“Where there’s no solution,” James Burnham used to remark, “there’s no problem.”
That’s easy for him to say, the modern populist conservative replies. Burnham died while Reagan was still in office! What did he know about problems?
Ah, the Golden Age of the 1980’s, when life was good. At least until we compare it with the Golden Age of the 1950’s, which is darn near perfect until we compare it with the Golden Age of the 1920’s, not to mention . . . Hey, you kids! Get the hell off my lawn!
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” The writer of Ecclesiastes, it is true, was divinely inspired, but Burnham’s saying channels the same spirit (and perhaps the same Spirit). Time and tide rise and fall together, and dust returns to dust; and our vanity of vanities leads us to suppose that our problems are uniquely ours, not to mention that we are uniquely qualified to discover solutions that men for millennia have failed to find.
Empires rise, and empires fall, as they have since man left Eden. Men grasp for the One Ring, confident that they will be able to resist its temptations, and use it only for good, because no one else in the history of mankind has understood quite so well this particular problem, nor conceived of this particular solution. That the problem always lies out there, among other men, and not in here, in our own heart and soul, is obvious; so the obvious solution is to deprive other men of power, to consolidate it in ourselves, and to impose the One Right Answer from above. When the One Right Answer fails—as it always does—the fault, we know, is always to be found in the peculiar evil of the Other Side, unmatched in the history of mankind, and not in the human condition, which can be healed (if at all) only in the personal conversion of hearts and minds to a love of truth (and ultimately the Truth). That such healing will never be complete in this life should call us back to the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and even that of James Burnham; that it never does is, in its own way, confirmation of that wisdom.
In the spring of 1986, I spent a week in Washington, D.C., in the Close Up program. A year before James Burnham died, that really was a different time. D.C. was still closer to the sleepy Southern town described by David Brinkley in Washington Goes to War than to the post-Clinton/Bush, Jr. imperial capital of today, but the signs were already there for those who had eyes to see. Even though I could not fail to note the changes that had come in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis (after my family’s last visit to D.C.), I was not among those who had such eyes. Though I was heading that fall to Russell Kirk’s Behemoth U. to study physics, I stood on the rooftop of a hotel in Arlington, Virginia, enthralled by the lights of the Capitol, the monuments, and the Mall, and vowed one day to return.
I did, earlier than I thought I would, in the summer of 1989. As an intern at Accuracy in Media, I attended every public lecture at every conservative think tank in town, and a few that were meant to be private. I had my picture taken with Jack Kemp and Duncan Hunter and Alan Keyes, hobnobbed with exiled leaders of the Nicaraguan Contras, met Pat Buchanan for the first time, engaged Robert Bork in an argument over the Establishment Clause, and got Newt Gingrich to sign a copy of a program from a Democratic Women’s Club luncheon that I had been assigned to cover for AIM’s weekly newspaper. At the reception following a lecture by Russell Kirk to the monthly meeting of the Third Generation at the Heritage Foundation, I drank Coors—back then, the beer of every smart young conservative—while wondering why so few of the members had bothered to show up to listen to the wisdom of the man who not only wrote The Conservative Mind but embodied it.
And then, a month or two later, at a meeting of that same group, I discovered why. While they hadn’t turned out for Kirk, the members descended in droves to hear a young man named Chris Manion, from a conservative think tank in North Carolina, because they thought that he understood The Problem, and would offer The Solution.
Chris did indeed understand The Problem, but those young men and women left disappointed, because they could not countenance The Solution—one with which Kirk would thoroughly agree. If you want to make a difference, Manion told them, you must first Go Home.
There are no solutions to be found in Washington, D.C., and thus there are no problems. But there are very real problems with very real solutions right in our own backyards (not to mention our own souls)—problems that we are morally bound to solve, no matter how much we wish to avoid them. And yet: Drain the Swamp! we cry, though the rainwater in the bucket we can’t bring ourselves to empty is breeding mosquitos in our own backyard.
First published in the November 2017 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.