This is a book by a man who believed strongly in a great many things that I disagree with. Richard M. Weaver, by all accounts, was a crotchety kind of gentleman, born and raised in the South, who was horrified by the loss of gentility and chivalry and God-fearing that infected the entire United States after the South lost the Civil War.
You may ask why I, a proud heathen liberal, would read a book written by a man such as this. The answer is that I am a student of philosophy and politics, and as such, I both want and need to understand the opinions of other that are extremely different from my own. I started this project last summer by reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, which wasn’t a great overview, but at least provided some basic background on the evolution of conservative thought. I think that Robin mentions Weaver in one of his essays; in any event, Weaver was referenced somewhere in something that I read, and this book is considered a pretty foundational text in conservative thought.
Weaver wrote Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, immediately following World War II. His general gist is that the empiricists and materialists are wrong, their theories have overtaken the world, and they have created a rotting society full of terrible people who don’t understand the value of hard work, don’t talk to their neighbors, and are obsessed with equality to the point of societal ruin. If this sounds familiar, you have probably watched a Donald Trump stump speech lately.
Weaver runs through the particulars of this decay by analyzing different contributors to this terrible new society: the media, science and technology, semantics, the advent of socialism and communism, the denial of religion and metaphysics. The denial of metaphysics and the focus on the empirical world mean that there is no ethics and resulting good and evil, which makes life a free for all.
There are plenty of eyeroll-inducing, Trumpeseque moments in this book. Weaver has a whole chapter on how our language is being overtaken by what we would now call political correctness:
People . . . are so frightened over the existence of prejudice that they are at war with simple predication. The semanticists see in every epithet a prejudice.
My personal favorite, though, was the passage toward the end of the book about how the women’s rights movement has actually been bad for women because big strong men aren’t in charge anymore and:
No longer protected, the woman now has her career, in which she makes a drab pilgrimage from two-room apartment to job to divorce court.
The whole passage is full of scoff-worthy stuff at first read, but it’s ultimately terrifyingly prescient of the current conservative platform. The whole pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps and love affair with the natural sorting order provided by capitalism is pure Weaver:
No society is healthful which tells its members to take no thought of the morrow because the state underwrites their future.
For Weaver, there is no such thing as social and economic equality, so why bother?
What surprised me, though, is that I actually did agree with Weaver sometimes. Not on his thoughts about the ills of society or of how to fix them, but some of his thoughts on what is harming American life were way ahead of his time. He denounces “the great stereopticon” of newspapers, radio, and movies, which tells us what to think and how to live – he basically predicted the mass sameness of the 1950s and early 1960s. (Also, he would have hated the Internet.) And he bemoans the loss of liberal arts education in favor of specialization, saying that we’re not teaching our children how to think and reflect, which is still true today.
As we move toward the 2016 election, I plan to read more political philosophy, including more books from the conservative canon. Ideas Have Consequences provides a lot of insight into the conservative mind and how little it has changed in almost 70 years.