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SpeakingConservatives have struggled with the problem of adjusting their public posture so as to reflect changes in their situation. Following electoral triumph and the dramatic shift in the temper of their countrymen which produced so many encouraging results at the polls, they have been obliged to represent themselves, through the spoken or the written word, in a very new light, as figures operating inside the current of history, not against it. I make here, of course, a distinction in rhetoric. In particular, conservatives have had difficulty in moving from the forensic into the deliberative mode–from the speech proper to critique, of the accuser who defends his right to exist with a censure of those in authority, into the language of those who are themselves (if only, in most cases, through surrogates) in power. Our custom as conservatives–indeed, our occupation–has been to inhabit the wilderness, there crying out against interlopers who occupy the citadel and dispossess the rightful heirs. That role we understand perfectly, and the sound which it makes: a prophetic song of wrath to come. Moreover, we have learned how to suggest in general terms a view of the political things very different from that of our adversaries–an idiom for political campaigning, if not for policy. But what we should say about, or to (or in support of) a government which we helped to create–and which is at least officially appreciative of our labors in its behalf–is a mystery beyond our ken. And most especially since it is a government which has been forced to do its work while hamstrung by the standing edifice of an omnicompetent state–a hostile filter through which it must translate its will into action, or else surrender to the inertia embodied in that mighty Leviathan.

Without being understood on our own terms, according to any discourse we could recognize as appropriate for the exposition of our cause, conservatives have, in these last five years or more, experienced political success, popular approval, and a limited but exciting influence over the operations of government–inside and outside the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Moreover, in playing at least a symbolic role in the conversations surrounding many issues of national importance, they have also achieved an unprecedented visibility. But a new language answering to their new circumstances they have not yet discovered. Instead, in discussing in their own way the merits of particular measures, decisions, or approaches to the public business, too many conservatives accept by default, for lack of the necessary alternative, a rhetoric and a language which attach naturally to the politics of their enemies–the source from which they are derived. This is a rhetoric and language for administration which has long been a given feature of the Washington scene, organized not only by a texture, a set of images, a series of modifiers which color it in a certain unmistakable way, but also (and more importantly) by submission to a network of ultimate term–what Richard Weaver called “god terms.” Inside of this verbal mesh there is no place for consideration of the common good, or a prior loyalty to the Constitution of the United States–the loyalty which all of our public servants proclaim as a condition of the office or assignment which they are expected to perform. Nor is there in such a closed system or overlay any room for prudential restrictions of the kind which mitigate against the absolute claims of ideological shibboleths. Or for a law that limits law–its scope and agency, what may, for “good causes,” be attempted in its name.

It is a convention of the theory of language that our apprehension of reality and our ability to express it are conditioned–directed, restrained, and enriched–by the idiom into which we translate such perceptions. Each language as a system has an intrinsic capacity to sharpen our awareness of certain realities (in society, in the natural world, in the soul) and to render the particular angle of vision implicit in its prescriptive structure. To put the matter in simple terms, it is easier to think or say some things in French, others in German, etc. Formally speaking, there is a consanguinity between what is said and how we say it. Literary critics narrow down this generalization into an observation about the language of period or particular writer. It also applies to verbal constructs which belong to a particular region, social station, occupation, or school of thought. The latter are more specialized configurations, ordered specifically by a sharing of values and objectives. I prefer to describe each of them as a universe of discourse, meaning by that no more than the familiar proposition in epistemology that what we are shapes what we see. Writes Weaver in his essay “Language Is Sermonic,” “We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some part of it, in our way.”

The dilemma of conservatives speaking for their government, about what that government might or should do, is that they lack the requisite technique for deflecting out of its tyrannical, demanding mode the rhetoric of ultimate terms and have forgotten the alternative political principles which would lead to the recovery of that technique, to a recollection of the method which follows from the vision of right order they supposedly affirm. This now familiar rhetoric is what Michael Oakeshott calls teleocratic–indifferent to the harm which might be done to our political and social structure by insisting on the absolute priority of realizing certain ideological goals, regardless of impediments to such a realization built into the American regime. The best response to this pleading is the argument that society must be preserved and protected if it is expected to facilitate the application and sound principles to the public sphere–that such a labor of preservation comes first and sometimes requires a balance in the competing claims of various absolute terms which have a standing among us. It is an argument which fulfills itself in bringing cries of outrage from the devotees of these familiar abstractions. And a response which is legitimately rhetorical, assuming that certain questions are not open to inquiry: a response invoked therefore to confound a dialectic only disguised as rhetoric–what the Left has established as the primary language of American politics.

The conservative alternative to this discourse qua effrontery is what I have called here the rhetoric of the common good. It has as theoretical ground what the Church once spoke of as the doctrine of cupidity: a doctrine concerning the sin of giving preference to a lesser as opposed to a greater good or obligation. With reference to three of the most potent of these ultimate terms-peace, charity, and tolerance in the sense of a special concern for various groups ostensibly disadvantaged by our economic, social, and political system–I will illustrate what I mean by the foregoing distinction between kinds of language. I will suggest how a proper rhetoric should operate in restoring to the political conversation of our time the character it should exhibit in balancing the always conflicting priorities of statecraft. And explain why though peace, generosity, and brotherhood are, by definition, preferable to carnage, selfishness, and bigotry, we are always obliged to ask of measures designed to further these ends, “at what cost” and “at whose expense” in weighing their advisability.

