Friday, May 13, 2005

Jonah Goldberg: "What is a Conservative"?

Jonah Goldberg (via Cincinnati Historian) ponders what exactly is this creature--the Conseervative--that he (and I) call ourselves. Importantly, he notes that an American conservative is different that others:
As I’ve written many times here, part of the problem is that a conservative in America is a liberal in the classical sense — because the institutions conservatives seek to preserve are liberal institutions. This is why Hayek explicitly exempted American conservatism from his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative.” The conservatives he disliked were mostly continental thinkers who liked the marriage of Church and State, hereditary aristocracies, overly clever cheese, and the rest. The conservatives he liked were Burke, the American founders, Locke et al.

This is a point critics of so-called “theocons” like to make, even if they don’t always fully realize they’re making it. They think the rise of politically conservative religious activists is anti-conservative because it smells anti-liberal. Two conservatives of British descent who’ve been making that case lately are Andrew Sullivan and our own John Derbyshire. I think the fact that they’re British is an important factor. British conservatives, God love ‘em, are typically opponents of all enthusiasms, particularly of the religious and political variety. Personally, I’m very sympathetic to this outlook. . .it seems to me patently obvious that religion and conservatism aren’t necessarily partners. Put it this way, Jesus was no conservative — and there endeth the lesson.
After additional ruminations, he concludes that being conservative means having "Comfort with contradiction". As he puts it, "Think of any leftish ideology and at its core you will find a faith that circles can be closed, conflicts resolved." He offers the examples of Marxism and Freudism as examples. In contrast, Dewey, calling on Hegel, reasoned that "society could be made whole if we jettisoned dogma and embraced a natural, organic understanding of the society where everyone worked together."

Goldberg also stepped away from the philosophical plane and explained why Liberals and Conservatives (in America) operate from such different places.
Think about why the Left is obsessed with hypocrisy and authenticity. The former is the great evil, the latter the closest we can get to saintliness. Hypocrisy implies a contradiction between the inner and outer selves. That’s a Freudian no-no in and of itself. But even worse, hypocrisy suggests that others are wrong for behaving the way they do. Hypocrites act one way and behave another. Whenever a conservative is exposed as a “hypocrite” the behavior — Limbaugh’s drug use, Bennett’s gambling, whatever — never offends the Left as much as the fact that they were telling other people how to live. This, I think, is in part because of the general hostility the Left has to the idea that we should live in any way that doesn’t “feel” natural. We must all listen to our inner children.

Now look at the arguments of conservatives. They are almost invariably arguments about trade-offs, costs, “the downside” of a measure. As I’ve written before, the first obligation of the conservative is to explain why nine out of ten new ideas are probably bad ones. When feminists pound the table with the heels of their sensible shoes that it is unfair that there are any conflicts between motherhood and career, the inevitable response from conservatives boils down to “You’re right, but life isn’t fair.” Some conservatives may be more eager than others to lessen the unfairness somewhat. But conservatives understand the simple logic that motherhood is more than a fulltime job and that makes holding a second fulltime job very difficult. Feminist liberals understand this logic too, they just don’t want to accept it because they believe that in a just society there would be no such trade-offs.
In the end, Goldberg boils down his conservatism to Patriotism
. . . the devotion to a set of ideals, rooted in history, and attached to a specific place. And once again we are spun back to Hayek. To a certain extent patriotism is conservatism, in the same way that being a Christian involves some level of conservatism. It is a devotion to a set of principles set forth in the past and carried forward to today and, hopefully, tomorrow. (I wish it weren’t necessary to point out that this is a non-partisan point: Patriotic liberals are holding dear some aspects of our past as well.) What we call patriotism is often merely the content we use to fill-up the amoral conservatism discussed above. Axiomatically, if you are unwilling to conserve any of the institutions, customs, traditions, or principles inherent to this country you simply aren’t patriotic. . .The belief that all good things move together and there need be no conflicts between them is, ultimately, a religious one. And — by definition — a totalitarian one. Mussolini coined that word not to describe a tyrannical society, but a humane society where everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. Mussolini didn’t want to leave any children behind either.

The attempt to bring such utopianism to the here and now is the sin of trying to immanentize the eschaton. . . the rub of my disagreement with Derbyshire (and another Brit, Andrew Stuttaford) and others who are touting the supposed incompatibility of conservative Christianity and political conservatism. Christianity, as I understand it, holds that the perfect world is the next one, not this one. We can do what we can where we can here, but we’re never going to change the fact that we’re fallen, imperfect creatures. There’s also the whole render-unto-Caesar bit. And, of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition assumes we are born in sin, not born perfect before bourgeoisie culture corrupts us into drones for the capitalist state.

In other words, while Christianity may be a complete philosophy of life, it is only at best a partial philosophy of government. When it attempts to be otherwise, it has leapt the rails into an enormous vat of category error. This is one reason why I did not like it when President Bush said his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I don’t mind at all a president who has a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s just that I don’t think Jesus is going to have useful advice about how to fix Social Security.

Any ideology or outlook that tries to explain what government should do at all times and in all circumstances is un-conservative. Any ideology that sees itself as the answer to any question is un-conservative. Any ideology that promises that if it were fully realized there would be no more problems, no more trade-offs, no more elites, and no more inequality of one kind or another is un-conservative. . .Contrary to all the bloviating jackassery about how conservatives are more dogmatic than liberals we hear these days, the simple fact is that conservatives don’t have a settled dogma. How could they when each faction has a different partial philosophy of life? The beauty of the conservative movement — as Buckley noted in that original essay — is that we all get along with each other pretty well. The chief reason for this is that we all understand and accept the permanence of contradiction and conflict in life.
I guess my larger point is that, as with historical theory, there is no political theory or ideology that can explain all and solve all. Someone will always want to opt out of whatever political utopia that a given set of intellectuals or leaders would devise. Adherence to one historical theory is self-limiting and can lead to forming the wrong conclusion. The ideal cannot be met, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't attempt and try and discuss theories in the arena of ideas. We just shouldn't be so presumptious as to believe that we have all the answers, be it in History or life.

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