Archive for February 22nd, 2006

The often-fascinating discussion of the "crunchy con" idea continues over at National Review. It’s getting to be more than I have time to follow. One post which I thought made an important point is this one from Caleb Stegall of The New Pantagruel–he’s answering the question "Where did the right go wrong?" Former readers of Caelum et Terra will hear a lot of familiar themes–a lot of this was hashed over in the magazine.

I think I’ll take this occasion to explain my relationship to conservatism. An awful lot of the crunchy-con talk–and I think, though I haven’t read it yet, this is somewhat true of the book itself–is an intramural debate among conservatives, meaning conservatives who think of themselves as being consciously part of that movement. (I think most of them make their livings as pundit/journalists of the right.)

Well, I’m not really part of that, and I wander away when the conversation dwells for very long on what conservatism is, isn’t, should be, shouldn’t be. I’m really not what would be called a "movement conservative." I’m not active in politics or in any social movement, and in my own reading and writing I much prefer to focus on faith, literature, and music. I do find myself thinking about politics a lot, because it dominates our lives so much, and because the cultural struggle between the remnants of the Christian tradition and its enemies is very much tangled up with politics. But I’m really not, and never have been, a political animal.

I do call myself a conservative because that seems to be a reasonably accurate way of locating myself in the contemporary social and political environment. I resisted applying the term to myself for a long time, but finally accepted that it’s more or less accurate. But it’s a contingent and dispensable nomenclature. What I am, above everything else, is a Catholic. Not even a conservative or liberal Catholic, when you get right down to it, although of course it’s almost impossible to avoid using that terminology sometimes.

Conservatism for me is an attachment to the Western tradition and a very strong suspicion of anyone who has a Big Plan For Fixing Everything. I firmly hold to the sometimes-quoted conservative principle that human nature has no history–that the mostly legendary "modern man" is not fundamentally different from those wilful Hebrews quarreling with God in the desert three thousand years ago. Our psychology is delineated with perfect accuracy in the Psalms and Proverbs written by those same Hebrews, and our cosmic situation in their story of Job. I think anyone who has an accurate grasp of what mankind actually is must necessarily have relatively low expectations of how much we can be improved. So I’m always ready to set myself in opposition to social innovations that are based on the assumption that human nature is pretty much ours to mold as we will.The testimony of tradition on a question such as that of private property carries a lot of weight for me.

And I’m lower-case democratic. Of all broad categories of people, I suppose I most dislike those who hold themselves intrinsically superior to the rest of our race. In another age this might have made me a lower-case republican agitating against the aristocracy. But in our time this overbearing superiority is most broadly visible among intellectuals and those who identify with them: the educated and yet ignorant elite who confuse their own glibness and cleverness with wisdom, and their affluence and taste with merit, combining the worst aspects of both the wealthy aristocrat and the deracinated radical. I don’t much care for rich conservatives, but I detest limousine liberals.

My conservatism also includes a patriotism which is love of a specific place and people. I cherish my roots in a family that has been known to stand for truth and justice, and a society which was still partly agricultural. I love the USA, especially what the left-wing music critic Greil Marcus memorably called "the old weird America," and I haven’t given up hope on the new crazy America. Love of these things makes me want to reform them, not sweep them away in favor of some revolutionary vision, much less turn them into a damnable Brave New World.

You might say that conservatism for me is Regular Folks and Russell Kirk.I try not to sentimentalize the former–after all, I grew up in the segregationist South–and I don’t confuse the works of the latter with Scripture. But Kirkean conservatives are often referred to as "virtue conservatives" as opposed to the more libertarian "freedom conservatives," and I’m one of those who finds the concept of freedom of little meaning until it’s qualified in some way: freedom for what? freedom from what? In that sense I was a conservative even in my youth when I thought I was on the left: I was always baffled by the unspecified demand for "freedom," especially as you had to be a fool not to see that we already had more freedom than most people who have ever lived (and also literally more than we knew what to do with).

And what is virtue, and how do we attain it? Well, I learn that from common sense, which is just  intuitive knowledge of the natural law, and from what the Church teaches me–which brings me around again to the point that it’s the teachings of the Church which are at the center of what I think about every political and social question, and not conservatism, which has its uses but is not religion.

I might add that I like open spaces and green growing things and think we already have more than enough malls and concrete. Whether that is a conservative or liberal view I’ll leave for others to debate.

Maclin Horton

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