What is a Conservative?

If you will allow a bohemian Tory, unrepentant of thoroughgoing traditionalist conservatism—a wholehearted defender of what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things”—an unapologetic Republican—and a proud American—to introduce himself.

Admittedly, being a conservative is difficult in this progressive and egalitarian age. I will not apologize for my conservatism, even as I know that conservatism is considered by some (not all) of leftist bent to be of a lower moral grade than devil-worship. Last year, some of you may remember, I sent a letter to the editor critiquing a story on the visit of journalist and Black Lives Matter primogenitor Ta-Nehisi Coates. The backlash to the letter was incredible, to say the least. I was mocked, threatened, and had about every profanity in the book thrown at me. To paraphrase my original letter, I was not surprised at the backlash, but I was disappointed.

Now, there are those of you, reading this right now, who wildly disagree with me—yet respect my opinion. Thank you. I respect yours as well, and maybe we can debate respectfully, listen to each other, learn from each other, and work together. As for those individuals who refuse to listen to anything I say or write, who close their ears and their minds and drown out dissent in a stream of “he’s a racist, she’s a racist, he’s a sexist, she’s a homophobe”—to those individuals, I invite you to talk with me and with other conservatives, to read this column, to consider the other side even as I’m considering your side every day. I assure you that I have neither horns nor pitchfork. If you do care about others, if your mind is open, or if you are yourself (God bless you!) of a conservative bent, then I invite you to come along for the ride over the next few weeks.

We may as well start by asking, “What is conservatism?” Of course, I can’t cover the topic in great detail in this short space. Russell Kirk, for example, devoted an entire 535-page book to it. Yet we can clear a few preliminary confusions, prevalent especially in this current madcap election, in which neither candidate is particularly conservative.

First of all, conservatism is not an ideology. Au contraire, the conservative recognizes that ideology is, as Kirk put it, “…a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise; but in cruel fact what ideology has created is a series of terrestrial hells.” Ideology is an inverted religion; it seeks to explain all aspects of life, including history and philosophy, with politics. Marxism, for example, is an ideology. There is a peculiarly Marxian march of history, a mish-mash of Hegel combined with class struggle. Conservatism is not an ideology—its primary focus is the revitalization of culture. Politics plays a major role in conservative thought, but it is not the only focus.

Second, we believe in tradition. We support traditional marriage, for example, because it is our heritage as a people, a culture, a civilization. We can no more change the meaning of a word and institution like marriage, referring to the intended lifelong union of man and woman, husband and wife, than you can change the meaning of the season autumn. We believe that we have learned, and are still learning, from the wisdom of our ancestors—the communion of souls that unites past, present, and future in one glorious moment. Tradition is our watchword—we care about it, because it is the only means by which we know our past to better our future. We stand strongly against chronological snobbery; we do not believe that something is correct simply because it is new. Our ancestors were the giants, and, if we see farther than they, it is only because we stand on their shoulders.

Third, in terms of politics, we support the politics of prescription. We do not despise change per se, but we dislike rapid and sweeping change. A surgeon does not slice open his patient without considering every risk, and even then he proceeds slowly and cautiously; a swimmer does not dive into a pool without first considering its depth.

Of course, it is not popular to talk about “the wisdom of our ancestors” or “the permanent things” in this era. I hope to examine these points with you over the next few weeks, especially in reference to what is happening around us nowadays. The conservative may be one of a dying breed in this fallen world, but (to paraphrase Kirk) one still capable of a last shrewd cut or thrust before twilight.

Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor