The Culture of Immodesty in American Life and Politics: The Modest Republic,
edited by Michael P. Federici, Richard M. Gamble, and Mark T. Mitchell.
Palgrave MacMillan, 2013.
Hardcover, 236 pages, $95.

Reviewed by Gracy Olmstead

In times past, the word “modesty” spoke to a cognitive attitude toward a variety of subjects: political, cultural, spiritual, and personal. Sadly, we’ve lost this holistic conception of the term as our society has sexualized and limited it. What was once a robust conception of living is now an epithet among more liberal societies, and an often-legalistic list of rules in some religious circles.

The Culture of Immodesty in American Life and Politics takes neither of these modern views. The essayists who contribute to the volume, as well as the three editors who compiled the book, look back to an older ideal of modesty, one that calls for a more philosophically profound and rounded concept of moderation to permeate our politics. In losing our understanding of modesty, we have lost more than an interesting concept—we have lost, one might say, the very principle that undergirded the founding of America.

What, then, does modesty mean in a wider political and cultural sense? In the essayists and editors’ conception, the word “harks back to the classical virtue of moderation that inspired the American Founders”—it is “not simply a matter of scaling back the powers and sovereignty of government” via a constitution and separation of powers. It also requires “imitation of the republican virtue they learned from the ancient Greeks and Romans.” Modesty is animated by “the spirit of the common good,” which “may dictate higher or lower taxes, military intervention or peace, more government spending or less,” but always strives to fit within “general standards of virtue and prudence.” On the other hand, the editors give us this definition of immodesty: it is “a lack of propriety, a failure to acknowledge limits that mark the boundaries between what is civil and uncivil, tasteful and vulgar, republican and imperial.” In the world of immodesty, all “notion of limits, which were once provided by custom and religion,” disappear.

Modesty is not only an individual virtue; societies should be modest as well. In the book, Richard Gamble tackles our imperialistic tendencies and the perils of interventionist foreign policy. The neoconservative assertions of limitlessness and perfectibility that were characteristic of the Iraq war, he writes, are completely antithetical to the mores of a modest republic. Michael P. Federici rebuts the immodest tendencies of judicial power, while Gary L. Gregg II analyzes the wide expansion of executive power in our immodest age. Several conservative authors lay the blame for our cultural and political immodesty at the feet of Republican presidents—notably George W. Bush, but also the venerated Ronald Reagan. Despite the widespread notion that Reagan is an exemplar of American conservatism and presidential greatness, Justin D. Garrison’s essay demonstrates that his politics and policies were, in fact, quite progressive and “immodest.”

Other essays in this diverse volume consider topics including banking, music, universities, and education. Each essay is largely made up of abstract theory, explaining the whys and wherefores behind our broken political and cultural systems. While these authors offer a few pragmatic thoughts on how to fix our system of government and cultural politics, they remain mostly in the realm of ideas and dilemmas. They admit this at the end of the book but, to their credit, do not apologize for it. Just like doctors, they write, we must determine what the causes of our political and cultural breakdown are. This is the first step toward a cure.

Also to their credit, they remind us that wide, overarching diagnoses and “solutions” are, in fact, a significant part of our country’s problem. One-size-fits-all cures have wrought incredible damage on society. Returning to the principles of a “modest republic” necessitates that our solutions and cures be modest, as well: specific to the situation, the region, the people, and problems at hand. A more decentralized and discreet approach to politics would be a boon to our society. We are suffering from many problems that could probably be fixed (or at least mitigated) through a return to the local, the small, the carefully contained.

This is easier said than done. The greatest challenge to bringing back political and cultural modesty is that modesty requires limits. And our society recoils from the idea of limits as from poison. Surrounded by the beauty of options, we fight constraints at every turn. MIT demonstrated this with a series of experiments a few years ago: they had students play a computer game in which they could receive real cash by clicking open three doors on the screen. Certain doors were worth higher payoffs, and each player had one hundred allotted clicks. “The best strategy,” wrote the New York Times, “was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.” But students began to panic when a new feature was introduced: if they started ignoring a door, it would shrink and then eventually disappear. Though the students knew those doors didn’t matter, they couldn’t bear to lose their options: “They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent … the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.”

This suggests that for many Americans, perhaps especially among the younger cohorts, choice—even more than prosperity—is seen as the greatest good and hope for happiness. Many will strive, above all else, to keep their options open. Modesty is the opposite of such a disposition: it is made up of limitations and constraints, a loyal adherence to norms and values, a willingness to sacrifice choice for the sake of virtue, beauty, peace, or goodness. Our progressivist march into the promise of ever greater freedom, ever greater choice, has led to a widespread disavowal of modesty. We must face the fact that our society’s infatuation with progress is killing virtue, killing the traditions that we ought to be preserving and upholding.

To bring back modesty into vogue, we must bring back the idea of limits and sacrifice as goods, as proper things with an appropriate place in culture. There is hope here: people are beginning to realize that certain things are worth sacrificing for—certain goods that are valuable enough to give up the goods of ease, comfort, and efficiency. One practical example of this is the locavore movement: it is by no means easier or more efficient to go to a farmer’s market early on Saturday mornings than to shop at a Walmart Supercenter. The market will almost always be more expensive and offer less variety. Yet people are doing so, in greater and greater numbers. Why? They realize that certain goods are worth limitations and constraints.

This is a materialistic example; one wonders what would induce people to re-embrace a traditional conception of sexual mores or convince them that churchgoing and town hall meetings are important goods, worth embracing with regularity and respect. One wonders how we could convince politicians that waging war overseas is often antithetical to good governance. Such pills are a bit harder to swallow: they thrust responsibility and humility upon us.

But the trends that these authors observe—the love of freedom and choice, the wholehearted embrace of progressivism, the hubristic interference in others’ affairs—are the habits and values of a successful and powerful bully. They are the actions of an alpha dog, exerting its influence on all surrounding parties. As the editors note in their introduction, “the United States is at least a century beyond the point at which it ceased to be a vulnerable nation, wary of an outside world that threatened its fragile new republic.” Perhaps, as our economy and education system continue to fray at the edges, as we continue to see the deleterious results of interventions overseas in Iraq, as we realize the utter heartbreak and societal breakdown caused by divorce and the hookup culture, we will retreat somewhat from our mountaintop of sermonizing and superiority. Perhaps we may learn to speak with a softer tone, to question our own value judgments, to consider the consequences of our decisions. We may learn modesty by sheer force of circumstance.

But it is also true that we all suffer from a problem that is inherent in human nature—a lack of modesty that is spiritual, a temptation to a brash and brazen pursuit of freedom that endures until death. It’s a condition we can limit and contain with modest measures—but its tendencies will never go away. And this is the acknowledgment that all of us, nationalist and localist, Democrat and Republican, must accept. Our society can strive for modesty, but it is a battle that can never be entirely won through politics and policy: it is a struggle that goes deep into the human heart, and must be first fought (and won) within its depths. 

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor for The American Conservative, where she also blogs and serves as design director. She has also written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow @gracyolmstead.