Modern conservatism begins with Edmund Burke.
MY, what a novel idea for a column...
What Burke articulated was not an ideology or a creed, but a disposition, a reverence for tradition, a suspicion of radical change.
Okay, maybe it's me. I like to think of myself as pretty well read considering my lifelong addiction to indolence. I sought out a liberal education both as a student and an autodidact, and I've succeeded at least to the extent that I grow more confused every day. But there are two things I'm reasonably certain of regarding intellectual life: one, that should one imagine one has found the answers to life's great questions, or a substantial portion thereof, one should immediately lie down with a cold cloth on the forehead, and seek medical help if the feeling doesn't pass within a few hours; and, two, if the answers to that/those question/s came from Philosophy, Political Science, Ayn Rand, a graphic novel, or any class numbered "101" one should skip the cold cloth and go directly to step two.
This is not to say that the world would be better off without Burkeans, Kantians, Mohists, Shakespeareans, Raphaelites, Pre-Raphaelites, Authentic Performance, Hard-Boiled Detective Fiction, or Duckpin Bowlers. It's that in every instance there comes a point when the devotee has to recognize the existence of the rest of the fucking planet and give it a rest. It's one thing to insist you'll listen to Bach only if the krumhorns were hand-carved of European birch; it's quite another if you punch your neighbor in the nose for humming some Western swing. Say it again: it is simply not possible to accept someone reaching middle-age while still insisting he believes this stuff, unless he's a certain species of religious fanatic or has a history of going off his medications.
Normal adults do not talk like this (I know, what's that got to do with Brooks?) except in such a limited range of conduct that the thing borders on self-parody: "That's my philosophy of football," say, or ""Bob's Guide to American Recreation Vehicles is the Bible of RVing". You might patronize an auto mechanic with an ichthys on his Yellow Pages ad, but you'd think twice about returning if instead of explaining what was causing that thumping noise he expounded on what Gurdjieff, Cezanne, or Tolstoy had taught him about internal combustion.
Over the past six years, the Republican Party has championed the spread of democracy in the Middle East. But the temperamental conservative is suspicious of rapid reform, believing that efforts to quickly transform anything will have, as Burke wrote “pleasing commencements” but “lamentable conclusions.”
Do tell. Because I can name at least one self-described Burkean who writes a column for the New York Times who was a full-throated supporter of that very campaign until it was well past defensible, at which time he told his readers he was going to have to rethink matters. Whereupon he simply fell silent on the question for two years.
Over the past few years, the vice president and the former attorney general have sought to expand executive power as much as possible in the name of protecting Americans from terror. But the temperamental conservative believes that power must always be clothed in constitutionalism.
Over the past decade, religious conservatives within the G.O.P. have argued that social policies should be guided by the eternal truths of natural law and that questions about stem cell research and euthanasia should reflect the immutable sacredness of human life.
But temperamental conservatives are suspicious of the idea of settling issues on the basis of abstract truth. These kinds of conservatives hold that moral laws emerge through deliberation and practice and that if legislation is going to be passed that slows medical progress, it shouldn’t be on the basis of abstract theological orthodoxy.
And so on and so on, through governmental legitimacy, championing individuality over social cohesion, tax cuts and transformational leadership. Where ya been, Dave? Aside from at the Times, and the Weekly Standard, and the PBS News Hour? Huh? If Burke is the Godfather of "Modern conservativism," where was the principled debate while this disaster was occurring? And who are those people in the White House, and the Congress? Where were the concerns about the hidden streams of social interconnectedness and the great mystic jigsaw puzzle while you were dismantling the social safety net? As someone who's watched with no small degree of agitation while these "false" conservatives seized power far beyond their numerical strength and exercised it far beyond Constitutional constraints, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it only could have happened with your acquiescence, Dave--to say nothing of the cheerleading--and that of every other principled "Burkean" in the land.
The disaster that is modern conservatism (American, that is; it's another odd trait of you Burkeans to act as though you're It) has as little to do with Burke as the movement itself does, and we've been listening to various versions of this But But But That's Not Real Conservatism routine for several years now, beginning when a few souls capable of recognizing disaster without going through two dozen months of denial tried to separate "conservatism" from "neo-con adventurism", followed some time after by Andrew Sullivan's let-us-say tardy recognition that his party really didn't like gays, followed by any number of economic conservative and libertarian types suddenly recognizing, with Schiavo, that they'd been sharing the party with religious crackpots for twenty-five years. All of which suggests more than anything that y'all should spend a little less time on slavish admiration of dead Irish guys who clucked about the overthrow of the French monarchy and a little more on current events.
And in all of this there's a notable absence of mea to go with all the culpa. If Burke (or Hobbes or Hayek or Friedman--say, whatever happened to Adam Smith neckties?) is the progenitor of modern conservatism then either he's culpable--not just for a recently mishandled war, though that is the most serious charge possible--but for the regular and organized attacks on personal liberties and Constitutional rights, for being on the wrong side of the civl rights movement, for knee-jerk opposition to feminism, reproductive freedom, and gay and lesbian rights, knee-jerk support for "enlightened" rapaciousness, big-ticket military spending, tax cuts, and increasing social stratification, for the descent--if it was--into manqué conservatism, the cult of Reagan personality, the selling of the public's right to the public airwaves, the rise of scabrous talk radio and twisted television news, and presidential campaigns run like late-night advertising for Naked Drunk Chick videos, but without the dignity. And, with apologies to the noble shade of Robin Harris, I didn't stop typing there because I ran out of items; I stopped typing because my hands cramped up.
Burke doesn't deserve to be saddled with a bunch of mid-20th century anti-democratic wannabee grandees with a nostalgia for the Gilded Age, let alone the following generation of crypto-racists, over-ripe juveniles, and sons of privilege who surf in their wake. It should have been enough for you, Mr. Brooks, to have seen the distinction between Burkean (or Lockean) political theory and the economic treatment of the poorest of your fellow citizens, regardless of whatever Road to Damascus or Dan Ryan Expressway Home From A Friedman Lecture revelation you'd undergone. No idea about inherent Rights or Natural Order turns J. Edgar Hoover into a giant and Martin Luther King into a pariah. Nothing prevented you from learning the lessons of Vietnam, or Korea, before you urged us to repeat those mistakes in Iraq on the grounds that the people who claim to revere Burke know better than history. The story of post-war--or, better, anti-New Deal--conservatism is not the sad tale of a principled movement gradually or suddenly brought down by a collision of theory and reality or human failure; it's a long tale of the increasingly unprincipled search for a permanent electoral majority regardless of what that took. Truth was the first casualty; I'm pretty sure that at the least she gave Burke a severe concussion when she fell.