It is an unavoidable truth of the present political scene that, when ultimate terms such as the three here in question (or their synonyms) are invoked in debate over a specific issue, conservatives who worry about the craft of governing are often paralyzed with the fear of being disreputable. Forgetting their obligations to defend the inherited way of our culture, to oppose what threatens our security against an invader, our social peace or economic stability, they are reluctant to forfeit the legitimacy of policies for the present–policies to which their reputation will attach–which they have in mind by offending against what they concede to be sacrosanct boundaries. Their primary nightmare is that of being accused of bigotry, warmongering, insensitivity, and indifference to suffering, of being identified as persons without ordinary human fellow feeling. And thus they are diverted from their first order of business–to preserve, protect, and defend–by being put on the defensive, able to make only arguments which object to the labels, not analyses which discredit their opponents. In the process all interest in what is the characteristic virtue of their situation in life is lost.

There is no more potent example of the usefulness of the rhetoric of the common good than what occurs in the context of a conversation concerning war and peace. It is an axiom of American politics in our time that any political leader who wishes to see this country use military force to achieve its purposes can expect to be put completely on the defensive. There is a large component of our population which will not go even so far as to agree that nations have a right to protect themselves, to survive. As never before, it is now possible for American politicians to inhibit or frustrate the military policy of any administration in power with the specter of body bags, the prospect of escalating terrorism, the possibility of long campaigns, or the ominous shadow of mutually assured destruction. In Washington there is a large disarmament lobby supported by choice spirits who either doubt that any cause is worth the risk of their lives or who, in their refinement, believe that a foreign policy can be built on nothing more than our unwillingness to kill. Many of our countrymen are so impressed by their own horror of violence that they will barely agree to let the rest of us oppose the violation of our borders by an armed enemy. As to our role in preserving the ability of other men to make such detached choices by supporting among them a liberty on which our liberty depends, the recherché moralists of peace make no concession whatsoever. That they might hate war so much as to bring it down on the lives of other men does not occur as a possibility in their elevated calculus. Nor that they might be surrendering the life and liberty of others by insisting that the government of their country submit to the test of their personal moral judgment. By maintaining that it is possible to love peace, privately, so much that you get war which others must fight–and by reminding all that we cannot improve our country by arranging for its destruction–we invoke the rhetoric of the common good and reduce to a matter of almost no importance, to a tautology, the self-evident truth that peace is to be preferred to war.

It is to be hoped that the passage of time has brought us further out from underneath the shadow of Vietnam. But the collective pacifism brought on by the form of that Asian defeat is not fully behind us. The simple truth (and the oldest locus of distinctions concerning the common good, except for those having to do with crime) that a condition of membership in a society is a willingness to fight against its enemies runs directly against insistence on a right of conscience to pick according to our scruples which of the nation’s wars will also be our wars. We may of course grant our countrymen an exemption from military obligation, as we grant some rights to residents of the United States who are not citizens. But it is a given with organized societies that personal preference for peace has never left the citizen of a nation engaged in conflict at peace, even if he insists that he gives his allegiance only to what his country might become, its dream of itself inside the millennium. Such is Dante’s point in Canto VII of his Purgatory. There Henry Ill of England is condemned for much praying and piety when it was his office to order the kingdom and defend its frontiers. There is another similar story from early European history where a prince neglects to raise his standard when Vikings come aplundering and instead goes often to hear the Mass. For the good of the realm his barons hack him down in the midst of his devotions; the clergy avert their eyes from this sight and complain not at all. Then is a new king crowned, his standard raised and the invader repelled wherever he touches the land. In his cupidity the dead prince enjoyed such a lofty spirit that he lacked the virtue necessary to fulfill the obligations of his office. He was an embodiment of peace and love-to the hurt and injury of other honest men, in whose name he had no right to turn his cheek. In such instances the rhetoric of the common good allows for dynastic change and restorative revolution even though raison d’état is often the pleading of despots and must be invoked with a caution, supported always by a clear argument from consequences.

The same line of reasoning bears down upon ill-advised and disproportionate insistence on measureless charity and the organized forms of public and private largesse that applies to uncivil, solipsistic opposition to war. That our economic system must be protected from the inappropriate and unreasonable strains which might be put upon it by too many demands for distribution of the world’s goods is quite clear to those who realize that the development of the Third World countries and the continuation of their independence is not possible without the dynamic engine of the American market economy. There could be no clearer instance of cupidity than for us to overdo our generosity so much that we mortally injure that mighty machine and thus lose the ability to defend ourselves or assist our neighbors. If charity is good it does not follow (even if needed) that more charity is better. The notion that need creates a right to whatever might answer to such demands holds up only under very special circumstances–if we recognize how much the future in freedom of the rest of the world hinges upon the presence and persistence of the United States as a nation both rich and powerful. In this sense only need (for hope and freedom) creates or fosters right (the power and prosperity of this country). No more obvious instance of a connection between the doctrine of cupidity and the rhetoric of the common good could be found. Moreover, it is through such pulling away from the particular, emotionally compelling instance (as in the picture of a child in poverty) that the rhetoric of ultimate terms is most easily exposed as the mischievous simplification which it is.

