Cheerful Allegiance to Truth
It’s our best hope to stem the tide of anarchy.
To be deceived about the truth of things and so to harbor untruth in the soul is a thing no one would consent to.”
— Plato, The Republic
Let me start with the genus. What is conservatism? Answer: It is cheerful allegiance to the truth. This is especially true of conservatism’s American variant. Conservatism in America has some distinctive features, traceable mostly to two things: the Founders’ vision of limited government supporting individual liberty, and the historical accidents of newness, on the one hand, and geographical amplitude and separateness, on the other.
Although it may sometimes seem that conservatives are constitutionally averse to cheerfulness, writing works with titles such as Leviathan, The Decline of the West, The Waste Land, and Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by habit and disposition, I submit, conservatives tend, as a species, to be less gloomy than—than what? What shall we call those who occupy a position opposite that of conservatives? Not liberals, surely, since the people and policies that are called “liberal” are so often conspicuously illiberal, i.e., opposed to freedom and all its works.
Indeed, when it comes to the word “liberal,” Russell Kirk came close to the truth when he observed that he was conservative because he was a liberal, that is, a partisan of ordered liberty and the habits and institutions that nurture it. (Is that another definitive of conservatism?) In any event, whatever the opposite of conservatives should be called—perhaps John Fonte’s marvelous coinage “transnational progressives” is best, though the old standby “leftists” will do—they tend to be gloomy, partly, I suspect, because of disappointed utopian ambitions.
Conservatives also tend to enjoy a more active and enabling sense of humor than Leftists. The English essayist Walter Bagehot once observed that “the essence of Toryism is enjoyment.” What he meant, I think, was summed up by the author of Genesis when that sage observed that “God made the world and saw that it was good.” Conservatives differ from progressives in many ways, but one important way is in the quota of cheerfulness and humor they deploy. Not that their assessment of their fellows is more sanguine. On the contrary. Conservatives tend to be cheerful because they do not regard imperfection as a moral affront. Being soberly realistic about mankind’s susceptibility to improvement, they are as suspicious of utopian schemes as they are appreciative of present blessings. This is why the miasmic gloominess emanating from some conservative circles today is so dispiriting. It goes against the grain of what it means to be conservative. It is dampening, and I for one hope it will prove to be a quickly passing phenomenon. Among other things, this recent access of personal gloominess makes the practice of professional gloominess—the robust deployment of satire, ridicule, and contempt—much more difficult and less satisfying.
This brings me to the issue of truth. As I write, destructive riots are sweeping the country. Hundreds if not thousands of businesses have been ruined or looted. Several policemen have been murdered. But college presidents, corporate PR departments, some churches, think tanks, and the corrupt media wallow in the moist bleatings about imaginary “systemic racism” and police brutality even as celebrities shout that destroying property is not violence.
Conservatives reject such nauseating mendacity. They are realists. Like Plato, they recoil from the prospect of being fundamentally out of touch with reality. In a word, conservatives are not “woke.” They strive to call things by their proper names. Like Oscar Wilde’s Cecily Cardew, they call a spade a spade, just as they prefer to call “affirmative action” what it really is, “discrimination according to race or sex,” taxation “government-mandated income redistribution,” and “Islamophobia” a piece of Orwellian Newspeak foisted upon an unsuspecting public by irresponsible “multiculturalists” colluding more or less openly with Islamofascists. At a time when culture and intellectual life are everywhere beholden to the imperatives of political correctness, even insisting on clear prose seems a daring provocation. Thus one follower of the French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida declared that “unproblematic prose” and “clarity” were “the conceptual tools of conservatism.” Similarly, simply telling the truth about a whole host of controversial subjects is regarded as an unacceptable challenge to the reigning pieties of established opinion.
Creeping multiculturalism intersects in poignant ways with a subject that is always at the center of concern for conservatism: change. Granted, change is a great fact of life. But an equally great fact is continuity, and it may well be that one adapts more successfully to certain realities by resisting them than by capitulating to them. “When it is not necessary to change,” Lord Falkland said some centuries ago, “it is necessary not to change.” I recognize that “change,” like its conceptual cousin “innovation,” is one of the great watchwords of the modern age. But the great conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. was on to something important when he wrote, in the inaugural issue of National Review in November 1955, that a large part of the magazine’s mission was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” It’s rare that you hear someone quote that famous line without a smile, the smile meaning “he wasn’t really against change, innovation, etc., etc.” But I believe Buckley was in earnest. It was one of the things that made National Review in its first decades unzeitgemässe, “untimely” in the highest sense of the word. National Review, Buckley wrote, “is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and The New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.”
The Australian philosopher David Stove saw deeply into this aspect of the metabolism of conservatism. In an essay called “Why You Should Be a Conservative,” he rehearses the familiar scenario:
A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion. You introduce contraception to control population, and find that you have dismantled a whole culture. At home you legislate to relieve the distress of unmarried mothers, and find you have given a cash incentive to the production of illegitimate children. You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait. . . .
This is the oldest and the best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a “reform” proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, “reform.”
Progressives cannot wrap their minds (or, more to the point, their hearts) around this irony: that “reform” so regularly exacerbates either the evil it was meant to cure or another evil it had hardly glimpsed. The great Victorian Matthew Arnold was no enemy of reform. But he understood that “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith had left culture dangerously exposed and unprotected. In cultures of the past, Arnold thought, the invigorating “remnant” of those willing and able to energize culture was often too small to succeed. As societies grew, so did the forces of anarchy that threatened them—but then so did that enabling remnant. Arnold believed modern societies possessed within themselves a “saving remnant” large and vital enough to become “an actual power” that could stem the tide of anarchy. As I look around at our present discontents, I hope more than ever that he was right.
Roger Kimball is the editor of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books.
See all the articles published in the symposium, here.