Conserving what?
0 comment Wednesday, September 10, 2014 |
Is conservatism worth conserving?
A recurring subject on this blog has been the state of conservatism, and what conservatism actually means these days. It's a commonplace observation now that there are many conflicting and contradictory viewpoints which are included under the label 'conservative'. The contradictions have become ever more glaringly obvious during the present Presidential campaign, in which the term 'conservative' is used to describe a gamut of views from those of John McCain to Tom Tancredo to Ron Paul. How can such a disparate group of people be described as conservative while still preserving any kind of fixed definition of conservatism?
There is quite a spectrum of viewpoints there.
Now we have the various shades of 'conservatism': neoconservatism (whose advocates often vociferously deny, first, that there is such a thing as neoconservatism, and second, that they themselves are neoconservatives), paleoconservatives (many of whom also reject that label) and 'traditionalists'.
Lately it has seemed to me that 'traditionalists' are also an ill-defined group, being divided among the more mainstream Republicans (who may oppose illegal immigration and multiculturalism as well as the Iraq war), and those who are closer to the paleoconservative viewpoint, but who may dissent from the paleos on issues like the Middle East or social issues.
The last few years for me have been a journey away from the Republican mainstream. This shifting of opinions on my part had mostly to do with the immigration issue and the national question, and later, with the Iraq war and interventionism in general.
One conclusion that was inescapable for me is that conservatism as it stands today is in the business of conserving yesterday's liberalism. That observation is not original with me; others have noted it, including R.L. Dabney in the 19th century. It is even more true today than it was in his day.
American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom.'' - Robert L. Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 4 [1897].
So how can we respond to this 'loss of savor' within conservatism? Can we rediscover the Original Scriptures of conservatism like Hilkiah the high priest finding the forgotten book of the Law in II Kings ? That would make it easy; if only we had a Bible of conservatism to keep us on the straight and narrow, to keep us true and on target. But the problem is, 'conservatism' is not an ideology and it is not a set of dogmas or a rigid group of precepts. Conservatism is always particular to a time and place and people. It's about conserving the true and the classical and the traditional, the time-honored, within a particular civilization and its heritage.
As I observe life, I notice that more and more, it seems we really did begin anew in the post-counterculture era, after the late 60s and 70s. True, we didn't suddenly throw out the calendar and decree a new beginning officially as did the revolutionaries in 18th century France. But our world did change then, and it was done rather suddenly in many cases but very gradually in others, so that we've scarcely noticed how very different our world is from what it was before the 60s Revolution. And we as a people and as a culture have changed considerably. We have all become, to some degree or another, accepting of the post-60s liberal and radical innovations in our way of life and our behavior.
I am a keen watcher of people, and what I see around me, even among 'conservatives', is a country of people who are children of the counterculture in many respects. A lot of the old traditions which lent some gentility to daily life: social niceties, etiquette, chivalry (which means far more than opening doors for ladies) decorum, restraint. All these things are conspicuously missing in our society.
The old America had certain ways of doing things, and certain rules, often unspoken, that acted as a social lubricant, minimizing friction between people. There was a hierarchy in society, and our liberal egalitarian age rebels against any hint of hierarchies. But it used to be that one's elders were respected, as were authority figures in general. Differences between the sexes were acknowledged and adjusted for accordingly. Children were taught to honor their parents and elders.
Now we are all rank egalitarians; women and men are expected to behave the same, and we indulge in this pretense that women are the equals of men in all respects, including bodily strength and size. Gone are most of the displays of courtesy like titles before names: Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. College students and even high school students call their teachers by their first names; the teachers seem mostly flattered by this display of familiarity; I think it helps them maintain an illusion that they are still young, and that their students are their peers and friends.
