Percy Among the Conservatives

A lot of things bother me. The world is seemingly teeming with stuff that make me feel angry or frustrated or disappointed or depressed or what have you. Some of these things are very serious, others are much less weighty. But there is one thing — admittedly on the smaller side — that continues to make me mad. It’s the way in which Rod Dreher, The American Conservative and, more broadly, the trad/conservative-ish corners of the Catholic and Christian internet have cornered the market on discussing Walker Percy.

There are some ways in which Percy’s… shall we say, appropriation by these conservative outlets makes at least some sense. To be certain, Percy’s views on abortion are more in line with the (at least stated) views of the right wing of the political spectrum. Were he alive today, I do imagine Percy would be critical of the way in which Democrats and the Democratic Party deal with the issue of abortion. I also think anyone who is Catholic and affiliated with the Church will be at least somewhat conservative (though in the sense of conserving tradition and an appreciation for order… which is something totally different and probably should be referred to as traditional as opposed to conservative).

Even while acknowledging that, that Percy would be alligned with the conservative/right wing of today seems a bit absurd to me. In an interview towards the end of his life, Percy made it clear “I consider myself a liberal in most ways and I agree with the ACLU, for instance, about most things.” Mind you, this is something Percy said when he was older, a time when most people get a little more conservative, no matter their political affiliation and sensibilities. When one reviews Percy’s interviews and statements throughout his life, this statement is not the only one of its kind, certainly no outlier. So while he might have issues with some aspects of liberalism and the Democratic Party platform at present, he doesn’t seem like someone who would be aligning himself too closely with First Things or The Federalist if he’s saying this (agreeing with the ACLU on most things… can you imagine?).

But thing that most specifically raises my ire is that the Walker Percy Weekend, a literary festival held annually just outside of New Orleans, is coordinated by Rod Dreher and sponsored by The American Conservative. This is the most representative example of this adoption by certain segments of American conservatives of Percy and writing. While acknowledging that, yes, Percy is on the more traditional side than some, I have a hard time reconciling an appreciation of Percy with some of the ridiculous anti-LGBTQ writing that has come from Dreher. Percy had an acerbic wit and enjoying cutting down certain groups and people to size. But his writing and Dreher’s obsession with these sexual issues and the mean/cruel tone he will take on when discussing them seem like they live in two different universes.

Dreher’s own Benedict Option, which proposes a kind of withdrawl from the modern world for Christians, seems to conflict with Percy’s conception of man as homo viator, one who is always essentially a part of the world even as they are journeying towards something greater. Percy was never one who disengaged from the world itself even as he critiques it from time to time. One need not look further than the fact that Percy felt compelled to write Bruce Springsteen a fan letter to see evidence of this.

In addition to this, the program of the weekend itself leaves something to desired, particularly in its most recent iterations. While in some of the earlier iterations there was attention paid to the actual writing and panels and talks about Percy’s novels by scholars, much of that pretense has been dropped. I understand the notion of having this not be a proper academic conference (in some ways it would not be befitting of Percy to have an all-academic program at a weekend/conference bearing his name) but to somehow reduce Percy to just lifestyle or Southern living is really selling him short. Worse, inviting people like David Brooks to speak is pandering to a conservative/right wing/Republican audience that feels very disconnected from Percy himself. I certainly think there would be a space for conservative thinkers/intellectuals at a Walker Percy weekend but David Brooks makes it clear this is about some kind of partisan thing rather than actually philosophy and thought.

I don’t think I have to have some kind of monopoly on a writer that I like and that his writer’s thinking has to somehow line up exactly with mine. But I do feel like I have some kind of insight into and understanding of Percy and his work and this conservative appropriation and claiming of Percy, especially by the Dreher-ian strain of thinking, rings very hollow to me. More importantly, it is something that I think it should be my work, my calling, to push back upon and change.

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