(Part 1 of 3)
“Egad!” one might say upon reading this title, “These uppity whipper-snappers are already disavowing conservatism? Well, that didn’t take long.” However, if traditionalist inertia habituates one to anything, let it be to patience in hearing us out. The sexy and exciting title functions only to garner an undue proportion of reader interest (i.e. the author is an attention whore). [And thus, a true hipster in his inconsistent seeking and eschewing of public notice. –Ed.]
This essay stands as the first in a series that will explore the limits of Edmund Burke’s conservatism. All hipster conservatives love this Anglo-Irishman for his thoughtful contributions to political philosophy and a host of other arts. For conservatives of the traditional persuasion, he is the gatekeeper of true conservative principles. He wards off the interventionist neocon, the chirping libertarian, and anyone boasting the title “revolutionary.” We owe the Father of Modern Conservatism a debt of gratitude; yet we also owe him careful critical reflection. I hope it is not presumptuous to claim Burke would want this. In this project I will examine insufficiencies of Burke’s ideas when applied to our particular historical situation and the current state of human consciousness. We’ll deal with the problem of traditions in this article, while others will contest cultural evolution and the nature of civilization.
First, let us look to a glaring difficulty that frustrates good conservatives everywhere: the absence of tradition in the contemporary situation. You may replace “the contemporary situation” with “today’s society,” “these days,” “modern times,” and even “now”; Mr. Dylan said it best: “The times, they are a-changin’.” This change denotes more than the ever-consuming mutability of life that caused Heraclitus to weep as he basked under the Ephesian sun. I refer instead to the current situation in America (and perhaps Europe) in which, broadly speaking, the post-Boomer generations have received no significant body of ancient tradition upon which to build or sustain a flourishing human community. What sanity the past offers us is consumed in a great inflation of ideas, most of which prove more vacuous and transient than these time-tested contributions to mankind. Burke depended on a living, organic tradition to tie departed generations with their future children. He deemed a healthy society would experience moderate, correcting natural growth from deep roots of inherited wisdom. Unfortunately, the progressive West has done its best to discard this body of knowledge, habit, and standards–with overwhelming success.
America finds itself in a particularly difficult situation because of our heritage. As my colleagues and I have already observed in these pages, at least part of the American narrative springs from the Puritans. This radical Protestant sect seems moderate, however, when compared to the Enlightenment theories that trailed behind it. Locke, Paine, the Scottish “salutary” enlightened–these are all well-known thinkers for anyone familiar with the Founding era. Such thoroughly modern, liberal ideas lie alongside other, premodern fibers in the American heritage (these latter are the hidden strands which Russell Kirk tried to rehabilitate). Yet though there is an alternative, conservative American tradition, rationalist politics and reformist Whiggery have a deep hold in the American mind. Part and parcel of this body of mental habits is a rejection of authoritative hierarchy and tradition. I say “authoritative” since, though liberals give no referential allegiance to the old, they do use hierarchy and tradition as dead instruments for progressing towards some inevitably better future. These liberal Enlightenment habits have been part of American political and social life for centuries now; ironically, progressivism is a tradition for most Americans. We simply cannot now call upon the received traditions of our fathers; at least some of them are self-defeating. Burke did not deny that different schools of thought had existed throughout history, but he did believe that the Jacobins and their revolutionary ilk had made a radical break with the Great Tradition of Western teaching. Now, Jacobinism and a host of other aberrances have in their turn been passed down over a couple hundred years, while all of the older ancient beliefs have been squeezed to the sidelines of discourse, where they appear similiar to one another by virtue of their contrast to Enlightenment liberalism.
With this problem in mind, the moderately pragmatic techniques of Burkean conservatism enter troubled waters. In the words of William James, what Burke actually believed about virtue, goodness, and a thriving community of souls is no longer a “live option.” There is no longer a strong enough consensus that holds to the English or Anglo-American tradition in order for Americans to be seen as moderate if they follow these venerable inheritances. Burke championed slow, moderate change of a sort which did not predominate in the years following his career. Burke and his peers would be baffled by contemporary manners–and utterly horrified at contemporary morality.
Today a person who calls upon the wisdom of the deceased maiores seems very, well, un-moderate. In order to pursue a life in accord with tradition, the individual must deliberately reject society’s ever-shifting moral and political fads. He must become, in a word, reactionary. A mere two hundred years ago, citizens commonly argued about the constitutionality of a central bank. As far back as the medieval barons (if not ancient poleis), thinkers and active statesmen alike pondered how much subordinates could reject a central authority’s edicts. Now, a candidate who espouses a particular strain of federalism is regarded as a raving lunatic; a constitutional dinosaur. Moderation values preservation of the status quo. For those baptized in the ethics of tradition, a troubling question arises for the 21st century: “What happens when the status quo is monstrous?” We have created and now maintain weapons that might destroy the world several times over; we attempt to solve the obvious results of sexual promiscuity by throwing condoms and abortifacients at teenagers; we supposedly vouchsafe peace and security by neurotic interventionism; we turn the daily news into entertainment. (Lest the reader misunderstand: it’s often so foolish as to defy satire). Don’t even get me started on farming and our entire food system. Several venerable ethical systems would require their adherents to reject these accepted positions wholesale, thus throwing them out of Camp Moderation. Our current moral situation has provoked no less a moderate than David Brooks to associate tradition with “fighting the Man.” Tradition no longer falls into our lap in order to form us; we have to pursue it and then swim against today’s cultural currents in tradition’s service. Indeed, in these days, the Burkean functions as a reactionary, not exactly as good Edmund had intended.
With things in this sorry condition, historical relativism tempts us to relegate Burke to his own particular chronological predicament, struggling to orient himself in the middle of the Enlightenment. This is an inadequate response to Burke. This unexpected fruit of pluralism–the destruction of tradition–is a cultural crisis which can best be answered in a spirit of reactionary defiance. The rhetoric of “movements” and “revolutions” has been exhausted and, quite frankly, is invalidated by Burkean conservatism’s spot on critique of ideology. We cannot simply evolve oganically with an ever-increasing tradition, which is Burke’s ideal of a settled community. Instead, we must call upon a “defunct” or archaic body of customs and beliefs, in defiance of progressivism. Every time I stand up for a lady to surrender my seat on the subway, I raise my fist against the idolatrous powers of equalization. Every self-grown tomato raised free from the ever-encroaching, ever-inhumane food industry is a weapon forged in revolt. I have been told that the gentleman went extinct with the fall of the aristocracy. I say he will never die as long as I walk the earth.