that his views on certain defining social issues including sodomy laws are to the left of a very large number of Americans, John Derbyshire asks: “What kind of conservative am I?”
Calling himself a “metropolitan conservative,” he then makes this very revealing comment (perhaps more revealing than he realizes):
Most of us, in temperament and outlook, are either metropolitan or provincial, either blue or red. I myself was raised in a small provincial town, but I have spent most of my adult life in big cities or their shadows, and have a mostly metropolitan cast of mind. I dislike modern American liberalism very much, and believe it to be poisonous and destructive; yet I am at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals.
Derbyshire then admits, however, that conservatism in America is not going to be saved “by me and my big city pals,” but by “the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces.”
Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 09, 2003 12:47 PM | Send
Mr. Derbyshire’s narrative is fairly self-contradictory. One the one hand he states he would feel more comfortable in a room full of NY liberals than in a room full of “red-state evangelicals.” On the other hand, he admits the truth about how poisonous and destructive liberalism is and ends up stating that going along with the red-state evangelicals’ creationism and support for anto-sodomy laws is a small price to pay. Maybe Mr. Derbyshire should spend a little more time getting to know some red-state poeple, he might find himself more at home than he realizes - that there are genuine underlying reasons for some of the ideas he holds his nose at.
I agree with Carl that Mr. Derbyshire’s position is self-contradictory. The whole narrative becomes far more understandable, and indeed quite familiar to VFR readers, if we do a simple semantic shuffle: where Derbyshire says “metropolitan conservative” substitute the word “liberal”, and where he says “liberal” substitute the word “leftist”. A matter of a few tens of years ago this semantics would not have been at all controversial. Then recognize that liberalism is and always has been a parasite: it depends on the traditional moral order that it destroys (another oft cited theme on VFR) and thus ultimately degenerates into self-destruction when it runs out of traditional hosts to consume. Suddenly the Derbyshire article is a matter of semantics rather than a genuinely new perspective. What we are seeing is the standard postmodern semantic two-step to the left as liberalism devours more of the traditional moral order that sustains it.
None of this means that there is some deliberate deception or conspiracy going on. I am quite confident that Mr. Derbyshire means everything he says in good faith, and doesn’t recognize his descent into postmodernism. But his subjective states aren’t really relevant to an objective evaluation.
It has been my belief that most of the writers at NRO do not especially like Middle Americans. Derbyshire seemed to be closer to “Red” America than his collegues. Now, he tells us he also is uncomfortable with those of us in the “Red” Zone. So, this Derbyshire column is indeed revealing.
This gets more interesting all the time. Goldberg writes in response to Rod Deher:
“ALL RIGHT [Jonah Goldberg]
I’m about to take a nap because I was up most of the night working on the mag piece and woke up early to do CNN. But my short answer on this crunchy con versus metro con thing is pretty straightforward. I think metropolitan conservatism actually describes a real, longstanding cultural distinction among conservatives. I don’t think it necessarily describes or seeks to describe a new ideology, cause or movement. Rather, I think urban versus rural is a useful distinction, relied upon by historians, sociogists et al. to describe real differences in sentiment. As I recall Derb’s column he was making the point that “blue state” conservatives find common cause and common arguments with “red state” conservatives even if they have different lifestyles. “
If I choose to drive an American pickup and you choose to drive a European sports car, this might be thought of as a “lifestyle” choice. But if I am horrified by abortion and bothered by Bennett’s gambling and his response to its exposure, this is more than simply reflective of the fact I live in rural America — (moved here by choice actually)or that I have another lifestyle. It is the result of my religious and philosophic beliefs. And to fail to see that is more than shortsighted. They certainly hope we find common cause with them even as they find only limited common cause with us.
It is within the last couple of weeks what the NR gang is up to has become clear, at least to me. Irving Kristol said famously that the culture war has been fought by the conservatives and they have lost. So now what? The NR answer is to construct a new center that leans right somewhat, and consign obsolete traditionalists to the dustbin of history. This is the Goldberg-Derbyshire-Kurtz project. But we won’t go quietly.
I don’t think it’s correct to say that Derbyshire or Kurtz are trying to consign traditionalists to the dustbin of history. Derbyshire has deep sympathy with traditionalist perspectives, though perhaps (as is typical of English consrvatives) he lacks a religious/philosophical/moral framework for his conservative sentiments, and thus leans in the direction of liberal conservatism. Kurtz I think is honestly trying to work out what he regards as a rational position on one issue after another. While he is not philosophically or religiously aligned with traditionalism, I don’t think he has an agenda to eliminate it either.