Back in the 1970s, after Nixon made his famous trip to China and normalized relations with the Communist regime there, we were deluged with images of life in Communist China. One of the striking things to a Westerner, at least to me, was the fact that the Chinese people we saw in the pictures of the teeming cities of China was their uniformity. The men all wore the 'Mao jackets' and caps; the women, too, wore some kind of drab proletarian uniform-style garb. Everybody dressed the same. You could see no distinctions in their dress to indicate any kind of class distinctions, much less individual differences.
Now, of course, China is much more Westernized in outward aspects, at least, but oddly we in the West have begun to follow the example of Mao-era China, voluntarily donning drab proletarian-style clothes which look very uniform-like. Nondescript shirts and jackets, jeans, and athletic shoes -- even the old folks with walkers or canes are decked out in The Uniform: running shoes and jeans. We see the same style of clothing everywhere: shopping, going to the theatre or to a concert or even to church: jeans, running shoes, shapeless clothes.
The 70s brought the 'unisex' trend in which men and women increasingly dressed alike. This trend has not gone away. We seem to be determined to erase or level out all the visible differences among us. And now, the old dress much as their middle-aged children do. It used to be that old people had their own distinctive style which was always appropriate to their age and station. Nowadays there are more 60-year-olds dressing like 30-year-olds.
Class differences, generational differences, sex differences, all these distinctions seem to be played down in the New America, at least in our outward appearance.
Now, some will say 'but clothes are superficial; clothes don't make the man (or woman)'. It's true, they don't, but clothes certainly reflect our priorities. And it seems we are moving more towards uniformity and egalitarianism, judging by the way we present ourselves.
And I think it's no accident that there is less respect for age, sex, and authority now than there was in the Old America.
The decline in civility is a problem that is visible everywhere we go; people seem to have hair-trigger tempers and a barely-concealed hostility towards others in too many situations. Old America was not like this.
Post-60s America is not the same place, if we look at society and human interaction, as it was before. The skeptic will answer that nothing stays the same; each generation differs from the one preceding it, and from the one following. It's true that change is the one constant in this world, but does that mean that we have to accept change willy-nilly, regardless of whether it's beneficial or destructive? No; being a 'conservative' should mean trying to preserve that which is good and trying to stave off whatever is corrosive and destructive of our way of life and our heritage. Civilization depends on continuity; if we are civilized and we have a way of life which has worked well for us, which we have, then passing that civilization on to the coming generations in as intact a form as possible is the essence of maintaining civilization. Once we discard all that was good and all that fostered stability and equilibrium, then 'things fall apart; the center cannot hold.'
Somewhere along the line we were duped out of our birthright, just as Esau was, and for similar reasons; we focus too much on the here and now and on our own gratification without thinking of tomorrow or of the generations to come. And somehow we've been duped into believing that 'conservatism' means a particular political party, or lower taxes and smaller government, when it really has so much more to do with the way we live our daily lives, the rules which govern our interactions among ourselves, and the principle of continuity and respect for the past.
And on those criteria, I encounter precious few conservatives today. We have mostly become petulant children of the counterculture, with all the arrogance and impetuousness inherent in that era.
We have lost the essential part of conservatism, which is the society we are supposedly trying to preserve, and ultimately the people who create that society. Once we've accepted the liberal goals such as egalitarianism and the leveling out of all distinctions, along with the idea that human history is 'progressive' and ever improving, then we have become what we claim to despise.
At this point I am no longer losing sleep over the fortunes of something called 'conservatism'. Conservatism is a diversion and a distraction; what we should be concerned over is our heritage and our way of life and our people. That is what we should be preserving -- or, more accurately, restoring.
We don't need to read any holy canons of Conservatism to find our way back; we have the example of the generations that went before us, and their time-tested ways of living and being and doing. We have the authority we seek, contained in the lives of our forefathers.
We need to shed the liberalism and egalitarian progressivism which has warped every area of our lives. We need to scrape away the accretions of the past few decades from the palimpsest of America and find our true heritage underneath the crude scrawlings of the recent past.

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