The Essence of Conservatism

Jay Reding with a nice summary:

Mamet, however, hints at the real basis for conservatism. We can’t cure war. We can’t end all poverty. We can’t make people into angels when they are not. The fundamental principle of conservatism can be roughly summed up into this: "sometimes life just sucks." Even if we could fix the problems that create war, poverty, racism and injustice to do so would be to have a society robbed of free will—because the root of all these problems are found in human nature itself. That’s why Mamet rightly describes conservatism as the "tragic" view of human nature and liberalism as the "perfectionist" view of human nature. Conservatives recognize that there is no permanent solution for the ills of mankind—there are only advances which can ameliorate our conditions. We can’t create heaven on earth, we can only fumble around as best we can.

We can, however, fumble creatively and sometimes radically in pursuing the intimations of any given moment. Conservatism doesn’t mean the abandonment of imagination or change. It means an understanding of the impossibility of all ultimate fixes, and an ease in the current imperfection: a preference for current laughter over future bliss.

A Conservative Of Doubt

David Mamet comes out. So good to see that he understands the core conservative idea:

If the government is not to intervene, how will we, mere human beings, work it all out?

I wondered and read, and it occurred to me that I knew the answer, and here it is: We just seem to. How do I know? From experience. I referred to my own—take away the director from the staged play and what do you get? Usually a diminution of strife, a shorter rehearsal period, and a better production.

I use exactly the same analogy in The Conservative Soul.

“Frustration At Concurrence”

P.J. O’Rouke’s 2004 article on Limbaugh et al:

…the number and popularity of conservative talk shows have grown apace since the Reagan Administration. The effect, as best I can measure it, is nil. In 1988 George Bush won the presidency with 53.4 percent of the popular vote. In 2000 Bush’s arguably more conservative son won the presidency with a Supreme Court ruling.

A generation ago there wasn’t much conservatism on the airwaves. For the most part it was lonely Bill Buckley moderating Firing Line. But from 1964 to 1980 we went from Barry Goldwater’s defeat with 38.5 percent of the popular vote to Ronald Reagan’s victory with 50.8 percent of the popular vote. Perhaps there was something efficacious in Buckley’s—if he’ll pardon the word—moderation.

I tried watching The O’Reilly Factor. I tried watching Hannity shout about Colmes. I tried listening to conservative talk radio. But my frustration at concurrence would build, mounting from exasperation with like-mindedness to a fury of accord, and I’d hit the OFF button.

Kristol On Buckley

Here’s what he wrote today about what conservatism means:

The basic thought was: Don’t let ideologues try to create heaven on earth, because they’ll deprive us of freedom and make things a lot worse.

When was the last time Bill Kristol ever made an argument like that? And hasn’t he spent the best part of the last seven years attacking it relentlessly? Hasn’t he defended every attack on individual liberty that this administration has pursued, even torture and the abolition of habeas corpus? Warrant-free wire-tapping? Vast expansions of executive power? And doesn’t he still hold that Iraq can be made into a model democracy, that there was no serious, sectarian divide in Iraq, that the war would pay for itself, that it would lead to a flowering of democracy across the Middle East, etc etc? And has he ever so much as uttered a single doubt about these utopian ideas since they foundered in the sands of Mesopotamia? One waits and waits for some kind of intellectual accounting from Kristol … and then one waits some more.

The intellectual dishonesty and/or cognitive dissonance just boggle the mind. But they are rewarded with a column in the NYT. For the "conservative" slot.

A Rebel, Not A Heretic

John B. Judis on Buckley. This rings very true:

When he was at officer’s training school, Buckley, who was only 18 at the time, couldn’t get by on his good grades and brilliance, and found himself not only disliked, but on the verge of being flunked out of officer candidates’ school. In the letters he wrote, Buckley revealed a fear and anguish about his place in the world and how people thought of him. He got his commission, but he also learned that he had to leaven his own political and intellectual convictions with a tolerance for people who didn’t share them. He would sometimes condemn their views, but he would not condemn them. By the time he arrived at Yale, he was pretty much the Buckley whom we’ve known for the last sixty years–witty, arrogant, but always with a certain restraint, even at times a gentleness and consideration. And I think that same sense of limits and boundaries–a sense of how far he could and couldn’t go–affected the way he conducted himself politically.