Goldberg—scratching his belly as he slouches toward Bethlehem—is another matter.
I found Mr. Derbyshire’s artical intriguing, if only because the same thoughts have crossed my mind.
Mr. Derbyshire is correct that there is a great urban-rural divide.
City life leads to a social libertarian outlook. The diversity and size of American cities allows for a great deal of anonymity and choice in association. The cost of said anonymity is higher crime and more activist government.
Rural life leads to more tightly knit and restrictive communities. Since the social fabric is more intact, less government is needed.
This isn’t to say that urban conservatism does not exist. Instead, I would argue that it is neccesarily more generic and less rooted to actual land or permanent things. It exists not so much as a defense of what is, but as an opposition to the excesses of liberalism.
Mr. Auster assigns more weight to the self-conscious intentions of Mr. Derbyshire and Mr. Kurtz than I would. I think the vast majority of liberals are and historically have been well intentioned and sympathetic to tradition just like Derbyshire and Kurtz. Perhaps the difference between a liberal and a leftist is that a leftist self consciously sets about destroying the traditional moral order upon which civilization rests, while a liberal does so unselfconsciously.
In any case I don’t see a compelling reason to set either man into a separate category from other liberals. Liberals differ from each other in tactics, urgency, ideological purity, intellectual honesty, self awareness, etc just as one soldier in an army differs from other soldiers. From a traditionalist perspective though it doesn’t matter whether we surrender to a convoy of mechanics or a squad of infantry, or if we get bombed by a MOAB. In all cases the civilizational consequence are the same: the details hardly matter at all.
And I drive both a European sports car and an American pickup truck ;-)
I think we might want to consider a salient point: many of the folks at National Review are on our side; pulling the public in their direction will help us. Do you really think Kurtz is convincing anyone who believes that homosexualilty is wrong that it isn’t? Do you think legions of pro-lifers are losing heart because John Derbyshire is not unequivocally (sic?) for the the sanctity of life?
Could the writers of National Review have a firmer foundation in truth and tradition and a stronger belief in the transcendant? Absolutely. But these are people who are on our side of the cultural war. Rather than reject them out of hand as insufficiently pure, we ought to try to influnce them.
Perhaps John Derbyshire et al are more confortable with urban liberals because they haven’t experienced enough hard-right urban conservatives. Maybe the people on this board could have a real impact. The alternative is marginalization, and the case study is VDARE.com
I tend to agree with Mr. Kenny. Rational traditionalists have a great deal in common with sensible conservatives like Derbyshire and Kurtz, who, morever (unlike the Frums and Goldbergs of the conservative movement), are not hostile to traditionalists. It would be silly and counterproductive to write them off just because their conservativsm has a different philosophical base than ours, or, perhaps, no philosophical base at all. That of course doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to lay out the differences between a principled conservatism and the wishy-washy kind.
Mr. Kenny asks:
“Do you really think Kurtz is convincing anyone who believes that homosexualilty is wrong that it isn’t?”
No. I think he is convincing people that they can believe that homosexuality is wrong while embracing a liberal politics in which that moral wrongness has no political consequences. He is creating an escape hatch in which one can be respectably liberal in one’s politics without completely abandoning the traditional moral order.
“Do you think legions of pro-lifers are losing heart because John Derbyshire is not unequivocally for the the sanctity of life?”
Yes. I know that quite a number of red-state anti-abortion activists are extremely concerned with, and dispirited by, the phenomenon of the pro-choice republican.
I don’t think that issues-conservatism works in the long run. Liberalism has a long history of moving the leftist agenda forward while appeasing conservatives on issues. Bill Clinton did more for welfare reform than any president since FDR.
Another observation on this interesting thread: it has been often observed that neoconservatives resist radical leftist reforms, but that once a liberal policy reform has become established neocons will accept and even defend it. The same sort of thing happens with terminology in parallel with policy. A hundred years ago the notion that Derbyshire and Kurtz are liberals would not have been the least bit controversial. If a traditionalist conservative is categorically different from a liberal then in contrast to that putative tradcon a liberal is a liberal is a liberal, John Locke no less so than Bill Clinton. A tradcon should not be expected to accept semantic creep leftward any more willingly than he should be expected to accept policy creep leftward.
