Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 I've tried to present a serviceable definition of genuine conservatism, as opposed to the witchs' brew of contradictory beliefs that William F. Buckley and his colleagues pasted together in the 1950s and arbitrarily decided to call 'conservatism'; the latter should be labelled, as Peter Viereck did, pseudo-conservatism. In this post I continue to cite Claes Ryn's views of conservatism as presented in his America the Virtuous. In Parts 1 and 2 I mentioned two essential elements of modern conservatism: 1) the recognition of baser human motives and the imperative need to exert self-control and social control over them; 2) the emphasis upon the importance of local, face-to-face groups like the family, church, and local community; where local leadership is the fundamental basis of social organization as opposed to distant, centralized authorities which drain localities of their power.

A third key component of conservative belief is an emphasis upon the importance of historically evolved, concrete, existing social institutions which are held to represent the wisdom of ages; since they have developed slowly over many years they are believed to serve real concrete human needs. Ryn wrote (p. 45): “For Burke, a civilized society is the result of a slow, protracted, and often painful process of selection and accumulation.” Favored terms conservatives use to capture this are 'rooted', 'historical', and 'concrete.' Conservatives, harking back to Edmund Burke's critique of the French Revolution, are quite suspicious of ‘human reason’ in the sense of “the old urge to replace historically evolved societies with an order framed according to abstract, allegedly universal principles, notably that of equality." It is important to note that conservatives do not oppose all social change; as Edmund Burke wrote: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Rather genuine conservatives advocate small, prudent, moderate, evolutionary changes as specific needs manifest themselves as felt by members of society. Ryn wrote (p. 45): "It is necessary, Burke argued, to approach historically evolved society with respect and humility as well as a critical eye and to be cautious in making changes. Innovation may do damage that the reformers in their preoccupation with their own favorite abstract ideas are not able to foresee.” It is precisely this principle that put the 'conserve' in 'conservatism.' Without a priciple such as this no belief system deserves the name 'conservative.'

This is perhaps the stress of conservatism which contains the most potential for mischief. It is often true that existing social institutions were established and continue to serve the needs of privileged groups within a historical society, and as such they deny many of the needs of the least privileged groups. Certainly some American conservatives have recognized this, e.g., Clinton Rossiter, and if reasonable freedom from exploitation is to be built into a society the means of change would have to include channels through which the least privileged groups could effectively make their needs known and achieve reasonable social changes. The conservative's emphatic respect for existing institutions could easily facilitate the will to power, domination and even tyranny that another conservative principle--the imperative need to control such base human motives--wants to minimize and avoid. This is perhaps the central contradictory tension within conservatism.

Finally, at least according to Ryn, conservatism endorses a modest patriotic pride in one’s countries achievements but it opposes excessive nationalism (p. 79): “Nationalism, by contrast [to patriotism], is an eruption of overweening ambition, a throwing off of individual and national self-control. Nationalism is self-absorbed and conceited, oblivious of the weaknesses of the country it champions…. Nationalism recognizes no authority higher than its own national passion. It imagines that it has a monopoly on right or has a mission superseding moral norms. The phrase ‘my country right or wrong’ sums up this attitude…. Nationalist politics is inherently intolerant, tyrannical, and expansionist. It bullies and creates ever new enemies.” It is in large part this ambitious, self-absorbed, intolerant, tyrannical, belligerent, expansionist, bullying nationalism, as best exemplified by so-called 'neo-conservatives' like William Kristol, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et. al., that led Ryn to write about what he calls the New Jacobinism.

This is something I intend to pay close attention to in my further readings on genuine conservatism: what is authentic conservatism's relationship to hyper-nationalism and just plain nationalism. Certainly Peter Viereck recognized the danger of what he called "thought-control nationalists." I believe that American nationalism, as aggressively represented by the pseudo-conservative American right, may well lead to the decline and fall of American civilization. I fear crazed nationalists like William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Dinesh D'Souza, William F. Buckley et. al. are leading us into a ditch out of which we may never emerge. I see this nationalistic fervor that considers America always the force for Good in the world that must use its power to dominate and control the rest of the world as perhaps the single most dangerous and suicidal trend in American life. To a large degree it is just this remarkably crazy nationalism that explains why pseudo-conservatives can't do foreign policy.

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