Sunday, December 16, 2007

Burton on Burke

You can never have too many friends, but those that last a lifetime and who stick with you through thick and thin are rare indeed. A person usually only has 2 or 3 who fall into this category. Milton is such a friend. He is, among other things, a mystery writer of some note. If you enjoy that sort of thing, you can find his works, here, and here. We serve as something of a sounding board for each other--which is useful, I suppose, as it keeps us from inflicting our pontifications on our other friends, co-workers and acquaintances. The depravity of modern American culture, the loathsomeness of our political discourse and the foreign policy debacles du jour provide ample fodder for our mutual rants. Recently, Milton forwarded a short essay on Edmund Burke and the nature of true conservativism, to-wit:.

Of late I have become deeply annoyed with those who profess to be both conservative and Christian and who show no outward signs of the practice--or indeed even the understanding--of either. In the first place, in this country the word "conservative" has been hijacked by a gaggle of right wing Jacobins who know exactly what they are doing, and who have been aided and abetted by legions of gullible followers who don't know what's being done to them, and who have no more understanding of the history of the Anglo-American conservative tradition than they do of... Well, anything else of substance.

What the Jacobin types want is nothing less than the complete transformation of our nation into a borderless utopia whose foreign policy is determined by a coalition of neocon theorists and the crony capitalists who dominate the major defense industries. As far as their dupes out here in Red State land go, their hopes are both more modest and less well-defined. They still give the occasional verbal lick and a promise toward abortion, and they can be counted on to get a bit huffy at the notion of gay marriage. But where I come from [East Texas], the mainstay of these common folks' agenda is the vague notion of "putting God back in the classroom," which in their minds amounts to opening each school day with approved prayers, and then prefacing the local Friday night football bloodletting by having some jackleg preacher from a local fundamentalist congregation mumble a few words of pious drivel about Jesus and sportsmanship into a defective PA system. And that's about the extent of it as far as either Christianity or conservativism go with the man on the street, though I'm sure sugar-plum visions of Rotary, the local Chamber of Commerce and due and proper veneration of such heroic figures as General Patton (now, there's a real man's man!!) dance around somewhere far back in the unexamined recesses of his mind.

There is a problem with all this, though. The true intellectual father of our conservative tradition was, of course, the great Edmund Burke, and this isn't quite what he had in mind. Burke saw human rights not as things that float down from the aether to fall equally on all mankind, but as time-proven, positive benefits to both individuals and society that have emerged through trial and error and with great struggle from a historical process. And while I am sure he would have said that it was desirable for all peoples everywhere to have and enjoy the basic rights we have come to appreciate--a free press, free speech, freedom of religion, etc.--the truth was that he knew these things came into being through a unique set of circumstances, and that their actual possession in the real world was the heritage of a particular people--the British and their colonial offspring. If you will remember, Burke supported the American Revolution because he knew the North American Colonists were being denied their traditional, hereditary rights as Englishmen. On the other hand, he was opposed to the French Revolution because he saw it for what it was--an effort to impose theory on reality and thereby completely remake both human society and human nature along the lines set down by its chief spiritual guru, Jean Jaques Rousseau, a charming fellow who sired several illegitimate children on a scullery maid, then forced her to dump them in a foundling home when their presence in his life became oppressive. After which he went on to write a book on how to raise children that was very popular with the intellectuals of his day. Sound familiar? It should because he too thought that it takes a village. It should also sound familiar because Newt Gingrich's Contract With America owed more to Rousseau (albeit through what was no doubt ignorance on the part of its authors) than it did to true Anglo-American conservativism. As proof one need look no further than the Newt-Suiter's simultaneous proposal that we scrap the two-hundred-year-old congressional committee system and replace it with a series of "task forces" set up to deal with specific issues. Whatever Gingrich is, he is most definitely not a conservative because no true conservative would ever play so fast and loose with time-honored legislative procedures.

There is at the heart of conservativism a "fear and trembling," an appreciation of the limits of human understanding and abilities, and a rightful veneration of the successes of yesteryear. True conservativism has at its roots a respect for what has worked--or at least what has been tolerable--in the past; it is a perpetual attempt to let reality--and particularly the reality and limits of human nature--mold one's thinking in regard to society and politics. The conservative, grounded as he is in Christianity, sees human nature as fixed, immutable, and deeply flawed, if not totally depraved. The Liberal holds human nature up as infinitely malleable. Fix the outward environment and you will fix the man. The conservative knows that neither will ever be completely fixed, nor even partially fixed for very long. Liberalism, in both its right and left wing incarnations, represents an eternal effort to impose theory on reality. The liberal of either stripe takes a look at any situation and thinks how much better things might be made with a complete overhaul. The true conservative sees that same situation and thinks how much worse things might be, especially with too much ill-advised tampering. As a consequence, the former is wedded to broad brush strokes and big canvasses, while the latter is first, last, and always, an incrementalist. He realizes that social/political progress always comes in small, hesitant steps, and that many mistakes are made along the way. He knows too that politics is the product of human nature (often the worst aspects of that nature), and he accepts that it is not and never will be the doorway to Heaven. In his approach to government he is rather like the Medieval cartographer who, upon getting to the limits of known geographical knowledge, would draw a line and annotate his map with the statement, "Take ye care! Beyond here lurk troglodytes!"
They do indeed.

