Monday, April 27, 2009

Going it alone

I don't want this comment from Lawrence Auster on my post Hitchens and Conservative Rights to pass unnoticed, so I'm posting it below:

A terrific restatement by Mr. Richardson of the traditionalist versus the classic liberal position. As Mr. Richardson shows, not only is the classic liberal position of negative rights and restrictions on state power inadequate in itself to a proper understanding of the human, but it leads inevitably over time to a system of positive rights and unlimited state power directed at making everyone equal.

The basic flaw of classical liberalism is that it has no sense of the "larger wholes" which form us, of which we are a part, and in which, to a significant and indispensable degree, we find ourselves. Rights being the only operative principle of classical liberalism, the rights inevitably keep growing and demanding more and more, and instead of just wanting to be left alone want to be made equal.

While there are various self-described classical liberals in the U.S. today (two examples being S.T. Karnick and Ilana Mercer) who argue that classical liberalism is not anti-national but affirms national identity and national sovereignty, the fact is that classical liberalism does not contain within itself the means to stop its own tendency to move leftward. ONLY traditionalism can do that. ONLY traditionalism can contain the inherent ills of liberalism and thus assure that what is good about liberalism does not turn into its own opposite.

I would add this. The American Founding is often described as the quintessence of classical, Lockean liberalism. But this is not correct. Americans in the Founding period believed in a uniquely American amalgam of Lockean liberalism and traditionalism: in Protestant Christianity, in traditional morality, in distinctive English-American ways of life, in English-American ways of governance, in a powerful and jealous sense of nationhood, and in a powerful sense of identity with their respective individual states of the Union, which they guarded against the power of the national government.

They spoke and believed in the Lockean principles of the universal and natural rights of man, but they understood them and applied them within the context of a specific political and cultural order that was not universal but particular and contained many inequalities. Their liberalism was a part of a cultural order that was not itself liberal—which happens to be my formula for non-destructive liberalism. But, because they failed to produce a sufficient articulation of the non-liberal aspects of their political society, the liberal parts kept expanding and over time drove out the traditional parts.


Liberalism has not always attempted to go it alone as a ruling principle of society. We live in exceptionally radical times because our society is now being ordered along the lines of a single political theory. In the past, there was room for an aristocratic ideal, for the influence of religion, for a serious commitment to family, community and nation and for an ideal of manhood and womanhood. It was the continuing presence of these other goods which allowed the "liberal West" to hold together. By itself, liberalism undercuts the existence of that group of people holding to it.

25 comments:

  1. Conservatism or traditionalism is nothing more than whiggish liberalism presided over by the 'economic aristocracy'.

    Traditionalists are no less radical than modern liberals. While conservative liberals lopped the king's head off and stole church property, modern liberals are doing the same albeit at a lower socioeconomic level.

    The English (conservatives) started it and the French finished it.

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  2. A Whig is a moderate progressive with commercial leanings and an overlay of individual morality. The Republican Party in the U.S. was born from the Whig Party which preceded it, and is still to this day essentially a Whig party. Whiggism does not appeal to the enduring truths, the "larger wholes," of a civilization the way traditionalism does. While traditionalists might have common ground with Whigs on some issues, like traditional morality, Whigs tend to sacrifice any elements of tradition in favor of progress. Traditionalism thus stands against Whiggism.

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  3. Also, it should be realized that comparing the traditionalism that writers such as Mr. Richardson and I espouse to various movements and writers in the past who have been called conservative or traditional is somewhat misleading. We are trying to create something that I think has never existed before in the English-speaking world, a more thoroughgoing traditionalism that articulates and defends the biological, cultural, and spiritual realities that liberalism seeks to banish or destroy.

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  4. I wrote:

    "While traditionalists might have common ground with Whigs on some issues, like traditional morality, Whigs tend to sacrifice any elements of tradition in favor of progress."

    A perfect example of this was the shocking embrace last September by the Republican Party, including it social-conservative and evangelical base, of the liberal idea that there is no reason why a mother with small children and even an infant with special needs should not be the leader of a country. Traditionalists recognize that there are differences between men and women that matter socially and should be reflected politically. Whigs may also believe in such distinctions, but readily give them up in response to the ever unfolding call of "progress." Fifty years ago, most Americans, not to mention Republicans, believed that the primary job of a woman was as a mother, homemaker, and keeper of the hearth. Today, Republicans believe that a woman's career is equally as important as a man's, and scornfully declare that no one has the right even to breathe such an idea. “How DARE they say that Sarah Palin should not be Vice President because she has small children? How DARE they?” In September 2008, that command to traditionalists to SHUT UP became the voice of the Republican party and the “conservative” movement.

