Friday, February 29, 2008

Ni droite

It's not hard to imagine a day, in the not-so-distant future, when the main defenders of gay marriage are social conservatives. Once gay marriage becomes an accepted norm, mainstream social liberals will realize what social radical-lefters already do, namely that marriage altogether is a stodgy and outdated tradition. This is because conservatism consists not of defending some unchanging Tradition, but of upholding whatever was the commonly accepted norm fifty years prior. Conservative rhetoric points to an absolute Past, but in practice, conservatism serves as a check on change, making sure change moves slowly, and that the sillier ideas never take hold. Those who do in fact dream of a return to the glorious and unchanging past, of a reactionary revolution, are fascists, not conservatives.

In other words, what Jacob Levy names as a problem in teaching conservative philosophy is also, as he seems to indicate, an issue having to do with conservatism generally. He writes, "One of the problems is that history keeps right on going-- and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling 'stop!' tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he's already living in hell-in-a-handbasket." Agreed. I'd imagine that the only way a conservative tract could hold up is if it asked readers to remember what was commonly accepted a half-century prior, and to urge their current societies to look back on that period nostalgically. This is not a way to get students or any readers enthusiastic about conservatism, but conservatism is by definition not about enthusiasm for change. Is there a way to convey enthusiasm for what ultimately functions as a source of moderation? Maybe the best way is to get at the value of conservatism is read extreme-left texts (past or present), and provide one's own counterarguments. That way it becomes clear that conservatism is not simply a force holding back progress, but rather the one that makes sure change happens as well as possible. As in, yes, things have changed, but if every change progressives ever demanded took place, we would not necessarily be in a better place than we are as is.

7 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

"things have changed, but if every change progressives ever demanded took place, we would not necessarily be in a better place than we are as is."

You say earlier that all of these changes will inevitably take place eventually though, but how will the same progressive demands be any better for the world 50 years from now?

What you're describing seems like a classic dialectical view of history (inexorable trajectory of events with which man can only hope to come to terms but not alter, thesis countered by antithesis culminating in synthesis, etc.) which, along with the conservative/liberal divide, was itself was invented out of the French Revolution, so I'm not sure it can be as broadly applicable as you imply.

I'm also not sure which conservative texts you're thinking of here. Most punditry falls prey to this problem, I agree. But the left is no better at this genre--it constantly outdates itself by grounding its arguments in some view of infinite progress. As a result, when we look back at past progressives, we are embarrassed by their now regressive racism, sexism, imperialism, and so on (think of the anti-Semitism of so many 19th century radical luminaries, or of Louis Farrahkhan as a modern example).

Phoebe said...

"You say earlier that all of these changes will inevitably take place eventually though"

The gay-marriage example (possibly not ideal) was meant not to show that ALL changes will inevitably take place, but that some will. I'm thinking not of a constant march forward of history, but of two main groups, those producing demands for change (in all directions, not all 'improvements' by any objective standard), and another producing arguments and movements to fight those changes. So you're right, both sides do continually become outdated. What happens is, when someone who sought change happened to seek it in ways that we now consider correct, we find ways to overlook the less savory elements, considering that for the time it was written, to expect anything else would be anachronism. (Who are 'we'? Not sure, but maybe left-to-center academics?)

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, historicism. A related tool to address the problem of the ever-changing standard of right that is implied by dialectical history. However, taken to its logical end, it also suggests that there are no good or bad ideas, just historically conditioned ones. What is radical in 1850 is moderate by 1900 and conservative by 1950, but at no point is it actually right or wrong. So again we arrive at the same problem: why is an idea that's bad now better later? (I'd take human cloning for our example, since it's something that is widely opposed now but considered by many to be inevitable, but feel free to suggest something more fitting.) Is it simply because other bad ideas will have already been enacted, so this one won't look so radical by contrast? And what do we make of the fact that some things go from radical left to center and turn out to suck, so they return to the radicals again, thereby vindicating conservatives (for example, the eugenic movement)?

Withywindle said...

1) "Those who do in fact dream of a return to the glorious and unchanging past, of a reactionary revolution, are fascists, not conservatives."

This is completely wrong, and you know better. Fascism (see endless Goldberg-related posts) is a specific constellation of ideas and practices, none of which is a dream to return to a glorious and unchanging past--and which is a very specific sort of "reactionary revolution." I would dearly love to return academia to the day where Lionel Trilling was the English literature professor to conjure by--but this is not particularly fascist.

