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June 2019

Conservatism, Briefly Defined Described

Several days ago I wrote about the Ahmari-French argument, which might better be termed the liberal-postliberal argument (meaning classical liberalism, not the current party label), and which is currently happening on the right. See this post. I don't entirely agree with either side, and am not much interested in participating in the argument, so will not bother trying to articulate my view.

It's been something like forty years now since I somewhat reluctantly admitted that I had become, for lack of a better word, a conservative. But I've always maintained a certain distance from the conservative movement, and had only limited interest in the never-ending debate about What It Means To Be A Conservative.

Conservatism, as Russell Kirk said, is the negation of ideology. Or it ought to be. Accordingly, it resists definition. A decade or so ago I had an unpleasant argument with a traditionalist Catholic who had, in my opinion, taken Thomistic (or just scholastic?) logic where it doesn't readily go, and insisted (triumphantly) that because conservatism could not be defined precisely it must not exist. Cf. jazz, I thought; I can't remember whether I said it or not. That something cannot be defined in a complete and unambiguous way does not mean that we cannot speak of it.

The following note is from Kevin Williamson's entry in the Ahmari-French controversy. Both French and Williamson write for National Review and are in rough agreement on the question at hand. But this struck me as a fundamental truth that transcends that question:

Conservatives have always been, and will always be, at a disadvantage against the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right in that conservatives believe that it very often is the case that there is nothing to be done, or not much to be done, that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt which on that basis.

A few (?) months ago someone complained that I had "gotten so reactionary." Well, I may or may not be fairly described as reactionary, but if I am I have not gotten that way anytime recently. I've held pretty much the same basic political views since that transition forty years ago. Williamson expresses very well the foundation on which those views rest. I would add that "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. The list of specific policies that it requires or rejects as being intrinsically good or bad is fairly short. 

I sometimes think conservatives are in a situation something like that of Cordelia in King Lear. Her father is enraged by the modesty of her profession of love and duty toward him. The extravagant promises of Goneril and Regan are much more pleasing, so naturally he thinks better of them--for a while.

Of course conservative hopes can sometimes be overly modest, willing to tolerate evils that could be ameliorated (though probably not obliterated). A perfect balance between the impulse to preserve and the impulse to improve would be...perfect. And is unlikely.


Some people say "conservativism" instead of "conservatism." I've always thought it sounded cumbersome and a little silly, like Peter Schickele's "musicalologist." But a few days ago I read someone's case for it as being more correct. "Liberal" is made into the noun "liberalism," not "liberism." "Conservative" therefore should become concrete in something called "conservativism."

This is going to bother me for the rest of my life.

If You Like Waugh's Sword of Honor Trilogy... might like the two books reviewed here: Going to the Wars and A Dinner of Herbs by John Verney.

Verney was born in 1913 and, like many young men of his generation, was sufficiently concerned by the threat of Nazi Germany to the peace of Europe and the security of Great Britain that, in 1937, he joined the Territorial Army, or yeomanry, whose members trained as soldiers during summer holidays and on weekends. Verney found the men with whom he was thrown into association rather unfathomable: “My brother officers. Are they human?,” he asks.

I was reading along in this review and thinking "Sounds like a non-fiction Sword of Honor." Then I came to this:

The first volume of this duo appeared in the same year as the second book in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; one wonders whether Verney had read Waugh’s Men at Arms, the first novel in the trilogy, published in 1952, because the tone of voice is uncannily similar. That could be not least because Waugh, though a decade older than Verney, came from a similar background and endured a similarly frustrating war spent partly on special operations.

A Dinner of Herbs came out in 1966, and I very vaguely recall hearing of it back then, which probably means that it was reviewed in Time or some other mass magazine. I note that new hardcover copies of the original edition are selling for over $280, and used ones over $60. 



Unfortunately, I'm Right

Some twenty-five years ago I wrote a piece for Caelum et Terra in which I asserted that a fundamental weakness of the American system is that it is agnostic on the ultimate questions. The Constitution defines a structure and a set of procedures that are meant to be philosophically and theologically neutral. It assumes a workable consensus on the fundamental questions, and therefore has no mechanism for coping with fundamental disagreements. Now that such disagreements have arrived, and on a scale where each side has enough political power to prevent either from totally dominating the other, we're in trouble.

The current argument raging among conservatives is at least partly about that same question, and it caused me to re-read my essay. And I think I was right. Am right: that the ethical consensus which underlay [the Constitution] has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them. To look to it for assistance in matters of first principles is like reading the owner’s manual of your car in hope of learning where you ought to go: as if a family, having decided to pack up and move, were to expect that by reading the instructions for checking the oil and changing a tire they would learn whether or not they could expect to find contentment in Chattanooga.

You can read the whole essay here, though I should note that it's on the long side for online reading (somewhere around 6,000 words). I think it holds up well, though I probably wouldn't write that last section today in a political context. Euthanasia has not made nearly as much progress as I expected it to, but sexual "liberation" has gone much further. It is all too accurate now to say that the people do not agree about what a human being is.