None of us is ever going to get the America of our individual dreams, and it probably wouldn't work very well even if we did because we and our institutions are and always will be deeply flawed.

So who have been the real conservatives in our history? In the presidency only three come to mind--Washington, Cleveland, and Eisenhower. That Ike made no effort to roll the country back to a pre-1929 state by abolishing the Social Security, the FCC, the FAA, and the Federal Trade Commission as the radicals of the Taftite right wanted is testimony to his good sense. He inherited a country that was doing pretty well, and he declined to tamper with its essentials. As for the rest of our chief executives from both parties who have been called conservative, they divide almost equally between Rotarians, ciphers, and idiots. Regan was a special case--the best of the Rotarian type, an able and decent man who probably was the last of the small town presidents. Though he spent a great deal of his life in Hollywood, his heart and his instincts were still with Main Street and Mid-America even when his ideology was off-the-wall.

And as for modern "conservative" Christianity, for it to ever have any validity it is going to have to go beyond the social Darwinism propounded by Falwell, Robertson, Hinn, and the rest of that coven of money grubbing Jesus-wheezers who would elevate the buying of something and selling it for a profit to a position equal to Holy Communion, and for whom the Christian life goes no further than opposing gay rights and supporting the local athletic teams.

So what is a person who is both Christian and temperamentally conservative in the Burkean sense to do since there are no political candidates that truly match up with his sensibilities? You might apply some time each day toward cultivating a healthy loathing for the meddlesome do-gooders who besiege us on all sides. I myself have found that to be an edifying pastime. Hatred, as our British cousins say, is not to be despised. Or you might do as I do and have a spot of fun and defuse some of your frustrations by making up a List of Utterly Pointless Countries. Guatemala and Belgium are high on my own roster. And while we're on the subject, I don't see that the world has any crying need for Lithuania, either. Beyond that, you might see to it that you render more to God than you do to Caesar, not just in money, but it time, thought, and veneration as well since modern man has entirely too much respect for government and politics anyway.


Mark said...


These words are good and true. However, I still struggle with how it should effect my voting and political action. I have not the energy or interest to get involved in any party to change it toward Burkian principles. As a Christian, I have finally come to terms for not voting with a pro-life candidate. Although, I am deeply pro-life and I am disturbed by abortion in all its forms. I think the Republicans have merely used the issue to gather a base, but they never had any intentions of making a change. The only positive with a Republicans administration is potential judicial candidates that might be pro-life, but then this can be wishful thinking as well (ala Bush 1 and Reagan).

God Bless

Cincinnatus said...

Modern American Conservatives starts behind the eight ball precisely due to their attachment to Burke and his slippery-slope, compromising methodology.

Indeed, in his time, Burke was not a full-fledged conservative at all, but rather a restrained Whig, which, in modern parlance, means a moderate or institutional progressive.

Admittedly, he had some good and sensible things to say as do most moderate progressives, but he was not fully committed to conserving his received tradition at all. To the contrary, Burke only gave a passing nod to traditional institutions (unlike full out radicals who did not do even that) while he voted for the Repeal of the Test Act and the for the Toleration Acts, as well as supported the American Revolution, though he knew it would lead to "a race of blue-eyed Tartars," and other "progressive" causes. In short, Edmund Burke is the proto-neocon.

Would that American Conservatives looked to Bolingbroke, the arch-Tory and true conservative titan of his age -- the proto-paleocon counterpart to Burke. It is he, not Burke, that is the predecessor in method and mood, and style to Robert Taft, Pat Buchanan, and Dr. Ron Paul -- not Burke.

John said...

Good points, all. Cincinnatus--since Milton is making the point about Burke, I'll wait for him to make the response. I'm certainly not qualified to do so.

Milton Burton said...

It seems that Cincinatus misses my point. More on that later. A few minor points first. Anyone who equates Ron Paul with conservativism has read less about and by the man than I have. Mr. Paul, whom I like and respect very much, is not a conservative at all; he is a libertarian ideologue who has studied at the feet of such libertarian luminaries as Murray Rothbard and Ludwig Von Mises. No true conservative would advocate some of the economic policies Mr. Paul advocates, not the least of which is the abolition of the Federal Reserve. As for Buchanan, he thinks with his gut more often than not, and more often than not his conclusions are correct if unpopular. But he is no classic conservative. As for Mr. Taft, I cannot say. I have always loathed the man, though what little I have read leads me to think that he was less a philosophical conservative than a bitter fellow who hated and rejected much of the twentieth century. As for Bolingbroke, he was more a precursor of the Enlightenment than a advocate of the past. Like Tallyrand in France a few decades later, he seems to have had only one cause and that was self advancement. And like Napoleon said of Tallyrand, I tend to think of him as "a wad of shit in a silk stocking." The difference between Bolingbrooke and Burke is more one of character than anything lese since Burke had it and demonstrated it frequently and Bolingbrooke didn't.

