One of the most surprising things to me since the inauguration of this site is our constant need to re-examine the word “conservatism.” Over the past 44 months, a question about definition or label or something related to this has come up at least 44 times, if not more.
From these questions and desires, I can only conclude that we crave to grasp and define this thing, “conservatism.” As all The Imaginative Conservative readers well know, our modern and post modern worlds have all too frequently degraded and debased not only our words and the our English language but even the very idea of language as a whole. In the middle of the twentieth century, men as diverse as George Orwell and JRR Tolkien recognized a fundamental truth: governments every where—free, semi-free, unfree—manipulate and even rape language for their own aggrandizement. Sometimes wittingly and sometimes not, businesses, corporations, and educational institutes only further this degradation.
Or as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien’s fellow Inkling, claimed before Cambridge University: “If I wished to satirise the present political order I should borrow for it the name which Punch invented during the first German War: Govertisement. This is a portmanteau word and means ‘government by advertisement.'” As I write this (or, as the case actually is, “dictate this” as I travel at 72 miles an hour on the Ohio Tollway), please do not believe me to be dismissive of any particular effort to define conservatism. My main point is that I’m simply surprised how often we feel the need to do so and and feel an equal need to question one another’s definition. We do it a lot. (I face the same thing in the classroom anew every new semester as well, especially from those students brought up on commercialized “conservative” radio.)
I recently asked a very close friend of mine, a colleague with a joint appointment in the sociology and philosophy departments at my college, if there’s any kind of evidence or clear understanding as to why humans so desperately need to label one another and themselves. Why do we want to belong to a category, and, more importantly, why do we insist on categorizing others?
He answered quite frankly, as he is wont to do: no one knows exactly why the human being needs to label himself and others, but we do know it happens all of the time.
Okay, so I will admit—but not gladly—that we humans love to label things, especially when it comes to questions of human belonging.
Let me make a second claim: As human as it is to label oneself, others, and the good Lord knows what else, it is equally inhumane to do so. That is, by labeling, we limit and lessen those around us. Call it a failure of knowledge, as Hayek put it in 1945, or something else, but we—as finite beings—can never fully understand one another (or ourselves), and labels serves as shorthand ways of, in truth, dismissing those we dislike and of claiming those we like.
Finally, a third claim. Good definitions are essential for stable social order and meaningful debate.
How to put these three little truths—dogmas—together into a coherent whole?
Somehow, I fear, our desire to label all things and all persons has its recent origins in early twentieth-century progressivism and the narrowing of human thought, especially western civilization’s suicidal move toward the politicization of all things.
Following closely the writings of de Tocqueville and Hayek, Walter Lippmann noted in the 1930s that almost every where, every political creed, every ideology, and every movement had embraced some form of progressivism. As he put it—and I’m paraphrasing, as, again, I’m on the road, and I probably shouldn’t be referencing Lippman’s work while trying to steer, avoid other vehicles, and dictate into this MacBook Air—we had arrived at a point in the West in which we even narrowed things to a color: a blue (liberal), pink (socialist), red (communist), etc.
I’m not sure what the population of the world was in the 1930s, but I do know that it hovers around 7 billion persons right now. As absurd as it once was and still is to label a person according to 3 or 4 “predominate races,” it is just as absurd to take a human person—each infinitely complex, nuanced, and created uniquely in the image of an infinite God—and narrow her or him to a color on the spectrum.
The same is true, though, in modern conservatism. Those of us who do not agree with the radical, progressive, statist agenda of many, label ourselves and our fellow travelers conservatives, traditionalists, crunchy cons, neocons, Leo cons, libertarians, classical liberals, anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, and so many other things.
While it is again worth restating that humans love labels, that labels are generally inhumane, and that the human person comes in an infinite variety of sizes, shapes colors, personalities, abilities, loves, hates, passions, motivations etc. we must recognize, first and foremost, that the human person is penultimately and ultimately a beautiful mystery. To paraphrase the greatest pope of the last several centuries, John Paul the Great, each person is an unrepeatable center of dignity and liberty.
At the risk of merely stating the obvious, permit me to make several observations. That is, I want to offer several points that I think, while certainly debatable, lend themselves toward a unified vision of those of us who oppose the ever-increasing centralization and expansion of political life into what should be non-political spheres.
Number 1. We believe that there is a law higher than human law. This law might originate in the divine, and it might originate in the merely natural. Or, it might also originate in both in some kind of harmonious tension. Regardless, since Heraclitus around 500BC, the greatest of Western thinkers have believed in some form of natural and divine law. As humans, we understand this law only partially, of course. Tradition—written and unwritten, teaches that one may find these best in the 7 virtues: prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, faith, hope, love. But as women and men of goodwill, we might very well disagree as to how, for example, justice should be implemented in this world of sorrows. We do not, though, disagree that such a transcendent virtue exists.
Number 2. As the great Anglo-Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, noted in 1791, dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. Each person is born into a context. While not falling into the error of historicism (that Strauss and von Mises each feared), we can agree that history and our arrival in a specific point of it, shapes and delimits who we are.
Number 3. The United States is currently experiencing what de Tocqueville called “democratic despotism” or “soft despotism”. At times, the modern state reveals its true intent and deals with its citizens in an iron-fisted manner, such as with TSA groping, President Obama declaring war on Libya while vacationing in Brazil, or through the passage of the NDAA. But these are exceptions rather than the rule.
We can also state with certainty, that little exists or remains in terms of the Constitution of the United States as amended in 1791. At best, our Constitution restrains our worst excesses and protects some of our rights to free speech, gathering, and assembling. The division between the various branches of government, especially between the executive and the legislative branch, is so attenuated as to no longer exist in reality. This is especially true of the war power lodged in the legislative branch, but abused extensively by the executive branch since the end of our last constitutionally declared war, in 1941.
While the constitution is no longer a constitution in any real sense, I’m not sure we have the right to pronounce it dead just yet. Perhaps there is a chance it will be one day implemented again.
Number 4. A relational being, the human person finds his freedoms and talents—as well as his weaknesses—in community. Families, churches, educational institutions, voluntary associations of a thousand different varieties, still shape, inspire, and delimit the individual human person.
Number 5. The world as a whole remains in a period of extensive darkness, especially if we regard and take seriously, as we should, the vast killings of innocents by ideological regimes over the last century.
Number 6. Western civilization, especially if we take liberal education, is in a Dark Age, and we probably have been descending as a civilization for at least two centuries, if not more.
Number 7. That corruption reigns at almost every level of society.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.