Both Preserver & Pioneer:
The Conservative in 2021
By: Kay Clarity
The image burned into my mind when I think now of a way forward for conservatives in 2021, pulling on the deeply familiar that often makes for the best art, is that of the pioneer family on the Saskatchewan prairie, where I’m from. The words that come to mind are both “pioneer” and “preserver.”
As preservers, the families that came to prairie Canada brought with them the seeds of civilization rooted in centuries of family, faith, loyalty, responsibility, interconnectedness, culture, and cultivation—in short, the substance and structures of stability and flourishing in a world always marred by human frailty and failure; but they also, as pioneers, embarked on an entirely new adventure that would require an entirely different kind of human innovation, stamina, creativity, perseverance, and ingenuity. We, as conservatives in the 21st century, are quite well-suited just now, I believe, to this analogy.
By the time I was born, of course, we were already four generations deep into civilization in the howling fields of middle-western Canada. I only ever knew grocery stores, technology, highways, snow ploughs, phones, furnaces, sports teams, choirs, pools—all goods bequeathed to me, built on the hard work and love, and yes, failures, of our forebear heroes.
I grew up with hints of the memory of our forefathers coming over from Ireland, Germany, and Austria via the Eastern US States, and my maternal great-grandfather trying and failing as a farmer following his purchase of cheap Canadian land in the early 1900s. I heard whispering stories of the alcoholism that echoed on both sides of the family through the generations, not to be separated from the harshness of the life many faced trying to provide for families in often impossible conditions. But I also heard stories of triumph: first and foremost, that we survived and didn’t leave; that we are here, finding our way four generations down. But there were also the particular stories of triumph: that families were formed and celebrated; that by generation three, everyone would find professional paths, and many would go to university; that my maternal grandfather started a successful insurance business with nothing but a Grade Eight education; that my paternal great-uncle became an incredibly successful contractor throughout Western Canada and even into the US; that a great aunt & uncle were joyfully married for seventy years, never moved from their farm in Anaheim, had ever-fruitful crops, and prayed for protection from the elements with often seemingly miraculous answers.
(As an aside, a story about this great aunt comes to mind. She would often ask, "Can you pray the Rosary while snapping peas?" to which she would universally receive the reply: "Of course not!" And then she would respond, which a signature twinkle in her eye, "But you can pray the Rosary while you snap peas, right?" Such was the mix of faith and good humour that kept them going amidst both the joys and tragedies of life.)
In my family's case, in its of course muddied way, faith, family, responsibility, and community was the glue, along with the shared memory and backdrop of the generations gone before in the “Old Country” of mainland Europe. None of my early family came from wealth, and in fact were essentially peasants back in Europe, and started out as such in North America. The secret to the success over generations that did come—for it hasn’t always come—was in fact from the wealth of goodness that is native to communities rooted in the wisdom of honour, faith, and family.
So what does this mean for 2021 conservatives, concerned about the state of things from a moral, political, spiritual, economic or otherwise perspective?
In the end, when we are doing the slogging work of digging up the deep, stubborn roots of ideology now (like my grandfather did the bushes on nearly every square inch of land at the new family farm when he was five) we need to know that we are working to build something, longer-term, worth all of the suffering we perhaps must undergo. Yes, this may mean a personal farm, analogous or actual, and hope of a place for our own families. But it may also mean a way of life that can re-grow itself into a renewed civilization in a few short generations.
That’s the power of the seed of our tradition. Even if our own personal efforts fail, we will have been a part of the greater success of all of those, in the course of time, striving to create something strong and beautiful together. Perhaps it is our children who will see success.
None of this is to say there aren’t immediate, crucial political concerns that must be evaluated with wisdom and courage; it is rather just to say: what will sustain us for the long-term, and what will inspire us to go on in the face of impossible contradictions and sufferings?
In 2021, I propose we see ourselves as pioneers. We must recognize that there is need to break new ground, as well as to plant new seeds in dry soil with hope of future fruit for the generations.
But we will also need to see that to have anything to plant, we will also necessarily be preservers of what has so far led to the authentic success of vibrant civilizations - these memories of hard work, loyalty, responsibility, faith, family, hope, and commitment.
Each word also therefore contains the other within itself. There are no successful pioneers without a history; and there are no authentic preservers who don’t also intend to plant. One cannot plant without the preserved seed; and one cannot preserve with any hope of it lasting without planting.
We are both the preservers and protectors of the seed, and the pioneers of tilling the soil and re-planting it.
These monthly art bundles or episodes are meant as a place to retreat and strengthen. While I knew after taking stock of the current cultural temperature that I needed to somehow “stake the ground” as a conservative in at least the broadest sense, this “zone of freedom” I am aiming to provide here (in the words of John Paul II as Cardinal Woytyla under communist rule in Poland) isn’t about partisan politics in the primary sense.
I am invested also in those aspects of human life personally, as many but not all of you also surely are, but art is a place where we pause and allow ourselves into a place of human, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual encounter with reality and beauty—and it’s here that we often find the deeper core of the “why” behind our political concerns and battles. When we lose this—the substance, the driver, the point—we can be our own worst enemies, fighting only for empty slogans that can’t survive whatever may now be our version of the analogous harsh Saskatchewan winter winds beating down on humble sod houses.
This long-term vision is part of what I hope to offer to us all in January’s art bundle experience.
We are preservers and pioneers. Let’s rebuild.