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Discernment and the Limits of Kendall

Crunchy conservatism has to be having some impact when Jonah “Lie For a Just Cause” Goldberg begins dusting off old NR heroes and invoking them as authorities in the debate against…other old NR heroes. Beset by a coherent and elaborate defense of traditionalist conservative ideas in their “crunchy” manifestations, Goldberg has been reduced to invoking this fellow who invokes Wilmore Kendall in his criticism of Weaver and Kirk, such as this citation from The Conservative Affirmation in America:

I make no sense, that is to say, of calling “Conservative” the man who takes a dim view of his country’s established institutions, feels something less than at home with its way of life as it actually lives it, finds it difficult to identify himself with the political and moral principles on which it has acted through its history, dislikes or views with contempt the generality of the kind of people his society produces, and — above all perhaps — dissociates himself from its founders, or at least holds them at arms’ length. Such a man may be the better or nobler or wiser for all this dim-viewing and the yearning-away-from; he may be right as rain. But I fail to see where you can get by calling him a Conservative (or where he gets by calling himself one) (p. xxv).

Many have often used the term conservative (and Conservative) in just this sort of conventional way. There has always been the option of being a status quo man in all things. Likewise, there has always been the option of being an unthinking man with no interest in whether something is true and good or not. You can call that conservative if you like, but this is the sense in which bureaucrats are conservative. That this degenerates rapidly into what we might call Sir Humphreyism is no secret to anyone.

Conservatism is the clunky, overused name for the practise of wisdom, prudence, temperance and courage–it rebukes a people given over to indulgence and folly, just as it praises the virtues of a people. It does not indiscriminately embrace institutions of any and all kinds anymore than it embraces traditions of all kinds because they are very old and venerable. It tests the “moral and political principles” of its people against justice and charity as these are understood in the light of venerable and confirmed traditions of collected wisdom and reflection. To do less is to become not a free man, but a cipher.

One of the reasons why M.E. Bradford spoke of a “reactionary imperative” was precisely to escape this sort of mediocre conservatism that maintains some kind of veneration for, for example, the New Deal programs because they were here before we were or they have now been well and truly established. It is an established institution! Bow before it! The Department of Education commands your respect! It has been established–it must therefore be worth keeping.

Conservatives guard and preserve what has been established on the assumption that whatever has preceded us almost always deserves a certain deference, but not forever and not always. Institutions must possess legitimacy, but more importantly they should not subvert the common good nor dedicate themselves to remaking according to inhuman and unnatural designs the very people whose welfare they supposedly champion. More to the point, conservatives possess a memory (because they have cultivated a memory) that lasts longer than a voting cycle, longer than their own lives, longer than a couple of generations: usurpations from 140 years ago have never ceased to be usurpations, and the degenerate qualities that all modern Americans, myself included, share are not things that a seriously principled conservative can look on with equanimity, much less pleasure.

When the “moral and political principles” of earlier generations are pretty well repudiated on an ongoing basis, with official encouragement or indeed at the hands of officers of the state, the institutions that have replaced the old, venerable institutions deserve no great respect. The people who regularly endorse and acquiesce in usurpation deserve as much respect as they give themselves in their slavish adoration of their chosen faction, which is to say not much. Conservatives are those who generally respect authority, but do not make idols out of those who happen to be in power. They are those who generally respect their own tradition and defer to it on most occasions, but do not abdicate the use of discernment. They acknowledge something worthwhile in institutions that have stood the test of time, but this does not mean that they are obliged to accept the assumptions or justifications of the men who created those institutions, unless they are found credible and worthy of acceptance.

Supposing Mr. Kendall was right in his general description of conservatives, why would anyone want to call himself conservative? That label, as defined in that quote, would include many an apparatchik and tool of illegitimate usurpers–surely that is not what Mr. Kendall intended here. It is, however, the use to which Goldberg and “CPA” at Three Hierarchies are putting Mr. Kendall’s statements.

Via The New Pantagruel.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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