The fact that words have changed their meaning can and should be pointed out, but it’s not possible to resist all semantic change. Between the 1890s and the 1930s, the meaning of liberal changed from a person who believed in minimal government interference in the economy to a person who believed in comprehensive government interference in the economy. Now, that shift of meaning was certainly unfortunate from the point of view of intellectual clarity; but once it had become deeply embedded in the language it was not practically possible to resist it. So we use modifying terms: “classical liberal,” “New Deal liberal.” But such modifying terms are hard to maintain in ordinary usage, and we’re soon back to “liberal.”
But this really is nothing new. Eric Voegelin in the chapter “Representation and Existence” in The New Science of Politics points out how the verbal symbols by which the members of a society express their own self-understanding tend to be inexact and thus useless from the point of view of political science, which uses a more precise terminology. So, insofar as we are speaking theoretically, we could, say, speak of certain well known conservatives as liberals; but insofar as we are participating in the common political life of society we have no choice but to use the verbal symbols commonly accepted by the society.
That doesn’t mean that all fashionable or ideologically motivated usages must be accepted. For example, there was no need for people to accept the absurd, liberal-media-driven usage of “conservative” to describe hard-line Communists during the last years of the Soviet Union.
“This isn’t to say that urban conservatism does not exist. Instead, I would argue that it is neccesarily more generic and less rooted to actual land or permanent things. It exists not so much as a defense of what is, but as an opposition to the excesses of liberalism.”
A useful description. Could we therefore, instead of calling Derbyshire and Kurtz “liberals,” adopt the modifying language proposed respectively by VFR and Derbyshire, “traditionalist conservative” and “urban conservative,” that keeps important distinctions intact? Traditionalist conservatism seeks to defend the permanent things—transcendence as it comes to us through a particular tradition. Urban—or, better, modern—conservatism seeks to contain the excesses of liberalism. Of course there is crossover between the two categories.
I would add that most urban or modern conservatives, not rooted in permanent things, would tend to see the society in terms of abstract principles rather than substances.
Mr. AUster writes:
“Between the 1890s and the 1930s, the meaning of liberal changed from a person who believed in minimal government interference in the economy to a person who believed in comprehensive government interference in the economy.”
That isn’t entirely true, though. What actually occurred is that the economic policies favored by liberals to achieve freedom and equality shifted. And again, surrendering to the political-label-as-list-of-policies in the semantic domain is every bit as self-destructive as the neocon tendency to accept and defend the radical reform in the policy domain once it is a fait accompli.
Mr. Auster and I have disagreed about this since we first met, so it isn’t likely to change here. I am sure there are limits to even his discursive tolerance, though. “Christian” hasn’t been utterly coopted to mean “compassionate leftist with sentimental attachment to the bible story” yet (though in similar fashion to the transition of the word “liberal” it has started to mean that in some times and places); but I would guess that when that has occurred decisively Mr. Auster will finally decide to take up arms alongside me in the discursive part of the war.
Part of the problem is that conservatives refuse to acknowledge that some of the postmodern observations are right, even if the overall postmodern programme is ridiculously self-refuting. Specifically, the way in which language changes over time is not value-neutral; and since almost all important battles are fought with words this discursive war is ultimately much more important than any policy war.
The good news for conservatives is that all we have to do is fight to use words in a way that reflects what is objectively true. The postmodern disbelief in truth is a tremendous advantage to conservatives in the discursive war; but for some reason most just want to surrender. That may be a reflection of the conservative tendency to accept the world as it is, but in this case that is suicide.
“The good news for conservatives is that all we have to do is fight to use words in a way that reflects what is objectively true. The postmodern disbelief in truth is a tremendous advantage to conservatives in the discursive war; but for some reason most just want to surrender. That may be a reflection of the conservative tendency to accept the world as it is, but in this case that is suicide.”
I appreciate everything Matt has said. And I am not surrendering! We just happen to have slightly different angles on what needs to be fought over.
Lawrence Auster wrote:
“A useful description. Could we therefore, instead of calling Derbyshire and Kurtz “liberals,” adopt the modifying language proposed respectively by VFR and Derbyshire, “traditionalist conservative” and “urban conservative,” that keeps important distinctions intact? Traditionalist conservatism seeks to defend the permanent things—transcendence as it comes to us through a particular tradition. Urban—or, better, modern—conservatism seeks to contain the excesses of liberalism. Of course there is crossover between the two categories.”
I don’t think that urban conservatives oppose the Anglo-American political tradition. (Many seek trancendence through it.) Rather, they live in a a multi-cultural reality. They hold up traditional America as the ideal and seek to assimilate immigrants. However, they are the minority and need to promote tolerance.