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  5. Correction. I meant to write:

    Today, Republicans believe that a woman's career is equally as important as a man's, and scornfully declare that no one has the right even to breathe any disagreement with that idea.

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  6. Lawrence,

    Certainly not the first and only in the English-speaking world, however, I do agree with you and Mr. Richardson about the biological, cultural, and spiritual realities. My new President, Obama, also seeks to banish or destroy these ideals. After all it was he who declared so eloquently that we are not a nation of Christians and Christ and God has nothing to do with our founding fathers. I find it striking, that well educated people think it is rational to play Robin Hood while basking in their luxuries and servants. What are these people’s motives? Only God knows?

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  7. "The basic flaw of classical liberalism is that it has no sense of the "larger wholes" which form us, of which we are a part, and in which, to a significant and indispensable degree, we find ourselves."It would be far simpler and to the point to state that the liberalism born from

    "...a uniquely American amalgam of Lockean liberalism and traditionalism: in Protestant Christianity, in traditional morality, in distinctive English-American ways of life,..." is no longer tethered by Protestant Christianity.

    Isn't this precisely the problem of modern liberalism? The ethos that gave birth to liberalism has collapsed and all we are left with are the laws to prop it up with. The spirit has gone, the skeleton remains.

    Without Christianity, and a particularly American form of Protestant Christianity, then we have the mutant strain of liberalism today which has become a new religion itself.

    To revive the old America is a call to evangelism and decidedly not to traditionalism, as traditionalism without Christianity is just another godless ideology.

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  8. I don't think that this is a very useful distinction to try to make. Burke was a "classical liberal" by most definitions of the term.

    The problem is that modern libertarians are in the habit of calling themselves classical lberals, and they are anything but. Almost all liberals of the 18th and 19th centries were quite nationalistic, even "racist" by our standards. Todays libertarianism is a new thing, with as many roots in socialism as in old-style liberalism.

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  9. Pat Hannagan,

    You write:

    "To revive the old America is a call to evangelism and decidedly not to traditionalism, as traditionalism without Christianity is just another godless ideology."

    This doesn't set out the situation clearly.

    Traditionalism is not a movement in competition with Christianity. They are not competing faiths or competing allegiances.

    Traditionalism does not even exist as an all-encompassing set of ideas or principles which people are to live by.

    Its purpose is to push past modern reductive ideologies toward a more complex and varied reality outside itself - one in which allegiances might include family, church, nation and community.

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  10. Does this in any way fit into the dichotomy of "high" and "low church" conservatism as per Daniel McCarthy: "What Would Burke Do?" The American Conservative (4 May 2009)?

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  11. Does this 'traditionalism' apply to a non-Christian world?

    Don't get me wrong, I agree with what you and Auster argue but I do not see how our societies can maintain themselves as they were without recourse first and foremost to Christianity.

    It seems to me that the traditions and conventions that 'traditionalism' aspires to were brought about by the particular Christian movements that gave them birth. The conventions subside into law once the Christian foundations are removed. The law uninformed by the spirit is what liberalism is to me.

    Therefore, in order to recapture that society we once were must involve a return to Christian Faith.

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  12. One long dialectic to death and conservatism is halfway down the march.

    Revealed Truth to heresy
    Orthodox to heterodox (Papism and Phyletism)
    Empire to regionalism (Western and Eastern empires)
    Regional empires to Kings (Henry the 8th, conservatives,cavaliers)
    Church to reformation
    Kings to Parliaments (whigs)
    Gentry to Proletarians
    Family to Individuals
    Gender to Persons
    Humanity to inhumanity
    Death

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  13. That's actually quite good Anon. A tad depressing but I like it.

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  14. "It seems to me that the traditions and conventions that 'traditionalism' aspires to were brought about by the particular Christian movements that gave them birth."

    I wouldn't put it quite like this. Yes, Christianity has done much to shape Western traditions. But it's not so much the direct "shaping" role which is the most significant thing.

    After all, it is not only from Christianity that the West was formed. The fact of national distinctions can't be directly attributed to Christianity; nor can a sense of the distinction between the masculine and the feminine; nor the traditional aristocratic ethos of valour and honour; even the basic forms of marriage and family existed in the pre-Christian West.

