What we oppose is “the Revolution,” by which we mean the political and social system embodied in the French Revolution… What we combat, on principle and without compromise, is the attempt to totally change how a person thinks and how he lives, to change his head and his heart, his home and his country—to create a state of affairs the very opposite of what has always been believed, cherished, and confessed, and so to lead us to a complete emancipation from the sovereign claims of Almighty God.
The French Revolution was the first and most brazen attempt of this kind. Thus, like Edmund Burke, we do not hesitate to focus our attack on this monstrous Revolution. To forestall any misunderstanding, I ask only of my readers, be they adherents or opponents, to bear in mind that the enduring power of an idea is different from its fleeting expression in that one event.
As an idea, the Revolution turns everything topsy-turvy, such that what was at the bottom rises to the top and what was at the very top now moves to the bottom. In this way it severs the ties that bind us to God and his Word, in order to subject both to human criticism. Once you undermine the family by replacing it with self-chosen (often sinful) relationships, once you embrace a whole new set of ideas, rearrange your notions of morality, allow your heart to follow a new direction—once you do this the Encyclopedists will be followed by the Jacobins, the theory by the practice, because “the new humanity” requires a new world. What the philosophers, whose guilt is greater, did to your minds and hearts with pen and compass and scalpel (and would like even more boldly to do to your children) will be carried out by the heroes of the barricades with dagger, torch, and crowbar. (more…)
While working on a recording together, Johnny Cash asked Bob Dylan if he knew “Ring of Fire.” Dylan said he did and began to play it on the piano, croaking it out in typical Dylanesque fashion. When he was done he turned to his friend and said, “It goes something like that, right?” “No,” said Cash shaking his head. “It doesn’t go like that at all.”
I can understand how Cash felt; I often get the same feeling when people talk about conservatism. For example, a friend of mine once wrote that, “Conservatism is what it is and it’s not subject to interpretation. It’s not a ‘living’ concept subject to the vagaries of public opinion. It’s small government, low taxes, and muscular foreign policy in its simplest form.” Although many conservatives in America would nod in agreement to that tune, all I can think is that while some of the words are right, “It doesn’t go like that at all.”
No one seems to be able to agree on what the term conservatism means anymore, so we’re forced to keep adding modifiers—neo-, paleo-, pomo-, crunchy—to clarify what we intend. That being the (unfortunate) case, let me add one more for consideration: Waughian conservatism.
William F. Buckley, Jr. considered Evelyn Waugh to be “the greatest English novelist of the century.” His novels are certainly are worth reading (A Handful of Dust is a personal favorite) but it was a travel memoir that provides some of his most intriguing and overlooked thought. In his book, Mexico: An Object Lesson, Waugh presents what could be considered a succinct manifesto of his British, Catholic-influenced conservatism. (I’ve taken the liberty of breaking up the text into paragraphs to make it easier to read):
Peter Robinson, host of the Hoover Institution’s Uncommon Knowledge program, interviews playwright David Mamet about his book The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture and his conversion to conservatism. The blurb on the video notes that, “Mamet explains how, by studying Jewish and Christian texts such as the Talmud and the Bible, he came to approach arguments from a new perspective that aligned itself with conservative politics.” Throughout the interview, which runs about 35 minutes, “Mamet discusses his newly found conservative position on several issues, including social justice and civil rights, the decline of the family and the sexual revolution, affirmative action and race, and domestic politics and foreign policy.”
A recent piece in The Washington Post by Lori Montgomery reports that conservative U.S. Congressman Paul Ryan has been working on solutions to poverty with Robert Woodson, solutions rooted in face-to-face compassion, spiritual transformation and neighborhood enterprise. The Post seems to want to praise Ryan (R. Wis.) for his interest in the poor, but to do so it first has to frame that interest as something foreign to conservatism:
Paul Ryan is ready to move beyond last year’s failed presidential campaign and the budget committee chairmanship that has defined him to embark on an ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.