There is a dynamism and rootlessness inherent in urban life that undermines “traditional things”. Part of this has to do with the relative youth of America and of our cities. Part of this has to do with the forward looking vision of Americans.
This means that traditionalist conservatives tend to leave cities. This means that their remander must work more closely with immigrant conservatives, who tend to be neoconservative.
(It is far easier to accept the founding priciples of this country, than to accept the Pilgrims or Chesapeake colonies as your allegorical ancestors.)
“I would add that most urban or modern conservatives, not rooted in permanent things, would tend to see the society in terms of abstract principles rather than substances. “
That would be a fair assesment.
Sorry, I need to rewrite this paragraph:
Mr. Auster and I have disagreed about this since we first met, so it isn’t likely to change here. I am sure there are limits to even his discursive tolerance, though. “Christian” hasn’t been utterly coopted to mean “compassionate leftist with sentimental attachment to the bible story” yet (though in similar fashion to the transition of the word “conservative” it has started to mean that in some times and places); but I would guess that when that has occurred decisively Mr. Auster will finally decide to take up arms alongside me in the discursive part of the war.
I had meant to point out the transition in the word “conservative”, not the word “liberal”. It is my contention that the word “liberal” means what it has always meant in terms of fundamental political loyalties. It is only the fact that liberals’ tactics have changed that makes “liberal” appear to have shifted in meaning.
The word “conservative” has changed dramatically, though. In America it now generally means a liberal who
1) Still maintains that mostly unfettered capitalism is the best economic means to achieve freedom and equality; and
2) Takes a “let the moral order speak through democracy” approach to moral matters, again as a tactic. Freedom and equality, through the exercise of democracy, hold the actual power. The traditional moral order has no political authority intrinsic to itself.
So “conservatism” is more authoritarian than “liberalism” in property matters and in moral matters; but again this is just tactics, not basic political loyalty.
The net result is that semantically it is no longer possible to be anything but a liberal. If you call yourself a “conservative” it means that you adopt a different tactical policy approach from that of the “liberals”; but your fundamental political loyalties are still the respectable liberal ones.
When liberals change their tactics, the liberals who still hold to the old tactics are called “conservatives”. As a result, this comprehensively dominant political ideology can remain nameless. Namelessness is an important feature of this political orientation. It allows this political orientation to avoid criticism of itself as itself. It allows this political orientation to comprehensively and oppressively dominate while pretending not to. It allows this political orientation to pretend that it is simply the dispassionate objective truth-background that forms the basis of all possible discussion.
Liberalism wants to be un-baptized, to shed its name, for all of these reasons. It is the same reason that neoconservatism no longer wants to have a name — if neoconservatism can shed its name then it no longer is possible to be “conservative” without being neoconservative-in-fact.
It is because of this that I refuse to call myself anything but a Distributist. For what Chesterton, Belloc and their legitimate successors have founded, both liberals and conservatives could both agree and disagree with. A Distributist is a firm believer in what Chesterton called “Permanent Things”, execrating those positions and attitudes that renounce them in turn.
And if gentlemen like Derbyshire cannot comprehend such execrations, all the worse for him.
Thank you for your time.
As someone who is not a traditionalist conservative (except in the exclusively religious sense)I am not entirely familiar with everything that traditionalists believe. It would seem, from following the various debates here at VFR, that some traditionalists do not recognise any other form of conservatism as anything other than liberalism. Is this so? And if not, what other forms of conservatism do traditionalists recognise as valid?
Part of the problem is that on the one hand liberalism dominates utterly all respectable political discussion, and on the other hand without (typically subtextual) illiberal commitments society would self-destruct immediately. So if a liberal is someone with strong commitments to liberalism then the set of non-liberals is small; but on the other hand the ongoing existence of our society shows that illiberal commitments must also be pervasive if inarticulate.
In the end I think it is more useful (as a rule of thumb) to talk about liberalism rather than liberals, and repentance rather than ideological war. Politically we all go down together after all.
Jonah Goldberg continues to work hard to get rid of the term “neoconservative”:
“Neoconservative” can’t possibly mean anything, of course. If the word meant something then that would imply that there might be respectable conservative possibilities that don’t entail agreeing with Mr. Goldberg.
So first we have a hawkish class of right-liberalism that takes for itself (Norman Podhoretz coined the term after all) the name “neoconservatism” in order to distinguish itself from other liberalisms; to in effect pretend (even to itself) that it is not liberalism. After being wildly successful in branding itself (falsely) as a form of conservatism, this ideology now wants to shed its particular name and thereby become identified instead with anything that can be thought of as legitimate and respectable conservatism.