2) There are all sorts of different conservatives--some preferring an unchanging, timeless ideal, others preferring tradition and slow reform. "Conservatism" tends to be a coalition of people wanting to conserve different values and cultures--it's not that the nostalgists for the Antebellum South have changed, just that there are fewer of them around any more, and they have to cooperate with, say, nostalgists for Eisenhower's America, nostalgists for the Enlightenment, etc.

3) Levy's post, and yours, indicate not a problem with conservative philosophy but a problem with modern education. If we educate our children to scorn the past from day one, never to be wary of change, never to know the good of the past's history, culture, literature--why, yes, they will not likely be enthusiastic about conservative philosophy when they encounter it at age 18. If we were to have a different curriculum from the beginning--funnily enough, a traditional one--more enthusiasm for conservatism would be natural.

4) There are some basic conflations going on in the referenced discussion. Conservative philosophy, conservative political tract, or work that forwards a conservative frame of mind? -- these are not the same things. One could argue that philosophy is in itself not conservative in certain senses--depend on philosophy alone and you have no revelation, and what is a conservative with no knowledge or appreciation of the Bible? (Insert other revealed texts for other traditions.) Or of the theological tradition? -- Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin. But generally, one is trying as a conservative to steep students in a traditional frame of mind, with which to approach the politics of the day.

5) How make students enthusiastic for the present? Why, by a curriculum that emphasizes how rare, how precious, how wonderful America (and the West) is, its history and its values, how fragile they are, and how much they depend on our constant love, service, and defense against all corruption and decay, which often present themselves under the woodwife face of "progress."

Phoebe said...

"I would dearly love to return academia to the day where Lionel Trilling was the English literature professor to conjure by--but this is not particularly fascist."

It would be fascistic if you, having the power to do so for whatever reason, undertook to bring society as a whole back to your imagined unchanging past. That's not the full definition of fascism and all its characteristics, but it's part of it. The "you know better" was uncalled for. Yes, I know more than what I put in any one blog post, and not exclusively from reading other blog posts about Jonah Goldberg but also from books/articles, but each post is not meant to be all-encompassing.

"But generally, one is trying as a conservative to steep students in a traditional frame of mind, with which to approach the politics of the day."

So conservatism is about a canon of Great Books, not a canon of conservative books. This makes sense, in terms of what conservatives generally want to see in curricula, but brings up the question of what to do when the great works themselves lead one to question tradition.

"a curriculum that emphasizes how rare, how precious, how wonderful America (and the West) is, its history and its values, how fragile they are, and how much they depend on our constant love, service, and defense against all corruption and decay, which often present themselves under the woodwife face of 'progress.'"

This sounds like an article in the National Review and not like something you could teach, unless you want to be the right-wing version of the Bush-bashing prof. Using words like "decay" and "corruption" to refer to progressive policies (which are you thinking of?) won't go over well, unless you find a way to convince gay and poor students, respectively, that gay marriage and universal healthcare (to give examples, since I'm not sure what you meant) are the end of our precious America.

Withywindle said...

1) A lover of Byzantium, or a Stalinist, or an Israelite seeking a return to the Judges, could seek a return by force to an unchanging past; none of them would be fascist. It's simply a misnomer on your part--and one that warrants censure, particularly since you *do* know better, and thus are making an error more from carelessness than ignorance.

2) Tradition is itself a mass of arguments, upon which to build new arguments.

3) A great many poor Americans already are acquainted with, and persuaded by, the argument that national and individual prosperity and liberty depend on a limitation of government interference in the economy, and a limitation of the goodies handed out to the citizens by the government. Given that so many people believe that already, I am unconvinced that it should be so difficult to include the concept in the classroom. As for gay marriage--again, there are already gay conservatives who can argue for the right to engage in homosexual relations while recognizing the value to society of the traditional definition of marriage, so I fancy the idea can also be conveyed.

Cheryl said...

Rita, Phoebe's argument is not necessarily historicist. You could still judge an idea as wrong, but say that this isn't the most important aspect of his work all considered. Or it was regrettable and wrong, but his contributions in this area far outweigh the bad ideas. Just think of that disgusting Tim Noah "WFB was a bigot" obit.