Travel, The Mind, And Conservatism

Andrew Sullivan —  May 17 2009 @ 5:22pm

A reader writes:

I have been following with interest your sideline on tourism, surprised at the strength of some of my reactions. The upshot is the revealing of a set of ideas that I didn’t know I had.

I was angry at the Chesterton, which was the first revelation.  The anger was tied to my feelings about you and your political journey.  I grew up in a liberal family and have all my life shied away Windingroad from conservatism.  Trying to correct for this apparent prejudice, I have read your books, among other strategies (including a good deal of Burke and also Alisdair MacIntyre, as I love theology).  You have been important to me because I appreciate the clear sincerity of your approach to politics, and I am trying to emulate in reverse your waking up to the merits of the other side of the political spectrum, at least to the point where I can understand feelingly how someone could be a conservative.

I also happen to have read a great deal of Chesterton, who is an attractive, persuasive writer.  The snippet you quoted on tourism, though, crystalized for me why I don’t finally find certain strands of conservatism admirable.

Chesterton, and Buckley most famously, and a great many other conservative figures, have what I experience as a mere love of contrarianism which they mistake for a love of excellence.  The proposition that tourism narrows the mind is a foolish debate topic that appeals only to someone who takes delight in his powers of sophistry, and is willing in that name to set up oppositions that do not exist.  Inward and outward journeys are simply not opposed, and to pretend that they are in order to adhere stuffily to the superior excellence of the inward journey is just irritating.  It doesn’t make people deeper and more thoughtful and more excellent when they consciously seek ways to use delicate perceptions to rise above the unquestioned truisms of the mob; it just makes them irritating.  They are irritating in this respect even when–as sometimes happens–I agree with their conclusions.

David Foster Wallace has a far more penetrating take on the question of tourism when he points out how humbling it is.  The passage you quoted from him seemed to fit right in with my doubts about so many of the conservative positions I have read.  People who take a stand on tradition, seeing it as an island of tested order amid the dangerous chaos of possible futures, are likely to look for sophistical ways to reject that experience of humiliation, since the doubtful new has, in this worldview, a constant, intrinsic strike against it.  Furthermore, such people are likely to see their own attitude as a praiseworthy battle against ephemerality and indiscipline.  I experience it as fear resulting in an ill-founded pride.  Priding themselves on preserving the high beauties of the old ways against the destructive Philistinism of the unruly  and uneducated, they patronize and trivialize the past, while refusing the creative future.  That seems to me the reverse of excellent.  Worse, it leads too easily to a refusal to look critically and humbly at ideas that, in my view, can only stay alive if they are constantly required to converse honestly with reality.  The strains of conservatism of which I complain here often fail to look critically at the past and view the future with wariness and a presumption of contempt.  The dislike of travel for such a person is the expression of something existential.  I can’t admire it.

I’m left unsure of where you are, which leads me to a question I have long wondered about from your work.  I know that you like to call your own brand of conservatism a conservatism of doubt.  That ambiguous phrase has two radically different possible meanings.  When you use that phrase, do you mean, like Buckley and Burke, that doubt should be presumptively applied to whatever changes are proposed for the future?  Or do you mean that people should, looking at the new places to which the future inevitably takes us as tourists, doubt the adequacy of past wisdom?

I take the Burkean and Oakeshottian view that conservatism epistemologically means an abandonment of certainty in practical life, which means a skepticism toward both radical change and toward rigid aversion to all change. Conservatives who never want change or who resist it consistently are not conservatives in this sense. They are reactionaries, hewing to an abstract ideology or theology or simply unthinking temperament where true conservatism would allow itself flexibility. Conservatives who embrace all change regardless or without due caution are obviously not conservative at all. What marks the conservative temperament, rather, is a willingness to change, sometimes radically, but never without a deep sense of  loss. Conservative change has none of the thrill of liberal “progress”. It has a tragic tincture to it, even as the conservative statesman will sometimes go further than any liberal might. Think Disraeli on suffrage, or Lincoln on war, or Burke on American independence, or Reagan on nuclear weapons.

The proper conservative resistance to travel is not, therefore, a blinkered resistance to the new; it is an understanding that we have never fully absorbed or understood what we already know; that the places we love are still mysterious, and understanding of them should never be mistaken for simple familiarity. Seeking new superficialities at the expense of familiar depths is a neurosis, not an adventure.