Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The Tradition Based Conservatism of a Liberal
One of the foundational premises of my worldview is a certain Burkean conservatism. By this I mean a belief in the value of tradition as playing a necessary role in the maintenance of society. While the liberal looks around at society and sees all that is wrong and might be improved, safe in his faith in the natural goodness of human beings, the conservative wonders why we are all not being murdered in our beds as society collapses into Hobbesian warfare. The chief reason for this, our conservative soon concludes, is that people have this inclination to do and accept things simply because it has been done that way for a long time, tradition. If one digs a little deeper one comes to understand that tradition is an implicit pact we make with each other to submit ourselves to an outside authority. This can be illustrated by the trap Strepsiades falls into in Aristophanes' The Clouds. He cannot deny the validity of tradition that he is obligated to pay back his creditors without undermining the tradition that his son has to respect and obey him.
This support of tradition goes against and ultimately delegitimizes all revolutionary systems, anything that attempts to cut itself off from the past and start anew. All attempts to simply overturn the established government or society, no matter how flawed the old system, are doomed to descend into violence and tyranny. Edmund Burke understood this early on about the French Revolution even before it descended into the Reign of Terror. In modern times, in an even more blood soaked manner, this pattern has been repeated in Russia, China and Cambodia. The "revolutions" that worked were precisely those revolutions, like the American Revolution and the English Glorious Revolution, which actively confirmed existing established authorities and thus were not really revolutions at all. With revolution not being an option, the Burkean conservative seeks to work within the system, reforming it, but in ways that not only do not undermine the system, but actively confirm its validity.
Burkean conservatism is easily misunderstood because it is often confused with another tradition based ideology that also calls itself "conservative," one that sees the maintenance of tradition and opposition to change as values in of themselves and even as the ultimate value. The most common forms of this mindset are fundamentalist religions. The weakness of this narrow conservatism, and ultimately why it is not conservative at all, is that very act of recognizing something as a tradition in need of defense against the assault of modernity and liberalism is in of itself a radical mental paradigm shift that changes the system. Thus a true conservatism can only exist in a mind that is not conscious of it and in a society with no liberals to challenge it. Living in a world where such conditions do not exist we are left with degrees of conservatism.
It is here that any conservative most face a paradoxical dilemma of having to pick their change; do you accept the obvious change offered by the liberal or do you accept the more subtle changes implied by actively opposing the liberal. Take the example of women's dress, which I have previously discussed; As an Orthodox Jew, desiring to maintain traditional Jewish law and practice in the face of modernity, what am I more concerned about, women wearing clothing that does not conform to traditional Jewish practice or the existence of goon squads enforcing such standards? Am I even comfortable with the publishing of specific guidelines as to how women should dress? What high spiritual values am I upholding as I put a tape-measure to women's skirts to make sure they go x amount of inches below the knee? Whatever one believes about how women should dress, noticing that common standards of dress today do not conform with what one might read in Jewish legal codices and deciding that the letter of Jewish law must be maintained at all costs, without serious considering as to the potential unintended consequences, or worse to even embrace them, is not just short sighted, it is not even conservative. Being a conservative under such circumstances means picking your poison in regards to change and having a mature appreciation of your tradition to know what parts to defend.
An honest tradition supporting conservatism contains in itself the seeds of its own form of liberalism. It is plausible to argue that in defense of traditional Jewish values such as rabbinic authority and not having men obsessing about women one should categorically invalidate all laws pertaining to modest dress. We should declare that we no longer hold of such things and even that one is now not allowed to dress in a traditional manner (much the same way as the Lutheran Church now rejects all statements of Luther against Jews and does not allow anti-Semitism) in order to completely undermine and rip out the hearts of those who would threaten the very essence of Judaism by instituting rule by goon squad and replacing modesty with skirt lengths.
I would go not go this far. In a Judaism run by me, laws concerning modest dress for men and women would remain on the books, but without any active community enforcement. In its place would be a strong push for modesty, that one should not draw attention to oneself as a physical body at the expense of the spirit and the mind, on the part of both men and women. If religious Jews, already keeping the basic essentials of Jewish practice, were to come to me and ask how to put these ideals of modesty into practice then we could bring out the sources and discuss the possibility of holding oneself to a stricter standard of dress than the society at large.
To bring this back to Burkean conservatism, I put a high value on tradition not because I see tradition as having a value in of itself or because I believe that it is somehow possible to just have tradition without changing anything, but because I see tradition as the foundation upon which one can build a stable society, the sort of society in which can afford to tolerate diversity and in which one can experiment with different possibilities even to the extent of making changes. In the long run, no tradition can go on forever without change; the choices are either moderate change, which serves to support the essentials, or the downfall of the entire system. In the end being a Burkean conservative not only allows me to be a liberal, it makes it a necessity.