Monday, July 14, 2008

Two conservatisms?

Graduate students are often advised to tone down their arrogance. This is a problem I wish I had, but, as I've mentioned before, can't seem to summon. Not only is grad school humbling, but the comments I get on this blog reinforce my conviction that I am ignorant of everything, perhaps even my own name. Take this most recent one:

There is nothing like unflinchingly pompous liberales trying to explain "conservativism" while neither understanding liberalism, conservatism, or democracy.

I'm assuming that I, and not a prior comment-leaver, am the "unflinchingly pompous liberale," so I'll respond to the accusation that I do not understand liberalism, conservatism, or democracy. My response? I don't, it's true.

That said, I do find conservatism more interesting to think (and read) about than liberalism/leftism, mainly because it's less obvious what conservatism should entail. Is the point to maintain the status quo? To revert to a Golden Age? To create something altogether new, but that just happens to appeal to everyone's bigoted great-uncle? Speaking only of contemporary America, not of these 'ism's as total abstractions, it seems to me that, now that the Bush-neoconservative route has become so terribly unpopular, conservatism could go in one of two directions. One direction, the populist direction, entails conservatives embracing relativism as one would expect to see it on the left, and saying that sure, high-quality food; birth control; college; tolerance of homosexuality; and delayed marriage are fine for elites (a group that, needless to say, includes most conservative or liberal commentators), but these things are not objectively better, so the government should not push the values of the elite on the masses. The other direction, the 'elitist' one, would involve a more uniform embrace of the idea that one thing can be better than another, even if the 'better' thing is one particular to the upper classes. The reason I do not outright call this the elitist route is that some things that are objectively better by conservative standards will turn out to be favored by the well-off (farmers' markets), whereas others (two-parent households) will be favored by the less well-to-do parts of society. So, if not elitist, than what--'objectivist' sounds right, but has already been taken by something else...

Conservatism as it currently exists in the U.S. is a hodge-podge of these two ideals, of (feigned) scorn for anything intelligent and of appreciation for the finer things, be they food items, books, or... you name it. The inability of these two strands to coalesce into something coherent is most readily seen in the conservative critique of higher education. Half the time it's a tragedy that American teens are watching junk on TV and not reading Plato, while the other half of the time, college is a waste and 99% of our youth would be better off with a few weeks of vocational training and a gentle push to the nearest plumbing job. We should all be poring over the Great Books... or, wait, we should stop wasting our time on such fluff as learning the more commonly-spoken foreign languages. Which is it?

To an extent, the two ideals can be reconciled--maybe the point is that a select few should be receiving a liberal education while the great majority had better sign up for those classes that teach you how to fix air-conditioners. But if that's the case, how is the elite to be chosen? If we go with the current educated elite, that is, if we keep things as they are, the elite stays liberal. What about this scenario is conservative? But ultimately, even if these two strands can be reconciled in the case of education, and on other questions as well, it strikes me as more natural for them to split, for the lowest-common-denominator conservatism, the one that accepts and at times promotes bigotry and ignorance in the name of populism, to split from the aim-high conservatism, the one that risks alienating some followers, but stands to gain others by offering up a well-defined set of ideals to which all should strive, but to which, inevitably, some will come closer than others.


alex said...

Here's another possible future direction for conservatism: remaining a hodge-podge of various irreconcilable strands.

And why not? For one thing, almost any political movement is home to various groups making mutually incompatible arguments. And although movements fall apart often, it happens as often that disagreements are put aside for another day. For the life of me I can't understand how the libertarian party manages to house civil-libertarians types along with anti-tax fanatics - and yet it has not split into its constituent factions (yet).

Withywindle said...

I recommend Gadamer once again, because he tries to avoid the objectivity-relativism dichotomy; if you don't assume a scientific model of truth in human relations, then the failure to achieve it does not condemn you to mere relativism.

Russell Kirk's take of conservatism as a temperament rather than an ideology -- of ethos rather than logos, in my cramped vocabulary - is also of continuing use.

Basically, "defining conservatism" seems to me a mugs game. There are conservatives, united (if at all) as much by what they oppose as by what they propose. This is rather healthy; it means they're more able to veto new changes than to institute any of their own. But the very urge to define conservatism generally seems to be prologue to a prospective purge; why not leave such games aside?

Anonymous said...

Phoebe - your casual example of plumber probabaly marks you as a liberal elitist - Even Obama, behind closed doors, would never refers to suchs high skill tradesmen as marginals of society. Don't worry though, it's all relative - For a grad student, your conservative.