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Conservatism and Liberality

Spring 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 2

In this space, the Winter issue of ModernAge dwelt briefly on the theme of "conservatismin winter"; there will be no correspondingreflection on "the springtime ofliberalism" in this Spring issue. Althoughthe popular media have in recent monthsmade much of the putative resurgence ofpolitical liberalism, the liberal spirit thrivestoday only among conservatives. Liberalismis the attempt to make a political programout of the personal virtue of liberality; thatis, of generosity or magnamity in the sharingof worldly goods, in one's attitudetoward his neighbor, in intellect, and incultural awareness. Liberality is a moralhabit of decent men and women, but it is adifficult virtue to attain, because self-centerednessand greed are besetting vices ofour unregenerate nature. Liberalism is thefutile effort to compensate for the absenceof this virtue among individuals by institutionalizingit in government. Conservatismis—over the long run of history—thenormal orientation of government, whichis meant to conserve the constitution, thepolitical identity of a community, so thatthe people can go about their business. Aconservative government thus allows itscitizens to exercise the virtue of liberalityboth as individuals and as participantsin families and other local institutions.Liberalism, which usurps the rhetoric ofliberality, inevitably leads to a regime ofbureaucratic despotism, since virtue is anattribute of human beings, not of institutions.Its contemporary avatar is politicalcorrectness, with its monolithic "diversity"and intolerant enforcement of a highly selectivetolerance.

These observations are illustrated andexemplified in various ways by the piecesoffered in this issue of Modern Age. In"Postmodernism and European Memory,"Ewa Thompson reports on the highly selectivedeployment of memory as appliedto the horrors of World War II by a conferenceat the German Historical Institutein Washington, DC. Professsor Thompsondeplores what seems to be a "liberal" undertakingfor its illiberal erasure of any approachesto the topic that are incompatiblewith the prevailing materialist ideology ofthe academic world.

Jeffrey Folks brings attention to the novelsof Kent Haruf, who creates a compellingfictional world in which old-fashioned virtueis a better answer to the suffering andsorrow occasioned by what is now called"family dysfunction" than governmentalintervention. Haruf is not identifiable as aconservative in a politically partisan sense,but like every honest literary artist, hismoral vision resonates with a conservativeview of reality.

Dwight Macdonald was a radical criticand a hero of liberalism in the Fifties andSixties, but he has been virtually forgottenby the Left. It takes the liberality of a conservativeto rescue him from oblivion anddiscover his essentially traditional culturaltemperament. Moreover, John Rodden andJohn Rossi's investigation of Macdonald'sFBI file reminds us that conservatives shouldalways be skeptical of meddlesome governmentagencies, which can so easily becomeself-absorbed and self-serving. As we haverecently learned, it is also easy for a federaladministration to turn the attention ofthe FBI from the Communist threat to the"threat" posed by returning veterans of theIraq War.

Modernity is—quite fittingly for thisjournal—a preoccupation of a number ofthe pieces in this issue. Drawing on thework of Christopher Dawson and AlfredNorth Whitehead, among others, JudeDougherty reminds us that the specificallyChristian view of the relation betweenGod and His creation was crucial in theemergence of modern science and henceof the "modernity" of the modern world.Thaddeus J. Kozinski, in a lengthy essay inreview of Charles Taylor's magnum opus,A Secular Age, looks at the matter from theopposite perspective and admonishes usthat Christians and other traditional thinkerscannot merely vilify modernity as theenemy. Rather, it is inescapably the worldin which we live, and with which we mustcome to terms, and which we must seek toinfluence according to conservative principles.

All the remaining reviews likewise dealwith books that confront, with varyingdegrees of success according to our reviewers,some aspect of modernity. MarcGuerra is impressed with the learning andforce of Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God, butfinds his uncritical acceptance of Enlightenmentrationalism and secularism unsatisfactory.Hugh Mercer Curtler admiresJohn Carroll's postmortem on the worldwe seek to conserve in The Wreck of WesternCulture, but finds it premature; whileMichael Henry likewise admires HarveyMansfield's defense of manliness, butthinks that it perhaps concedes too muchto the egalitarian assumptions of modernfeminism. Finally, Paul Hollander reviewsLee Congdon's biography of George Kennan—a man who played an important rolein the formation of modern American diplomacy,but who in important ways rejectedthe very modernity he helped toestablish.

Under "Documentation," often a forumfor observations of the contemporaryEuropean scene, we present a translationof an assessment of the situation of conservatismin Spain by Antonio Arcones of theFundación Burke. It would be difficult tofurnish a better example of how liberalismin politics leads sooner or later to theabolition of the actual liberty of individualsand families and the marginalization ofmediating institutions at the hands of anideological bureaucracy.

Verse appears in this issue by the distinguishedNorth Carolina poet Fred Chappell,who has provided an adaptation—animitation in the Renaissance humanistsense—of Horace's Epistles I.xviii. Chappellappropriates the Roman poet's formatand structure and applies the same skepticaland witty gaze to twenty-first centuryAmerica as his predecessor had to AugustanRome. Readers who take the pains toconsult the Horatian original will be evenmore impressed by Chappell's skill and inventionand more strongly drawn to virtueas medium vitiorum et utrimque reductum.

—R. V. Young