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Part One: Allen Mendenhall Interviews Mark Zunac about his new edition, “Literature and the Conservative Ideal”

In Academia, American History, American Literature, Arts & Letters, Books, British Literature, Conservatism, Creativity, Fiction, History, Humanities, liberal arts, Liberalism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Postmodernism, Scholarship, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on November 9, 2016 at 6:45 am
Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac

Mark Zunac is associate professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.  Editor of Literature and the Conservative Ideal, he researches revolution, writing, and the rise of intellectual conservatism in Britain following the French Revolution. He received his Ph.D. from Marquette University in 2008.

 

AM:  Thank you for this interview, Mark.  Your recent edition is titled Literature and the Conservative Ideal.  What, in your view, is the conservative ideal?

MZ:  In my mind the conservative ideal reflects what Michael Oakeshott calls a “disposition” rather than something that can be expressed by a singular identifiable creed. Nevertheless, I would say that it is in many ways an intuitive and practical view of the world, one that privileges human freedom, acknowledges a common humanity, and maintains a healthy regard for the accumulated wisdom of ages.

In today’s context, it is also uniquely defined by what it is not, since the very idea of an intellectual conservatism is often met with condescension or, perhaps in some cases, preemptive disdain. This invariably reflects a reductive and fundamental – and often deliberate – misunderstanding. Contra its critics, the conservative ideal does not demand a blind allegiance to the status quo, nor does it entail uncritical nostalgia for some heroic past. Such willful obtuseness I think would have its present-day parallel in the relentless deconstruction of nearly everything that we as citizens in a liberal democracy have taken for granted.

It is too easy to characterize the conservative disposition as a product of an unenlightened past or, more nefariously, deep-rooted prejudices. The destruction of a civil order grown out of its past has become reflexive and impulsive, and there is seldom any careful reflection as to what, practically speaking, a society unmoored from its historical roots will look like. Thus, the conservative ideal is grounded in the enduring presence of civilizational standards that, while not immune to scrutiny or change, are nevertheless prerequisites for a stable and ordered society.

Of course, as an intellectual exercise, it is more difficult, or at least less exciting, to make a case against earthly utopias, particularly when they have been peddled as some moral zenith. In a word, the conservative ideal encompasses a respect for the past and a deep skepticism for any social innovations that might jeopardize its influence on what may rightly be called culture.

AM:  After the turf wars over canon and curriculum in the 1980s and 1990s, did any expositors of the conservative ideal come out alive? 

MZ:  There have indeed been some survivors, but the side was badly damaged. As English departments became wholly owned subsidiaries of the multicultural program, literature became simply one more vehicle through which victimization and oppression became the sole standard for assigning value.

The study of literature as an artistic endeavor, one subject to critical judgment and the recognition of a work’s place within literary history, was supplanted by the idea that value is situational and that any search for truth or beauty must necessarily be futile. The most significant casualties of the English turf wars have been works of the West, useful now only for their iteration of or complicity in historical cruelties.

Unfortunately, approaches to literature that privilege the text over the identity of its author or characters have become associated with political conservatism, itself a byproduct of the contemporary university’s tendency to hold politics as an individual’s highest calling. Thus, when it comes to literary criticism, a conservative ideal has less to do with promoting certain ideologies than with a dispassionate return to literature as a form of high art. Doubly unfortunate, and perhaps a bit ironic, is that as students of English literature continue to flock to other areas of study, we in the field have doubled-down on curricular approaches that are now not only stale but increasingly obsolete.

AM:  Can anything be done to save the field at this point, or is it doomed for failure? I realize these are strong words, and perhaps premature, but there do seem to be trends and data that suggest that at least English departments will face serious budgetary and enrollment problems in the years to come.

MZ:  Yes, I suppose we shouldn’t be too fatalistic at this point, even though in many cases the situation is nearing critical. I don’t much doubt that English departments will continue to exist, and perhaps even thrive, in the future. They just might have to take on a new identity, as it were. It might ultimately be fortuitous that as fewer people read, the less aptitude there seems to be for writing well. Thus, the rise of professional writing programs and the continuance of rudimentary instruction in composition may throw us a lifeline.

