An online acquaintance recommended that I read the book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin. This is a book of previously published essays, with an introduction in which the author introduces his thesis. The thesis, basically, is that conservatism/reactionism/rightism (he uses the terms synonymously) is an ongoing effort to stamp out any attempt by the lower orders of society to improve their lot. (Also they’re violent and racist.)
I just finished the (39-page) Introduction of the book, before the essays start. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but find myself calling foul or BS on every other page.
First, his attempt to define the right as the side which always tries to beat down the lower orders, seems like a tautology. Rightists try to beat down the lower orders; those that beat down the lower orders may be identified as rightists. If you define it that way, then any time you see this happening in history you can attribute it to the right. But what if there is an instance where the left does it? Or is that possibility defined out of existence?
Shouldn’t you first define an ideology, and then talk about what its adherents have or have not done historically? That way we can identify the subjects first, and observe how they act afterwards; and not define them by how they act — those who do good on the left and those who do bad on the right.
For example he speaks of the abolition movement as a movement of the left, and the resistance to it as a movement of the right; apparently based on the definition of the right as that which tries to suppress the efforts of the lower orders to better themselves. But the abolitionists were mainly Christians and Republicans. Aren’t modern rightists also mainly Christians and Republicans?
If I’m called a conservative at the present time because I want to conserve certain things, or return them to how they were, that’s fair enough. But I may not be aligned ideologically with someone who wanted to conserve things 150 years ago. Possibly someone who agrees with my worldview would want to change things at one time, and conserve things at another. Shouldn’t our purported ideological affinity depend more on the kinds of things I/they want(ed) to conserve, rather than the desire to conserve per se?
People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?
Is it mysterious that devout Christians of today, and devout Christians of 150 years ago, would agree in opposing both slavery and gay marriage? I for one would have expected that, since the motivating factor in both cases is the Christian faith, which remains essentially the same.
Up to now I haven’t had a problem with the labels “conservative” and “liberal” to describe political leanings or identities in the present context. But I’m realizing that it does present problems when trying to tie together people from one era to those of another, based solely on their tendency to want to progress or conserve. It’s often remarked by modern conservatives that “progress” is meaningless unless you have a fixed standard by which to judge whether or not you’re progressing. Simply moving “forward” can be neither good nor bad in itself; it’s only good if you’re moving towards something good. But how is “good” to be defined? To define it as “that which progresses” is to reason in a circle.
Well, the same applies to the word “conservative”. It can’t be a virtue to conserve per se. Whether to conserve or progress must be judged by some standard. That standard is the better criteria by which to group the people of one age with those of another. I happen to be conservative today because I consider some of the values that are being discarded by my society, to be worthy of conservation. It doesn’t follow that I would have considered slavery as being worthy of conservation. I conserve (at the present time) for the sake of what I consider good, in accordance with my faith and not just for the sake of conserving; certainly not for the sake of preventing the “lower orders” from bettering themselves!