"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Why I am a conservative

Years ago, when it still made sense for me to subscribe to print periodicals, I used to get a conservative journal called Modern Age. It was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has now taken to publishing many of the articles from MA and its other periodicals online at a site called First Principles. Recently they've posted a series of articles, each entitled "Why I am a Conservative," from various old-reliable authors who contributed them to the Summer 2007 issue of MA. I thought about contributing myself until I realized that I'm a year too late and they probably hadn't heard of me anyhow. So I now do it here.

In high school I was a conservative for three reasons: my father was; most Catholics I knew were; and I thought liberals hated God and country. At any rate, it seemed to me that they were always readier to see the faults of the Catholic Church and of various levels of American government than those of the Church's and America's enemies. I'd sum it all up now by saying that I was a conservative out of loyalty to family, church, and country. I joined Young Americans for Freedom and got my own subscription to National Review.

As my interests shifted during the 70s from politics to philosophy and then theology, I learned much about the social teaching of the Church and became unwilling to identify myself any longer as a "movement" conservative. I even gave up my NR subscription. That unwillingness dissipated in the mid 80s because of Ronald Reagan's opposition to abortion at home and "the evil empire" abroad, so that by the late 80s I was writing book reviews for NR and running for Congress in New York on the Conservative line. After many years away from my home state, I am once again a registered Conservative in New York. But I've never been able to maintain my enthusiasm for American "movement conservatism" for very long. The brand includes quite a range of ideological flavors, none of which conform fully with the "social teaching of the Church," and some of which overlap with it hardly at all. Until this year, I was willing to call myself a conservative only because my positions on what American political lingo calls "the social issues" are, in such lingo, more "paleo-conservative" than anything else.

But now I've changed my mind. It remains the case that I can summon enthusiasm for American "conservatism" only to the extent that the enemies of my enemies are my friends. But I am a conservative in a deeper sense than that.

I got to thinking about this after a friend with whom I have had many discussions of The Big Questions recently sent me a link to this video by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. At first, the practical lesson of Haidt's presentation seemed to me unobjectionable. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to understand why I am and must be a conservative.

Haidt noted that both Left and Right tend to go in for uncritical group-think and an over-righteous sense of the superiority of "us" over "them." Such is indeed a universal human trait which manifests itself in ethnic, religious, and cultural attitudes as well as in political polarities. Plausibly enough, Haidt argued that in order to transcend uncritical group-think, in which the "other" is typically misunderstood and disparaged, "liberals" and "conservatives" need to see each other as placing different emphases on values sought in common by innate, human moral psychology. He sketched five such values: "care" or mutual concern, "fairness," the "ingroup," "authority," and "purity." I would gloss those as five polarities: care vs. harm, fairness vs. unfairness, ingroup vs. outgroup, hierarchy vs. equality, purity vs. dirtiness or corruption. Haidt is quite right that "conservatives" generally find the last three more important than "liberals" do. Liberals tend to emphasize the first two, or what they conceive of as the first two, at the expense of the last three. Haidt closed with the suggestion that liberals and conservatives, so understood, are each as necessary to a healthy polity as Ying and Yang are to a healthy cosmos. I found myself being seduced by Haidt's presentation. Then I began to reflect a bit more.

I reflected on how Haidt had defined the liberal/conservative polarity before explaining it as above. Liberals, in his view, are people who are generally open to new experiences and ideas, whereas conservatives are those who prefer the tried, the comfortable, the familiar. Given such a definition, the subsequent explanation makes a certain sort of sense. After all, what generally determines the tried, comfortable, and familiar for most people are carriers of the last three of the five value polarities. Family, religion, ethnic group, friends, the state—all those factors which serve to distinguish an "us" from a "them," and lending great importance to such a distinction—just are those factors which determine what the conservative temperament is wont to conserve. When liberals advocate compassion and fairness over the "in" group, hierarchy, and ideas about purity, they seem inevitably to advocate the new and the other as opposed to the familiar, the comfortable, the "us." And so it would seem that such advocacy will be the natural preserve of those more open to the new than enamored of the old. Haidt's definition is quite plausible.