Best Of Buckley

Ross thinks it was in his short form:

His artfully recondite style worked best in small, explosive passages.

The smaller the better. I wonder if Buckley would have been a blogger in another era. I know we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead – but am I the only person who found Buckley close to unreadable a lot of the time? I never read his fiction, but his nonfiction was packed the endless sentences, ridiculously long words, and meaning that sometimes took several reads to excavate. I don’t know how many times I finished a Buckley column with the thought: what on earth was he trying to say? But then, my gold standard for prose style is Orwell. Never use a long word when a short one will do is not exactly advice Buckley followed.


I cannot pretend to have been much influenced by William F. Buckley Jr. Nonetheless, even for those of us who were not in America the 1960s and 1970s, when his most remarkable work was done, he still existed as an emblem of a thinking, rational, non-doctrinaire conservatism. He helped many understand more deeply that left-liberalism is a profoundly unsatisfying account of human nature and human history. He helped remind us that communism was as evil as socialism was mistaken. By legitimizing the concept of a conservative intellectual, he helped deepen and broaden conservative thought.

He lived long enough to see this precious inheritance grotesquely squandered by the conservative establishment he helped build. Like many of us, he came to see the administration of George W. Bush as in some ways the deepest, darkest betrayal of conservative values, and the hideous hateful movement that sustained it unthinkingly as part of the problem rather than the solution. But he was surely not surprised. A skeptical, thinking conservative knows that in time, great, abiding ideas can ossify into ideology and ideology can become propaganda and propaganda can degenerate into toxic factionalism. It is part of human nature and human history. There is no reason why conservatism as a political movement should be immune from its own critique of all such movements. He was polite about this, of course – much politer than many of us. But he had enough intellectual integrity not to disguise it either.

What did he know? That there will never be heaven on earth; that there will never be an end to poverty or bigotry or discontent. That there is more wisdom in tradition than we might first believe, and freedom is indispensable for tradition to shift and adapt and move responsively to changing human needs and wants. That ideology is always and everywhere a lie. That government is best when small and adept and aware of its own limits. That a society that seeks to extirpate transcendent religious truths is as doomed as one that regiments itself according to divine will.

These truths were once unspeakable heresies. That they have survived at all in mass democracy is a small miracle. But Buckley knew that all that conservatism needs to survive is the freedom to think and a willingness to rethink and an eagerness to debate. These virtues he exemplified. May we all try to recapture them in his vast, choppy wake.

Gays And Social Conservatism

The entire point of today’s "social conservatism" with respect to gay people is not to encourage responsibility, fidelity, marriage or love among gay people; it is to tell gay people to marry straight people and suppress or "cure" their sexual orientation. In fact, do yourself a favor and see if you know any social conservatives who actually favor social conservatism for the three percent or so of humanity that is gay. It’s a useful test, no?

And, of course, we know the actual consequence of such policies: they undermine and destroy family life. Here’s one story of a woman who realized she had married a gay man eleven years previously:

There are so many obvious questions for a wife like me: Didn’t I realize he was gay? Did I ignore red flags? And if I had suspicions, why didn’t I confront him earlier or divorce him?

I suppose I was always suspicious, but I was in denial. Early in our relationship, Chris told me he’d had homosexual experiences as a teenager but assured me it was youthful curiosity. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being gay — I have an openly gay cousin. And I didn’t care what went on behind others’ closed doors. But I also didn’t believe that a gay man would ever be attracted to a straight woman, and I was naive — too naive to see why a homosexual man would marry and spend years lying to his wife, his friends, his family and himself.

It’s time to realize that social conservatives who oppose equality in marriage, who defend the closet, and whose main response to emerging gay identity is to block its integration into the family are actually fostering divorce, disease, distrust and social disintegration. If it’s not merely driven by bigotry and discomfort, why?