Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Our Kind of Conservatism

It's not your father's conservatism, but it might be your great-grandfather's

James K.A. Smith, from his essay introducing the “Redeeming Conservatism” issue of Comment magazine:

If you can’t imagine anything good coming out of conservatism, this issue is for you. My hope is you’ll discover, first, that conservatism is not what you thought it was. What we’re trying to redeem is a disposition, not a dogma. We commend to you a posture, not a platform. Second, I hope when you encounter this conservative disposition, you might be surprised to find this names a sensibility you already share. Our goal is to start a conversation that “redeems” conservatism precisely by deconstructing what we tend to identify with it.

This isn’t a rewind project. This is not a call to turn back the clock to recover a fabled golden past, or to return to the Garden of some pre-1960s paradise. Such nostalgic idylls are what the poet W.H. Auden called “Arcadianism”—the illusion that we can simply return to our lost Edenic home, forgetting, as Alan Jacobs points out, that weaponized angels prevent such simplistic re-entry.

Conservatism, as we mean it, is not a recovery project; it’s a preservation project. The point isn’t simply to defend the status quo; the point is to preserve traditions, institutions, and practices only because—and only when—they foster flourishing and societal health. This is also why we need to rethink a rather uncritical embrace of progressivism: what looks like progress and liberation might actually be burning down the structures and scaffolding needed for the poor and vulnerable and marginalized to thrive and prosper. If you’re a progressive, every fence looks like a corral. But those same fences might also provide protection, so losing them isn’t always liberation—it can also expose us to new threats. In this issue, Brian Dijkema considers an example: while liberal elites demolish longstanding sexual norms, they nonetheless continue to live by them, and it is the poor and vulnerable who bear the brunt of such “progress.”

I like Comment so much that I’m about to subscribe to it on iPad; you may do the same, or buy a print subscription, here. Comment under James K.A. Smith’s editorship is a magazine that’s vital, fresh, and as relevant as this morning’s sunrise. It’s a journal that chronicles something that’s both very old and very new.

I like very much the Roger Scruton quote Jamie uses in this essay; Scruton talks about the meaning of conservatism: “It is not about what we have lost, but about what we have retained, and how to hold onto it.”

This is a lesson that I have learned from having returned to my hometown, largely failed, and then being picked up, dusted off, and set on my way by Dante. I talk about that somewhat in my Comment interview, an excerpt of which you can read here. 



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