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The Conservative Imagination

We are beginning to realize that an impoverishment of the imagination means an impoverishment of the religious life as well…Good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine, and as far as the creation of a body of fiction is concerned, the social is superior to the purely personal. Somewhere is better than anywhere. And traditional manners, however unbalanced are better than no manners at all. – Flannery O’Connor, The Catholic Novelist in The Protestant South

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still. – Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Address”

The struggle to see how things could be better despite what they are lies at the heart of the moral imagination, an artistic approach to ethics. An exercise of moral imagination requires us to engage with reality but to also place ourselves in the moral world of others. It is this ‘ethical perception’ which prompted Shelley in A Defense of Poetry to write “A man to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination…”

However, before one can assume moral agency, self-awareness is required: the ability to be conscious of our thoughts, honest about our motivations and also the ability to realize that other people are also capable of such. This ability to be conscious of one’s own thinking process, or indeed the feeling that thinking itself is worthwhile, must lie at the core of any moral deliberation. The death of consciousness leaves us in a state approaching that of philosophical zombies: submerged in a vat of acute solipsism where self-righteous is allowed to drown self awareness. Perhaps the greatest enemies of this moral discourse are dogmatism and ideology which ultimately detach ethics from the way life is actually lived and rob us of an opportunity to explore the workings of our own ethical sphere. When this restrictive framework is applied at a national level, the cost of a suppressed moral imagination becomes clear.

Perhaps the greatest example of the deteriorated imagination is the way many self-proclaimed American conservatives view the nature of their country. In their continuing deification of the American persona, however they have constructed it, they have chosen to ignore that America’s fatal flaws are often bound up with its virtue. This is not an adoption of the cynical position which argues that America can neglect its responsibilities; instead this is a recognition of the corrupting, if not corrosive effect of power which is untethered, a concept which conservatives claim via Acton. One of the great contradictions of this positions is that it is conservatism which, to loan a term, has a ‘constrained view’ of human nature but doesn’t necessarily extend this to any human institution but the government. However instead of seeking to provide nuance and prudence to the national debate, conservatives have become the same giddy-headed true believers who merely fall back into their own little private universes. Thus we end up with a situation where those who are ostensibly committed to standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” have succumbed to the hubris which results from believing in the cosmic righteousness of one’s own causes. Therefore a split is granted between the irredeemable state which must be starved and the infallible nation which, via military spending, must be fed by all means. As a result of this romanticism of the military, conservatives consider Medicare and Social Security as threats to freedom, with a line leading straight from grandma’s pharmacy down to the Gulag but then don’t lose any sleep over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay

In the fifties, Niebuhr saw conservative imperialism and conservative isolationism (what is now dubbed paleoconservatism, best personified by Pat Buchanan) both as stemming from corrupted nineteenth century liberalism in that they were premised on the attainment of perfection, perhaps laying bare the malignant roots of neoconservatism. Niebuhr considered modern conservatism to be torn between imperialism and isolationism, between “sentimentality and cynicism.” Progress is to be resisted not necessarily because it may lead to disaster but because what is, or was, is already perfect. This dichotomy isn’t limited to international relations; there is a thin line, believe it or not, between those who believe in the inevitability of the Communist society and those who believe in the perfection of the markets. (Years ago, Hoffer pointed out, using the example of Saint Paul, that it’s often the same people who vacillate between the two extremes.) “Even if our democracy were more perfect than it is, religious devotion to democracy would be wrong…. It tempts us to identify the final meaning of life with a virtue which we possess and thus give false and idolatrous religious note to the conflict between democracy and communism.”

Conservatism has rightly expressed great skepticism towards the notion of the perfectibility of man, but has replaced it with a stupefying belief in the perfectibility of the nation, which is ostensibly made of men (though they would hasten to add, also preordained by God.) This construction ignores the central argument of Moral Man, Immoral Society where Reinhold Niebuhr argues “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity of self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained ego than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.” He goes on: “The inferiority of the morality of groups to that of individual is due in part to the difficulty of establishing a rational impulses by which society achieves its cohesion; but in part it is merely the revelation of a collective egoism, compounded of the egoistic impulses of individuals, which achieve a more vivid expression and a more cumulative effect when they are united in common impulse than when they express themselves separately and discreetly.” As a result the new conservatism, which claims to be highly individualistic, is profoundly illiberal.

A further irony is that utopian conservatism, which claims individual freedom as not only the most important value but in a sense the only one (in a dramatic distortion of classical liberalism) has no problem is sacrificing that deeply held value for the ends of patriotism, usually the most xenophobic and jingoistic version available. In this construction, supremacy of the state is replaced by the theocracy of the nation; Uncle Sam doesn’t want to burden you with the shackles of universal healthcare, but he does want your blood. But this isn’t all, in this new conservatism’s contempt for the concept of unintended consequences has plunged America into a disastrous war and would promise more, especially since they are fighting, by their own admission, a tactic and not an enemy. They have nationalized the commanding heights of the economy and, in defiance of the Constitution, have concentrated power in a highly centralized, secretive and unaccountable politburo. It was one of the innumerable ironies of American political life that the American presidency most influenced by radical ideologues was a conservative one.

This modern conservatism which tries to spread American values is just as hubristic and dangerous as the other brands of utopianism. What Obama offers is an opportunity to use the means of classical conservatism, which is more temperamental than it is ideological, to serve the ends of, broadly speaking, modern liberalism (perhaps moving one step closer to an Internationale that Kolakowski can finally join.) This does not necessarily require triangulation or accomodationist positions but the boldness to move forward with a liberal agenda while maintaining the humility to question the assumptions and rehearsed responses of this very tradition. What we have seen is that the imposition of democracy is as misguided and malevolent as a coercion into brotherhood. Perhaps in what we hope was its final stand, the new conservatives may have disproved one of their central aphorisms: perhaps extremism in the pursuit of virtue is a vice.


Matt Hunte graduated from the University of the Southern Caribbean in 2005.

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