The Post’s tendentious description of the tea party movement is contradicted by data laid out in Arthur Brooks’ Gross National Happiness, which shows that conservatives, on average, give a significantly higher percentage of their income to charitable causes than liberals do.
In its defense, the article does have a poster child for its misleading stereotype of conservatism — Paul Ryan’s 2012 presidential election running mate Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire caught on film writing off the bottom 47% of American earners as unreachable freeloaders who don’t pay any taxes. But what Romney has to do with your rank and file tea party conservative is never made clear in the article.
As noted earlier this week on the PowerBlog, 2013 marks the 60th publication anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. This monumental work’s significance derives from its encapsulation of several centuries of conservative thought – fragments, to borrow liberally from T.S. Eliot, shored against the ruins of mid-20th century liberalism, relativism and other brickbats of modernity.
The importance of Kirk’s book (as well the remainder of his extensive body of work) should be obvious to those who share the Acton Institute’s Core Principles and possess a passing familiarity with Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles. For those new to principles espoused by Dr. Kirk, however, a brief and thoroughly incomplete overview of the latter is in order.
The Ten Conservative Principles began as Six Canons listed in the 1953 edition of The Conservative Mind. Kirk subsequently revised what began as his doctoral dissertation to add the poet and essayist T.S. Eliot to the list of preeminent Western conservative thinkers initially begun with Irish statesman Edmund Burke and originally ending with George Santayana. Similarly, he revised the Six Canons to what became a conservative’s Decalogue.
A conflation of Kirk’s principles for the sake of space limitations might read: There exists an enduring moral order; humankind is imperfectable; property rights are imperative for any free society; community is preferable to collectivism; personal passions abjured for prudence; political power restrained; and, finally, the need for reconciling permanence and change. This conflation hardly does justice to Kirk’s thought, but should serve as an entrée for those subsequently seeking the full 10-course intellectual banquet replete with Master Chef, sommelier and full orchestra. (more…)
On Saturday, November 9, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is hosting a conference on the 60th Anniversary of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. The conference, which will examine the impact of Kirk’s monumental book—which both named and shaped the nascent conservative movement in the United States—is to be held at the Eberhard Center on the downtown Grand Rapids campus of Grand Valley State University, which Acton supporters will recognize as the home of Acton University from 2006-2010, and that conference’s precursor, the Acton Symposium in 2005. The ISI conference promises to be a stimulating experience, featuring Gleaves Whitney of Grand Valley’s Hauenstein Center, Professor Bruce Frohnen of Ohio Northern University, and Gerald Russello, editor of the University Bookman, the scholarly quarterly founded in 1960 by Kirk.
That being said, Acton has a connection to Russell Kirk that goes beyond the coincidental sharing of conference space. For one thing, the Acton Institute was blessed to have Kirk serve in an advisory capacity from the founding of the institute up until the time of his death. And it was our honor to host the great man for what would turn out to be his final public lecture.
The lecture took place on Jaunary 10, 1994 at the University Club in Grand Rapids, not far from his home in Mecosta, Michigan. Kirk spoke on the topic of Lord Acton on Revolution, laying out his case that Acton, over the course of his life, developed a tendency to too easily approve of revolution, even sometimes showing an “enthusiastic approbation” of it. Ultimately, Kirk believed that Acton was too enthusiastic about revolution, and he faults Acton for too earnestly supporting the abstract common good that revolution would supposedly advance, while failing to foresee the dangers that revolution could pose to the liberty that Acton so cherished.
For a man who had recently been “under house arrest for the past six weeks under my doctor’s orders, having overexerted myself on the lecture platform,” he speaks with great enthusiasm and energy, and with great clarity of mind. Just over three months later, he passed away at his home in Mecosta, Piety Hill.
It was our privilege to draw from Kirk’s wisdom in our early days as an institution, and it is now our privilege to share this, his final lecture, with you.
More: Acton’s remembrance of Russell Kirk, from Religion and Liberty, Volume 4, Number 3.
Even More: Russell Kirk on “Enlivening the Conservative Mind.”