If you haven't heard about it, the argument I'm referring to is between conservatives who are beginning to give up on the whole classical liberal project and those who think it can still be saved.

Political liberals have long been impatient with the Constitution, pushing the concept of a "living Constitution," a sort of secular version of the interpretive technique by which progressive theologians make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Political conservatives, aka classical liberals, have defended the Constitution as written and as straightforwardly understood ("strict construction," "original intent," etc.). This argument has been going on for a long time--my high school civics teacher staged a debate on the question fifty years ago. (I took the progressive side.)

In recent years there have been more voices on the left calling either explicitly or implicitly for the whole thing to be disregarded or dumped ("written by dead white males," etc. etc. etc.) Now some on the right are beginning to give up on classical liberalism, which of course has been pretty much the essence of American conservatism. (I know, the terminology is confusing, but you have to use it to talk intelligently about this stuff.) Ross Douthat has a pretty good overview of the controversy in the New York Times. Follow his links if you want to know more.

Personally I have a great deal of sympathy for the David French side of the argument. As I said here quite a few years ago, I would like to preserve and reform the American constitutional order, and I haven't changed my mind about that. Nor do I have any enthusiasm for the idea of Christian/Catholic integralism, especially considering the character of the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy now. But I fear that the argument is becoming irrelevant. Possibly the greater danger is that the citizenry as a whole no longer really care about preserving the republic that the Constitution defines. Many on both the left and the right are looking (mostly unconsciously, but evidently) for some sort of authority figure to lead the forces of good against those of evil. Or, less apocalyptically, to be the benevolent and all-powerful Father of the Nation who will provide for them. As different as Obama and Trump are, you can see the tendency plainly among the enthusiastic followers of both.


Some Dad-Rock for Father's Day

The existence of the term "dad-rock" has only recently come to my attention, although I think it's been around for several years. It seems to be a mostly pejorative label for some of the rock of the '60s and '70s that old guys like, overlapping "classic rock" to a great degree, as far as I can tell. And more or less synonymous with "boring"--dull and predictable and conventional, at least from the vantage point of today, when there is so much brilliant innovation in popular music. Since I'm a "dad" of that generation (although all my children are, as of this year, past 30), I thought it would be appropriate to present some of my favorites from those old days. On the mellow and sentimental side for contemporary tastes, perhaps, but, you know, we were young and idealistic back then.

(Take that, whippersnappers.)

Mark Sirett: Veni Sancte Spiritus

I went looking for a musical setting of the Pentecost sequence and found this rather wonderful one. I did not recognize Mark Sirett's name but apparently he is a well-regarded choral composer. He incorporates the text in both Latin and English, which must have been pretty tricky. And the person who made this video shows them both, which makes this rather a treasure.


When You See Ralph Vaughn Williams's Name On a Hymn...

...treat it as a sort of caution. The man made few concessions to congregations. You can always count on his tunes to veer off from the predictable. We sang, or tried to sing, "Hail Thee, Festival Day" at Mass this morning (I know, it's really an Easter hymn, but it's reasonably appropriate for Pentecost, too). I can handle the chorus well enough, but I get completely lost in the verses. As seemed to be the case for almost everyone else in our little congregation.

As a legatee of "the Anglican patrimony," which is about the only context in which we are supposed to use the word "Anglican" in discussing the Ordinariate(s), I'm entitled to refer to use Whitsun, Whitsunday, and Whitsuntide to refer to Pentecost Sunday and the week following it. This does not however come naturally to me. We did not use those terms in the Methodist church where I grew up, or even in the Episcopal church where I landed for a few years on my way to Rome. So the first thing that comes to mind when I hear "Whitsun" is Phillip Larkin's poem, one of his best: "The Whitsun Weddings." It's very much a post-Christian poem, a fact only emphasized by the presence of the word.


In the Ordinariate, we observe the Octave of Pentecost, which was apparently abolished after Vatican II. I'm going to be praying the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer every day this week. God knows we need for wind and fire to sweep through the Church now. 

For Me, This Is Dr. John

I think I bought the Babylon album on the basis of a review when it was released in 1969. He was known as Dr. John the Night Tripper at the time and was a somewhat mysterious figure. This was his second album, and now that I think about it I may have bought this one because I couldn't find his first, Gris-gris. I didn't know what to make of it and I never listened to it all that much, but it has stuck with me. And it's this sound and vibe that I most associate with his name, not the later more straightforward R&B stuff. I think "Babylon" is meant to represent Los Angeles. It worked then and it works now.

RIP Mack Rebennack aka Dr. John.

And now I want to hear that first album.


Sally Read: Night's Bright Darkness

I've often wondered, when listening to or reading someone who seems to be a really hardened anti-Christian, what it would take to crack that shell. I say "seems" because of course one can never tell from the outside what's going on inside a person. And I say "anti-Christian" rather than "anti-religious" or "anti-theist" because for cultural reasons hostility to theistic religion is in the Western world most often, most explicitly, and most vigorously hostility to Christianity. 

