What Conservatism Is

T.S. Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Of his many works, one is the poem “Four Quartets” in which he writes “about the still point of the turning world, were motion and stasis are together, the hub where the movement of time and the stillness of eternity are together”. Elsewhere he declared “Liberalism, Progress, and modern Civilization” self-evidently contemptible. He praised Baudelaire, a French poet and art critic “who, in an age of “programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism, and revolutions,” of “cheerfulness, optimism, and hopefulness,” understood that “what really matters is Sin and Redemption” and perceived that “the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform, and dress reform … that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living.”

from The American Conservative, The Critic As Radical http://bit.ly/hNCZNc we learn that:

At the root of this condemnation of modernity lay the conviction of Original Sin. Eliot believed that most people have very little intelligence or character. Without firm guidance from those who have more of both, the majority is bound to reason and behave badly. In “The Function of Criticism,” he derided those in whom democratic reformers place their hopes as a rabble who “ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust.”

The obtuseness and unruliness of humanity in the mass meant that order, the prime requisite of social health, could only be secured by subordination to authority, both religious and political. “For the great mass of humanity … their capacity for thinking about the objects of their faith is small”—hence the need for an authoritative church rather than an illusory Inner Voice. Likewise, “in a healthily stratified society, public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne”—hence the need for a hereditary governing class. Underlying these social hierarchies is a hierarchy of values. “Liberty is good, but more important is order, and the maintenance of order justifies any means.”

Order, long preserved, produces tradition—“all the actions, habits, and customs,” from the most significant to the most conventional, that “represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place’.”

Well! Doesn’t this sound just like a conservative? “Maintenance of order justifies any means”. This might explain why we are steadily moving to a police state. “…hence the need for a hereditary governing class”. What they aim for is a true aristocracy, with people like Dick Cheney and George Bush acting as the ‘deciders’ over the ‘people who have very little intelligence or character’. This statement shows the disdain conservatives harbor for people, it explains also their detestation of democracy: (“ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust.”

Philip E. Agre wrote What Is Conservatism And What Is Wrong With It? in 2004. There are many insights into the conservative ‘sensibility’ in it. You find yourself nodding your head and you realize that this or that point is dead on but you never thought it that way. It is very long but here’s a few things he points out. Go read it if you find it as compelling a read as I did.

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

…From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.

…the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use “social issues” as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality.

…People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.

…Conservatism in every place and time is founded on deception. The deceptions of conservatism today are especially sophisticated, simply because culture today is sufficiently democratic that the myths of earlier times will no longer suffice.

…This is a central conservative argument: freedom is impossible unless the common people internalize aristocratic domination.

…Conservatism promotes (and so does liberalism, misguidedly) the idea that liberalism is about activist government where conservatism is not. This is absurd. It is unrelated to the history of conservative government. Conservatism promotes activist government that acts in the interests of the aristocracy. This has been true for thousands of years. What is distinctive about liberalism is not that it promotes activist government but that it promotes government that acts in the interests of the majority.

…Conservative arguments are often arbitrary in nature. Consider, for example, the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Conservatism claims that the universe is ordered by absolutes. This would certainly make life easier if it was true. The difficulty is that the absolutes constantly conflict with one another. When the absolutes do not conflict, there is rarely any controversy. But when absolutes do conflict, conservatism is forced into sophistry. In the case of Elian Gonzalez, two absolutes conflicted: keeping families together and not making people return to tyrannies. In a democratic society, the decision would be made through rational debate. Conservatism, however, required picking one of the two absolutes arbitrarily (based perhaps on tactical politics in Florida) and simply accusing anyone who disagreed of flouting absolutes and thereby nihilistically denying the fundamental order of the universe. This happens every day. Arbitrariness replaces reason with authority. When arbitrariness becomes established in the culture, democracy decays and it becomes possible for aristocracies to dominate people’s minds. Another example of conservative twisting of the language of conscience is the argument, in the context of the attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, that holding our side to things like the Geneva Convention implies an equivalence between ourselves and our enemies. This is a logical fallacy. The fallacy is something like: they kill so they are bad, but we are good so it is okay for us to kill. The argument that everything we do is okay so long as it is not as bad as the most extreme evil in the world is a rejection of nearly all of civilization. It is precisely the destruction of conscience.

…Or take the notion of “political correctness”. It is true that movements of conscience have piled demands onto people faster than the culture can absorb them. That is an unfortunate side-effect of social progress. Conservatism, however, twists language to make the inconvenience of conscience sound like a kind of oppression. The campaign against political correctness is thus a search-and-destroy campaign against all vestiges of conscience in society. The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.

…Some conservative rhetors have taken to literally demonizing the very notion of a democratic opposition. Rush Limbaugh has argued at length that Tom Daschle resembles Satan simply because he opposes George Bush’s policies. Ever since then, Limbaugh has regularly identified Daschle as “el diablo”. This is the emotional heart of conservatism: the notion that the conservative order is ordained by God and that anyone and anything that opposes the conservative order is infinitely evil.

There is a lot more there. I’d be interested if anyone thinks any of this is not an accurate description of what conservatism is. I wonder who else fits these characteristics? It seems we could call the Taliban an authoritarian hierarchy whose leaders believe they are more moral than their ‘subjects’. Any country with royalty as the governing body, Saudi Arabia for one. Hmm, who else? Iran’s religious leaders who are actually in control there, not the elected leaders.

Because conservatives think “damnation is an immediate form of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it gives some significance to living”, it is clear that conservatives will never be happy because what kind of person thinks life is boring without the threat of damnation? Well, an unhappy one.


One response to this post.

  1. Rush Limbaugh is a fat blithering slob along with his stupid conservatives. Arrest them for being terrorists.


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