Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conservatism and liberalism

I've been ruminating since the election on what exactly people who call themselves conservatives actually mean by that. It turns out conservatism is a relatively new word, only emerging as a common term in 1819 in the title of French ultra-royalist journal Le Conservateur. It is a term that really only began to make sense in the wake of the French Revolution, with its wholesale destruction of not only an established political order, but much of the national cultural riches that had grown up around that order. Not to mention the Terror.

People had words for “old guard” before 1819; conservatism represents half of a dynamic that's been going on since the dawn of time: some people want to do things the way they have been done habitually, and others want to change those patterns. At root, it's a basic biological function: continuity vs adaption. Both valuable, both valid, together regularly in conflict.

But something happened to the political world of Europe (and the Americas) in what we now call the “revolutionary era.” Revolution itself became a self-conscious cause. Some revolutions were specifically about a change of regime, but for the first time the idea that people ought to revolt and establish new order organically had real on-the-ground success—established governments were founded not on overthrow of a particular tyrant or governing identity group (ethnic, religious, etc), but on the overthrow of a “class” of people. “Conservatism,” I believe, was a reaction to revolutionism as a philosophy."

“Tradition” is a word that gets bandied about a lot if conservative circles. In America, “traditional family values” is a code phrase for family structures and social mores grounded in the nuclear, church-going family. “Traditional marriage” is used to denote a life-long commitment between a man and a woman, producing offspring biologically, sanctified in a religious institution (see my article about this usage here).

But “traditional” is also a word used a lot in the folk music and dance community. It connotes being part of a style or form that's been passed down from person to person. But folk music as a field was also heavily influenced by leftist political activism: union organizers adapted hymns into union songs, desegregation activism was founded in part on singing songs like “We Shall Overcome,” and the entire counterculture of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s included heavy doses of the electrified rediscovery of folk music. It still does.

The thing is, traditions can be revolutionary. As the Wikipedia article on conservatism points out, “In the United States, conservatism is rooted in the American Revolution and its commitment to conserve the rights and liberties of Englishmen. Most European conservative writers do not accept American conservatism as genuine; they consider it to be a variety of liberalism.” So also we see the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a struggle between “reformers” and the revolutionary “old guard.”

Really, any revolution that sustains itself long enough to become the new established order carries this possibility. How else could we have a “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” And so we have a fundamentally confused idea: “conservatives” fighting for policies developed in the 1980s interested in dismantling “liberal” institutions assembled in the 1930s and 1940s.

Conservatism doesn’t really make sense as a working philosophy in and of itself. Conservatism means maintaining institutions generally, but without being attached to some specific identity or institution, it could just as easily mean the old guard in Beijing as the Dalai Lama's retinue in Dharamsala; ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers or Salafist Saudis; singers from the Sacred Harp or singers from Wobbly songbooks.

So: conservative… what? What is being preserved? And the thing is, we almost all want something preserved, collected, retained, remembered… we don't by and large want to completely forget. Even the monsters of cultural memory erasure—Taliban who destroyed Buddhist monuments, Pol Pot's educide, the iconoclasms that have swept the Christian world for centuries—have their own ideal past they wish to purify and make clear. They are conservative even as they destroy.

I betray my biases. I was raised a self-confessed liberal. I was raised to sneer at Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell and Barry Goldwater. And here’s the thing: there is no such thing as purity of conservatism or liberalism. We all want some things to remain, and some to change. The American Republican party was formed by the joining of the business-conservative Whigs with the “Radical Republicans” who rallied around slavery abolition. Revolution and plutocracy wrapped up in one package. We liberals who rail against the “former Party of Lincoln” forget this. Lincoln stood for abolition (eventually) but also for railroad baronies. Nixon was for overthrowing Allende in Chile and for forming the EPA.

I sing old songs and new songs that sound like old songs, after listening to new rock music on the radio. I sit in silent worship in a 350-year-old practice, while wrestling with my own very modern non-theism. I live in a 122-year-old house, typing in a blog entry over wi-fi.

Conservatism for conservatism's sake makes no sense, just as liberalism for liberalism's sake ends up as a grand mushiness. We as humans need traditions and institutions and patterns to make sense, and we need to be able to edit those patterns as the world they describe changes. And for any given tradition, we need conservatives working in the “old style” at the same time as liberal avante gardists push the envelope. This is true in the arts, and it’s true in public life.

I need to give up my own broad liberalism for something more nuanced. And I hope some of my conservative friends will consider doing the same.

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