Departments have not, for the most part, adapted to the current climate. In some regard, there will always be a case for literature’s place within the educational landscape, and we should not stop making it. I completely sympathize with certain laments over the decline of literature and the humanities more broadly, indicated, as you suggest, by certain unpropitious trends. Many of them I will grant fall outside of our purview.

I think the liberal arts, even in their purest form, are threatened by the credentialist attitude currently infusing higher education. In addition, the heavy emphasis on STEM fields in primary and secondary education, combined with the turn toward “fact-based” texts, is both a capitulation to market demands and a nod to the reality that slow reading as an intrinsically rewarding enterprise can’t compete in the digital world.

So, despite our own malfeasance, there are certainly many other cultural trends causing our decline. Though I cannot help thinking how the complete dominance of Theory within literary criticism over the last number of decades has left would-be readers wondering how a text can possibly be relevant to their personal lives or how it might provide insights into the human condition. This is to say nothing of how that text might not be so predictably subservient to the social and cultural forces that informed it.

AM:  You mention this in your introduction, but for the sake of readers of the blog, I’ll ask how you chose the contributors to this edition.  

It wasn’t until well after graduate school that I encountered intellectual viewpoints from within my discipline that were congenial to both my own political predilections and my preferred approach to literature. The idea that these could coexist, or even work in concert, hadn’t really occurred to me. I remember feeling somewhat liberated by the presence of literary scholars in opinion and public affairs journals that I avidly read. I realized that while scholarship had its place, questions surrounding the study of literature and its implications for our culture deserved a place in a much wider realm of ideas. In a way, I found an intellectual home outside of the university, which, in my case, proved salutary.

The roster for Literature and the Conservative Ideal was assembled by individual cold calling. I had compiled a fairly short list of scholars whose work I had come across in these popular venues and who I thought might at least be able to consider conservatism’s role in literary study as well as its various formulations in selective literary works. The response to my initial proposal was very positive, and I remain infinitely grateful to the contributors for their generosity.

What I have come to understand over the years is that genuine concern over the state of literature today is not bounded by party affiliations or directed by a singular ideological framework. As I mention in the book, personal politics did not figure in discussions with contributors, nor did I harbor any assumptions about them. I think it is a testament to dispassionate scholarship and the contributors’ dedication to their craft that the volume came together the way that it did.

AM:  What critics do you consider representative of the conservative tradition?

MZ:  I think in this case it is once again useful to detach what might be considered a conservative approach to literature from the more freighted use of the term in a distinctly political context. In so doing, a critic such as Lionel Trilling, known for his oft-repeated equation of conservatism with “irritable mental gestures,” might be classified as an exemplar of a conservative literary tradition. His emphasis on literature as an embodiment of culture cut against the grain of scholarship that valued texts primarily for their reflection of bourgeois society. Close reading and moral judgment are at the center of Trilling’s critiques, and his skepticism of a literature that “pets and dandles its underprivileged characters” might be sustained as a rebuke to today’s critical environment.

Writing also in what might be called the conservative tradition is of course F.R. Leavis, whose concern for literature’s essential role within civilized life is discussed by Thomas Jeffers in the book. I would also include T.S. Eliot and other contributors to Scrutiny, a publication whose critical acumen and attention to literature’s artistic expression is in many ways lacking today. It is, however, still found in the pages of such eminent publications as Commentary, the Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, and others. So, as readers of The Literary Lawyer are keenly aware, the humanistic tradition, which stands athwart today’s prevailing postmodernist ethos, is very much alive. It just isn’t generally in vogue in those places where literature is taught.

 

Part Two coming soon….

Transcendental Liberty

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Creativity, Emerson, Essays, Ethics, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Philosophy, Poetry, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Western Philosophy, Writing on January 15, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This essay originally appeared here in The Freeman.

