Sunday, January 15, 2017

Conservatism? Liberalism? What do we mean?

Conservatism and liberalism are notoriously ambiguous terms. They are relative by their very nature. Conservative? Liberal? With respect to what? And what do we mean by them? Understood in its political sense, classical 'liberalism' promoted views that would be regarded at 'conservative' today: minimal government with a severely restricted job description: the protection of life, liberty, and property. Furthermore, both terms have also non-political meanings, such as theological or cultural 'liberalism' or 'conservatism.'

A friendly colleague recently described herself as a "liberal" on Facebook. She did this during the politically-contentious election season, and I think her description was meant to distance herself, in part, from the mud-slinging we witnessed on both sides of that event, but also, in part, to distance herself from the slurs of racism, sexism, xenophobia, coarseness, and ugliness that the media did their best to identify unilaterally with Trump and other 'deplorable' opponents of Democratic party enlightenment, just as they portrayed Hillary as polished, professional, refined, etc. (Who can forget Michelle Obama's remark: "When they go low, we go high"!)

I commented on my colleague's Facebook post that by her description of 'liberalism,' I, too, saw myself as a 'liberal'-- educated, high-minded, open-minded, concerned for the poor and dispossessed, desiring to be fair and generous toward others, etc. Yet I cannot imagine that this did not produce at least a little bat squeak of cognitive dissonance, in that part of her intended meaning was surely political and she very likely did not regard my severe criticisms of Hillary and her sycophant media promoters as 'liberal' in any sense of the word.

There is a very good discussion of conservatism and liberalism in R. R. Reno's editorial in the latest issue of First Things (February 2017), though couched in a deeper analysis of "Gratitude for the Given" that pervades traditional Christian understandings of one's fatherland or motherland, which involves accepting limitations but with a disposition that allows us to rest in thankfulness for all that is good in our national heritage.

Modern liberalism, says Reno, discourages rest:
We must work in the present for the sake of the future. Everything is subject to improvement, which means we are required to forsake the mode of enjoyment. The injustices tolerated by our system of government cry out for remedy. We need a living Constitution, one plastic and available for the great and the good to use in order to bring us into a better future. The same goes for our history and traditions. They must be critiqued and updated so that they are more diverse and inclusive. By this way of thinking, gratitude for the given brings complacency, and complacency is an enemy of the future.
Conservatism, on the other hand, comes from a sober recognition of limits -- or, perhaps, getting mugged by reality:
We are fallible, fallen creatures, and the conservative learns to doubt the efficacy of the grand schemes of progressivism, efforts of social transformation that often require the power of government. Ignorance, self-interest, greed, hubris, sloth -- these and other vices, so stubbornly resistant to the beneficent ministrations of progress, subvert even the best plans. The conservative, therefore, argues for political humility. We should seek to ameliorate injustices and make marginal improvements in our political system. But let's not imagine we can perfect society with a master-stroke of social engineering.
But Reno goes on to tie in this traditional conservative skepticism into what Yuval Levin calls a "conservatism of gratitude," as adumbrated earlier. He also goes on to discuss these alternatives in combination with other variables such as libertarianism, utilitarianism, and free-market purism, finally returning to themes of tradition (Chesterton's "democracy of the dead"), gratitude, repose and rest in politics that comes ultimately from Pax Christi. There is so much more that could and should be said here, but here are, at least, some chestnuts of wisdom worth tucking away in one's mental pocket to mull over in the days and months ahead.

Distantly related: George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"


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