This is not the simple skepticism which has been ascendant in Western culture for a couple of centuries. It's hostility, an engagement of the emotions as much as or more than the intellect, because Christianity is a significant obstacle to what is generally viewed as progress toward liberation, especially sexual liberation.

If I had met Sally Read fifteen or so years ago I might have thought she was just such a person, and wondered about her in just this way. And yet here is this excellent little book (147 pages) which tells just such a story of the breaking of a shell of resistance. Her father was a fairly militant atheist, and from early in life she followed in his intellectual footsteps. In the book she doesn't explicitly go into the question of feminism as such (as far as I recall), but it seems implied in her general outlook, though perhaps not in a fervently ideological way. And feminism is generally hostile, often extremely hostile, to Christianity. (Yes, I know there is such a thing as Christian feminism. I think it's a pretty uneasy and unstable mix, though, in the long run turning into the one thing or the other. Feminism as a complete theory of humanity is simply not compatible with Christianity.) 

Fundamental to her view of the world was something pretty close to contempt for all religion, especially for Christianity, and most especially for the Catholic Church, which she saw as more or less insane. But you can see that the seeds of faith were there. To start with, there is her father's commitment to atheism as truth. However mistaken in its immediate object, commitment to truth is always commitment to God. 

And there are those deep movements of the soul which are often obscure even to ourselves. When she finds herself "sitting on the floor of [her] flat in Belsize Park and saying lucidly, "This is hell. I'm in hell," she resists the impulse to reach toward God: "I thought I could never lower myself to that degree of self-delusion." But having the impulse to reach is itself an implicit reaching. 

Later on, in a conversation with a friend who confesses to believing in God, she makes nonconfession, and it was a courageous bleakness I felt. I knew there was no God above. It was as if I had looked into an empty dish and simply declared it to be empty. 

But she doesn't want this to be true, and that not-wanting is also a way of reaching.

And there is the cunning of providence. She plans to write a book called The Vagina: An Owner's Handbook. And in this book she wants to write about the experiences of absolutely every kind of woman, including nuns--she is living in Italy--but she is unsure of how to approach one, and doesn't want to "spook" those who run the preschool her daughter attends. 

The only other link I had with the Catholic Church was tenuous--a friend of friends, a Canadian Byzantine-rite priest. He was about my age, with black, merry eyes, and seemed approachable. Perhaps he could introduce me to a nun. One day, ticking off chores on my work list, I fired off an email:

    Dear Father, I'm writing a book about the vagina.

So begins a crucial relationship in which, by email and over coffee, she beats Fr. Gregory with every rhetorical club she can lay her hands on. And apparently he sometimes hit back. She describes the weeks that followed as a fight, and it clearly was, and not only with Fr. Gregory.

And then there are the experiences, the direct contacts with the divine. This is where things get really puzzling, where I wonder why her? Why, of all the scornful non-believers in the world, does God come to her, and not to so many others who seem very much like her? Sure, her inner movement and her circumstances prepared her, but that doesn't answer the question, only moves it back a few steps. 

Conversion stories are all similar in many ways, and yet they remain interesting, because that complex interweaving of the personal and the circumstantial and the divine is different in each one. Demographic and sociological categories are irrelevant to God's relationship with any individual. I read this book shortly after reading Dawn Eden Goldstein's (see this post and this one). In one broad respect at least they are quite similar, in that both women are in many ways fairly typical of the sort of person who does not convert, who does not come anywhere near it. And yet here they are. For that matter, here I am, part of a tiny, tiny minority among those who would have seemed, ca. 1970, very much like me. Why me?

That skeptical and often hostile modern mind that I mentioned earlier has for some time been expecting and predicting the death of  Christianity and especially of the Catholic Church. I've heard more than one person in recent years assert with confidence that "the Catholic Church is dying." Setting aside the divine promises which non-Christians naturally do not believe exist, speaking only in human terms, that death is unlikely in the extreme. There will always be people for whom a life of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, whether or not successful in those efforts, will not be enough. It's the way the human person is made. Why is that, I wonder?

I haven't told anything like the whole story here, so don't get the impression that you know the book from reading this notice. It's really very good. I was flipping through it a little while ago and thinking I'd have liked for it to be somewhat longer. I don't think that about many books. 


Dawn Eden Goldstein On the Idea of a Priestless Church

I can't imagine why The Atlantic thought it was a good idea not only to publish a piece written by an ex-Catholic-priest (and apparently more or less ex-Catholic) called "Abolish the Priesthood," but to put it on the cover. I suppose it might appeal to the average reader of The Atlantic as a step toward abolishing the Church altogether. But do the editors not realize how tired this alienated progressive Catholicism is, how often arguments of this sort have been made? I may be doing the author an injustice, but I barely skimmed the article, figuring I'd heard it all before.

However, it did produce this excellent response from Dawn Eden Goldstein, which was, surprisingly, published in America. I love that phrase "the poetry of not being sick."