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.