It was good to see a true conservative celebrated at National Review for a change. His works endure as classics, especially “The Liberal Mind“. A deep thinker in the classical liberal tradition of Constant and de Tocqueville, he escaped the religious fanaticism and pseudo-conservatism that has come, alas, to define much of the American right. Maybe that was because he was a New Zealand-born Australian. Here, for example, is a speech he gave about the thrill and yet dangers of modernity. He sees tragedy here as an opportunity for reflection, not a new political “ism”. The cultures of tradition and responsibility have declined as choice has expanded, he argued. At some point, this can lead to over-weening government or to social decay. And yet there is not a touch of puritanism in his prose – just an Oakeshottian perspective on the Enlightenment’s dark as well as bright sides
I only met him briefly while studying political philosophy at Harvard. He was the first president of the Michael Oakeshott Association, and his conviviality is captured by the always-convivial John O’Sullivan here:
Ken was always a cheerful and invigorating presence. His interests included Gene Kelly quite as much as Kierkegaard (more than, actually.) My last meeting with him was two weeks ago in London when we took in the Alan Ayckbourn hit comedy, Relatively Speaking, which Ken enjoyed enormously and which inspired an uproarious dinner afterwards.
His opening remarks in the following lecture on the idiocy of political idealism tell you much of what is to come. If you have enough time and interest, it’s well worth your time:
Here’s his critique of all forms of utopianism, but particularly that of atheistic leftism, which he called Olympianism:
Olympianism is the characteristic belief system of today’s secularist, and it has itself many of the features of a religion. For one thing, the fusion of political conviction and moral superiority into a single package resembles the way in which religions (outside liberal states) constitute comprehensive ways of life supplying all that is necessary (in the eyes of believers) for salvation. Again, the religions with which we are familiar are monotheistic and refer everything to a single center. In traditional religions, this is usually God; with Olympianism, it is society, understood ultimately as including the whole of humanity. And Olympianism, like many religions, is keen to proselytize. Its characteristic mode of missionary activity is journalism and the media.
If Olympianism has the character of a religion, as I am suggesting, there would be no mystery about its hostility to Christianity. Real religions (by contrast with test-tube religions such as ecumenism) don’t much like each other; they are, after all, competitors. Olympianism, however, is in the interesting position of being a kind of religion which does not recognize itself as such, and indeed claims a cognitive superiority to religion in general. But there is a deeper reason why the spread of Olympianism may be measured by the degree of Christophobia. It is that Olympianism is an imperial project which can only be hindered by the association between Christianity and the West.
I have a personal reason to be grateful to Minogue as well. Unlike almost everyone on the American right, he saw what I was trying to do in Virtually Normal and understood it, as I did, as an exercise in Oakeshottian restraint and Burkean adaptation to social change – rather than a revolutionary ideology. He reviewed it in National Review (no longer online) with the following words:
Andrew Sullivan has done for homosexuality what John Stuart Mill did for freedom: he has presented the whole range of social opinion about his subject with lucidity and fairness, and gone to work refuting most of it … Only those familiar with the deep wells of the history of political philosophy … will recognize the scale of his achievement.
Given all the abuse I’ve received from the hard right on gay equality, it was a tonic. It remains the review I’m proudest of – because it came from an Oakeshottian conservative of such learned good humor and intellectual rigor. It helped remind me that I was not betraying conservatism in writing that book, but doing my best to represent it in a new way for changing times. I was trying to integrate gays into their own society and families – with as little social disruption as possible.
(Correction: the first version of this post confused Minogue’s sub-title for “The Liberal Mind” with another book. It had no subtitle. let alone the Coulterish one I stupidly added. My dumb mistake. Apologies.)