Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

Is there a conservative tradition in America?

That provocative question is the title of a recent article by Patrick Deneen, and for many readers his answer will be even more provocative: No, American conservatives are at best conservative liberals.

What could he mean by that? Aren't conservatives and liberals polar opposites? As Deneen explains, though, most of the central tenets of contemporary American conservatism, which he summarizes fairly and accurately in a five-point list, can be traced back to the principles of the liberal philosophical tradition, the tradition associated with the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Between these two thinkers, Locke has been the more influential in American political thought--the Declaration of Independence even borrows some of his language--and it is his ideas which formed the basis of what is often called classical liberalism (to avoid confusion with progressive liberalism). Classical liberalism in the course of the 19th century developed into utilitarianism, and in the 20th century morphed into libertarianism. Classical liberalism certainly has not been as radical as progressive liberalism, and is therefore more conservative, but--and this is Deneen's main point--it has always remained a form of liberalism, and for that reason is not truly conservative.

Deneen has performed a great service by identifying the true origin of mainstream American conservatism. Unfortunately, Deneen is only able to outline the conflict between, on the one hand, liberalism and utilitarianism, and, on the other hand, a more traditional or "reactionary" conservatism that found its greatest modern exponent in the English-speaking world in the likes of Edmund Burke, but whose origins can be found in the natural law theories of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. (Deneen's outline approach is probably due to the fact that he wrote the article in the form of a talk he gave at an ISI event in Washington, DC, called "conservatism on tap"; I suspect he expanded on some of his points in greater detail in response to questions.)

There is much more to Deneen's article than this simple summary contains, especially his critique of the Straussians and of Glenn Beck's reading of American history--so read the whole article!--but it does have one flaw--though it should be made clear that this is a relatively minor (and perhaps unintentional) flaw in what is otherwise an excellent article, and is probably just a quibble over terminology.

This flaw is Deneen's use of the term "collectivism" to describe his own conservatism. A better word would be "communitarianism." Collectivism is usually used to describe 20th-century ideologies like Communism, Nazism, and fascism. Collectivism, given the right historical circumstances, is the end development of individualism, the final deconstruction of society from a local, hierarchic, and estate-based structure into a mere collection of atomized individuals. Collectivism takes atomized individuals and unifies them, but in a great mass that actually deprives them of their individuality. Collectivism, then, is the form of politics corresponding to mass society in its worst possible form. Collectivism, therefore, is rightfully rejected by conservatives of all stripes.

Where Deneen parts company with mainstream conservatives, though, is with his insistence that individualism is not the answer to America's problems.

Communitarianism, on the other hand, is the golden mean between individualism and collectivism. What distinguishes communitarianism is that it recognizes that the bonds that tie individuals together--religion, family, and local commitments--are good. People need limits, such as hierarchical structures and authority, in order to flourish as individuals, not lifestyle freedom.

Those readers interested in reading more about the internecine feuds among American conservatives, though hopefully in a more irenic tone than is normally heard in such arguments, might want to look at these two earlier posts on conservatives and libertarians.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rooms of St. Clare

One has only to go into any room
in any street for the whole of that
extremely complex force of
femininity to fly in one's face.

-Virginia Woolf

Hers is the mystery of rooms.
The room from whose window she watches
Francis walk across the Piazza San Rufino
and into whose tapestried forest
          she withdraws
to seek the unicorn's white horn
that brings her to that other room
where Bishop Guido places
the palm into her open soul.

Rooms open on rooms.
St. Mary of the Angels, the room of vows
that open onto the nuns at Bastia,
the monastery on Mount Subasio, and
San Damiano with its rooms God has prepared for her,
each room conforming to the contours of her soul
like a fitted wedding dress.
There at San Damiano
she crosses the threshold
          into the Royal Chamber.
Above the marble altar-bed she sees
herself in the mirror that spoke to Francis.
She's radiant, calm, pure with desire.
She kneels and the room
opens upon mansions of possibility;
other brides cross the threshold with her,
fill the rooms of their own espousals.
Rooms spill out into streets of their village,
a courtyard around whose well they gather
to draw water, talk their own domesticity.
They gather for church
          like women inside Assisi's
walls. They sing psalms, share the Bread of Life,
after which they pass
          a further threshold
into Lady Poverty's dining room where Clare
blesses another bread
          crossed with want and penance.

But it is the steep ascent from choir
through the narrow passageway
into their Bridal Chamber
that lifts Clare and the Poor Ladies above routine.
For there is the room of redemptive suffering where
Clare ministers to her sick sisters,
lies bedridden sewing albs and altar linens.
There she opens the door, kneels
before her Eucharistic Lord, and
prays away the threatening advances
of the Emperor's mercenary soldiers.

There in the room of consummations
she holds her Rule that holds
all the rooms of the Poor Ladies' lives.
She presses the Book of Rooms to her heart and
Crosses the final threshold into all the rooms of her life
          now graced with Him
who is the mirror she enters without effort,
without shattering the glass that
holds her image inside His.

-Murray Bodo, OFM

From Francis and Clare in Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Janet McCann and David Craig (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Happy Constitution Day!

Yes, yes, I know the actual holiday was on Friday, but this evening will be the annual celebration at the University of Dallas. The evening features barbecue, Shiner, a patriotic address and then singing. Lots of singing. The measure of a good Constitution Day is if you leave hoarse. In honor of this fine festival, I share a few of my favorites.

The evening begins with songs of the Revolution and the early Republic, then moves to Confederate songs and finally to those of the Civil War's victors.

(For those of you reading this on Facebook, click here for the YouTube video of "The Bonnie Blue Flag".)

