I live not far from Dover, the little bedroom borough in York County, Pennsylvania, where the “intelligent design” controversy played out. When the ruling came down against the school district, one of the local newspapers sub-headed its reaction story “Scientists, teachers pleased; conservatives furious.”
That’s how far “conservative” has fallen. Somehow, the name of the philosophy of Burke has come to be the nameplate the press nails under its lurid pictures of “gang of snake-handling yahoos.” The left-wing bloggers use the term “wingnuts.” The media uses “conservatives.” Both seem to have the same image in mind, whatever word they use.
This Wall Street Journal piece, however, is a good reminder that there is such a thing as a genuine philosophical conservative approach to American life. And that it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Republican Party. And it can be internally consistent and dynamic. And that, while I am not quite in line with it (I’m somewhere on the line between there and Jeffrey Hart’s “soft utopianism”), it is something I can respect and admire.
Among the great banes of modern conservatism is utopianism. Among its ideal virtues are “a healthy practical skepticism and the requirement of historical knowledge as a guide to prudent policy.” Hart applies that combination to the current political scene, and he discovers case after case where the conservative position diverges from the Bush Administration or its allies.
On free markets, for instance:
But the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own–that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose.
Which is a classic Russell Kirk position. Through some writings I had done I got to know a local college professor, W. Wesley McDonald, one of the last defenders of the old conservative ideology he had learned from his mentor, Kirk. I got to read an early copy of McDonald’s book, “Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology,” which uncovered the philosophical foundations of Kirk’s work.
It was an eye-opener, to me. Kirk, who died in 1994, is best known as the author of “The Conservative Mind” (1953), a book which galvanized young thinkers — McDonald was one of them — disaffected with the prevailing political culture of America. “The Conservative Mind” appeared at a time when received wisdom about conservatives in politics hadn’t evolved since 1861, when John Stuart Mill pegged them as “the stupid party.” American political scholars seriously argued in print that political conservatism was not a philosophical position but a mental maladjustment.
Kirk was a “traditionalist.” He believed that an objective universal moral order exists, and that it ought to be defended from ideologues of the left and right. He disliked unbridled free-market capitalism (which fuels “the dream of avarice”), and he believed the state has a constructive role to play. He believed that traditional patterns and institutions — “the permanent things” — preserve order, and they are the best foundation of a political system that can offer real freedom rather than mere anarchy.
Hart also echoes Kirk in his high regard for a quality most modern Americans hardly think of when the read the word “conservative” — beauty.
Kirk looked to literature and held that “ethical and normative truths are often best conveyed through a symbolic veil, as found, for example, in the medium of great poetry, rather than by the means of discursive explication.”
Kirk could call T.S. Eliot friend. His belief in the power of myth and literary tradition makes one think not of Republican politicians but rather of Harold Bloom or Joseph Campbell. Literature “is the breath of society,” Kirk wrote, “transmitting to successive rising generations, century upon century, a body of ethical principles and critical standards and imaginative creations that constitutes a kind of collective intellect of humanity, the formalized wisdom of our ancestors.”
Hart sees the same quality in natural beauty.
The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats.
Other modern Republican shibboleths turn out to be equally adrift from classical conservatism. Evangelical religion, for instance:
Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion–repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms.
Or blanket opposition to abortion:
Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the “right to life,” even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion.
“Conservatives assume that the Republican Party is by and large conservative,” Hart writes. “But this party has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of ‘Republicanism.’ The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture. It is an example of Machiavelli’s observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely.”
It was Kirk who sounded the warning that conservatives and libertarians were not natural allies. In fact, as he knew, liberals and libertarians have more in common than the Latin root of their names, and more in common with one another than with conservatives. He also knew the difference between a conservative and a reactionary, as his disciple, McDonald, makes clear.
“Life is always presenting us with new possibilities, and hence our applications of the good must be constantly adjusted to emerging circumstances,” McDonald writes. “The ethically ordered society is realized by the creative acts of successive generations of virtuous people striving to apply universal standards of the good to concrete situations. In this process, as traditions are preserved and renewed, society maintains a healthy balance between the twin necessities of change and preservation.”
That’s a kind of conservative I could stand to see a lot more of in the headlines.