Burke's main influence on American conservativism came through the great popularioty of his book, "Reflections on The Revolution in France," and not through any systematic exposition of a political philosophy.

But still you missed my main point which was that, regardless of the roots of true conservativism, it s not to be found in the American Right of today, and that modern rightists are but liberals of the starboard wing.

I also sense that you are a snob, are educated but lack a PhD, that you like opera and enjoy gatherings of like-minded individuals where you drink Chablis and eat cheese that looks like a unicorn's miscarriage. Am I right?

Cincinnatus said...

Agreed on the main point that conservatism has lost its grounding. But, I believe that supports my opinion that flattery of Burkean Whigism as "The Source" over early Bolingbroke Toryism has paved the way for the present Neocon ascendency. This is not to say that selective reading of Burke read in subordination to Bolingbroke's early radical traditionalism is objectionable. But, once you give the progressive/liberals an inch, as did Burke with his restrainded Whigism, they'll take a mile, and the radical Whigs will out, as they have.

BTW, I am agreed about LATER Bolingbroke. After he got turned out of England due to his refusal to bend at all from his rabid adherence to tradition (support for the Stuart line), he became quite unprincipled in an attempt to gain personal political redemption. But in his first period, he eloquently enunciated Tory principles and methods of politic thought(that are much more solidly and even rigidly conserving than Burke's writings ever suggested.

As for individual personalities, Dr. Paul now publicly calls himself a "Taft Republican," as does Buchanan. Also, Paul's campaign staff is loaded with paleocons (many of whom were personally betrayed by the neocon GOP ascendancy), not very many ideological Libertarians are on board (they are all drawing nce salaries at CATO and Von Mises). And, I can't find a single point of Paul's platform that I believe that Taft over 1950s Anglo-American conservatives would have found gravely objectionable.

Admittedly, Taft, Buchanan, and Paul are not identical or unitary in thought. But this variety simply illustrates the greater richness of thought within the umbrella of common principles held by the Old Right. (Republican government by Libertarian means toward Conservative ends.)

The America Firster's, McCarthy (yes, the much maligned Senator was right and the only known victim of "McCarthyism"), Goldwater, and Bill Buckley probably also deserve to be listed in this group of Old-Right icons. But folks usually called "conservative" such as Nixon, Ronalc Reagan, Bob Kemp, Roberter Dole, and George Bush (41) were already precursors of the steady neocon ascendancy in the GOP during the last quarter of the last century -- now complete with Bush (43). Nation Review's editorial positions (especially after Buckley's retirement, but even somewhat before) have tended to be a very good barometer of this trend of American Conservatism away from its quirky, eccentric Old-Right roots toward the current Neocon Con.

Death Bredon said...

Oh yes, I forgot. Actually, I do have a doctorate (but still consider myself only semi-literate because of my poor Latin and Greek); I only know about three or four like-minded paleocons in my patch and we never gather. I drink Bourbon straight and "when I drink alone, I prefer to be by myself."

Milton Burton said...

Semi-literate because of poor Latin and Greek? You poor fellow! My condolences. I simply don't know what I'd do without my Latin and Greek!!

s-p said...

I LOVE illuminati oneupmanship!

Milton Burton said...

Illuminati, you say? I will have you know we are foursquare on the Five Points of Fellowship. The Craft is alive and well in Argentina and keeps its money in a Swill bank.

s-p said...

Hi Milton,
Touche! Actually the discussion, while over my pointy head, is interesting. In politics as in theology and most intellectual endeavors, unquestioned and unidentified assumptions abound.
"What happens when you sail off the edge of the world?" is a perfectly good question if you buy the assumptions. :) Undoubtedly our political landscape has a lot of "just so-ness" to it that no one questions. Thanks for the discussion.

Milton Burton said...

I am posting this as a matter of explanation and not apology. Cincinnatus was as condescending as possible in his original post, and I will not tolerate condescension. It is the worst form of snobbery, and the worst form of rudeness. He was doubly condescending in his statement that he considered himself only "semi-literate" due to his poor Greek and Latin. Aside from the fact that "semi-educated" would have been a far better way of saying what he meant since the first and primary meaning of the word "literate" is the ability to read and write--aside from that, there is no greater form of arrogance than false humility. I taught college history for a number of years, and I obviously knew far more about the subject than my students. Yet I went out of my way to treat their often foolish questions seriously as befitting honest inquiries made by adults. Such is just basic human courtesy, something that used to be considered a conservative virtue. As for his doctorate, I am more than happy to take his word on the subject. There is no point in calling a man a liar when he has already proven himself to be an ass.