The Mentality of Retreat

This is article was taken from a section of Masculinist 42 which was published on July, 13th 2020.

I’ve noticed a lot of conservative political types writing about how people should get out of cities in the wake of recent riots, and similar tweets from conservative Christians unhappy with an excessively woke turn from their churches likewise talking about getting out and encouraging other people to do so.

I find these statements highly revealing, not just about conservatives but the majority of Americans, whose default response when encountering problems is to Exit the situation.

Back in Masc #24, I put together this 2×2 matrix of potential responses to institutional decline, defined by the axes of invest-disinvest and defend-attack.

retreat graph

In it, I noted that conservatives tend to almost default to the bottom left Withdraw and Restart quadrant. By contrast, the left tends towards the attacking Capture strategies of the upper right.

This idea of withdrawing and starting over or switching to a new institution is what Albert O. Hirschman called “Exit” in his 1970 classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. I can’t begin to do this book justice here, but would definitely recommend it as it contains a lot of stimulating thought on various dynamics of reforming organizations. I consider Exit a fundamentally defensive strategy. It’s about withdrawing and attempting to escape to someplace else free of our opponents or enemies.

Hirschman observes, “Exit has been accorded an extraordinarily privileged position in the American tradition.”  That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, people who chose Exit settled this nation, followed by immigrants likewise pursuing an Exit strategy. The marketplace, which occupies such a central place in the American consciousness, is built on the idea of Exit. If I don’t like what Company A has to offer, I’ll just switch to Company B. And this willingness to switch is what makes the motor of the marketplace function at all.

A friend of mine in Germany is fond of saying that, “We’re the children of the people who stayed.” That would make Americans the children of the people who left. The original Renn who came to America in my family left the Saarland sometime in the mid-1800s. We are a nation of leavers who prefer to run away from our problems and our roots.

Americans have long been a far more mobile society than Europe, reflecting that relative rootlessness.  (Internal migration in America has been in decline in recent decades, however).

This willingness to pull up our stakes and move on in search of greener pastures (to the frontier, perhaps) is an almost stereotypically American way of life. Rod Dreher’s prolific commenter “Matt in VA” insightfully notes that there’s nothing conservative in this.  He has described, for example, the semi-disposable communities that are built in Texas.  It should not be surprising that this brand of “conservatism” has never conserved anything.

But as I said, Exit is hardly limited to conservatives. Hirschman pointed out about the 60s counterculture, “The present-day ‘cop-out’ movement of groups like the hippies is very much in the American tradition; once again dissatisfaction with the surrounding social order leads to flight rather than fight, to the withdrawal of the dissatisfied group and to its setting up a separate ‘scene.’” Or think of small-town misfits heading to the big city in search of freedom and a tribe of their own.

In short, Americans, and conservatives, in particular, are prone to solve their problem through retreat and Exit – by running away from them or trying to escape the battlefield.

We see this playing out right now in the United Methodist Church, where conservatives negotiated an exit ramp for themselves. The progressive faction is going to retain the present-day UMC denomination and its institutional infrastructure. Having read the agreement, I’d consider it a bad deal for the conservatives because getting out is not nearly as easy as they might think. But even with a fairer balloting process, the approach of simply looking to Exit would remain.

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