“The less government we have, the better.” So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson, a  man not usually treated as a classical liberal. Yet this man—the Sage of  Concord—held views that cannot be described as anything but classical liberal or  libertarian.

None other than Cornel West, no friend of the free market, has said that  “Emerson is neither a liberal nor a conservative and certainly not a socialist  or even a civic republican. Rather he is a petit bourgeois libertarian, with at  times anarchist tendencies and limited yet genuine democratic sentiments.” An  abundance of evidence supports this view. Emerson was, after all, the man who  extolled the “infinitude of the private man.” One need only look at one of  Emerson’s most famous essays, “Self Reliance,” for evidence of his  libertarianism.

“Self-Reliance” is perhaps the most exhilarating expression of individualism  ever written, premised as it is on the idea that each of us possesses a degree  of genius that can be realized through confidence, intuition, and nonconformity.  “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your  private heart is true for all men,” Emerson proclaims, “that is genius.”

Genius, then, is a belief in the awesome power of the human mind and in its  ability to divine truths that, although comprehended differently by each  individual, are common to everyone. Not all genius, on this view, is necessarily  or universally right, since genius is, by definition, a belief only, not a  definite reality. Yet it is a belief that leads individuals to “trust thyself”  and thereby to realize their fullest potential and to energize their most  creative faculties. Such self-realization has a spiritual component insofar as  “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind” and “no law can  be sacred to me but that of my nature.”

According to Emerson, genius precedes society and the State, which corrupt  rather than clarify reasoning and which thwart rather than generate  productivity. History shows that great minds have challenged the conventions and  authority of society and the State and that “great works of art have no more  affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous  impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of  voices is on the other side.” Accordingly, we ought to refuse to “capitulate to  badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.” We ought, that is,  to be deliberate, nonconformist pursuers of truth rather than of mere  apprehensions of truth prescribed for us by others. “Whoso would be a man,”  Emerson says, “must be a noncomformist.”

Self-Interest and Conviction

For Emerson, as for Ayn Rand, rational agents act morally by pursuing their  self-interests, including self-interests in the well-being of family, friends,  and neighbors, who are known and tangible companions rather than abstract  political concepts. In Emerson’s words, “The only right is what is after my  constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” Or: “Few and mean as my gifts  may be, I actually am, and do not need for my own assurance or the assurance of  my fellows any secondary testimony.”

It is not that self-assurance equates with rightness, or that stubbornness  is a virtue; it is that confidence in what one knows and believes is a condition  precedent to achieving one’s goals. Failures are inevitable, as are setbacks;  only by exerting one’s will may one overcome the failures and setbacks that are  needed to achieve success.

If, as Emerson suggests, a “man is to carry himself in the presence of all  opposition, as if everything were titular and ephemeral but he,” how should he  treat the poor?  Emerson supplies this answer:

Do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my  obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell  thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent,  I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. There is  a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for  them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities;  the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain  end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief  Societies;—though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar,  it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.

These lines require qualification. Emerson is not damning philanthropy or  charity categorically or unconditionally; after all, he will, he says, go to  prison for certain individuals with whom he shares a special relationship. He  is, instead, pointing out, with much exhibition, that one does not act morally  simply by giving away money without conviction or to subsidize irresponsible,  unsustainable, or exploitative business activities. It is not moral to give away  a little money that you do not care to part with, or to fund an abstract cause  when you lack knowledge of, and have no stake in, its outcome. Only when you  give money to people or causes with which you are familiar, and with whom or  which you have something at stake, is your gift meaningful; and it is never  moral to give for show or merely to please society. To give morally, you must  mean to give morally—and have something to lose.

Dissent

Emerson famously remarks that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of  little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Much ink  has been spilled to explain (or explain away) these lines. I take them to mean,  in context, that although servile flattery and showy sycophancy may gain a  person recognition and popularity, they will not make that person moral or great  but, instead, weak and dependent. There is no goodness or greatness in a  consistency imposed from the outside and against one’s better judgment; many  ideas and practices have been consistently bad and made worse by their very  consistency. “With consistency,” therefore, as Emerson warns, “a great soul has  simply nothing to do.”

