritically gobbled up by conservatives to their detriment.
In all cases, the rules are preserved because they are obeyed, and the conservative posture remains defensive. Priorities and energies are essentially controlled by elites who, at this point, run on autopilot, because their narrative has so thoroughly infected the waters. Ideological osmosis does the work for them.
The solution is not accommodation. Nor is there any prospect of beating the establishment at its own game via the range of “persuasive” discourse permitted, as if exposing the moral failings of MLK will somehow convince them to protect the Jefferson Memorial the next time the iconoclasts are mustered for scheduled disruption.
No. The only option is a self-consciously reactionary, top-to-bottom counter narrative. This is not to imply a sort of noble lie history, although the left is certainly willing to do that if usually through absurd reifications and convenient negations. It is rather to say—and this is one thing in our favor—a counter narrative that is true, truer than what currently controls. Potentially, this fact, this ambition, contributes to the galvanizing power of a counter narrative. To be compelling, the counter narrative must subvert regime pieties by subverting their supportive stories—for America, its ethos, telos, and ethnos—but it must do so by recovering a better national self-understanding, a better history unaccommodated to predominant demands which is the whole ballgame. The opposition actually wants to live with continuity to their past, to be congruent with original national character and purpose. That’s an advantage.
All the foregoing was called to mind while reading “For a Counter-Revolutionary History,” by Alaric at IM-1776. Alaric rightly suggests that American education and media are hotbeds of “systematic propaganda designed to undermine the story of America in the national collective consciousness.” (Insert Curtis Yarvin’s “Cathedral”). Under the predominate narrative a la Howard Zinn cited by Alaric, America is largely lamentable, a land of genocide and oppression. Critical race theorists embody Zinn’s energy but have gone further, a progression endorsed by America’s paper of record. Alaric fixates on the now-maligned Christopher Columbus. I would have taken it elsewhere, but our thoughts align on strategy. Alaric:
What would effective opposition to this enterprise look like? What it definitely does not look like is civil “debate” over “the issues”, as if emotional and aesthetic perceptions in general are altered through reason. Once a propaganda narrative of history has been effectively implanted, it is almost impossible to excise with facts.
Conservatives often operate under the premise that this “progress” can be stopped or reversed, but a study of 20th-century revolutionary movements shows this is untrue. What is actually needed in fact is not a defense of America, but a counteroffensive against the version of America produced by the Left.
Alaric recommends recognizing the propaganda war in play but instead of engaging under established rules of engagement circumventing or stepping over it entirely, opting for an active, positive, and “inspirational” assertion of a national counter identity found in once celebrated figures now cast aside. It is not a negotiation; it is a counter offensive that is disinterested in satisfying modern sensibilities.
This attempt at counter narratives and reactionary history demands an aligned, counter elite. Asserting a controlling historical narrative capable of shaping national character and consciousness, almost by definition, an inherently elite endeavor and, therefore, requires an elite sensibility. I mean in the sense that the Puritan founders had a sense of purpose or, as Aaron Renn puts it, calling. It requires assertiveness and a bit of presumptuousness. We must presume to own American history, to possess a right to its construction—history is always selective and reactive—and interpretation.
Put another way, Protestants must shed their middle class (i.e., receptive and conformist) mindset and posture, to borrow again from Renn. Protestants must be self-consciously and unapologetically Protestant; they must recognize their present status and aspire beyond it, and embrace a class solidarity, as it were; they must reject a state of play constructed by their opponents—or, maybe more accurately, those they seek to oppose in the face of salutary neglect—and chart their own course. There are many instructive models to consult. Catholics have been wildly successful at a version of this maneuver, and as a minority at that. Protestants, who still comprise the dominant sect in America, should take notes and incrementally acquire independence on this front, both from co-belligerents but more importantly, from the ever-compressing historical-narrative cage in which they currently reside. Until Protestants possess the self-confidence, the boldness to assert a controlling, morally and historically normative national narrative they will not lead because they will not possess the requisite elite mentality to do so. In other words, if Protestants are still bashful about unapologetically insisting that America is and always has been a Protestant country—and it appears that most are uncomfortable with such authoritative, presumptuous, and blanket claims—they are not going to make it.
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