Exile is a central part of human existence, most certainly as old as human settlement and probably predating it. Humans are social animals. Banishment and ostracism are primeval weapons, wielded by human groups for the worst crimes like sacrilege, murder and subversion. Exile as a punishment is based in the understanding that much of who we are as a human is based on our relationship with others. Our role in the group is who we are, so therefore being forced out of the group is a nullification of one’s identity.
Death, of course, is the ultimate nullification. For a group of humans to decide that one of their own must die is the acknowledgement that the person can never be a part of the group. Who they are is not just out of sync with the group. It is a danger to the very existence of the group. Exile, in contrast, assumes the exiled can be reformed. It offers the exiled at least some opportunity to regain himself and become a part of the group again. Alternatively, he can find a new group where he belongs.
While exile is as old as man, it is also as modern as man too. In fact, we would not have modernity without the prominent role of exiles in the human story. The Bolsheviks, for example, came out of exile to rock the old order and begin close to a century of struggle in the West. The Iranian revolution was engineered by exiles, who ushered in half a century of unrest in the Muslim world. Of course, America was born as an enclave for exiles, men divorced from the old country and starting new in the wilderness.
A useful way to understand the role of exile in shaping the West is to think about the birth of conservatism in Europe. Unlike everything else in modern thought, it was not the result of the Enlightenment, but rather a consequence of the French Revolution. The destruction, terror and wars that resulted from the revolution, created a generation of exiles, divorced from their lands, their people and their way of life. Their struggle to understand the revolution and formulate a response, was the birth of conservatism in the West.
Today, of course, there is never any discussion of how the revolution transformed the aristocracy of Europe. The radicals who rule over the West, like chimps looking in a mirror, can never stop obsessing over their antecedents. The revolution, however, fundamentally altered the elite of Europe. There was the material changes, of course, as they were forced to abandon their lands and flee to neighboring lands. There were also a spiritual and intellectual changes that resulted in being exiled from their homes.
The French aristocrat living in Vienna, for example, suddenly found himself around a new elite, with different habits and different tastes. This sudden juxtaposition gave these aristocrats a new perspective on their own culture. Prior to exile, they had no reason to think about why they lived as they did. It was just the way things were as they entered the world. In exile, they had to examine why it was their way of life existed, why they existed, and why it was swept away by the revolution.
In other words, exile created a romanticism for that lost past, but also an intellectual framework to understand how that old order was lost and how best to respond to the radicalism that was unleashed on society. Further, the restoration cemented the point that the old order was gone for good. The saying among conservatives at the time was that the restored king Louis XVIII was not sitting on the Bourbon throne, he was sitting on the throne of Napoleon. It was an acknowledgement that there was no going back.
In this age, exile explains why northern conservatism was a shabby response to northern radicalism. The conservative was not the result of exile. He was always as much a part of the ruling ethos as the radical. The relationship between the American conservative and the American radical was always as co-dependents. The radical needed the conservative as a foil, while the conservative needed the radical for a reason to exist. Without one, the other could never exist as an independent mode of thought.
The closest America has come to having an authentic conservatism was in the South where the conquered and displaced planter class had to reconcile the loss of their past with a way forward as a regional elite. It never really worked, as there could never be a restoration, even an artificial one. The anathematization of Southern culture has been so thorough and complete in the 20th century, that now the very symbols of it are treated as an affront to public morality. That aristocracy was exterminated, not exiled.
What may be happening in this age of cultural upheaval, however, is the birth of a new class of exiles. White men of the older generation are seeing the world in which they were born slowly succumbing to the darkness of multiculturalism. Theirs is not a romanticism for that old age, but a growing anger at its loss. The baby Boomer conservative takes a lot of grief, and deservedly so, but every day that group inches closer toward identity politics as the only available response to the gathering darkness.
In the younger generations, there can be no romanticism or an angry response to the loss of old white America. Instead, there is an acceptance that old white America can never be restored. There’s also a reconsideration of what created mid-century America and what sent it rocketing into the abyss of self-abnegation. These are the new exiles, divorced from the past, cut off from their culture and hounded by the radicals of this revolution, as the aristocrats of France were hounded by the Jacobins.
The defect in the conservative response to 18th century radicalism was it could never get past its own romanticism. The conservatives of that age were still surrounded by the results of their lost culture. In every city center, in every local village, they were reminded of the glorious past. As a result, the conservatism of Europe was always destined to be a compromise with radicalism. Constitutional monarchy was an effort to retain the spirit of the past, inhabiting the sterile, lifeless body of social democracy.
This generation of exiles will have the benefit of not living in a museum. In a way, the radical destruction of the symbols and language of old white America is doing a service to the exiles of today and tomorrow. Without the ghosts of the past, clawing at the present, the response to today’s radicalism can be independent and new. Today’s exile will not be animated by a longing for a lost past, but instead be haunted by the unrealized present and an anger at the radicals who foreclosed his future.