Ludwig von Mises seems to have adopted the animating, affirming  individualism of Emerson, and even, perhaps, Emerson’s dictum of nonconformity.  Troping Emerson, Mises remarks that “literature is not conformism, but dissent.”  “Those authors,” he adds, “who merely repeat what everybody approves and wants  to hear are of no importance. What counts alone is the innovator, the dissenter,  the harbinger of things unheard of, the man who rejects the traditional  standards and aims at substituting new values and ideas for old ones.” This man  does not mindlessly stand for society and the State and their compulsive  institutions; he is “by necessity anti-authoritarian and anti-governmental,  irreconcilably opposed to the immense majority of his contemporaries. He is  precisely the author whose books the greater part of the public does not buy.”  He is, in short, an Emersonian, as Mises himself was.

The Marketplace of Ideas

To be truly Emersonian, you may not accept the endorsements and propositions  in this article as unconditional truth, but must, instead, read Emerson and  Mises and Rand for yourself to see whether their individualism is alike in its  affirmation of human agency resulting from inspirational nonconformity. If you  do so with an inquiring seriousness, while trusting the integrity of your own  impressions, you will, I suspect, arrive at the same conclusion I have  reached.

There is an understandable and powerful tendency among libertarians to  consider themselves part of a unit, a movement, a party, or a coalition, and of  course it is fine and necessary to celebrate the ways in which economic freedom  facilitates cooperation and harmony among groups or communities; nevertheless,  there is also a danger in shutting down debate and in eliminating competition  among different ideas, which is to say, a danger in groupthink or compromise, in  treating the market as an undifferentiated mass divorced from the innumerable  transactions of voluntarily acting agents. There is, too, the tendency to become  what Emerson called a “retained attorney” who is able to recite talking points  and to argue predictable “airs of opinion” without engaging the opposition in a  meaningful debate.

Emerson teaches not only to follow your convictions but to engage and  interact with others, lest your convictions be kept to yourself and deprived of  any utility. It is the free play of competing ideas that filters the good from  the bad; your ideas aren’t worth a lick until you’ve submitted them to the test  of the marketplace.

“It is easy in the world,” Emerson reminds us, “to live after the world’s  opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he  who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of  solitude.” Let us stand together by standing alone.

Bogus on Buckley

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Communism, Conservatism, Historicism, History, Humanities, Libertarianism, Politics, Writing on February 9, 2012 at 8:34 am

Allen Mendenhall

It was customary practice in my family to gather at my grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner after church.  Loyal to our Southern traditions, we would, after eating, divide company: men into the living room, women into the kitchen or den.  My brother and I, still children, would sit silently, for the most part, while my grandfather, father and uncles bandied about the names of politicians and discussed the day’s sermon or newspaper headlines. 

I first learned of William F. Buckley Jr. during these Sunday afternoons, as he was often the topic of conversation.  I was too young to know much, but young enough to learn a lot quickly, so I began to follow this man, this Buckley, to the extent that I could, from those days until the day that he died in February 2008.  

Overcommitted to supposedly universal political ideals and to the spread of American liberal democracy throughout the world, Buckley was not my kind of conservative.  He could be tactless and cruel, as when he violated the ancient maxim de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, speak no evil”) in an obituary to Murray Rothbard wherein he wrote that “Rothbard had defective judgment” and “couldn’t handle moral priorities.”  Buckley then trumpeted some unflattering anecdotes about Rothbard before likening Rothbard to David Koresh. 

Despite such tantrums and vendettas, I always liked Buckley.  Something in the way he conducted himself—his showy decorum, flaunted manners and sophisticated rhetoric—appealed to me.

