Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Thoughts On Conservatism In Contemporary Discourse

Once in a great while, I lock horns with another writer over some topic of mutual interest, and we find that, far from being able to agree to disagree and watch the game played out, we can find no common ground whatsoever, not even the ability to respect one another's views. Neither of us is even willing to allow the other to use the terms of his choice to mean what he prefers them to mean. That sort of "it was him or me" disagreement is the most disagreeable sort there is or can ever be.

That happened recently -- forgive me, Gentle Reader; once again, I've lost the BLEEP!ing link -- but in this case, it's had a spinoff benefit, at least: It's got me thinking about the thorny path conservatism as a concept has traveled over the century behind us, and where we might expect it to go in the decades to come.

At TownHall today, Jonah Goldberg declaims upon "the triumph of the vulgarians." For me, here's the capping stroke:
Vulgarity has become cultural shorthand for everything from seriousness to rebelliousness to "keeping it real." But it's closer to the opposite....

In other words, the standards of the common culture are lower than they are in nearly every other walk of life. Which means they're not really standards at all. If anything, the new taboo is decency.

I commented as follows:

Two observations: First, the ubiquity of profanity has robbed it of all impact, such that it counts for less than a "y'know," a "like," or an "um." Therefore, the user should be looking for ways to "increase his word power," possibly by replacing his F and S bombs with "My word!" or "Upon mine honor!" (My own favorite "epithets," pace C. S. Lewis, are "Splendor of Christ!" and "Glory be to God!" The non-religious among us may choose their own paths.)

Second, one truly holds to a standard if and only if he holds to it when he's alone and unobserved. All else is an attempt to avoid public opprobrium and castigation, such as it might occasion. The truly advanced man recognizes that though the good opinion of others is worth something, the highest character accolades are available only from oneself: from the recognition that one does the right and proper thing even when straying would cost nothing and afford some measure of pleasure or relief. This extraordinarily important insight has largely been lost to our time.

The shorthand for that "extraordinarily important insight" is, of course, "self-control."

Among the many questions about what conservatism "really is," this one comes close to summarizing all the rest:

What should conservatives be trying to conserve?

For the "conservative mindset" is first and foremost an attachment to things that are or have been: things that might well be under attack, if not already vanquished and driven into the shadows. But the specific choice of those things remains a matter under dispute.

If you prize freedom supremely, you'll want to conserve freedom.
If you value military power above all else, you'll strive to protect that.
Many conservatives place absolute adherence to the law at the pinnacle.
Or you might have some conception of public order at the top of your heap.
Or perhaps there's a standard of virtue, however defined, that you'd like enforced.

I could go on, but I believe the point has been made.

If you call yourself a conservative, you have already made a choice of the above sort, though not necessarily from the above list. You have some list of values that matters to you more than your others, and you want to see them protected, or restored, or advanced. If you call yourself a political conservative, you want to see those values protected, restored, or advanced by public policy: the decrees and enforcement actions of the State.

There are as many entirely valid instantiations of conservatism -- personal and political -- as there are things that men value.

The Reverend John Williams, an Australian vicar, once gave a talk for the Foundation for Economic Education in which he noted that socialism in Britain had roots in both Tory conservatism and the classical or "Manchester" liberalism of the nineteenth century. The Tories, Reverend Williams said, wanted a very powerful State, both for the protection of the propertied classes and for the enforcement of the public moral code of post-Cromwell England. The Manchesterites were paleolibertarians: they sought individual freedom, economic mobility, and an end to State favoritism toward the gentry class. The clash between them seemed absolute...until the earliest socialists came along.

The proto-socialists appealed to the Manchesterites as being in sympathy with their goals. However, they told the liberals, the way to get it is via the powerful State favored by the Tories. They claimed that their "middle way" would co-opt the mechanisms of coercion and turn them to the goals of the classical liberals -- and many an English liberal bought the pig in the poke, ultimately to his and Britain's sorrow.

Today's analogue to that English proto-socialism is what we call "big-government conservatism."

I'm not going to hammer this flat, as if you, Gentle Reader, were incapable of connecting the dots for yourself. I intend a starting point, such that you might use it for an intellectual journey of your own. But I deem the following words from Founding Father John Adams, which he addressed to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, to be of critical import to any such journey:

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.

The Brazen and Golden Rules.
And the Noachite Commandments.

Choose among your values what you think most important to conserve, by all means. Then, having made your choice, ask yourself sincerely: Would any social system, any polity, any corpus of law or system of jurisprudence succeed in conserving those things without the three items immediately above? But with those three things fully in effect among the people, would any great engine of coercion be required to gain or keep what you seek?

Give it some thought.

1 comment:

Malcolm Hays said...

With regards to your "extraordinarily important insight", another term for your comment is simply, "character". The invaluable website TV Tropes has a whole page devoted to this concept called "What You Are in the Dark".