“This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always — when about to enter a protest — very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it ”in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.” – Robert L. Dabney, Discussions, Vol. 4
Along the same lines, Robert Dabney, in an essay called The Public Preaching of Women, wrote this:
‘‘In this day innovations march with rapid strides. The fantastic suggestion of yesterday, entertained only by a few fanatics, and then only mentioned by the sober to be ridiculed, is to-day the audacious reform, and will be to-morrow the recognized usage. Novelties are so numerous and so wild and rash, that in even conservative minds the sensibility of wonder is exhausted and the instinct of righteous resistance fatigued.”
Dabney could hardly have imagined how much more ‘wild and rash’ the world would become by this time.
But to return to the question, is it true, as the currently popular saying has it, that ”conservatism never conserved anything?”
That statement has become almost ubiquitous on right-leaning blogs, with bloggers and commenters alike repeating it as gospel truth.
Another question which that blanket condemnation should inspire is: should we even wish to conserve anything of our heritage and our history, or is it all dross, all worthless, as many cynical commenters insist?
The statement that ‘conservatism never conserved anything’ may be a paraphrase of Rev. R.L. Dabney, as quoted at the top of this page. The quote has been circulated quite a bit on pro-Southern blogs and on right-wing blogs generally in recent times. Regardless of its provenance, the quote has certainly spread like wildfire in recent years.
If Dabney were alive, I doubt that he would want his words or his ideas used to declare ‘conservatism’ per se as useless, and as unnecessary as many in our time expressly say.
It may be that conservatism (as we know it, at least) is a failure, but if so, does it automatically follow that we are better off without something called ‘conservatism’? It does not logically follow that such is the case. However it is popular to believe such things in the current year, and for some people, the popularity of an idea is all-important; if it is not the belief of the majority of those we know it must not be true.
How is conservatism defined? If by ‘conservatism’ we mean an organized political movement or a specific party (Republicans, supposedly) then certainly those institutions have failed, or failed the people they supposedly represent. But just as ‘America’ is not a political system or a ‘proposition’ or any kind of abstraction, so conservatism is not. As has been pointed out often, it is not an ideology, so the phrase ‘conservative ideology’ is an oxymoron. Conservatism is not a systematic ideology but more of an attitude. It varies according to the culture it reflects. People living in a monarchy have a different set of priorities and traditions than people in a Republic (or a ‘democracy’). People living in a Christian culture and practicing the Christian faith will differ from those in a non-Christian setting. So there is no one set ideology or belief system for conservatives, except maybe the emphasis on tradition, continuity, and stability over change and innovation for its own sake.
So why are so many Americans, including right-leaning Americans, soured on conserving what little may be left of our traditions and heritage and culture?
We live in a cynical age, and the cynicism has its roots partially in the fact that few people believe in the things that once held our society together, and the things which provided a kind of cement which united us to a considerable extent. It may be that this can never be revived, but it seems many of us feel relieved to know that ‘the past can never be brought back’ because we’ve become convinced that the past was every bit as bad as the leftists say it was; is this merely sour grapes, or are we now possessed of new information about the past which convinces us that the past is dead and that’s a good thing? Are we really sure we can continue as a nation or a people, believing that our history was never what we thought it was? This kind of thinking (if thinking it is) could have come from a Howard Zinn textbook. Everybody in the bad old days was racist, sexist, homophobic, bigoted. It appears as if the left has won the argument and many of us have essentially accepted defeat, conceding tacitly that yes, things are better now that the left has ”fundamentally transformed” America.
How did this happen? Even the younger right was educated in the propaganda factories that pass as our educational system, and whether it’s acknowledged or not, many have absorbed much of the left’s narrative of Evil America. Can this be a good development?
The Republican Party in its present form along with much of the Republican establishment (the ‘conservative’ media) is a disgrace, and if they were actual Trotskyite operatives out to destroy the GOP and conservatism as such, they would hardly have done anything differently. So actually if the GOP is forever discredited by its behavior in the past, that is a good thing, as I’ve said before, long ago.
The GOP could disappear tomorrow and the right would not be worse off, if we have some kind of representation, some real counter-force to the leftist juggernaut. To say that we don’t need conservatism may sound radical and hard-nosed, but it is just not wise to say that we don’t need any sort of efforts to preserve the last shredded remnants of our heritage. Can we just improvise some new kind of culture to replace the old system, just re-invent the wheel? What we will get, if we don’t work towards a new and healthy counter-culture of the right will be just a post-modern dog’s dinner, with the default being a muddled mixture of the left-wing nonsense with a few ‘right-wing’ ideas. Something has to fill the vacuum if we declare that we have no need of, no use for, tradition and history and the ”old paths”.
Political correctness, with its fantasy ideology of ”equality” has to go as do many of the ideas which even many right-leaning people accept unquestioningly.
To even dream of creating some kind of new culture and society out of whole cloth is just absurd; doing so would be a perfect example of left-radicalism in action, and would risk being a replay of the whole obscene Jacobin experiment. And we know how that worked out. Or do we? Most people educated in our schools have not been taught about the failures of the egalitarian ideologues, or they were taught that the failures were actually triumphs for The People. Santayana warned about the dangers risked by those who do not learn the lessons of history.
As to whether conservatives ever conserved anything, I would cite the modest example of the Hays Code in old Hollywood. Just read comments on any old ‘Hays Code era” movie reviews on IMDB. You will find that almost everyone hates Mr. Will H. Hays just as they hate Joe McCarthy — without knowing why. They just know that any kind of limit on ‘freedom of expression’ or so-called ‘art’ is evil. But imagine, if there had not been a code that prevented the irresponsibility and excesses of the Hollywood movie industry, we would have been led down the slippery slope to today’s kinds of degenerate ‘entertainment’ much sooner, half a century sooner, likely.
Some think it would be better if today’s kind of movies had always been allowed rather than limiting Hollywood’s elites ‘artistic expression.’ But Mr. Hays and his code, vilified though they were and still are by some, fought a kind of rear-guard action and at least delayed the corruption process that led us to today’s ‘entertainment’ industry. However today’s right seems to differ little from the left in their entertainment preferences. No wonder our society has been turned upside down with the loss of our former moral system.
Among others, I think it was Lycurgus of Sparta as well as Sir John Glubb who pointed out that decadent, dissolute societies were inevitably weakened and often conquered once the rot set in, and if only for survival’s sake we should take note.
Some believe that our society just ‘fell’ on its own, but I think most believe that our decline has been engineered. If we have to contend with those who are bent on destroying what our forefathers so arduously built, the least we can do is to try to halt the destruction and to preserve what is good. To say that we need no such efforts (“conservatism”) is to concede defeat.
More accurately, though, we need a restoration, but we must know what it is we are restoring, rather than take the attitude that we should pull it all down, adopting the ‘order from chaos’ idea from the destroying faction.