Carl T. Bogus, an American law professor and author of the biography Buckley, seems to share my qualified respect for Buckley, despite disagreeing with Buckley on important political and theoretical issues.  “I should tell the reader up front,” Bogus warns, “that I am a liberal and thus critical—in some instances, highly critical—of Buckley’s ideology.”  Yet, adds Bogus, “I admire William F. Buckley Jr. enormously.”     

Unlike bobble-headed television personalities and think tank sycophants, Bogus does justice to his subject, treating Buckley’s ideas evenhandedly on the grounds that he (Bogus) is “disheartened by the present state of partisan animosity,” one solution to which, he says, “is to take opposing ideas seriously.”  Bogus not only takes Buckley’s ideas seriously, but credits them for changing America’s political realities.    Read the rest of this entry »

A Few More Words on Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Conservatism, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Politics on October 9, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Many American politicians call themselves “conservative” despite never having read Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Robert Taft, Donald Davidson, Frank Meyer, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, or Russell Kirk.  Television pundits recycle the term “neoconservative” without even a passing reference to Leo Strauss, Irving Kristol, or Norman Podhoretz.  A welcome respite from the ignorance of the talking heads, Patrick Allitt’s The Conservatives (Yale University Press, 2009) is an engaging and informative book, even if it is more of an introduction to American conservatism than a critical study.  I recently reviewed the book here at the journal 49th Parallel, but I have more to say about it.

American conservatism is rich and complex but too often simplified or ignored by academics who think they know what conservatism means.  I applaud Allitt for taking conservatism seriously and for marshaling a wealth of evidence to support his thesis.  Those who cannot identify what generally distinguishes a paleoconservative from a neoconservative, or who’re confused by the apparent hypocrisy of conservatives who call for big-government spending on military and surveillance while griping about big-government, need to read this book.  Allitt provides clarity and direction for the uninitiated.  He deserves not just our attention, but our admiration.

Allitt attends to several figures in this book, including John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, William Cobbett, John Marshall, John Randolph of Roanoke, George Fitzhugh, Rufus Choate, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, George Ticknor, Abraham Lincoln, Orestes Brownson, William Graham Sumner, Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, John Crow Ransom, Andrew Lytle, H. L. Mencken, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Adams Cram, George Santayana, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, George Will, Ronald Reagan, Michael Novak, Robert Bork, Allan Bloom, M. E. Bradford, Thomas Fleming, Clyde Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington, Patrick Buchanan, Jerry Falwell, Roger Kimball, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, Dinesh D’Souza, and others.  One book cannot address every major figure that influenced American conservatism, and Allit’s failure to mention some names (Strom Thurmond, Gerald Ford, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Rumsfeld, Wendell Berry, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, or any of the Bob Joneses) is understandable.  Paul Gottfried appears just once in the book, and passingly.  But a case could be made that Gottfried’s paleoconservatism is more European in origin and thus worthy of analysis.  And surely Eric Voegelin warrants more than a casual reference in a single paragraph.

For some, Allitt’s most objectionable suggestion will be that the Civil War was a conflict of two conservatisms: Calhoun’s versus Webster’s.  This interpretation illuminates and simultaneously complicates such recent debates as the one held between Thomas DiLorenzo and Harry V. Jaffa over the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

Allitt also suggests that the Federalists represent an early manifestation of conservatism.  This classification would mean that Jefferson and his ilk were not conservatives, which would in turn imply that current Jeffersonians are not in keeping with a purely conservative tradition.  Allitt offers this helpful and accurate note about Jefferson: “He might not have been the Jacobin his Federalist foes alleged, but neither can he easily be thought of as a conservative.”  Many scholars and enthusiasts consider Jefferson to be a “classical liberal,” but the signification of that word relative to “libertarian” or “conservative” merely confounds definitional precision:  All three words have been used interchangeably and negligently in recent decades.  It may not matter if Jefferson is called “conservative” or “liberal,” especially if those terms cause people to short-circuit reflection or affix a contemporary label to a complicated man living in a complex, radically different era.

Allitt’s book is a fine contribution to and about conservative letters.  I recommend it to anyone who thinks he can explain conservatism.

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