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Conservatism in Winter

Winter 2009 - Vol. 51, No. 1

When the previous issue of ModernAge was being readied for the press,the elections of 2008 were yet to be decided.As this issue is prepared for print, weapproach the presidential inauguration of aman who is arguably the most radical leftistever to have held the office. The winter2009 issue of the journal might, therefore,be said to mark the onset of a "winter" forconservatism in American political affairs.Modern Age does not, of course, have a politicalprogram or a set of policy prescriptionsto offer as an antidote to this situation;such is not our mission. It is worthobserving, however, that the election ofany Republican or any conservative hardlyseemed feasible during the past presidentialelection, because the terms of political discourseand hence the popular imaginationhad been wholly captured by the rhetoricof leftist materialism. Hence the mission ofModern Age is to aid in recapturing the culture:to make it possible for the Americanpeople to see the world in terms of whatRussell Kirk, following Edmund Burke,called the moral imagination, instead of meresensation; to act according to sober reflectionrather than willful reaction.

In the Republic, Plato famously stressesthe importance of music—by which hemeans something like what we should callthe fine arts—to a sound political order. It isfor this reason that Modern Age lays so muchstress on music and literature. Irving LouisHorowitz provides a remarkably insightfuland ground-breaking consideration of theeffects of high-quality audio recordingson the way we respond to music, and R.J.Stove's review of a new biography of Sibeliusmarks a step in the critical rehabilitationof a composer whose music can actuallybe enjoyed by ordinary listeners. In anera when political campaigns undertaketo "rock the vote," it behooves conservativesto take serious account of the kind ofmusic dominating public spaces as well asthe iPods of our youth. Similarly, ThomasBertonneau furnishes more evidence thatcompelling literature is almost inevitablyconservative at its core. It is important thatwe argue this claim vigorously, since noone whose assessment depended on thepopular film version of Out of Africa wouldhave inferred that Karen Blixen's writingsevoke an essentially conservative visionof reality, as Professor Bertonneau maintains.

Another sign of the ascendancy of leftistmodes of thought in public discourse,both in North America and Europe, isthe repression and distortion of the Christianheritage that is so crucial to Westerncivilization. Hence our symposium onRémi Brague's The Law of God could notbe more timely. Comprising essays byMark Shiffman, Ivan Kenneally, RalphHancock, and Peter Augustine Lawler,this symposium investigates the variousstrategies, both learned and "waggish,"by which Brague probes the flaws in themodern world's apparently massive structureof secularism. In a related but moreparticular case, John Ferns's review of anew edition of the Tudor Book of Homiliesshows that adherence to the wisdom of itsfounding documents might have spared anoble ecclesiastical institution much of itscurrent disarray and embarrassment.

This issue of Modern Age marks thepublication of the final installment inPeter Hodgson's four-part series on theenergy crisis. Conservatives must remainconstantly aware that science and the rapidtechnological development that it hasmade possible are an inescapable featureof the modern world that we endeavor tounderstand from a conservative perspective.We hope that Professor Hodgson'sarguments have provided a stimulus tocontinuing discussion of the grave issueshe treats. Stephen Barr's review of Fowlerand Kuebler's Evolution Controversy likewisecalls our attention to an extremely importantbook involving the impact of scienceon public policy. Professor Barr's piece,like Professor Hodgson's, is likely to beprovocative; but, taking into account oncemore the recent election, it would seemthat we conservatives must above all spendsome time debating issues of this kind andreconsidering our assumptions.

Ted McAllister's review-essay on anumber of recent books on the history ofconservatism as a political movement takesup precisely this topic of reassessment,as he seeks to determine how effectivelythe works he deals with give us a basisfor comprehending our current politicalsituation. Gerald Russello's review of acollection of conservative "conversionnarratives" also considers the history ofthe conservative movement, but from thepersonal perspective of individuals. Bothreviews suggest that, although conservatismhas not succumbed to what used tobe called an "identity crisis," we might dowell to engage in an extended reflectionupon the relationship between conservativeideas and practical politics, as well asthe way a pattern of ideas may reasonablycome to be regarded as authentically partof the conservative vision.

The remaining two reviews deal withbooks on a major figure of conservativehistory and on a fundamental conservativetheme, thereby recalling us to the roots bywhich our view of the world must continueto be nourished. Ian Crowe focuses ourattention on the publication of the secondvolume of a major biography of EdmundBurke, a work of substantial and magisterialscholarship. Kevin Gutzman reviews atroubling account of the fate of constitutionalismin the United States. Both thesereviews and the books they handle recurto the inevitable tension between conservatismas a political vision and the alwaysless-than-satisfactory result of actual politicalactivity. This tension is visible in theanomalous relationship between Burke'spolitical career and his career as a scholar,and in the susceptibility of the originalAmerican constitutional order, with all itswisdom and formal perfection, to subversionfrom within even in an era of ostensible"strict constructionism."

It is, finally, one of the goals of ModernAge to publish work that seeks to becomepart of the primary substance of conservativeculture as well as pieces whoseprincipal aim is to discuss the culture.The poems by James Matthew Wilsonand William Bedford Clark evoke exceptionallypoignant visions of the melancholyelement of human experience mostfamously summed up in a line of the Aeneid,"Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortaliatangunt." Richard Cross's reminiscence ofhis days as a newlywed young scholar inAustria, in contrast, fairly glows with thewarmth of remembered joy. It embodies adelight in a kind of cultural diversity thatseeks to embrace the roots of the Westernheritage with all its variation finallyresolving in unity; it is the antithesis ofthe sterile ideology of "multiculturalism."Both the poems and the poetic prose areefforts—in the phrase of T.S. Eliot—"Topurify the dialect of the tribe."

—R.V. Young