Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back to Burke

We've always been a magazine family. Both the wife and I like nothing better than to curl up with a new publication. In recent years, we have scaled back considerably--a good thing, particularly as the magazine age may be drawing to a close. We are down to a few essential subscriptions. There is Southern Living, of course, which will probably be last to go. (I know, I know. But we are white, middle-class Southerners. This is what we do.) In terms of Orthodox or other religiously-oriented publications, I retain only Road to Emmaus. We also enjoy the Oxford American, basically a magazine for Southern Living subscribers with something more than Readers Digest Condensed Books on their bookshelves. I also have kept my subscription to Southern Cultures, which is the best scholarly journal on the subject. Finally, there is The American Conservative. The name can be misleading, as the magazine is anything but a promoter of what passes for conservatism in today's public discourse. Here is where I can get my fill of such writers as Andrew Bacevich, Michael Lind, Patrick J. Buchanan and Daniel Larison, who all view with a jaundiced eye the myth of American Exceptionalism.

The conservatism that the magazine and such writers promote is usually far removed from the policies advocated by Movement Conservatives, who to the extent that they are even aware of contrarian views, dismiss such approaches as quaint, crackpotish, antiquarian or even liberal. A conservatism that concerns itself with actually conserving things, traditionalism and minding one's own affairs gets little traction these days. But this is no time for despair. The battle must be waged, as the current issue's editorial sets out in clear language.

Back to Burke

The biggest loss conservatives suffered in recent years was not the election of Barack Obama in 2008 or the defeat of the last Republican Congress in 2006. It wasn’t the passage of the president’s healthcare reform or nearly $1 trillion stimulus package, nor any other legislative setback. Conservatives had already lost something far more basic—their moorings.

Edmund Burke was never more eloquent than when denouncing the Penal Laws that circumscribed the liberties of Ireland’s Catholics. That system, he wrote in 1792, was “as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement, in them, of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man.” This was Burke’s opinion at a time when Catholics were synonymous with subversion—didn’t they owe highest allegiance to the pope? To fearful Englishmen, “papists” were “the apex of all evil” above “all Pagans, all Mussulmen.”

Burke demanded civil liberty—“a liberal and honourable condition”—for them anyway. He was not oblivious to minority dangers, nor indifferent to public orthodoxy. But who can imagine him alongside such Islam-baiters as Herman Cain or Pamela Geller, shouting about Sharia or boasting of plans to exclude an unpopular minority from public office?

A great imposture has taken place. Whatever else the likes of Cain or Geller may be, if Burke is a conservative, they are not.

What is true for civil liberties applies to foreign policy as well. From John Quincy Adams to Robert A. Taft, American conservatives have been realists, not in the Henry Kissinger sense but in their worldly understanding of the limits of power, both our own and our rivals’.

The ideological intensity of the Cold War muted this tradition. But even then Barry Goldwater fought wasteful Pentagon appropriations, while Ronald Reagan undertook no Mideast nation-building, notwithstanding the murderous bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon. What would Goldwater have made of the $388 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program?

The point is not to hold up any of these men, even Burke, as right in all respects. They illustrate rather than define conservative style.

In contrast, the latter-day right possesses what Michel Chevalier called the morale of an army on the march: no time for reflection, no room for dissent, there are liberals to vanquish.

Nine years ago The American Conservative took its stand athwart this mentality. From the beginning, the magazine reclaimed conservatism’s discarded patrimony while reaching out for new ground as well. Within the first three months, thinkers as disparate as diplomatic historian Paul Schroeder and Norman Mailer—a sometime “left conservative”—had graced these pages.

TAC is not libertarian or what was once called “paleoconservative.” It aspires to be conservative as Burke was, broad-minded but firmly rooted, with an emphasis on securing peace and a well-grounded liberty at home. One of our themes has been the local, not as an “-ism” but as the texture and matrix of civil life, urban as well as rural. The recovery of political economy too, in the face of liberal and neoliberal dogmas alike, is part of this. (The muse is Jane Jacobs, not Ayn Rand.)

For over 20 years conservatives have been denied their name and heritage, fobbed off with the counterfeit goods of partisanship and neoconservative ideology. Today the plight of the country is too grave to accept any substitutes; it’s time for conservatives once more to speak in their own voice.


Anonymous said...

I'm not always happy with what I have run into on TAC, but since even the curmudgeons of FPR are not enough for me, I doubt I could expect better.

I remember my father once somewhere in the early 90's explaining to me that conservative just wasn't a useful term if it didn't imply what we were trying to conserve.

He supposed (and my father never supposed anything, everything was more definitive than that) that traditionalist might be a better term of art.

Mule Chewing Briars said...

I am a Mule in search of an ideology. Since in general I consider the product of incremental accretions of subconscious folkways superior in forming ways and mores for a community to a bunch of smart guys sitting around a table figuring out what is good for the Rest of us boobs, I gravitate towards the High Toryism of a publication like The American Conservative.

Then I remember the treatment of African Americans in the pre-Civil-Rights-Movement South and it dawns on me that it is not always the better angels of our nature that hold sway when we hold to tradition and precedent . I need a moral compass pretty badly.