This is a form of discursive taxidermy. First you kill the living tradition. Then you hollow out its insides and replace them with fluff. After that it stares at you from the mantle with cold dead eyes and, unlike the living creature it once was, doesn’t do anything inconvenient against your will.
Are traditionalists really sure that they don’t want to fight on the postmodern/discursive front as well as the policy front?
I’ve written before at VFR that in 1995 Podhoretz, whom I previously had thought highly of, especially for his intellectual honesty, while disagreeing with him on his propositionalist definition of America and his support for mass immigration, did an intellectually dishonest thing in announcing the “demise” of neoconservatism. What he really meant was that neoconservatism had taken over conservatism, and therefore the name “neoconservative” wasn’t needed any more.
That was bad enough. But now Matt has added a prequel to the saga of the Neocon Empire. Since neoconservatism always was, Matt writes, a form of liberalism, it’s not just that neoconservatism has usurped the name conservatism, but that liberalism itself has usurped the name conservatism.
In response to Matt’s challenge, I am perfectly willing to fight on the discursive as well as the policy front, but Matt and I differ somewhat on how that should be done.
I’m thinking my way through Matt’s argument for calling neoconservatism right-liberalism. My earlier views on this have been as follows: In one sense, neoconservatism is conservatism in that (1) it has transcendent beliefs; (2) it lauds middle class American values against the left; and (3) it supports a strong U.S. posture in the world. We normally don’t think of any of these positions as liberal, at least in the post-sixties sense of liberal. At the same time, however, (1) the transcendent beliefs of neoconservatism are limited to the liberal ideas of individual rights and equality, and have at best a distant relationship to the Christian sources of Western culture and have no relationship at all to the historic and ethnic dimensions of Western culture; (2) leading neocon writers starting in the mid-1990s have largely abandoned the neocon opposition to the cultural left; and (3) neocon support for a strong America is aimed not just at legimimate national defense but at a naïve and dangerous notion of imposing American-style democracy on the whole world. In all these respects, it seems reasonable to say that neoconservatism is really a conservative form of liberalism, or a hawkish right-liberalism as Matt puts it.
What then is right-liberalism? It is liberalism which has more allegiances to the existing and transcendent order than centrist liberalism or left-liberalism, but which nevertheless sees that order in propositional and progressive rather than in concrete or historical terms. Lincoln, for example, could be fairly described as a right-liberal (or as the first neoconservative), both in the propositional sense (his 1861 speech in Philadelphia calling for American-style democracy to spread to the whole of humanity) and in the progressive sense. Thus, under the evolving pragmatic exigencies of the Civil War, Lincoln adopted ever more liberal policies on race that he would have utterly eschewed a few years before. In the same way, today’s neoconservatives have pragmatically yielded, step by step, to the dominant cultural left, as we see in the neocons’ embrace of “bourgeois bohemianism.”
This is not a complete treatment of the issue. It is only by way of expressing my (tentative) agreement with Matt’s “right-liberal” terminology. Matt will perhaps find it too much focused on policies rather than essences.
Notwithstanding what I said above, I’m not sure it would be accurate to call mainstream conservatives “right-liberals.” Liberals believe in equality, and want to use the power of the state to achieve equality. But the typical conservative—by which I mean here a William Buckley/Ronald Reagan-type conservative—is against all that.
In response, Matt would perhaps reply that Buckley and Reagan are 19th century liberals who, like New Deal liberals, believe in freedom and equality, or, rather, in equal freedom. He would continue that the only difference between the classical liberal and the New Deal liberal is the way they go about seeking equal freedom. The classical liberal seeks it through limiting the power of the state; the New Deal liberal seeks it by expanding the power of the state.
However, while acknowledging the classical-liberal side of the conservatives, I still see a problem in speaking of them as liberals or even right-liberals, and it has to do with transcendence, which as we agreed defines the difference between liberals and conservatives.
A Reagan or a Buckley believes in the transcendent, as it relates to freedom, country, family, and so on. Not only does he believe in the transcendent, but he wants it expressed politically. The key question is, HOW does he want to be expressed politically? Perhaps only in rhetorical terms, not in terms of formal institutions and authoritative symbols. Now that is probably not the sort of belief in a fully embodied political expression of the transcendent which for Matt is the defining mark of conservatism. I would grant that it may be a weak conservatism that cannot ultimately stand against liberalism. However, it seems to me that under Matt’s definition, such a conservatism, unsatisfactory though it may be, would still have to be called conservatism and not liberalism.
