Liberalism, Conservatism, and the Future of the Past

I have often been asked by my most admiring students, in the most perplexed and plaintive tones, why I am a conservative–a position that evidently makes me an intellectual leper. I have tried to explain to them that modern-day conservatism is really the heir to classical liberalism (modern-day liberalism having shifted inexorably leftward toward supine statism). I have pointed out that my political views are in line with those of De Toqueville, Burke, Madison, and Jefferson, who appreciated the tyrannical velleities of all forms of government, and recognized that the principal threat to individual rights and liberties comes from the monopolistic state, not from “corporatism” or rampant personal greed. Perhaps because absolute monarchy, feudalism, Nazism, and Communism are episodes in human history remote from their historical memory, I have failed to persuade them. So let me put the argument in terms that the heroically free-thinking and permanently rebellious “younger generation” should find sympathetic. Conservatives, these days, are the only radicals. Conservatives want change.

Oh, I know: the parties and voices of change are supposed to be on the Left, like Barack Obama. But the changes they invariably advocate are merely the steady inertial creep of big government, which for the last fifty years has grown bigger, fatter, more predatory and parasitical with each election cycle (and no less so, alas, under the ersatz conservatism of the parties of the Right), even while government has failed utterly to solve a single problem whose discovery (or invention) was first invoked as the reason for its growth.

Growth in government is not change; it is the closest thing to immutability under Aristotle’s moon. Reduction in the size of government–say, to that of the early sixties, under the Liberal Lester Pearson–is CHANGE. But to the timidly traditionalist parties of both the Right and the Left, such talk is truly “scary” (as the late Paul Martin warned us so often). Boo!

As a radical conservative, I am regularly admonished by my students that one “cannot turn back the clock”. Why not? The Reformation turned back the clock from the early 16th century to ca. 33 A.D. The artists of the Renaissance turned it back even earlier, to Hellenistic times. In 1948, in establishing the state of Israel, the world-community turned the clock back to the tenth century before the New David, when under the Old David the Jewish people last presided over a minor empire in Palestine. Until less than three decades ago, Marx, Engels, Lenin, et. al. managed to turn back the clock of half the planet to the Stone Age, when tribal chieftains owned all property in the “name” of the tribe. Speaking of the Stone Age, the Rolling Stones are still turning back the clock whenever they perform before sold-out audiences of senescent flower children who, apparently, will never die, having once commingled their stamens and pistils in the mud of Woodstock and therein found the fountain of eternal youth.

Admittedly, not all of these experiments in historical regression have been happy ones. Take note, however, that the very worst of them are always celebrated by modern liberals as “progressive”. Remember Mao’s GREAT LEAP FORWARD? Remember the 70’s, when it was cool to wear Mao jackets and quote from his Little Red Book; when even in the West our otherwise anti-religious priesthood of intellectuals presided happily over the superstitious elevation of this pudgy, simpleminded little mass murderer to the status of a god? Liberalism, of course, is always progressive, even when it thrusts mankind collectively back into the pre-historic slime. (But then liberalism’s definition of progress is any doctrine or ideology with which liberals agree.)

Some time in the sixties, as I recall, the conservative writer James Burnham identified the unifying credo of liberalism as an irrational hatred of the West. At the time, Burnham had in mind the West’s protracted effort to defeat communism, an effort that struck so many Western liberals as anti-progressive.

In the minds of these anti-anti-communists, the opponents of communism were paranoid Dr. Strangeloves who imagined that their enemies were lurking under every bed. Incomprehensibly, such lunatics succeeded at last in whipping up the nativist instincts of Amerika to embark on a great national witch-hunt. Witch-hunts are by definition crusades against an enemy that does not exist, and so indeed liberals evidently thought that communists didn’t exist either (at least, not in Amerika)–a rather odd belief, since the same American liberals were so openly laudatory of “international socialism” and the efforts of the Soviet leadership to “grow” it, as we would say nowadays, world-wide.

Even today, in popular consciousness Amerika’s darkest age–second only to the dark age of slavery–is the “McCarthy era”. Hollywood can still be relied upon to make three films about the delusional excesses of this anti-communist menace to our constitutional liberties to the one it makes about the threats posed by Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, et. al. Somehow, the victims of McCarthyism have entered history as martyrs. It’s an odd development that we have made saints of those who downplayed or exculpated the worst totalitarian atrocities in the history of mankind, even as we censor, ostracize, bring up before international human rights tribunals, and deport others as “Holocaust-deniers”. McCarthyism, anyone?

Admittedly, I’ve never understood our strangely disparate reaction to the Nazi and communist holocausts–smoking out, sixty years after the fact, the nonagenarian perpetrators of the former while denouncing as McCarthyite those who tried to sound the alarm bells about the former. Simon Wiesenthal: mighty hunter of war-criminals; Joe McCarthy: delusional tormentor of “witches”. I guess one man’s holocaust is another man’s progress.

I wonder what Burnham would have made of liberalism’s various post-Soviet enthusiasms today. Notwithstanding the still-profitable anti-McCarthy industry, anti-anti-communism is no longer as credible after the fall of the Berlin Wall as it used to be.

I remember the news-coverage of that event and the others that had set off the cascade of dominoes that eventually led to the break-up of the Soviet Empire: remember watching the jubilant street celebrations of Berliners, Romanians, Poles, etc., the toppling of statues of Lenin all across the worker’s paradise (vandalism at its most beautiful), the spontaneous lynch-mobs setting out after the heads of Ceausescu and Honecker, shouting the praises as they went of their liberators Reagan and Thatcher, with nary a word of thanks for the enlightened Mr. Gorbachev, to whom the Left still gives credit–secretly blames, I should probably say–for the Soviet debacle.

How troubling this must have been to the liberals of the news media whose jobs required them to provide live commentary on these events. What would they make of them?, I wondered at the time. Consistency should have demanded that they be angry with the lifelong beneficiaries of universal health care and free education and social justice who were now so ungratefully turning their backs on the Future. But I heard not a word of disappointment or disapproval. They all just whooped and hollered and high-fived each other right along with the anti-communist lynch mobs. “A great day in history!”, “a victory for freedom!”, “a testament to the endurance of the human spirit!”, were some of the exultant cliches intoned by the talking heads on CNN and CBC and the pundits at the Toronto Star (aka Pravda North). You have to give liberals credit for knowing how to be on the right side of history. I guess we’re all anti-communists now.