While traditional conservatives have always embraced forms of prejudice, properly understood, as an acknowledgement of human experience and human wisdom and the inheritance our ancestors have bequeathed upon us, they should equally abhor any form of prejudice that is merely bigotry: despising, denouncing, or dismissing someone for the accidents of their birth.
In his famous speech to the Whigs of 1791, Edmund Burke—a man who dedicated his professional life to fighting against anti-Irish, anti-Indian, anti-American, and anti-Catholic bigotry—wrote: “Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world.”
More recently, I can assert from first-hand knowledge going through the private and public papers of Russell Kirk and Barry Goldwater that neither had any tolerance for racial or religious intolerance. We have too many things to combat in this world to worry about a person’s skin color or sexual organs.
I find it gut-wrenching to read the news at the moment. Granted, political (domestic and international) news is never uplifting, but there are times and then there are times. These are the latter. Being rather conservative in my personal life, at least when it comes to my daily habits, I have my morning ritual of drinking my coffee and eating breakfast while reading, in order, The Imaginative Conservative, the American Conservative, BBC news, CNN, USA Today (usually just for the tech news—Ed Baig is a favorite writer), and, when I have time, the New York Times. Later in the day, I read National Review Online, Powerline, Catholic World Report, and a few others. By the end of each day, I am so depressed by world events, I just read my favorite tech websites: Macworld, PCWorld, TechHive, Engadget, TechRadar, and Wired.
It is quite fascinating to read tech news, as it is always uplifting. There is always some new gadget appearing, each new thing loaded with so many possibilities. Some might take my obsession with technology as a bit un-conservative, but I find I need it. After all, the possibility of wearable technology is far more humane than the latest troop movements in Iraq or Ukraine.
Here is a really quick, rough comparison. BBC this morning: Ukraine’s military setbacks, Iraqi crimes on unimaginable scale, fresh clashes in Syria, British PM outlines new anti-terror plans, and Mexico considers the mass death of fish in a lake. Here is Wired this morning: lunch boxes that work throughout the day, how headphones are made, the most amazing images of space, radical new theories on multiverses, and Instagram’s new app.
Chaos vs. order? Destruction vs. creativity? Anti-humane vs. personal and humane.
Of all of the insanity in the world today—at home and abroad—nothing has shaken me as much as the re-emergence of anti-Semitism. And, by this, I mean anti-Judaism (recognizing, of course, that technically, anti-Semitic means being against anyone of Semitic origin).
I did not watch a lot of television as a kid, but I do remember some very powerful episodes of “Little House on the Prairie.” One of the ones that has stuck with me was of a young Jewish man visiting Walnut Grove. While there, when asked about the fate of the Jews in the modern world, he argued with absolute certainty and optimism that no more pogroms would ever again exist as the world had become too enlightened. He stated this whenever the show was supposed to take place—in the 1880s, I think. Joseph Stalin was born in 1878 and Adolf Hitler in 1889, and Richard Wagner’s first full performance of The Ring was 1876.
I hesitate to write the following, as it is one of those things that, the good Lord forbid, might come back to haunt me. So, if it appears at any level self-righteous, I apologize. But, here it is: As far back as I can remember, I never understood disliking someone based on that person’s race, gender, etc.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that I am perfect. For any of you who know me, you know how very flawed I am. But, as early as I can remember, I was taught that all persons are made in the image of God regardless of the accidents of birth. My mother, especially, made sure I understood this, and I certainly never remember her uttering a single bigoted thought. I do remember her stressing the equality of persons before God. And the same with my grade-school Dominican nuns, my favorite being Sister Patricia Martinez (an immigrant from Mexico).
The town I grew up in—Hutchinson, Kansas—certainly had its own problems in its past. In particular, when a huge number of Mexican immigrants arrived in the earliest part of the twentieth century, Hutchinson’s citizens forced them to live on the south side of the Arkansas River, thus creating the town of South Hutchinson. By the 1980s, whatever such discrimination had existed seemed to have faded. In fact, the town mayor in the 1980s was Hispanic and female. This did not even strike me as unusual until much later. It was simply the norm of my hometown.
The Roman Catholic parish in South Hutch, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was a favorite. Not only were the parish dinners to die for, but the church had a number of shrines dedicated to the martyrs of the Cristeros rebellion of the 1920s. These were clearly heroes. And one of the single most prominent families in Hutchinson were Hispanics who owned the single most popular restaurant (still one of my favorites), the Anchor Inn.
Hutchinson has also welcomed refugees from Lebanon and Vietnam.
My high-school experience was also a good one, with whites, blacks, Vietnamese, and Hispanics interacting well and—at least as far as I know—without racial tensions. Hutchinson had only a few Jewish families, but Wichita and Kansas City each had thriving Jewish communities. A number of Jews from both cities participated in high school debate and forensics. I had so many conversations about Judaism with these debate opponents that I became rather obsessed with Jewish tradition and history. We had always had rumors that many of our ancestors were Jewish, and I was bound and determined to prove this to be true.
Back to my main point. What the conservative conserves is the dignity of the human person. Of all persons. Period.
It is worth considering the issue theologically and historically. In the very first chapter of Genesis, God makes man in His image: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness to rule the fish in the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild animals on earth, and all reptiles that crawl upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
While I am not necessarily a literalist when it comes to Scripture, it would be rather difficult to interpret this passage in any other way than that each person is made in God’s image. Much later, of course, at the Council of Jerusalem, led by St. James, the Christians decided that the Christian was neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. Or so St. Paul later explained.
Parallel to the Judeo-Christian tradition arose the philosophy and ethics of the Stoics. They, too, believed all beings to be made to honor the Natural Law, thus giving a universal quality to the understanding of the human person. Though not completely a Stoic (rather, he called himself an eclectic) Cicero, too, proclaimed the universality of the human person, especially in his treaties, On the Laws. St. Augustine, a North African, also explained in The City of God that one should not squabble over the diversities of peoples as long as they worshipped the one, true God.
So, my heart crumbles when I see how quickly “anti-Semitism” is re-emerging. Perhaps I was exceedingly naïve, but I really had assumed the world had moved past such ridiculous prejudices. Yet, it is impossible not to read the news—especially news coming out of Europe—and dismiss or downplay the growing “acceptable” anti-Semitism. By some accounts, it is growing in America, too.
It is one thing to oppose the policies of Israel (and the point of my post is not to question, agree with, or oppose the Israelis), but it is a totally different thing to blame all Jews, past, present, and future, for what Israel did today or yesterday or even tomorrow.
As conservatives, we should remember our greatest ancestors: Socrates, Zeno, Cicero, St. John, St. Augustine, St. Burke, St. Russell, and St. Barry. Bigotry is more than wasteful of our time and resources; it is also just plain wrong as well as evil.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.