To me, all it takes to be a liberal is to have some sort of strong alliegence to liberalism. That alliegence will necessarily be inconsistent and there will be unprincipled exceptions. Furthermore, liberals will disagree about the best tactics and timing to achieve the ultimate political goals of liberalism. So inconsistency, tactical differences of opinion with other liberals, pretenses of moderation, bones thrown to tradition and the transcendent, etc. cannot themselves constitute an essential difference between a liberal and a non-liberal.
The way to not be a liberal is to not have a strong alliegence to liberalism, whatever other alliegences one may have.
Mr. Auster seems to be saying that someone with a strong alliegence to liberalism who makes lots of unprincipled exceptions ought not to be considered categorically liberal, whereas one with fewer unprincipled exceptions should be considered categorically liberal. I don’t think that works. The essential thing about being a liberal is a strong alliegence to liberalism, period. Personal inconsistency is inevitable so it can’t be a disqualifier, and tactical differences about how to achieve liberal goals cannot be a disqualifier since policies and tactics are just means to an end. The fact that a liberal has other alliegences doesn’t make him not a liberal. A plumber is a plumber whether in merry old England or in the U.S.
I’ll note again that I am not attempting to define “conservative,” let alone delineate its defining mark(s). I am attempting to answer definitively whether or not, for example, Stanley Kurtz and John Derbyshire are liberals. If a liberal is one with a strong alliegence to liberalism, then the answer is clearly yes. It does not have to be any more complicated than that, it seems to me.
Mr. Auster states that a liberal wants to use the power of the state to achieve liberal goals. That biases the evaluation toward the notion that classical liberals are not liberals, which is something no traditionalist should let pass without comment. If one merely says that liberals believe that political arrangements should reflect and support liberal goals that removes the bias and gets us back to (what I believe to be) categorical accuracy.
Maybe a better way to say it is as follows: Mr. Auster seems to be saying that a liberal who also has alliegences to the transcendent via tradition thereby becomes not a liberal, despite the liberal alliegence. That doesn’t make any sense to me though. Everyone in actual fact has alliegences to the transcendent through tradition whether acknowledged and explicit or unacknowledged and nonexplicit (thus the necessary presence of the unprincipled exception). So a natural consequence of Mr. Auster’s premise that a component of transcendent authority disqualifies one from liberalhood, despite an actual strong alliegence to liberalism, is that there is no such thing as a categorical liberal.
If “one who has a strong alliegence to liberalism” cannot be the defining characteristic of a liberal — the thing that makes one a liberal irrespective of all other discriminands — then I do not know what can be.
Four responses/corrections to Matt’s comments:
1. If I’m not mistaken, Matt seems to be changing directions on me. In my earlier comment, I was attempting to apply his thought-provoking definition of conservative, as one who believes in the expression of the transcendent in the political sphere. But now Matt is suggesting that even if a person fits the “transcendence” criterion, he is nevertheless a liberal if he has strong allegiance to some aspect of liberalism.
2. Matt seems to be applying this “one-drop rule” only to liberals, not to conservatives. If a strong allegiance to liberalism, even classical liberalism, makes one a liberal regardless of how conservative one may be, then why doesn’t a strong allegiance to conservatism make one a conservative, regardless of how liberal one may be? Why does a single drop of liberalism make one a liberal, but a large dose of conservatism not make one a conservative? Why the demand for total purity when it comes to conservatives, but not liberals?
3. My test cases for conservatism were Buckley and Reagan, who do believe in a transcendent moral order and want it expressed in some fashion (though perhaps a very limited fashion) in the political sphere; not Derbyshire and Kurtz, who do not want those things.
4. I did, pace Matt, concede that classical liberalism is liberalism.
In conclusion, the question of what is a conservative may be too large to be treated usefully in a discussion forum like this. It needs a comprehensive treatment. It is something of intrinsic interest to me. Until we have a reasonable common grasp of the meaning of the words we are using, the usefulness of our discussions is limited.
I don’t believe that I have attempted to define conservatism or conservative precisely anywhere in this thread, although I did discuss some ways in which the word has shifted in its understanding and is now used. I am not saying that such an exercise wouldn’t be interesting; just that I haven’t done it.
