Thursday, July 24, 2008

Liberal Conservatives

The way we talk about "conservative" and "liberal" (or "progressive") as eternal enemies masks something: There is, for instance, liberal conservatism.

Self-identifying conservatives, when they meet it, hardly know what to make of it and stare at it like a farmer with a two-headed calf.

Like this:

Alice Waters might not seem like a conservative. A veteran of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, who once cooked a $25,000-a-seat fundraising dinner for Bill Clinton, she eagerly compares her campaign for “edible schoolyards” — where children work with instructors to grow, prepare, and eat fresh produce — to John F. Kennedy’s attempt to improve physical fitness through mandatory exercise. Her dream of organic, locally and sustainably produced food in every school cafeteria, class credit for lunch hour, and required gardening time and cooking classes is as utopian as they come. The name she has given her gastronomic movement, the “Delicious Revolution,” strikes the ear as one part fuzzy-headed Marxism, the other Brooksian bobo-speak. This woman is not, as they say, one of us.

But by the end of this cover story in the "American Conservative," the crusade has been recast in terms of values, republican virtue, and libertarian action:

Renewing the culinary culture, and restoring the kinds of values that are necessary for the proper functioning of a healthy republic, is not the sort of thing that can be left to activists, environmentalists, and government bureaucrats. This is a conservative cause if ever there was one, and it is going to have to begin at home. The revolution is coming. And it’s sure to be delicious.

The writer can only come around to this notion by the roadways of his own ideological landscape -- by explaining that the prevailing mass-market and junk food culture is an outcome of central planning and excess government interference in the market. I'm not qualified to judge that, but my guess is it's more complicated than that (or that the same argument could be applied in other areas -- suburban tract housing, for example -- where the writer might not like it as much). Yet having cleansed the hippie Garden of Eatin' with a wave of his ideological fetishes, he may now safely enter therein.

Intellectual conservatism -- left or right -- is not historical re-enactment. It doesn't merely strive to save the past or seek to revive it in its full odor. It fights to preserve virtues and folkways that have been known to work, over time. And confronting new realities, it prefers the known devil to the new one.

Historians can tell you the past in our heads always is better than the reality was. We wish to conserve a better past, a carefully chosen past. This continual process of preserving-while-cleansing is a slow but sure way to make people better. By this method, as James Bowman might tell you, vicious, selfish honor codes like those that we abhor in modern Middle Eastern societies, which once prevailed among the peoples of Europe, morphed into medieval chivalry and eventually into the world of the Victorian Christian gentlemen.

Historical liberals -- not the minds our debased political language confines to that label -- would be doing this deliberately: They would understand people's reflexive reverence for their national and cultural heritage and use the best qualities in that heritage, stripped of the ugliness of the past, to herd the present toward the future. And they would have been unafraid of words like "virtue," "honor," and "morality." They would not have used them as James Dobson does. But they would have used them without shame.

In a 1995 Bradley Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on the virtues of Victorian morality, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the conservative social historian, said:

It is this reluctance to speak the language of morality, and to apply moral ideas to social policies, that separates us from the Victorians. In Victorian England, moral principles were as much a part of public discourse as of private discourse, and as much a part of social policy as of personal life. Every measure of poor relief, for example, had to justify itself by showing that it would promote the moral as well as the material well-being of the poor -- and not only of the pauper receiving relief but of the independent laboring poor as well. In recent times we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have deliberately, systematically divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. We are now confronting the consequences of this policy. Having made the most valiant attempt to see the problem of poverty as the product of impersonal economic and social forces, we are now discovering that the economic and social aspects are inseparable from the moral and personal ones. And having made the most determined effort to devise policies that are ‘value free,’ that do not stigmatize the recipients of relief or the ‘style of life,’ we find that these policies imperil both the moral and the material well-being of their intended beneficiaries.

What happened between then and now is a great knot waiting to be cut, a knot with 100 threads called the 20th Century.