    Where the decline of Christian belief affects things across the board is the general effect it has on the intellectual class.

    For instance, with the decline of belief it becomes more difficult for intellectuals to accept the transcendent aspects of life. This then changes the understanding of what marriage is; of what our response to nature represents; of what manhood and womanhood represent as principles and so on.

    Similarly, with the decline of Christian belief it becomes more difficult for intellectuals to accept a philosophical realism. It is no longer accepted that there are real essences as part of the nature of things; therefore, there is an insistence that there are only individual instances of things.

    So modernist, post-Christian intellectuals, against the weight of personal experience and scientific evidence, refuse to accept the idea that there is a "masculine" and a "feminine". They will only think in terms of individual men and women, with no essential given nature as male and female, but with only accidental characteristics.

    Another effect of the decline of Christian belief is a mood of rancour among intellectuals, especially during the "active" phase in which belief is lost.

    Finally, if God's will is rejected, there are intellectuals who will turn instead to the idea that man creates meaning through an assertion of his own will. This means that the autonomy to assert our own will unimpeded becomes the central act through which value is created out of nothing. Autonomy of will is then set against the whole range of traditional goods.

    So there is a good case that a revival of the West requires a renewal of the churches. But this isn't because we are defined as Westerners through the church alone. Our identity comes from a variety of sources; we might think of ourselves as a churchman, but also as an Englishman, a nature lover, a Yorkshire man, a husband and father, a Richardson, a working man and so on.

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  15. “But this isn't because we are defined as Westerners through the church alone. Our identity comes from a variety of sources; we might think of ourselves as a churchman, but also as an Englishman, a nature lover, a Yorkshire man, a husband and father, a Richardson, a working man and so on”.


    Mr. Richardson, I agree with your statement that we are not defined by church alone, but tradition can be good, bad or neutral? Are we to preserve human sacrifice even though it is a tradition? Being an Englishman, a nature lover, a Yorkshire man are neutral traditions; having no virtue in themselves, just arbitrary traditions. But in the same breath you also said husband and father? But to a Christian, Muslim or Jew, a husband and father is not a tradition in the neutral sense. I have a feeling you know where I am getting at, and I feel you believe as I do, so can you be so kind to elaborate on your statement please.

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  16. I see here you answer the question, but can you please elaborate on this stament.

    "Its purpose is to push past modern reductive ideologies toward a more complex and varied reality outside itself - one in which allegiances might include family, church, nation and community."

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  17. "Being an Englishman, a nature lover, a Yorkshire man are neutral traditions; having no virtue in themselves, just arbitrary traditions. But in the same breath you also said husband and father?"

    If I might interject, I'd say that it's not being an Englishman that's important but having a nation that's important. It's not being from Yorkshire, but being from a definite town, etc.

    Libs think that because I say I'm proud to be a European-American man, for instance, that I wouldn't be proud if I were, say, a Mestizo-Mexican woman and must secretly be a racist, jingoist, and misogynist.

    They're wrong of course. But the reason is because they're too wrapped up in universals. They think that any good must be a universal good.

    I see it differently. I see universal categories which are good, but I also think it's good that we all fill out those categories a little differently.

    Everyone gets a nation, town, gender, etc. That's the universal part. But not everyone gets the same one, English vs. French, Yorkshire vs London, or man vs woman. That's the traditional/particular part. You've got to have both.

    It's a bit crass talking about who we are as if we were so many lego pieces, but I've got to start somewhere, and that's how I see it.

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  18. “Libs think that because I say I'm proud to be a European-American man, for instance, that I wouldn't be proud if I were, say, a Mestizo-Mexican woman and must secretly be a racist, jingoist, and misogynist.”
    “They're wrong of course. But the reason is because they're too wrapped up in universals. They think that any good must be a universal good.”

    I guess my confusion stems from the fact that I have a hard time excepting that most “Libs” really think this way (giving them the benefit of the doubt). But then again, I have met many of these people. I’m just struggling with the fact that people can really be that dense and close minded; and common sense needs to be explained.

    However I do believe that Christianity is a universal good, but I don’t believe that I should go around forcing people to join the Christian movement. Does that make me a “Lib” to believe that Christianity is a universal good? After all Christ said he is the only way?

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  19. "Does that make me a “Lib” to believe that Christianity is a universal good? After all Christ said he is the only way?"

