Monday, November 10, 2008

What IS "Conservatism," Anyway?

The invaluable Deneen posts an address he made to the ISI gathering at Yale.

To give you a flavor: (you should still read the whole thing)

...Our students – young people – are overbrimming with a long list of commitments that they have absorbed from a culture that no longer can provide an explanation for those very commitments. They swim in a vast sea of unexamined assumptions, and their professors are so enamored of their liberation from the past that they are unaccustomed, or themselves increasingly unable, to provide an explanation. Indeed, more deeply they are unwilling to do so even if they could, because to do so would be to acknowledge the deepest sources of their commitments in the abhorrent religious and philosophical traditions of the West (This is why, for instance, European leaders so resisted even the mere mention of the Christian sources of Europe in the European Constitution…). They bank on a high degree of incuriosity and placid self-satisfaction in the contemporary university, qualities they may possess in great quantities and which our modern universities aim to teach, but which is not necessarily the hallmark of the youth.

And, yah, he's not all that enamored of 'conservative' profs--who are focusing on the wrong target (albeit not necessarily for the wrong reasons):

Even those "conservatives" that still populate most campuses, have become so dedicated to and distracted by electoral and narrowing policy concerns that they believe conservatism originated with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, or if they have a longer view, with Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. Conservatism’s great strength – its capacity to attain full awareness of the origins and sources of its intellectual commitments – has been ill-served by the very political success, and now failure, of the recent Republican Party. I have now been privy to innumerable meetings of "conservative" intellectuals in which the discussion revolves around how to achieve electoral victory rather than the revival of our culture. We have become blinkered to our own resources.

This 'failure to articulate the historical roots' explains John McCain's incoherence--which (pace the good LawProf) was far more significant than his 9/15 'ooda loop' trick). Deneen virtually names the disease of Libertarianism, and DOES name Wilson: more than one area conservatives have lost the capacity to articulate these deeper connections because of exigencies of electoral politics, and thus have allowed themselves to fall into their own pernicious forms of incoherence...certain alien orthodoxies were introduced that were incompatible with the deepest stores and sources of conservatism. Conservatism became identified with a defense of classical liberalism, with libertarian and libertine economics, with an expansionist Wilsonian foreign policy; in response to the rise of “multi-culturalism” it articulated a defense of Enlightenment universalism (rather than a true defense of multiculturalism); to defend the role of religion in the public sphere it began speaking in the language of utilitarianism, pointing to the usefulness of religion for a liberal democratic order; to argue against Roe vs. Wade it adopted the language of RIGHTS, a theory that originated in a theory of self-ownership. Can there be any wonder that conservatism seems all but routed today, given how readily it curried favor by accommodating itself to the very corrosive modern orthodoxies of what it originally arose to combat?

Deneen goes on to mention something which deserves far more attention than both (R) and (D) politicians and theorists will give it--not in the least because it involves implicit criticism of voters, which is even more fatal than any previous "third rails."

Only a time when we have so thoroughly rejected the place and centrality of nature would allow us to become as presentist as we have become, oblivious to the past and negligent of the future. A fuller embrace of the spectrum of time, and a reflection of our place in that spectrum, allows for a respectful consideration of the requirements of obligation and duty, of gratitude and fidelity, of memorial to generations past who sought to convey their own best efforts to live alongside nature, and our duty to leave the world as good and fruitful place for our children. Putting in the forefront conservatism’s deep commitments to the natural order allows us to present arguments and teachings on behalf of governance of appetite, of self-control of our instincts and impulses, of a culture that necessarily prohibits – and understands such self-governance to be a profound form of liberty.

(It is fair to note that the (D) theorists have yammered about this in some ways--usually bordering on deracinated--to gain support for an agenda which is not scientifically supportable, but which DOES justify their Statist inclinations.)

His proposal?

The future of conservatism, if it has one, lies – as always – in its past, and not in the prospect of electoral victories (those may come, but will not truly be won if they are sought for winning alone). It must attend to its greatest strength – its great storehouse of those fundamental commitments that have arisen from our civilization – seek to recollect for our young people what most of us have forgotten and increasingly many of us have never known.

I would suspect that Rep. Ryan has already considered much of this while assembling his Roadmap.

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