Monday, January 26, 2009

The Dogmatism that Can Be Spoken is Not the True Dogmatism

E. D. Kain is talking trash about my kind of conservatism:
An important thing to note when discussing various forms of conservatism is the difference, often-overlooked, between social and cultural conservatism; or perhaps better phrased, religious or fundamentalist conservatism vs. Civilization Conservativism . . .

One thing that defines cultural or civilization conservatives, and I consider myself to be one, is the ability to view the historical evolution of one’s society through the prism of change, as every cultural conservative is cognizant that for better or worse, however slowly, change has come and will continue to do so. No tradition has existed for ever. They are built on the bones of other traditions, recycled from the scrap heaps of ancient practices long forgotten; sometimes eroded, sometimes made more resilient by time. Often cultural conservatives are also religious, and consider religion to be an integral part of their civilization, but do not necessarily frame their political worldview on a vision of religious infallibility, recognizing along with the gradual changes in culture, also the gradual changes in religious outlook. Essentially, to be truly culturally conservative, one must be able to utilize history as a frame of reference.

To be a religious or fundamentalist conservative, one need only have a dogmatic approach to their particular religion. History, science, philosophy, modernity—all fall by the wayside.
There's no point in being a postmodern conservative if you can't say nice things about unpopular ideas, so I'd like to put in a good word for fundamentalist conservatism. This doesn't mean I have anything against "Civilization Conservatism." Quite the opposite; I can't imagine anyone disagreeing with it. "Take the long view, remember what your father taught you, and always pay attention to a good idea whether it's a hundred years old or brand new!" This is not the stuff counterrevolutions are made of.

Kain is wrong about dogmatism not so much in the summary he gives as in the picture he paints: the strict Christian who has no interest in testing his ideas against history, science, or logic—the very face of supreme arrogance. As I told you on this chord once before, the bloggers and thinkers I know who fit Kain's description of "religious or fundamentalist conservatism" tend to be the most humble.

The reason, I think, is this: Rather than regard tradition as simply a data point (i.e. helpful evidence of what works and what doesn't), the ideological conservative is willing to subordinate his own judgment to his tradition's. He may not understand why contraception is bad, but he trusts the Catholic Church more than he trusts himself. Left to his own devices, he might be satisfied with a mild and pleasant existence full of a nice family and entertaining diversions; however, his tradition demands something more than happiness (i.e. self-reliance, virtue, salvation). This humility before the past tends to get a man into the habit of considering the possibility that what he believes (or desires) is wrong, which makes him a good guy to have an argument with. Better, certainly, than the "Civilization Conservative," who has the arrogance to measure the past by whatever yardstick he feels like.

If Kain wants to argue that hard-core traditionalists are unimaginative, I'd say that it depends. A man who picks his traditions based entirely on what's been handed to him—the "because my father and grandfather did it" justification—certainly lacks imagination. However, speaking as a convert, I know that picking a tradition is sometimes a matter of falling in love, which is the opposite of intellectual laziness. Concrete traditions make an institution more like a person (i.e. concrete characteristics give it a personality), which is to say they turn it into something you can have a relationship with, something you can love—unlike an idea or a set of rules. See how rigid dogmatism flies out the window when you're dealing with this kind of conservative?

To offer a counter-definition to Kain's: A "fundamentalist conservative" is someone who has sworn fealty to a tradition, not because her judgment has led her to believe that it is a generally reliable one, but in response to some glimpse of beauty (or sublimity!) in it. This fealty supersedes her private opinions and judgments, and thank God for that; deliver me from the prison of my own subjectivity! This is not meant to be a comprehensive argument for my version of conservatism (which I will, after this post, never again refer to as "fundamentalist"); all I mean to point out is that, if a curious and adventurous humility is the cardinal virtue of philosophical argument, then E. D. Kain may discover it among the people who, apparently, he least expects to have it.

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