Embracing My Inner Conservative

So I've been self-consciously conservative for the better part of three months now.  In both senses: conscious of myself as in fact more inclined to conservative ways of thinking about our current political circumstances than I had previously appreciated, and embarrassed as all get-out to admit it lest I lose all of my friends, alienate my readers, and anger my loved ones.  But it's been long enough and I've done enough reading for the ideas to be starting to settle, so much so that I think I may actually be able to articulate some of them without going into a tailspin.

(Although, as I suspect you can tell by how stilted my prose is here, I am not entirely comfortable saying any of this out loud just yet.  Don't worry, I'm sure it's just a phase.  No, not in that way.  I've learned too much already to go back to my situational liberalism.  Truth to tell, I'm not sure I ever really was that much of a liberal, not in the way that I understand the term now.  I've always been a bit of an oddball, even in academia.  It could explain a lot of things, e.g. about why so much contemporary scholarship drives me nuts.  But I digress.)

So what do I mean when I say I am a conservative?  It's complicated and I'm still reading, but these are some of the things I now realize that I actually believe.

I believe in private property.  Okay, so who doesn't?  But are you sure?  I believe that I have a moral--and should have a legal--right to the things that I possess, to the money that I have earned, to the home that I and my husband own.  I also believe that I should have a legal right to determine how I dispose of my possessions and earnings, whether to keep them for my own use or give them away.  I believe that the government has a duty to protect this moral right legally, not to interfere with my use of my property or to tell me how I should spend it.  If you are not sure about this and believe instead that the government should be able to take as much of your property as it determines is necessary for the common good, think about how you would feel if government agents showed up this minute and told you you had to move to a place of their choosing and couldn't take any of your stuff.  Right.

I believe in equality before the law.  This is an amazing human accomplishment, to believe that the law should be the same for everyone regardless of wealth, status, religion, ancestry, or skin color.  Think about it.  Medieval Europeans weren't quite so clear (although they were close--they were Christians, after all--but earlier on they did have such things as weregild); ancient Romans most certainly weren't (to begin with, they had slaves, and then there was the distinction between patricians and plebs).  There are even people alive today who believe that some people should be treated differently before the law, whether because of their religious beliefs or their ancestry or the environment in which they grew up.  Often people even argue that there should be different laws for people based on belief, ancestry, or environment, which more or less brings us back to ideas of weregild, although we no longer distinguish between Romans and Franks.  Society is fair when the laws are the same for everyone, not when the law seeks to maintain such differences.

I believe in the separation of church and state.  Which does not mean, however, that I believe religion should have no place in public discourse.  Rather, I believe that for whatever reason our country ended up this way, the United States has been politically and spiritually much better off not having a religion established by the state.  Europe has not been so lucky, and look how religion has fared there.  I know, I know; secularists like Europe, but they are confusing the issue.  Religion dies when it is coerced; this is the reason that the United States is so rich in religious movements.  Likewise, the state becomes tyrannical when there is nothing to keep it in check--which there most certainly isn't when the State becomes the Church.  (Thus the Investiture Controversy; maybe Gregory VII actually knew what he was doing.  Likewise Anselm.)  This is the principal danger that I now see in modern liberalism as it is typically defined by the likes of people like our current president: it makes the state a religion ("the thing to which we all belong") and looks to the state (a.k.a. government) for salvation.  It is likewise the danger that I see in certain religious claims popular among a large part of the world's population today.  I would say, but I am too much of a chicken.  You know what I mean.

I believe in freedom of speech.  Oddly, we all say this, at least in America, but do we really believe it?  I have been terrified to say anything about the things I've been reading and thinking about, not because someone from the government might come to shut me up, but because of my family and friends.  What if they found out that I disagreed with them?  That I didn't want to vote for their candidate anymore?  Can I put up a sign in my window that doesn't include the rainbOw?  Probably not in my neighborhood, not without consequences.  Now think about what that means, if even under such legal protections as I most certainly have to express my electoral preferences, I am scared.  Now imagine how I might feel if I were a Christian living almost anywhere else in the world and wanted to wear my cross.  Or pray in public.  Or disagree about how best to worship God.  Or even who God is.

