True conservatism means being a dissident from the current order

A nationally known neoconservative—who is most unusual among the neoconservative tribe in that he evinces a desire to engage in honest discussion with people to his right—e-mailed me the following question in response to something I had sent him:

The question is this: if you are a conservative in the sense that the actually existing traditions take precedence over abstract principles, then when do you acknowledge that say the acceptance of homosexuality is now a social datum rather than a proposition?
Here is my reply to him:
Your conception of conservatism is strictly small “c”—the adherence to whatever is broadly accepted and established in one’s society. This definition of conservatism would make a defender of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s a “conservative”—and indeed the word was widely used that way at the time, and I hope you were as sickened by that usage as I was.

However, I am not claiming that the problem you point to doesn’t exist. Indeed, the small “c” aspect of conservatism is deeply embedded in the American character, and makes it difficult for conservatives to resist radicalism once radicalism has become established.

That’s why such a definition of conservatism is not only incorrect but disastrous. Conservatism properly understood means neither a simple adherence to actually existing ways and institutions, nor a belief in pure abstract principles. Rather, it means an adherence to transcendent truth as it has come to us through our own, particular tradition—Western civilization. It is a love of universal truth and of our own particular culture which is the vehicle through which our people—the people of the West—have experienced and transmitted that truth in a tradition extending and evolving over centuries and millennia. The tradition evolves, but that doesn’t mean that any change that comes along is equally assimilable within that tradition. Communism, multiculturalism, radical personal liberation, the normalization of homosexuality and so on, such things would mean the end of that tradition.

So if such things have in fact taken over, which they have, then a principled conservative is put in a most difficult position. His instinct is to defend and support his society. How can he do this without selling out? The answer is, that while one should never become an anti-American, as has happened with many on the right (automatically siding with America’s leftist and Muslim enemies for example), and should continue to uphold the existence and the basic goodness of one’s country, principled conservatism nevertheless requires that one become a dissident to the prevailing order, much as Solzhenitsyn was.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 28, 2002 03:51 PM | Send

The definition of conservative that Samuel Huntington descibed (the same definition that the neocon Mr. Kalb is corresponding with used) is a sociological one much the same way as the term “proletariat” is used to describe the working poor. This definition should only be used, if at all, when discribing other societies and their political and social interactions. But even then it can be murky, like in a country such as Iran.

Posted by: John on May 28, 2002 5:19 PM

Oops… allow me to forgive Mr. Auster for not giving him due credit….

Posted by: John on May 28, 2002 8:22 PM
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