“The plural of anecdote is not data”, claimed toxicologist Frank Kotsonis, in an attempt to correct sloppy thinking. While Kotsonis has provided a useful aphorism, it can obscure the equally interesting fact that the singular of data is anecdote.
Consider, for example, the following two stories. The first is the shortest work of fiction ever written by Ernest Hemingway:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
This powerful story is a marvel of economy. In a mere six words and three punctuation marks, Hemingway is able to convey a sense of tragic loss without ever introducing a single character.
Compare to a story with a similar theme from an anonymous author:
Infant mortality rate: 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Although it lacks the emotional impact, this too is a model of brevity. Seven words, two numbers, a comma, colon, and two periods are used to express — albeit rather dryly — an important fact about the human condition. Indeed, if Hemingway’s story was not fictional, it could be considered a singular instance of the second story; a particular example of a more general phenomenon.
At this point, you may object to the use of the term “story” in reference to a statistic. You may be tempted to repeat back to me Kotsonis’ mantra: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” But if the singular of data is anecdote and anecdotes are a form of story, then why can’t data be a collection of tales, sifted down and pressed together, into a narrative?Transforming data back into narrative form can provide the oft-lamented missing link between the data and analysis produced by conservative think tanks and the storytelling that appeals to the general public.
Lack of storytelling ability is one of the reoccurring themes of modern conservatism. At National Review Online, Lee Habeeb is the most recent writer to point out that conservatives need to become better at getting our point across by the use of stories:
In a new article at Intercollegiate Review, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg looks at the current state of “idea conservatives” and their place in the broader context of American conservative thought encompassing an amazing diversity of ideological subspecies. But it is ideas and core principles, more than anything else, that informs conservatism and its various movements, despite the many fractures and fissures. Gregg makes a compelling case for rooting “conservatism’s long-term agenda” in the “defense and promotion of what we should unapologetically call Western civilization.” His article is the first contribution to ISI’s symposium, “Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?” Excerpt from the Gregg article:
… as the French theologian Jean Daniélou S.J. once observed, there is no true civilization that is not also religious. In the case of Western civilization, that means Judaism and Christianity. The question of religious truth is something with which we must allow every person to wrestle in the depths of their conscience. But if conservatism involves upholding the heritage of the West against those who would tear it down (whether from without and within), then conservatives should follow the lead of European intellectuals such as Rémi Brague and Joseph Ratzinger and invest far more energy in elucidating Christianity’s pivotal role in the West’s development—including the often complicated ways in which it responded to, and continues to interact, with the movements associated with the various Enlightenments.
Such an enterprise goes beyond demonstrating Christianity’s contribution to institutional frameworks such as constitutional government. Conservatives must be more attentive to how Judaism and Christianity—or at least their orthodox versions—helped foster key ideas that underlie the distinctiveness of Western culture. These include: (more…)
The central thesis of philosopher Roger Scruton case for an environmental conservatism, says Leah Kostamo, is that the primary motivation for care for the earth is oikophilia—a love of home.
Oikophilia, Scruton argues, is what emboldens people to make sacrifices for their surrounding environment and neighbour. Scruton spends many pages tracing the history of oikophilia, particularly in his native Britain, and howoikophilia has been destroyed by internationalism and big-government subsidies and regulations.
[. . .]
The right’s rhetoric is all about individual liberty, says Michael R. Strain, but love of fellow humans is essential to a functioning society — or policy.
Many on the right correctly emphasize individual liberty, but they do not emphasize what conservatism knows to be true: It is in community that people learn how to be free.
Ryan argued that “the federal government has a role to play” with respect to community, but that “it’s a supporting role, not the leading one.” This is generally true. Government should distance itself enough from the individual that civil society — which exists in the space between government and citizen — can flourish. Speaking generally, government should help support these institutions, but it should not do their work for them.
But this is not to say that a communitarian ethic should be absent from politics and public policy — quite the opposite. Proceeding with a spirit of community would help conservatives formulate and support better policies. Let’s discuss a few.