Conservatism, populism, and snobbery

In honor of the soon-to-be-beatified John Henry Newman, I'm reprinting this post of November 29, 2005 from the late, lamented Right Reason blog, in which the Cardinal is prominently quoted.

Conservatives are accused of all sorts of things, and sometimes the accusations are flatly incompatible. For instance, liberals often allege that conservatives want to do away with government almost entirely, though they also frequently claim that conservatives want to impose a police state in the name of national security or religious fundamentalism. How can both these accusations be true? The contradiction, many liberals would say, is not on their part, but on the part of conservatives. Conservatives, they allege, are inconsistent (unless they are just insincere) in claiming to uphold both small government and national security, both liberty and traditional morality. Some libertarians too would accuse conservatives of being either muddleheaded or insincere, and in particular of being disguised liberals or even socialists, since despite their talk of freedom conservatives typically refuse, either in rhetoric or in practice, to advocate the sort of minimal state preferred by Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick. To a certain kind of libertarian mind, if you favor even a modest social safety net, or airport weapons searches, or the criminalization of heroin, you are on all fours with Clement Attlee, and maybe even Joseph Stalin.

The truth, of course, is that conservatives are neither closet anarchists nor closet totalitarians. Nor are they muddleheaded. Indeed, if anyone is muddleheaded, it is those critics of conservatism who refuse to see that their way of dividing up the territory of possible views in political philosophy is too crude and simple-minded -- who assume, for example, that if you favor limited government, you must therefore also favor legalized abortion, or legalized pornography, or the rejection of all taxation, on pain of inconsistency. In fact, conservatives simply adhere to principles (natural law, Burkean, or whatever) that happen to entail, quite systematically and coherently, a view of the proper scope of state power that rejects both the extreme of statism and the opposite extreme of pure laissez-faire. When concepts like rights, freedom, property and the like are properly understood, they will, from the conservative point of view, be seen to rule out equally both anarchism and socialism, both libertarianism and egalitarian liberalism, and to favor something different from all of them. It might be that conservatives are mistaken, but they aren’t contradicting themselves or being disingenuous simply by virtue of defending a conservative (as opposed to liberal or libertarian) point of view.

Another area where inconsistent accusations are frequently hurled at conservatives is that of culture. Conservative critics of the modern university are often said to be beholden to an outmoded and elitist vision of the canon more suited to the Victorian era than the Age of Hip-Hop, and blind to the merits of incorporating studies of popular culture into the curriculum. In the sphere of religion, those who favor more traditional liturgical forms (e.g. Catholics attached to the Tridentine Mass) are dismissed as insensitive to the need for a more egalitarian spirituality of the sort enshrined in the substitution of the vernacular for Latin and the replacement of Gregorian chant with folk guitars and hand-clapping. At the same time, conservatives are also frequently accused of being the enemies of high culture and the champions of populist vulgarity. After all, aren’t those who vote for conservative parties more likely to attend a NASCAR event than an opera? Don’t conservatives want to cut funding for PBS while giving tax breaks to Wal-Mart?

An irony in this is that such charges are just as plausibly made against the very liberals who so glibly fling them at conservatives. It is liberals, after all, who have promoted the most vulgar of tastes in churches and classrooms – it wasn’t conservatives who gave us “clown Masses” and Porno 101 -- while also heaping contempt on those whose interest in public television goes no farther than Sesame Street, or who much prefer a Big Gulp to even a Beaujolais. The same people who take the most absurd pains to find deep meaning in the thuggish grunts of rappers like Tupac Shakur and Eminem seethe in their hatred for what they imagine to be the pop culture preferences of evangelical Christians, Southerners, and the denizens of trailer parks and shopping malls. Liberals are hardly outdone by conservatives in combining snooty elitism with egalitarian philistinism.

In any event, what we have here is once again a failure to understand that conservatism represents an alternative to the various attitudes it is falsely accused of embodying. Conservatism is neither populist nor snobbish, any more than it is either laissez-faire or statist. It does not believe that the common man is always right, and it does not believe that he is always wrong. While it is suspicious of the fleeting passions of the multitude, it is equally suspicious of those who would dismiss the deepest feelings of the mass of mankind as just so much ignorance and bigotry waiting to be socially engineered out of existence. The reason has to do with conservatism’s distinctive conception of moral and social knowledge, and with its organic view of society. The conservative takes respect for both untutored common sense and learned reflection, and indeed for both the common man and the learned man, to be essential to a well-ordered society.

Conservatism regards tradition as the distillation of the moral and social wisdom of centuries, and as embodying more information about the concrete and complex details of human life than is available to any single human mind or even any single generation. This by no means makes tradition infallible, but it does entail that there is a presumption in its favor, that traditional practices are more likely to serve human interests than anything someone might dream up from the comfort of the faculty lounge or seminar room, and that the burden of proof therefore lies with the moral or social innovator rather than the defender of tradition. (See here for a detailed exposition of one version of this sort of view, and a defense of it against several common misunderstandings.)

Now it is an occupational hazard of intellectuals to overestimate the power of individual human intelligence, and for this reason they are excessively prone to overestimate their ability to improve upon traditional institutions and practices. Non-intellectuals, by contrast, are more likely to have their deepest values shaped by long-standing tradition rather than by sustained reflection. As a result, intellectuals are bound to be more hostile to tradition and non-intellectuals more sympathetic to it, which entails, however seemingly paradoxically, that from the conservative point of view the average person is more likely than the intellectual is to be wise in the ways of the world, at least where morality and other aspects of everyday practical life are concerned. (Hence William F. Buckley’s famous line to the effect that he’d rather be governed by the first hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.)