A wide variety of absolute terms which assert their authority inside the conversation that is today’s American politics could be introduced at this point. I might complete my illustration of conflicting varieties of rhetorical strategy more or less suited to the discourse of conservatism by speaking of science or progress or even reason–to mention only a portion of the list. But none of these powerful abstractions could function so well or with such force in summary and peroration as the one which I now invoke. Tolerance with respect to the status of minorities or freedom from prejudice has become the sacrosanct value in the moral lexicon of contemporary America and is thus also the cause of our most exceptional violations of the rhetoric of the common good. Opposition to any measure which claims to serve that lofty purpose is treated, as the late Senator John East remarked, as if it were an offense against religion and revealed truth–as such offenses were understood in earlier times, when they were likely to be punished with fire. Of those who would insist on preferring a greater to a lesser good–the protection of the Constitution (and thus of all our liberties) to relief for the distress of a minority–great courage is required. For as William Buckley has reminded us in writing of the career of his friend Senator Barry Goldwater, opposition to measures proposed to aid the blacks (or native Americans, or Mexican Americans, or whatever) will be, after the fact, invariably interpreted as racism, regardless of the “dubious constitutionality” of these laws or court decisions. Which is precisely why the Left has attached so much of its contemporary agenda to an argument against prejudice–even when racial considerations are not at stake.

To apply the rhetoric of the common good to the last thirty years of civil rights revolution is to ask whether the changes produced by Court and Congress in the official situation of the American Negro have been worth the danger to us all which went with these transformations of the United States Constitution: the risk of converting a nomocratic, procedural government into a power able to attempt whatever it thinks fit into a teleocratic instrument, ready and able to do whatever it defines as good. It is to ask whether the tradition of restricted federal authority produced and nurtured by 200 years of American history must give way because the grievances or misfortunes of one segment of our population are more important than limitations on the scope and outreach of the law which honor the liberty of all free men–or at least attempted to do so before the fundamental law was reconstructed by judicial ingenuity into something new and strange. And to question further what unexpected things hurried through the door shielded by proximate talk of civil rights after legislation and the rulings of various courts broke it down and allowed mere politicians (administrative and judicial, as well as legislative) to think of the Constitution as law always unfinished–like a big turnip, but with no end to its growth. The proper response to such confusion in constitutional morality lies not in praise for civil disobedience and pictures of Martin Luther King to decorate our walls but in what Judge Brevard Hand of the Mobile District has written of Mr. Justice John Stevens’ timeserving concurrence in the case of Runyon us McCrary (1976): that a true court of American law “feels a stronger tug from the Constitution, which it has sworn to support and defend.” So may men reason in applying the rhetoric of the common good.

There are of course prudent arguments which work in an opposite direction on all three of these questions, arguments which amount to more than a noisy litany concerning natural rights. The doctrine of cupidity may be answered without recourse to ultimate terms and the nature of any conversation concerning policy alternatives brought back within legitimate boundaries, where the norms important to conservatives will also get a hearing. In such exchanges conservatives will be on their own ground: ready with a way of dealing with conflicting principles, with (for an instance) the balance between the legitimate rights of persons disadvantaged by reason of color alone and the essentially conservative desire of a mother to keep her children away from schools where nothing is to be learned but vulgarity, violence, desperation, and the logic of racial hatred. On these grounds we may concede a little generosity in the name of that larger community to which all of us belong–and in which we must all be allowed a share and place. On these grounds, but not any others.

Concerning these three issues–war, charity, and tolerance–I have not changed by mind since I was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University more than thirty years ago. Not my mind, or my method for arriving at such conclusions, the way in which I reason with regard to political abstractions. My eccentricity is thus in not having participated in the mysterious metamorphosis or fusion with the enemy which separates my politics from those of so many younger conservatives, men and women who have invested in government as it is, and who have forgotten what the word means. Or else never knew.

Therefore it should not be at all surprising that, like Joseph Sobran, I have acknowledged “the necessity for a dose of radicalism,” seen advantage in attempting to shock some persons back into focus and away from identification with the pale parody of conservatism so popular in Washington City. With Paul Gottfried, I insist that we should defend our version of conservatism with language and arguments suited to that purpose: language and arguments which derive naturally from that which we would conserve. And that we attack at every opportunity definitions of political respectability which have their ultimate origins in the father of all lies, whose other name is confusion, and who offered our Lord a power to do good in this world if He would honor the evil from which that power came.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Modern Age and is republished here by permission.

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