    Excellent point. I'd say no, though, because Christianity is not part of who we are but what was revealed to us. No one is born a Christian, right? Each person must become one. That's not true of any of the other categories I mentioned (nation, gender, race, region, family, etc.).

    Put another way, Christianity is truth. At least I don't believe in a "diversity" of truth. There's just one. But that's not true of the "categories" I was talking about earlier: there are, and I'm glad there are, many different kinds of nations, families, regions, races, etc.

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  20. "I’m just struggling with the fact that people can really be that dense and close minded..."

    Yeah, I see what you mean. Well, for the record, I don't think they're dense or close-minded, I just think they're sinful.

    I think of it this way: God dealt each of us a hand of cards. We can't change the cards we're dealt--only how we play them. I'm probably telling you something you've heard a thousand times before. And traditional/conservative/down to earth/etc. types believe in that. We respect a man for doing what he can with what he's got.

    Well that's not good enough for the libs. They don't like the cards they're dealt, and they want a re-deal. And if God won't do it, well they'll just take back all those cards themselves. From everyone. And when they do the dealing, it's going to be fair this time...

    And isn't that basically what all of the communist, socialist, leftist, and even Democrat schemes boil down to? Some are more extreme than others but basically they all want to make everything "fairer" by taking something from one guy and handing it over to another. You know what I mean?

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  21. Midwesterner said: "They're wrong of course. But the reason is because they're too wrapped up in universals. They think that any good must be a universal good."

    I am trying to reconcile this with Mark Richardson's succinct "essence" vs. "instance" offering. If liberalism is based on mere autonomous instances, denying the essence of things in the process, then its "universals" must be false. The generalizations of liberalism are always couched in equality-minded, non-discriminatory language. This seems to be a radical and obvious denial of natural barriers and variation; it is patently artificial and partisan.

    The problem of liberalism in this context is that it cannot recognize the good. Even where it can, it fails to realize that "the good" is not a secular instrument but instead is a derivative of the traditional foundations of Western development. It is an outcome as well as a process but it is not a legality.

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  22. “And isn't that basically what all of the communist, socialist, leftist, and even Democrat schemes boil down to? Some are more extreme than others but basically they all want to make everything "fairer" by taking something from one guy and handing it over to another. You know what I mean?”

    Midwesterner thank you for simplicity, I agree with you most heartedly. However, I think many people like myself hope or dream of a Utopia nation described by Thomas More, but even More knew that his Utopia could only work if all people were good and were not idle. But we can see by sad experience that it is easy for men to be selfish. I think too many people really believe we can all get along, but history shows otherwise. Even if we were to make everything fairer as far as money and property was concern; this would not solve the problem of fairness. But I will stop there because I would just be preaching to the choir.

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  23. leadpb, you make an interesting point.

    Liberals do appeal to universals like equality and justice. They are being consistent if they look at a particular instance of something and declare it to be unequal or unjust. However, they are being inconsistent if they appeal in more general terms to "Justice" or "Equality" as having a real essential nature.

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  24. "If liberalism is based on mere autonomous instances, denying the essence of things in the process, then its "universals" must be false."

    Ah, I think I see what you mean, leadpb. I should have been more precise when I mentioned "universals." What I meant to say is that liberals say only universal things are important. And since just about the only thing that's universal is desire/will, they accept that as the only thing really important.

    Then they try to manage it "rationally", so everyone gets equal (according to them of course) satisfaction. Essentials like family, kin, nation, etc. are out, and material, redistributable, consumer goods are in.

    At least, that's what I've taken away from reading Richardson, Auster, Kalb, et al. Let me know, though, if I'm missing something here.

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  25. Midwesterner,

    It gets a little murky talking about "universals" but I think I follow you here. I was going to add to your "will/desire" such things as love, peace, equality and so on, but these are *desires* of the will, so to speak. So maybe that is an adequate reduction for purposes of discussion, though I'm sure you are not a reductionist.

    Of course many everyday liberals never think about these things very deeply (conservatives being similarly guilty in their way) so that the samples I mentioned above are believed to be universals.

    There seems to be so little demand for clear dialogue and thinking about the foundations of the principles that society operates on it is rather discouraging. But it is actually fascinating, as Richardson, Kalb, Auster et al. demonstrate routinely. Perhaps because for liberalism "truth" has been discarded as "relative" they are perforce less interested in the idea of truth, and focus on idealism instead. Conservatives, by contrast, are more curious about politics, philosophy and religion in my experience.

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