Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Conservative thought?

I’ve found a copy of the Portable Conservative Reader, an anthology of writings by portable conservatives - excuse me, a portable anthology of conservative writings - which, as it’s edited and introduced by Russell Kirk, ought to be a representative example of "real" conservative thought. I note that it came out in 1982, when someone at Penguin presumably noticed the election of Reagan and thought, “say, we ought to look into these ‘conservative’ fellows.”

Given the soul-searching after the 2008 elections, perhaps it’s a good idea to see whethere there’s some more intellectually reputable “conservatism” to which the GOP could in theory restore itself, rather than perpetuating the Rove/Limbaugh/Palin tactics.

In his introduction, Kirk denies that conservatism is an ideology, but I think that just begs the question of what an ideology is. “Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order.” That sounds like a pretty good definition of “ideology” to me.

I can’t judge the book by its introduction, but some of the trouble with American conservatism (the book largely confines itself to America and England, perhaps to avoid having to include chunks of Joseph de Maistre for ex?) is suggested by the six “major premises” which Kirk lays down for conservatism.

(1) “a transcendent moral order,” deus sive natura;

(2) “social continuity” - “necessary change ... ought to be gradual and discriminatory” [sic];

(3) deference to “things established by immemorial usage”;

(4) “prudence,” which seems in Kirk’s definition to overlap w/ (2) above - change should be made slowly and deliberately, if at all;

(5) “diversity” - no, really: “the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life” is to be respected, tho n.b. “long-established”; his explanation specifies that “many sorts of inequality” are to be accommodated; and

(6) the “principle of imperfectibility,” the recognition of our limits and faults.

What strikes me about this list, first and foremost, is, on what would a conservative rely who wanted to argue that the abolition of slavery, or of Jim Crow, was a good thing? Because these principles seem to be tailor-made for someone wanting to argue the opposite.

This impression is not alleviated by the book’s section on “Southern Conservatism,” which appears to show no disapprobation of what Kirk calls “a passionate attachment to old ways, to rural society, and to the South’s peculiar institutions.” (“What Henry Adams called ‘the Sable Genius of the South,’ ” we are helpfully told.) “In the Civil War, this southern conservatism would be beaten down by the stronger North.” And I’m not even going to get into the Donald Davidson essay’s comments on “the Southern Negro.” (This Donald Davidson, not that Donald Davidson.)*

For conservatism to put down roots in the American tradition, it's got to be able to address the problem of America's history of racial relations.

More generally, I don’t even see “liberty” or “freedom” listed in the index. Fine, you say; “liberty” is obviously a tenet of “liberalism,” not of conservatism. But I don’t understand what conservatives think is to be done with the post-1789 (or 1776?) political order. Do they “conserve” it, or seek to roll it back? Or, as Courtney Love asked, “What do you do with a revolution?”

* Wiki helpfully tells us that Davidson "chaired the pro-segregation group the Tennessee Federation for Constitutional Government. Davidson, who considered African Americans racially inferior, defended segregation as a social institution developed by white southerners to preserve their culture and identity." Seems to meet the six points on the checklist.

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