Toward A Conservatism Of Joy

Noting that Michael Oakeshott’s classic essay, “On Being Conservative” (pdf) was published nearly sixty years ago, Aaron Taylor notes a few of the distinctive features of what Oakeshott described as “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition”:

The real foes of conservatism are not socialism and liberalism, but the reactionary and innovating mentalities. Neither the reactionary nor the innovator share the joie de vivre of the conservative mindits natural inclination to rejoice in and savor what is. They are restless and tormented if things are not in a state of perpetual flux, if “progress” is not being made either backward toward an imagined age of innocence, or forward toward an imagined age of future liberation. If nothing is changing, then nothing is happening. Reactionaries and innovators eschew what Oakeshott calls the conservative mind’s “cool and critical” attitude toward change, advocating instead a radical overhaul of society and its refashioning in the image of a golden age which is either imagined to have existed in the past or lusted after as a possible future.

I think that’s what Dan Drezner is expressing in his formulation of the “Zen Masters'” approach to foreign policy:

These people think that the long arc of history is bending in their direction — that the fundamental strengths of the United States and its key allies are more robust than any potential rivals on the global stage.  The worst thing to do, therefore, is to overreact in the short run to things that will balance out in the long run. They don’t believe in getting riled up too much, and that, in the end, the universe tends to unfold as it should.  It’s not that they’re unaware of what Russia or China or the Islamic State is doing — it’s that they believe that these actions are short-sighted, counterproductive and very likely to fail.  They believe that actors that try to forcibly revise the status quo will pay a serious price.

So, yes, Obama is a conservative. Taylor’s take on the future of this style of conservatism:

If genuine conservatism is to survive, then, it cannot succumb to the modern politics of misery that characterizes almost all political discourse today, including on the Righta discourse that proceeds by presenting a list of bitter complaints about what is wrong with the world and then offering in response to its own grievances either a selfish assertion of “my rights,” or else a vision of a social utopia that is all the more depressing because everyone knows it is pure fantasy.

This does not mean that we cannot be keenly aware of what is wrong with the world. But conservatism must rediscover a greater sense of what it is for and a sense of enjoyment for such things. It must recover the conviction articulated by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (who himself wrote during an age of flux and decline) that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” and that “though the last lights off the black West went,” there still “lives the dearest freshness deep down things”little “things” that are very much worth conserving amid the ruins. Misery may be infectious, but joy is more so.

Recent Dish on Oakeshott here and here.