One of the great things about the lyrics to this song are the strange rhymes in later verses. Words like "mar" rhyme with the recurring "star", but "rare" or "prefer"? I'm afraid not. At one point "Florida" is stuck in there, making no attempt at all to continue the rhyme. There are other fun ones: I guess "given" rhymes with "eleven", but it still sounds funny when you sing it.

(Click here for the YouTube, if you can't see the video.)

This songs works best with periodic shouting. The most popular lines for this practice are not the obvious "shouting the battle cry of freedom", since it occurs far too often, twice in every verse. Instead, the best words to shout are usually the last words of the third line of every verse. This works particularly well with "[singing] And although he may be poor, he will [shouting] never be a slave!" The song is made even more boisterous by a great sweeping of fists into the air every time the line "up with the star" occurs. I highly recommend it.

(Click here for video.)

This is a slightly odd video of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," containing rare color footage of World War II. Also, strangely enough, the song is performed by Russia's Red Army Choir. But I found that this rendition had adequate "We're going to whip the bad guys!" gusto, which other versions (such as that by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) lacked.

Happy Constitution Day!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Vanity of Human Hopes & The Abuse of the Printing Press

This summer I went to a gigantic used book sale. How gigantic? Books filled at least eight large rooms, some of which would probably be better described as "halls." Many of the books were hard to find and out of print, and nearly all cost under $5.

And yet, in what should have been heaven for a bibliophile like myself, I found only two books that I thought worth acquiring: a cheap copy of Meier Helmbrecht, and Critics of the Enlightenment. When I left the sale with only two books in hand, I realized that there was a reason why most of those books were out of print: Most of them weren't very good. How many of those authors had wasted their time producing mediocre books, whether in the hope of writing the next great novel or of making an original contribution to scholarship?

This thought reminded me of a few aphorisms by Nicolás Gómez Dávila:
Literature dies not because nobody writes, but when everybody writes. (#1,256)

The abuse of the printing press is due to the scientific method and the expressionist aesthetic. To the former because it allows any mediocre person to write a correct and useless monograph, and to the latter because it legitimizes the effusions of any fool. (#1,586)

This phenomenon is, of course, not new, and predates the 20th century's expressionist aesthetic. Here is what Dr. Johnson had to say about the glut of worthless books filling libraries in his day:
No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes, than a publick library; for who can see the wall crouded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate enquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue, and preserved only to encrease the pomp of learning, without considering how many hours have been wasted in vain endeavours, how often imagination has anticipated the praises of futurity, how many statues have risen to the eye of vanity, how many ideal converts have elevated zeal, how often wit has exulted in the eternal infamy of his antagonists, and dogmatism has delighted in the gradual advances of his authority, the immutability of his decrees, and the perpetuity of his power?

--Samuel Johnson, The Rambler 106 (Saturday, March 23, 1751)

As far as we know, some medieval monks probably made the same complaint as they copied books by hand in their scriptoria. And they would not have been completely wrong, even in a time when books were precious rarities. In every age, there is an abundance of information, but so little wisdom.

(Hat tips: Michael Gilleland; make sure to click through to see the amusing photo accompanying the quotation from Dr. Johnson. Picture from book lovers never go to bed alone.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Peter Hart, Historian

I tend to think of my fellow historians as falling into one of two categories: living and dead. My own advisor is living, as are the sort of people I run into at conferences. There are other historians, such as the great golden calf smasher, A. J. P. Taylor, who are deceased and hopefully resting in peace. After a long and profitable career, a historian may gently slip from the former category to the latter. My current rabbi, M. R. D. Foot, was born in 1919 and has produced more books that I have time to read, much less could ever write. Some day he will pass from this life, and though his passing will be mourned, his rest will be well-deserved and unsurprising.

Today, however, I had the unfortunate experience to discover that a young historian, Peter Hart, passed away in July at the much too early age of 46. His work on the Irish Revolution has been of great help to me; just yesterday I was reading The IRA and Its Enemies. One can only hope that his forthcoming work, Guerrilla Days in the UK: Revolution in Ireland and Britain, will still be published.

History is a discipline which rewards longevity. It takes years simply to acquire a PhD, the union card to participate in the dialogue. Even then, archival research and sufficient background material for a major contribution can take decades to collect. Hart's career was already impressive and showed great promise for better still to come. His death is a profound loss for the field. May he rest in peace.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Windmills & Aesthetics

While wasting time on the internet recently, I came upon two photographs of windmills on the German island of Fehmarn. (Now that I think about it, Caitlin and I might have passed by this island on our trip from Copenhagen to Lübeck a few years ago.)

The first shows a traditional windmill, the type which we Americans usually associate with the Dutch, but which, with variations, can be found across Europe--Don Quixote, after all, needed something to tilt at in Spain.

The second shows a modern windmill which is part of a windfarm on the island.

My question, to which I have no definite answer, is: When I compare these windmills for aesthetic purposes, why do I prefer the first windmill to the second? Am I just so obsessed with German culture that I prefer anything that looks German to me? That's possible. Am I just out of touch with the modern world and hankering for a tradition I've never been a part of? There's probably some truth to that accusation, too. Just maybe, though, I really am considering more purely aesthetic factors, such as the form of the structures, the materials, etc.

Nevertheless, whatever my own reasons for preferring the traditional windmill, I actually don't think that my aesthetic preference is all that uncommon; I suspect that many people share my instinctive aesthetic preference for the traditional windmill, and that many people still generally prefer traditional aesthetics to modern aesthetics. Why would that be, even though our culture generally looks down on tradition? It's a curious fact about our culture.

Finally, if a reader wants to defend the aesthetic superiority of the modern windmill, please go ahead and do so. I would love to hear that argument.

Source: The two pictures come from this slide show of the island. (The captions are in German, but if all you want is pretty pictures, who cares?)