Links and Comments: Why I am Not a Conservative

Every once in a while an op-ed in the New York Times, or a book review in NYT or PW (Publishers Weekly), will be on the subject of defending conservative values. I have a very basic intellectual grasp of what conservatism means — nothing at all having to do with the current presidential administration, of course — yet as always I check these new pieces out and consider or reconsider them in the broader context of human and human social evolution (as Steven Pinker has done in his past couple books; I come in to this on Pinker’s side, the side of the Enlightenment).

Here is the latest, a review in last Sunday’s NYTBR of a book by Roger Scruton, called Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, the review by Michael S. Roth. (The title of the review in print is “Against Progress: Roger Scruton calls on liberals to examine their assumption.” The title online is “Defending Conservatism, and Seeking Converts.”)

According to the review, the book addresses familiar themes.

At the core of “Conservatism” is the idea that human beings live naturally together in communities and that we “desire to sustain the networks of familiarity and trust on which a community depends for its longevity.” We may be rational beings capable of planning our future, but we also need customs and institutions to ground and sustain us over time. Good things, Scruton wisely notes, “are more easily destroyed than created.”

Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, yes yes. And yet:

Scruton knows that conservatism is a reaction against the Enlightenment confidence in improving the world through the use of reason, but he is at pains to distinguish the thinkers he admires from mere reactionaries. His philosophers don’t want to return to the past, he insists. Yet he provides no clue as to how they decide which traditions are worth preserving. Burke may have protested against the cruelties of slavery and imperial domination, but there have been plenty of conservatives who defended these practices. Scruton’s account of the conservative defense of freedom includes not a word about colonialism or racism. To paraphrase what he says of the American conservative Russell Kirk, Scruton just picks the conservative flowers that appeal to him.

And so Scruton needs a common enemy, and picks… the Muslims.

Scruton can no longer find worthy Communist adversaries, so at the end of the book he turns against Muslims, hoping for a “rediscovery of ourselves” by stoking fear and loathing against those who he says do not share “our” religious or political inheritance. He knows how this will sound to many of his readers, so he warns them against thinking he’s just being racist. But one doesn’t have to be politically correct or to participate in what Scruton calls the “culture of repudiation” to find it unfortunate that a philosopher should stoop so low. The “great tradition” Scruton describes can attract study and respect without stimulating nasty chauvinism. His “well-meaning liberal” readers will find Scruton’s deft handling of a variety of conservative thinkers enlightening (if I may use that word), but they will be appalled at the grand old tradition of scapegoating he employs to rally the troops.

Sigh. My understanding of conservatism is that it values tradition, and human institutions, and at root is based on a core understanding of human nature that finds it unreliable, that individual humans are inevitably flawed (given to sin in Christian parlance), and must be protected from themselves by the institutions of culture, which must not be destroyed. The Enlightenment project of science and reason to improve the human condition — which seems to have worked remarkably well, c.f. Steven Pinker’s books — cannot be trusted, in the conservative view.

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I heard a similar theme recently (August 1st) on Michael Krasney’s Forum radio show — produced here in the Bay Area by KQED but syndicated and broadcast nationally — with Conservative Columnist Mona Charen on the Failings of Feminism. Her book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense [beware appeals to common sense!!]. The summary on the KQED website captures the theme:

In her new book, “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch With Science, Love, and Common Sense,” conservative columnist Mona Charen explains why she thinks feminism has made women more vulnerable and less happy. Although she believes the sexes should be treated equally, Charen says pretending men and women are the same is naive and dangerous. Charen joins us to discuss where she believes feminism has gone wrong.

There are several items to respond to here: no one thinks men and women are the same; this was a leftist fantasy in the ’60s and ’70s, long since discredit by science (E.O. Wilson, and more recently Pinker — one of the first examples, via Wilson, of how I changed my mind about something). Second, the show featured numerous callers who challenged her characterization of feminism, which most of us think is an expansion of options, the willingness to grant women the same options as men — not to in any way to force women, any particular women, to do anything they don’t want to do. And third: growing up means becoming more vulnerable and less happy, than in innocent childhood.

The theme of her talk, I detected again and again, was the conservative idea that these issues of how best to live have been solved, and need to be imposed on those too irresponsible to know what’s best for them. There’s a paternalism, so to speak, in how conservatives presume to tell other people how to live their lives. (Which is ironic, considering how they criticize, in other contexts, the ‘nanny state’.)

This is a key reason I am not a conservative even in the broadest intellectual sense. I don’t believe humanity is inherently flawed; I do think progress is possible (the evidence is all around us); I think the perception of flawed humanity is the conflict between, in E.O. Wilson’s take, individual and group selection, the constant tug between short-term and long-term strategies to survive. (And as George R.R. Martin put it last night in his on-stage interview: there are no good guys and bad guys. In every person is the potential for goodness and the potential for greed, sometimes on alternate days.)

Another key reason I am not inclined at all toward conservatism is that modern conservatism, never mind the authoritarian outlier of the current president, allies itself, in order to desperately preserve its valued institutions, with things that simply aren’t true. Thus conservatism’s hostility to science, and its identification of the reality of the world, from its evolutionary and cosmic history to the long term threats that might destroy our civilization, and even our species.

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