In response to the one-drop criticism, I don’t think that applies. A “strong alliegence” isn’t one drop. It is true that a (sane, socially functioning) liberal is never purely liberal in the sense of holding consistent beliefs, but that fact doesn’t reduce a strong alliegence to one drop. “Conservative liberal” is an abstract possibility, of course, as a description of a person who has inconsistent strong alliegences. But then “liberal” by itself without modification is already a description of a person who has inconsistent strong alliegences.
Like Mr. Auster I am also interested in what it is to be a conservative, but I don’t describe myself as one. I am an antiliberal traditionalist — close to a paleo but (ideally) without any of the residual liberalism that infects even paleo thought.
Oh, and I don’t have a strong opinion on whether Reagan and Buckley are liberals, properly speaking. I rather suspect that Reagan is/was because of all the talk about freedom and all men being created equal, that sort of thing; Buckley is too much a tangle of nuance to render an immediate and obvious opinion. Plus I am not as interested in the “who is a liberal” question as I am in clearly identifying liberalism as such where it exists in order to properly oppose it, as all Christian men should.
With complex, multiple threads, it is not always easy to keep track of exactly what was said and where—which, by the way, points to the inherent difficulty and perhaps unprofitability of pursuing difficult topics in this kind of format. In any case, here is the source of my misconception (if that’s what it is) of what Matt said.
In the discussion “Liberal goodness versus traditional goodness,” http://www.counterrevolution.net/vfr/archives/001446.html,
“[Liberalism is] a denial of political privilege to any particular moral opinion … for liberalism there is politically no privileged access to (the knowledge and authority of) the good…. [Liberalism is] the denial of political authority to any assertion of a privileged understanding of the good (including the privileged understanding represented by the traditional moral order).”
It seems I assumed that conservatism according to Matt would be the opposite of his definition of liberalism. If liberalism was the denial of political privilege to any particular moral opinion, conservatism would be the assertion of such privilege. But it now appears that Matt did not say that, so I stand corrected.
I also am not primarily interested in labeling particular people. The reason I bring up particular people is as examples to test the accuracy of our terms.
Also, I generally call myself a traditionalist rather than a conservative, though Matt might consider me to be closer to the latter. :-)
Wait—I spoke too soon in admitting to error. In an e-mail exchange yesterday with Matt, I asked him:
“Let’s see if I understand you. Liberalism has nothing to do with a person’s beliefs about ultimate things. The liberal may believe in transcendent morality. What makes him a liberal is the belief that the transcendent should NOT play any recognized authoritative role in society.
“By the same token, then, what defines a person as a conservative is not that he believes in transcendent morality, but that he believes it SHOULD play a recognized authoritative role in society.
“Therefore today’s conservatives, though many of them believe in the transcendent, have such a minimalist view of the actual role it should play in society (limited to serving as the basis of individual rights, which is itself a liberal idea), that they can be fairly described as liberals.
“Is this a fair summary (and gloss) on what you’ve said?”
In reply, Matt confirmed that that was exactly what he was saying.
So, that e-mail exchange was the basis of my later comments in this thread, including this of 9:03 p.m.:
“… I was attempting to apply [Matt’s] thought-provoking definition of conservative, as one who believes in the expression of the transcendent in the political sphere. But now Matt is suggesting that even if a person fits the ‘transcendence’ criterion, he is nevertheless a liberal if he has strong allegiance to some aspect of liberalism.”
Once again, all this confusion over who said what where points to the need for a different sort of environment where people interested in serious discussion can get together in person and walk and talk. The Internet is a great resource, but definitely has its limitations.
I agree about the limitations of the medium, and I don’t claim to always be perfectly consistent myself within a single thread, let alone all discussions in all media!
I did agree with Mr. Auster’s construction in e-mail, but my focus, again, is not on what makes one a conservative, which I do not think is very well-defined. In the same e-mail exchange I said this:
“Liberalism has ontological stability: it has always referred to the same basic political loyalty, changing only tactics over time. Conservatism — the label — has ontological instability. The basic political loyalties to which it refers have changed dramatically over time. That is part of why we lose.”
Every discussion clarifies things a bit for me in its own way. I think that I understand the occasional squabbles I get into on VFR about definitions much better as a result of the most recent ones. To me, a liberal is someone with a strong loyalty to liberalism. The person may have other loyalties as well, and if he is a liberal then his loyalties are already incoherent even without other loyalties to complicate the picture.
But it seems to me that a strong loyalty to liberalism makes one a liberal: full stop, no qualifications, end of story.