I believe that certain cultural values are better than others.  Put that way, who would disagree?  But what values, and how do you decide?  Well, there's the rub: you do have to.  Otherwise you can't act.  What would you do if you had been with Cortés and seen the human sacrifices performed by the Aztecs?  What would you do if you saw a girl having her feet bound?  Or sold as a slave?  Or forced to marry against her wishes (i.e. raped)?  Would you excuse it as "cultural" and, therefore, none of your business?  Do people actually have rights as human beings, or is this just another of those ideas that are indefensible because culturally-bound?  Toleration of religious differences is another such value, but not everyone in the world shares it.  To whom do we bow?

I just read out this list of beliefs to my son, who said, "Those don't sound particularly conservative."  (Except for the one about the religion of the State, which he thought silly.  "Nobody worships the government."  Um.)  What do you think?


  1. I think there are great arguments for conservatism. I've always thought Burke was more right than Paine, for instance. I think, however, that the intersection of arguments for conservatism with the actual stated and implicitly obvious political goals of the GOP in 2012 are relatively limited, and perhaps vanishingly small.

  2. So does one simply not vote? The Democratic goals seem to me even further removed from these ideals.

  3. Self-censorship, for fear of being disliked or unpopular, is hardly the same thing as lack of freedom of speech. Surely you can say whatever you like, and your neighbors, colleagues and readers are free, in their turn, to express either their approval OR their distaste for what you say. Indeed, the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of speech is quite a different set of issues than a guaranteed right to be popular. It seems to me that what you really want is the freedom to express your opinions, but without others having the freedom to express their disapproval of them. While such a situation may be attractive in some ways -- few people truly enjoy criticism! -- I'm surprised that you somehow think that your own previous reluctance to speak means that you were actually *prevented* from speaking.

    1. I don't. My point was that we self-censor for precisely the reasons you suggest, even when legally we have the right to say what we want to without fear of being criminalized. Think how much worse it would be knowing that your friends and family could turn you into the government for saying something e.g. blasphemous. This is hardly the same thing as simple disapproval, which of course you are right, my friends and family now can express all they like.

  4. It seems that your son, like many, doesn't understand what conservatism is. I think you have done an admirable job of listing some of the most important pillars of conservatism. Well done, and best wishes on your continued journey to enlightenment.

    1. Thank you!!! It is a great comfort to hear that I have a fellow traveler!

  5. I agree with your son. :-) And I agree with most aspects of your points, yet I consider myself liberal, not conservative.

    Could it be that these simply are the shared values between left and right, which politicians and political parties have trouble keeping in mind these days? (Agreeing with "the enemy" = bad.)

    The far-right conservatism on the national stage is very difficult for me. Classical New England conservativism, remnants of which I live among, is not as difficult for me to take (though those folks continuing to support the GOP and its regressive social policies gives me pause). Perhaps that's what you're trending towards?

    Heck, I even voted for Romney for Governor because the Democratic candidate was bat-sh!t crazy. Romney was fiscally conservative---I could deal with that---but socially *moderate*: pro-choice, not anti-gay, even wanted to reform healthcare system. However, since then, it became clear to me that he is utterly political: he will say whatever it takes to get elected.

    On a personal point: friendship *should* be able to span such differences. I've become friends with folks whose differing-from-mine belief systems weren't immediately known to me. And so it should be that I should strive to retain older, deeper friendships, even when there are shifts, like yours. It may mean that some topics aren't discussed (as with some of these newer friends, where often I wouldn't even know where to start); or, between people like us, calmly probing, without malice, trying to understand better how we both think, and why it might differ.

    Thanks for sharing and letting me pile on. :-)

  6. Whoops! I wrote a response but my iPad dropped its connection. Thank you for being willing to talk about these things with me, friends should be able to discuss their differences of opinion! As for what brand of conservative I am, at the moment I seem to agree a lot with what I read in the National Review, which is ironic given that my one moment in the national press included a piece in which Stanley Kurtz trashed me for my role as chair of our European Civilization sequence. Perhaps it is telling that I managed to change his mind about me over the course of a day's heated email exchange. Not that he published another piece, but at least he realized that I was the wrong one to attack.


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