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Beyond the Basics

A new collection of intelligent and thoughtful essays on the dilemmas of American conservatism.

By 12.10.10

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The Dilemmas of American Conservatism
Edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Ethan Fishman
(The University Press of Kentucky, 212 pages, $40)

Order or Liberty. Tradition and Innovation. Every year young conservatives of an intellectual bent are introduced to the great debates of their forebears. The colloquies and conferences by groups like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have been going over the same material for years. Read some Adam Smith. Now some Richard Weaver. Discuss. Eat chicken. Repeat next year. Perhaps this is as it should be; we are called conservatives for a reason. Why shouldn't our internal debates seem so familiar that they become comfortable?

The Dilemmas of American Conservatism is a collection of essays that moves out of the safe colloquies and into deeper, even dangerous intellectual territory. The editors, Kenneth Deutsch and Ethan Fishman, cop to being "traditionalist" conservatives, and ones that stand aloof from the day-to-day workings of the political movement that calls itself conservatism. After noting some of the official hypocrisies of the Reagan and Bush presidencies (government expansion, debt) they admit that "in a society where liberals and most conservatives oppose traditional conservative positions we will be relegated to the role of gadfly.… Fortunately authentic gadflies never required large audiences." And while this book is unlikely to reach the best-seller list. it would profit anyone looking to take their conservatism beyond the dorm-room debates of youth.

The book is composed of nine essays by contemporary academics and writers on the intellectual titans of the Right. Fishman's own contribution on John H. Hallowell, suggests that sometimes the fundamental debates on the right should remain open. "To [Eric] Voegelin and Hallowell, indeed, tension is not a dilemma to be resolved but a permanent feature of human existence to be respected. They therefore urged students to resist the temptation to gain a monopoly on truth and seek contentment in discovering partial and temporary solutions to ultimately insolvable problems." The advice is applicable to the conservative movement's leaders today who too often wallow in a shallow ideology that provides instant and clear answers that are not only politically inexpedient, but impractical altogether.

In fact, many of the thinkers profiled in this collection would outright despise some of the tendencies within the modern conservative movement. Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences, loathed egalitarianism. Kirk abhorred freedom when it was defined as autonomous individualism. Willmoore Kendall had a strong distaste for traditionalism if it worked to separate American conservatives from the mainstream of life in their own country. It would actually be difficult to assemble a collection of conservatives who would be more ambivalent to the modern political movement that claims to bear the name conservatism. And that is precisely why this collection is so challenging and valuable.

The essays contain some surprises. Second-hand reading had hardened me to intellectual figures like Leo Strauss and John Courtney Murray. I had encountered these names in polemics before, but Dilemmas provided the first occasion of truly encountering their thought. Murray, a Catholic priest and key intellectual figure in 20th-century Catholicism, is not nearly as sanguine about modern democracies as I had come to expect. He found that democracy "once a political and social idea, now pretends to be a religion, the one true religion transcendent to all warring 'sects.'" Traditionalists who had suspected Murray of inspiring Catholic capitulation to modernism will find a helpful corrective in Peter Augustine Lawler's treatment. Murray was adept at using the thought of one modern thinker to demonstrate the implausibility of another, while vindicating Christian orthodoxy. And even when his thought is implausible or oversimplified (Murray believed the Founders' combination of John Locke and Jean Calvin was roughly synonymous with St. Thomas Aquinas's political philosophy), it is still engaging.

Readers of Dilemmas may find themselves introduced to new political binaries to replace "left and right" or "conservative and liberal." Brad Lowell Stowe's essay on Robert Nisbet shows us a figure who saw the great battle of civilization drawn between "political monism" and "social pluralism." Conservatives should be on the side of the pluralists who include not just Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, but even the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. Buckley collaborator Willmoore Kendall points to the conflict between the "great tradition" of Western philosophic and religious truths against a revolutionary moral relativism

Stowe's essay on Nisbet is one of the most sterling. Nisbet was an anti-statist to the core and believed that war was the handmaiden of the welfare state. He defined as the "sole object of the conservative tradition" the task of protecting "the social order and its constitutive groups from the enveloping bureaucracy of the nation state."

Daniel McCarthy's takes on the challenging task of presenting the thought of Willmoore Kendall, who struggled to make sense of and defend the doctrine of majority rule and the philosophy of John Locke throughout his life's work. (Full disclosure: McCarthy is a colleague of mine.) McCarthy's contribution stands out for the wonderful biographical details and storytelling, signs that a journalist was at work. He deftly traces Kendall's views on majoritarian rule and legislative supremacy as they spring forth and mature over his career.

The truly wonderful thing about Dilemmas is that its very structure and tone embodies the best traits of conservatism. These nine essays never descend into sloganeering, or reduce their subject's work to mere ideology. Instead they clarify, distill, and in some cases begin to build upon the legacy left by our intellectual forebears. This collection is an antidote to the immaturity that characterizes so much conservative polemic. Aspiring conservative intellectuals can learn not just from the content of this collection, but from its style and generosity of spirit. 

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About the Author

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor of the American Conservative.