I think the answer to the difficulties I’ve been having with this exchange is contained in Matt’s remark:
“Liberalism has ontological stability: it has always referred to the same basic political loyalty, changing only tactics over time. Conservatism—the label—has ontological instability. The basic political loyalties to which it refers have changed dramatically over time. That is part of why we lose.”
So, what’s been happening here is that I’ve been trying to define conservatism, and Matt is resisting that because at bottom he doesn’t believe there is such a thing.
In the e-mail exchange referred to above, I offered, based on Matt’s definition of liberalism, a definition of conservatism as the opposite of that. At the time he agreed with my construction, yet at the same time he pointed out (though I didn’t take in the significance of the remark at the time) that conservatism does not have a stable definable essence.
In any event, that’s a very interesting point in itself and worth thinking about.
David wrote: “It has been my belief that most of the writers at NRO do not especially like Middle Americans.”
This reminds of the following anecdote. About ten years ago I was invited to an informal luncheon at NR to discuss immigration. After I had made my case about a common American nationality and identity and the need to defend it, the person who was NR’s literary editor at the time said: “What do I have in common with a truck driver in Texas?”
I was a little taken aback, and said something about how I had always felt a deep commonality of Americanness with people from different parts of the country. But, as the editor’s comment suggests, we need to recognize that that is not a feeling necessarily shared by the metropolitan conservative elites.
Everyone is shocked that a conservative like Derbyshire would prefer the company of liberals. But I see no contradiction— it depends on what one wishes to conserve. If the physical manifestation of the past is particularly important, if you want to be surrounded by older buildings, neighborhoods or villages built when people still had taste and morals, then you’d better hope there are lots and lots of liberals around. In my experience conservatives will not lift a finger to save any of this. (I was very lonely at preservation society meetings.) They hate the past, too, though differently.
Last year a city in California condemned a church to sell the land to a Costco store. This violates every critical (as opposed to hypocritical) political philosophy of the day— leftism, liberalism, libertarianism and conservatism. So who were the culprits? Was this city “red” or “blue”?
Mr. Cæsar touches upon an interesting subject in his last post. I have observed this tendency also among people one would normally consider to be conservative. The notion of progressivism, that what is new is inevitably an improvement over the existing, is widely accepted in conservative circles. This often translates into wanton destruction of natural resources, classic architecture, etc in the name of progress (towards what?).
Responsible stewardship of what we’ve been given is still a far cry from the Marxist agenda to abolish property rights one frequently encounters in the environmental and preservationist movements. The Communist regimes who controlled Russia and Eastern Europe were resposible for some of the worst pollution and architectural destruction on earth, yet there is never a mention of this from the Sierra Club et al. If traditionalists ever coalesce into a political party, this is another area where a real contrast could be shown with the corporatist Republican leadership.
I was interested in Mr. Auster’s experience with the NR character who didn’t feel he had much in common with a truck driver from Texas, which he interprets as hostility to Middle Americans in general. The question is, why do people like this seem to feel, or pretend, that they have more in common with Mexicans?
Is it perhaps because they believe that those Mexicans will be better “propositional Americans,” as they themselves are, than benighted rednecks who do not owe their presence here to immigration? HRS
I wrote last year, “It has been my belief that most of the writers at NRO do not especially like Middle Americans.” Mr. Auster gives his experience with the NRO editor who disdains “a truck driver in Texas.”
Mr. Sutherland remarks that they believe Mexicans will be better “propositional Americans.” It may be that they think Mexicans will be submissive to whatever the Ruling Class ordains, which goes with their dislike of Middle Americans.
David has a point, but I wonder… One of the curious things about the American ruling class is how few of its members think of themselves as belonging to it. Too many Americans prefer to think of themselves as disadvantaged in some way, whether it is because they are not white, are homosexuals, Jewish or just because they are women. To give just one example, Jewish women are heavily over-represented in today’s ruling class. I am willing to bet, though, that most consider themselves doubly disadvantaged and believe they got wherever they are despite the “ruling class,” not because they are members of it. That is only one example among many one could cite. HRS
Mr. Sutherland is pointing to a phenomenon that was also brought out in David Brooks’s book about the “bourgeois bohemians.” The key to the Bobos is that they are rich, but pretend to be poor.
“Do the members of the ruling class consider themselves to be members of it?” Yes, they do tend to think of themselves as part of or identifying with the “oppressed.” This is a trait of the “Bourgeois Bohemians.”
There are two ways of looking at this. One, these people usually dislike the Old America which they think they are freeing themselves from. Two, when you have rulers who claim they have created a “classless” society, you will then have the worst sort of ruling class imaginable.