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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What's "conservative?"

A friend asked for my thoughts about a pair of recent opinion pieces by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. The first was "Confession of Liberal Intolerance" (08 May 16) and the latest "The Liberal Blind Spot" (29 May 16). In both Kristof proposes and defends his claim that liberals discriminate against conservatives, both in hiring and in professional judgments. Kristof only mentions university professors and departments to be discriminatory in this way, asserting that faculty refuse to hire "conservatives" and consider being "evangelical" grounds for refusing to consider a candidate. Kristof makes a number of mistakes in his charges and, worse, makes several false assumptions. One example of the latter is the implicit notion that "evangelical" equals "conservative." There have been a lot of the former who have been "radicals." Think of Luther and Kierkegaard. Or Jesus. Kristof also makes the contrary--and equally false--assumption that conservatives are all christians. Think of Hitler and Mussolini.

But, for a moment, consider the question--which Kristof ignores--"what do conservatives want to conserve?" By definition "conserving" has to be about the past. In a moment of unusual candor, William Buckley said, "Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change," and added that he himself aimed to live "obedient to god and subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors." As to the first aim, How do you know you're obeying god? The answer is clearly that you have to choose what to believe. And how do people make this choice? Typically by conforming to what their community or culture holds to be true. So both aims depend upon believing in the "wisdom of ancestors," which comes down to continuing traditional practices.

Now the framers of the U.S. constitution clearly held many traditional values, but their wisdom consisted in ensuring change. The constitution, as you know, imposed or enshrined things like slavery and white male political power. The constitution still functions, however, because it provides rules for changing values. It even provides for adding rules, like the great 14th amendment assuring all citizens "due process of law." So I'm all for conserving that sort of wisdom: the knowledge that the way I've lived is has been governed by a great number limiting or distorting features of which I've been unaware. If you're lucky, some such things may be revealed in one's lifetime, so that I can welcome the disillusionment--which is the same as enlightenment--afforded by, say, Gloria Steinem's campaign in the 1960s to eliminate "Mrs." Steinem's magazine Ms. for decades listed the number of years it took for a publication to substitute "Ms." for "Mrs." in news stories. The New York Times was one of the last! Another example of change exposing error is the late black comedian Godfrey Cambridge's joking that "I believed everything I saw on TV, until I tried to buy a flesh-colored Band-Aid."

So Buckley was wrong. Not merely the best, but the wisest way to be conservative is to embrace change. And Kristof is wrong, too. College faculties are not "liberal" because they have worked to exclude "conservatives." Academics, like others, can be wrong but, like the founders, they devote themselves to studying not only what has been thought and written, but also how the past has given way to change. Unless you can love that process, whether your subject is philosophy or physics, you can't be an intellectual...