But that, in my experience, is not how things work. For one thing, I have found throughout my life that liberals are actually more authoritarian than conservatives about everything except sex. For them, environmental degradation is a sin. Political incorrectness is a sin. Violence against those who have been born for more than a few hours is a sin. Religious fundamentalism, at least on the part of Christians, is a sin. Even smoking is a sin. And the coercive power of the state should be brought to bear against such sins. But even though consenting adults should be prosecuted for smoking in a public building, heaven forfend that they be prosecuted for having sex in a public bathroom. We disrespect young women by telling them, and young men, to avoid sex until marriage; we respect them by handing them condoms, winking, and giving them anti-depressants for surviving the hookup culture. Promoting peace and justice entails allowing women to kill their children in the womb while having their husbands or boyfriends tossed into jail and banned from the home for threatening violence. What all these attitudes have in common is the conviction that sexual autonomy and the exercise thereof are unqualified goods, no matter how bad other things may be, including some of the things that the exercise of sexual autonomy may lead to, such as pregnancy. And so maximum sexual freedom should be allowed between consenting adults, no matter how harshly we may and should punish consenting adults for certain other activities which are, after all, sins.

That tells me that liberals are not open not so much to "new ideas" as such, but to certain ideas that have been articulated more recently than those which conservatives often favor. But those ideas have, themselves, been around for a long time now. Think Kinsey; think Rousseau. In academia today, secular hard-leftism constitutes an orthodoxy of its own, and has for several generations now. I conclude that liberals favor not so much novelty in itself as a counter-tradition to that great tradition of the West which stems from both Athens and Jerusalem. Of necessity, the counter-tradition is parasitic on the Great Tradition of which it is a counter-tradition. It takes values that are assuredly present in the GT but pits them against other, still more fundamental values. In short, what now goes by the name of "liberalism" in America is a heresy within that tradition which many educated conservatives consciously seek to conserve. The heresy is best summed up by Saul Alinsky's dedication of his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer.

Another thing I've noticed about liberals is that they go in for group-think and disparaging "the other" every bit as much as conservatives do. The difference lies simply in who gets defined as the Other. For liberals, the Other is not the distant enemy threatening our civilization, but the one nearby who stands in the way of their counter-tradition. For the feminist movement today, e.g., the evil Other is not the Muslim paterfamilias who keeps his wife barefoot, pregnant, and wrapped in her hijab—and might well find it necessary to honor-kill a straying daughter—but the American business executive who earns a few dollars more than his female peer and stares at the nice legs she exposes under her power suit. For the Ivy-League liberal male, it more natural to think of Todd Palin as the Other than of Osama bin Laden, who is seen more as an understandable reactive "symptom" of American imperialism. I could multiply examples, but you could do the same for yourself.

Given how group-thinky liberals are, how enamored of academic credentials and the nanny state, how hung up they are on "purity" ideas such as anti-smoking and environmentalism, I believe Dr. Haidt is wrong to suggest that liberals value the last three of the five "values" less than conservatives. Liberals only say they do, and Haidt just takes them at their world. But they're just kidding themselves. What's really going on is that, wanting to undermine the Great Tradition in the name of sexual autonomy and the pomo relativism which rationalizes it, they end up substituting ersatz forms of solidarity, authority, and purity for true and good forms. It's very unattractive, at least to me.

And that's the main reason why I'm a conservative. I believe the Great Tradition is healthy and the leftist counter-tradition is unhealthy. But what are the healthy forms of solidarity, hierarchy, and purity?

Of course would take a book, and a lot more than a book, to answer that adequately. So here I'll just answer as a Catholic: all those which are necessary for the spiritual health and integrity of the Church and the family. For the two mirror each other; indeed, the latter is the cell of which the former is the body.

As members of the Church, we are engrafted into the Mystical Body of Christ, which exists to extricate us from the fallenness of the world and turn us into gods. Whatever forms of solidarity aid that project are good; the divinely constituted "hierarchy" or "sacred order" of the Church is good; whatever the Church condemns with her full authority as sin is impure, and whatever she approves with her full authority is pure. The same goes for the family as "the domestic church." The authority of the pope and the bishops over the Church, which concretizes for us the authority of Christ the Head, is also analogous to the authority of the husband and father in the family. Such human authorities are limited, however, by the divine and natural law which we know by means of them. The authority of the state, given it by God, should also be given through the governed so as to limit the temptation of the powerful to tyranny and theft. But the chief duties of the state are to protect the innocent at home and to protect the polity from its enemies abroad. Disagreements about how much more scope for action the state should possess should be resolved by discussing, and observing, the potential and actual effects thereof on the family.

Notice that I have not spoken the language of individual "rights." There are such rights; they are important; and they should be enumerated. But the first task is to get clear about the nature of the human person. Only then can we be clear about the place of the individual in the family, in civil society, and ultimately in the cosmos. Only after that can we speak about what inherent individual rights are and what prescriptive individual rights ought to be. I think the signers of the Declaration of Independence were pretty reasonable about all that, even if not entirely correct to a man. Hence, I don't think that people who today are called "liberals" come at political questions from the right direction. I suppose that's why I feel impelled to be a conservative, despite my misgivings about much of contemporary American conservatism.
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