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Social-ConformityThis week, on Facebook, The Imaginative Conservative republicized the late Joseph Sobran’s article regarding the supposed errors of Abraham Lincoln. While one should never have too much faith in commentators on the internet, especially those who hide behind anonymity, one rather outraged and intelligent young man posted something to the effect of “I don’t know why The Imaginative Conservative hates Lincoln so much.”

I couldn’t disagree more with the tone of this comment. As Peter Lawler has reminded readers on more than one occasion, The Imaginative Conservative is one of the—if not the—most open minded, broad, and ecumenical websites in the conservative, broadly understood and defined, world.

If this young man thought this through, one must wonder what he believes happens at The Imaginative Conservative headquarters. Does he have an image of Editor-in-Chief Winston Elliott as a sword or whip-wielding editor, forcing every post through some ideological churn, separating the “pure” from the “impure”? Frankly, the idea of the writers of The Imaginative Conservative having a group mind or some kind of conformist view of things is simply absurd.

Aside from this, I believe it critical—absolutely critical—to note that a conservatism that embraces conformity or group think is no conservatism at all. It is merely a bizarre and unthinking traditionalism.

Any real conservatism must take into account several things. First, conservatism must accept the principle that each person is a unique reflection of the infinite. That is, each new person in the world arrives in a certain time and place, armed with certain gifts and weighed down by general faults. This person will never be repeated. She is unique, a particular manifestation of the Infinite and loving face of God.

Second, a real conservatism must accept that there are limits not only to the knowledge and wisdom any one person or group of persons understand or possess, but also a limit to what humanity—from Adam to the last man—can understand.

For as far back as I can remember, conservatism, broadly defined, struck me as the only sensible and humane way to view the world. The liberals I knew and saw in the news (Tip O’Neill and others) were among the most conformist, intolerant, and unimaginative lot…imaginable. When I heard others argue that liberalism (classical or modern) is good because it defends free speech, art, etc., I found it highly implausible. Anyone with the power of reason and observation knew these things to be blatantly and utterly false.

Of course, I read like a madman. In particular, I credit the reading of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World as well as the discovery of the rock band Rush at the age of 13 with dramatically shaping my own skepticism regarding conformity and my dread of authority.

Indeed, one of the things I love most about the “right” of the 1940s and 1950s was its desire to fight authority and proclaim the dignity of the human person. Think of Bernard Iddings Bell’s amazing book, Crowd Culture, Kirk’s struggle against “capitalists, socialists, and communists” in Prospects for Conservatives, Eliot’s call for a “Republic of Letters,” Bradbury’s chastisement of the censors, and, especially, Thomas Merton’s claiming that the mass man is somehow even below fallen humanity.

As I grow older, I’m no longer as sure that conservatism is the protector of real diversity. I’ve not changed my mind about liberals or liberalism as a whole. Liberalism, or what remained of it, ran its course by the beginning of World War II. But, recently, I’ve seen the same trends in those who call themselves conservative or who embrace what they call “conservatism.” Now, I must wonder if what I saw in the 1980s was merely that the conservatives had yet to succumb to the forces of mass thought, group think, etc.

So many people among modern conservatism are, frankly, buffoons. Think about the governor of a western state who became a candidate for a major office and then the “star” of a reality show. Really? Or, how about the well-endowed plastic people on FOX? Or how about those with grand media access who claim to speak for the rest of us? These so-called conservatives denigrate the liberal arts, mock women, and undermine our most sacred traditions. Give me a Kirk, a Bradbury, a Merton any day over these fruit-nuts.

I am not a name or a number, I am a free man. And, so are you.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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9 replies to this post
  1. Brings to mind an encounter I had with a liberal friend of mine in Cambridge–he chastised me because the paleo-conservative friends that I hung out with at really run down pubs were so unusual. These were the guys who introduced me to Russell Kirk–that was over 20 years ago now.

  2. This problem, of feeling at home in a political movement and then waking up to find yourself feeling alienated, is not new. It is especially to be expected of a political philosophy that puts such primacy on dispositions and character over policy. Kirk’s politics seem, on reflection, fit for Princes, not partisans. Princes are above all concerned with preserving their rule, their family, their kingdom. They are rather removed from what we call “policy” and certainly wouldn’t squabble over it. How misunderstood political conservatism is in the modern world is well illustrated by a little episode that occured in Warsaw in the last years of communism. A small group of Monarchists organized a little street demonstration and unfurled a banner which read “pro fide, rege et lege”. Naturally, they were arrested by the police. However, when the banner was translated, the communists let the men go, because after all – their banner was a call to obey the law, not overthrow it as the pro-democracy forces desired. The chasm between what thoughtful people consider “the rule of law” and what hoi polloi understand as law=the things written down and enforced by government is huge. A second problem with conservative dispositions is that rarely do they concern the art of governing. Because conservatism puts so much stock in self-government, it tends to ignore the sad, Hobbesian necessity of government over those who cannot govern themselves (a growing number in the West, it would seem). Finally, on a personal note, it has always been odd to me that the two occasions when I managed to gain favor with political power, it was with men of the left, who had what might be called an imaginatively conservative disposition, while men of the right who have had political authority have never cared to take interest in me. I suppose it may just be the “David Brooks” phenomenon of being surrounded by people so much more radical that you end up the “conservative” of the bunch.

  3. “First, conservatism must accept the principle that each person is a unique reflection of the infinite. That is, each new person in the world arrives in a certain time and place, armed with certain gifts and weighed down by general faults. This person will never be repeated. She is unique, a particular manifestation of the Infinite and loving face of God.”

    That is ALMOST true. Remove the word “unique” and “this person will never be repeated” and you have this completely correct. Conservatives do not necessarily need to admit that people are unique, although there is certainly nothing unconservative about believing that. However, conservatives do not to recognize that people arrive in the world in a certain time and place with certain gifts and faults, that is, that they are not tabula rasa or malleable, and that they have value. They also, if they are even remotely intellectually honest, will admit that those gifts and faults are not always the same, that is while there is a human nature, it is not all of the individuals nature, and that certain times and places will be different from others even if they do believe in a cycle of Solomon where eventually it will be just like it was for all practical purposes.

  4. I received my first Rush album, Hemispheres, as a gift from my parents on my twelfth birthday. Even then I was taken by the song “The Trees,” a fine little allegory of the abuse of law to placate the envious. I didn’t think of it in those precise terms, but its spirit struck me nonetheless. I am thankful for the souls here at TIC.

  5. Dr Birzer happens to teach at a college, Hillsdale, that officially is considered right wing, but officially likes Abraham Lincoln (thereby putting itself at odds with much of the traditional Right) and, though the President has strong opinions, it is actually one of the most intellectually and theologically diverse schools in the country.

  6. Conservatism IS conformist. Manners, taste, the right thing, morality, are all matters of conformity.

    The fact that some liberals also conform does not change that; we have to remember that at the heart of liberalism is “do what you want” – ‘self-expression’ – as opposed to do what is right and passed down to you.

  7. Brad:

    Add Gustave Le Bon’s _The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind_ to the list as well.

    And, for the record, Kirk was not a monarchist, but he and I were (are) admirers of the old regimes.

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