Of course, the average person can sometimes be seriously wrong, but often this is a consequence of his having been led astray by some demagogic intellectual or pseudo-intellectual: the frustrated socialist agitator Mussolini and the frustrated artist Hitler are two vivid examples, and of course, demagogic communist pseudo-intellectuals are a dime a dozen (witness Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Che Guevara, et al.). Unruly and fleeting emotions stirred up in the face of immediate crises are not where the conservative sees the wisdom of the common man. Rather, it is in those sentiments that remain largely unaltered generation after generation, and through periods of calm as well as periods of emergency, that the average person is far more to be trusted than the intellectual. For these are the attitudes which, by virtue of their harmony with tradition, are most likely to reflect the truth about the human condition.

John Henry Newman had as refined and learned a mind as any, and yet he famously wrote that “I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be” (and this during the Victorian era, long before our flaccid therapeutic age). Part of what he meant is that the serious fervor and devotion that serious religion has always demanded of the believer if he is to be saved is hard to maintain when one is constantly worried that he might offend the sensibilities of others who believe differently, or if religion is watered down into a thin humanistic social justice ethic that differs little from its secular rivals. But the point has more general application, and is a sober one too, Newman’s colorful language notwithstanding. Even if traditional morality has, as the conservative insists, a rational presumption in its favor, it is also very demanding, and there are always temptations to fudge it wherever possible. It takes real deep-in-the-gut conviction on the part of the mass of mankind if it is generally to be respected, and this entails that it be treated as a sacred and unquestioned obligation rather than a negotiable debating position. If the justification for traditional morality is rationally superior to the justification for its overthrow, its real-world motivation nevertheless must, as a matter of sociological fact, be visceral rather than intellectual. Thus intellectuals, even conservative intellectuals, cannot be trusted to maintain it as faithfully as the common man; indeed, there is even a danger that, if the conservative intellectual too readily endorses his liberal critic’s insistence that a rational case for it must be made, he might inadvertently undermine its force by making it seem to be just one alternative among others. A truly conservative program, then, cannot rest content with the defense of conservative policy on social-scientific and abstract philosophical grounds; it must also be a defense of the epistemological credentials of the “prejudices” of the average person (in the sense of “prejudice” emphasized by Burke, viz. one’s instinctive sense of what is proper and improper, rooted in everyday human experience rather than abstract reason) and thereby of their right to hold the views they do on the basis of such “prejudice.”

At the same time, rough pub dwellers and street sweepers are not the people Newman, or any other sane person, wants writing his philosophy books. Nor, since tradition, and thus the prejudices of the common man, can sometimes be wrong, can they simply be given the last word (even if, to paraphrase J. L. Austin on ordinary language, they are the first word). The learned have their proper place in society too, which sometimes involves correcting the errors of the vulgar -- even if only on the basis of more ultimate premises that the learned share with the vulgar, rather than on the basis of some novel metaphysic and ethic spun from whole cloth. And that the learned, and everyone else, have their place brings us to the other component of the conservative attitude toward culture, the organic conception of society mentioned above. For the conservative, it is not the business of the learned condescendingly to scorn the tastes and attitudes of the multitude, and it is not the business of the multitude ignorantly to despise the subtleties of the learned. Every person plays a necessary function in the body of society, and his tastes and cultural practices will naturally reflect his position in the overall order. The reflections of philosophers and poets give guidance and inspiration to the community, but the common sense of the average person provides ballast, ensuring that the rarefied speculations of intellectuals never range too far from the hard earth of ordinary human experience. Here, as in other areas of human life, the conservative tends to see those in different walks of life as complementing each other rather than competing with each other: men need women, and women need men; the young need the old, and the old need the young; labor needs capital, and capital needs labor; and so forth. As Russell Kirk put it (quoting Marcus Aurelius) “We are made for cooperation, like the hands, like the feet.”

From the conservative point of view, it is pathological to think that vulgar tastes – and especially ones that are not merely vulgar, but positively immoral, as is the case with vast swaths of what passes for popular entertainment today -- ought to be set on a par with refined ones, as if comic books and epic poetry were merely different kinds of “texts” to which a scholar might devote his attention. But it is also folly to suppose that everyone could be made to appreciate literature, fine art, and music if only funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were increased. (Indeed, the two tendencies work in symbiosis: egalitarians pretend that everyone is capable of the most refined learning, and to prove it, they redefine what counts as “refined learning” so that college courses in “rock history” and “hip-hop culture” can help a young “scholar” more easily “earn” a bachelor’s degree.) Action movies and race cars, cheeseburgers and milk shakes have their place, just as much as philosophy and poetry, fine food and fine wine. To scorn the latter is to be a vulgarian; to scorn the former is to be a snob. Things go wrong when either the vulgarian or the snob has the upper hand. They go very badly indeed when vulgarians and snobs share power, as they do in modern Western society, which seems to be ruled jointly by the Rupert Murdochs and NPR bureaucrats of the world. Things go well when both common and refined tastes are afforded their due respect as necessary parts of the overall social order -- that is to say, when the conservative sensibility prevails.
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