By Paul Gottfried
My young(er) friend Jack Kerwick, who is a well-known website columnist, is also a contentious professor of philosophy, and in his latest published anthology of essays, Misguided Guardians (Las Vegas: Stairway Press, 2016), Kerwick tackles political theoretical questions. He leaves no doubt that he is coming from a classical conservative perspective and appropriately subtitles his reflections “the conservative case against neoconservatism.” Kerwick is concerned with opposing worldviews and as case studies, looks at various political commentators, including black journalists and academics identified with the American Right.
The “conservative” view as presented in this book combines a respect for tradition and prejudice as expounded by Edmund Burke with the critique of “rationalism in politics” offered by British political thinker Michael Oakeshott. Kerwick treats these two positions as complementary. What he is defending, among other things, is the kind of state that is devoted to a limited number of absolutely necessary tasks and sympathetic to a traditional concept of community. Kerwick emphatically affirms the value of inherited gender roles, the subordination of children to parents and the maintenance of traditional authority structures, where they still haven’t been deconstructed. He also stresses the virtue of loyalty to the family as one’s blood kin and to the nation as a historic-cultural entity, as opposed to a propositional attachment to a society that embodies supposedly universal “human rights.” Kerwick cites the Catholic Aristotelian Alasdair MacIntyre who defends in his moral cosmology “particularistic ties.” Like MacIntyre, Kerwick is upholding a “class of loyalty-exhibiting virtues” as integral to his understanding of the traditional Right.
The author sets apart conservatism from what he sees as having supplanted this worldview in the current authorized “conservative movement.” Not surprisingly, he turns neoconservatism into the polar opposite of what he associates with Burkean-Oakeshottian conservatism (assuming his attempted synthesis is valid). He has zero patience for Allan Bloom’s philosophic vision in The Closing of the American Mind and argues effectively that this bestseller, which was long a favorite among self-styled American “conservatives,” features leftist political teachings. Bloom does not preach loyalty to a nation in any traditional sense or to a religious tradition but to “The Enlightenment ideal of American democracy.” According to Bloom: “There is practically no contemporary regime that is not somehow a result of the Enlightenment and the best of modern regimes -- liberal democracy -- is entirely its product.” Further, “this is a regime of equality and liberty, of the rights of man” and America is the first country to have been founded on “rational principles.” According to Bloom, Irving Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, and other neoconservative spokesmen whom Kerwick quotes, the American regime cannot be true to itself unless it tries to convert other peoples to its universal rational principles. Bloom famously interprets American wars as “an educational experiment” that was intended to bring others outside of our community of values closer to our “universal” principles.
Kerwick maintains that Right and Left think differently about moral conduct on the basis of their basic premises about rights and responsibility. While the Left derives standards of moral conduct from abstract universal judgments and expanding lists of “human rights,” the Right arrives at them by proceeding from the duties practiced in one’s own “small platoon.” Arguably particularistic loyalties do not necessarily lead to the acceptance of duty toward other human beings outside of one’s kin group. Of course, MacIntyre, Oakeshott, Burke, and other defenders of particularities would not deny this. Rather what they stress is that without particularistic loyalties and the example they provide of moral behavior, it is impossible to learn to be responsible.
The devotion to “humankind” that the Left glorifies focuses on an abstract humanity, not a situated group of people who are bound together by a network of responsibilities. One learns responsibility first and most importantly in relation to those with whom one shares real bonds. Perhaps even more significantly, the effort to export one’s preferred rights to other cultures is an invitation to perpetual war and international chaos. Fortunately the call to global democratic conversionary efforts that Kerwick justly criticizes has not (yet) been translated into a justification for perpetual war. Even Krauthammer’s statement about “democratic globalism” adduced as evidence of neoconservative belligerence is hedged in by references to the possible. Krauthammer (as far as I can tell) does not want to declare war on other countries simply in order to convert them to his “propositional nationalism.” He tries to limit his missionary zeal to political enemies that exhibit real hostility.
Clearly what Kerwick is contrasting are opposing worldviews, and I won’t dispute the proposition that what he’s examining illustrates the difference between the archetypal Left and the archetypal Right. Although he cites me nowhere in his text, he is repeating arguments that I’ve been stating for more than forty years; and so I’d be the last to disagree with him on a theoretical level. But he should have taken a closer look at the personal and historical context through which his archetypes are filtered. For example, he defines the black social economist Walter Williams tout simplement as a “classical liberal,” by which Kerwick means a libertarian influenced by the social contract theory of John Locke. Kerwick differentiates Williams from more traditionally conservative blacks like George Schuyler and Thomas Sowell, who appeal to tradition and value social stability, Williams, as characterized by Kerwick, follows Locke in viewing civil society as an artificial construct. He believes the state has been created to protect certain natural rights and has no other justified function except for administering rights-bearing individuals.
This may all be true, but it is hard to think of anyone who has been more consistently on the Right than Williams. Moreover, academic leftists, like John Rawls and William Galton, have also decked themselves out in Lockean rhetoric and concepts, but have used their Lockeanism to defend very different political positions from those taken by Williams. Perhaps where people stand on current issues may be as important as where one places them in terms of definable worldviews.
One also encounters appeals to Burkean tradition coming from political commentators like Peter Viereck and George Will that are intended to defend the democratic welfare state status quo. Although classical conservatives stressed the importance of historical continuity and an established class system, these reference points have served more than one master. One of Kerwick’s favorite thinkers of the Right, MacIntyre, is a social democrat who still fully accepts Marx’s moral and sociopolitical brief against liberal capitalism. Wendell Berry, the poet and venerator of traditional rural life, was an enthusiastic supporter of former president Obama. Berry went so far as to accuse critics of Obama of being racists. Kerwick’s main point is correct, as my writings also demonstrate, that the conservative establishment has been drifting leftward on the social front for decades. But it may be inadequate to judge this development in the U.S. mostly by the abandonment of classical conservative positions.
It is questionable that the post-World War II conservative movement ever had much to do, beyond rhetoric, with the affirmation of Burkean ideas about hierarchy and authority. The American political tradition has generally been liberal in the eighteenth century sense but also leavened by a bourgeois Christian (predominantly Protestant) culture that once decisively shaped our moral and political thinking. Although there is much to be said for classical conservatives (whose understanding of social man and the formation of moral character was brilliant), their tradition, with some notable exceptions, has not been the dominant one in American history. And I’m not sure it’s the dominant one in a thinker and work that Kerwick deeply admires, Russell Kirk’s postwar classicThe Conservative Mind. Many of Kirk’s “conservatives” were nineteenth-century liberals or Whigs.
One can be on the current Right without having to embrace the classical conservative worldview that Kerwick delineates. Serious, fundamental opposition to leftist elites may suffice to provide one with a right-wing identity, or at least membership in Donald Trump’s “basket of deplorables.” And in this confrontation one can still recognize older lines of division, between those who value particularity in the form of family and community and those who seek to dissolve American and other Western societies into gathering places for Muslims, state-sponsored advocacy organizations for LGBT and havens for multinational corporations without any allegiance to a national work force. A clear ideological difference between the two poles still exists, although it may not be entirely reducible to those distinctive worldviews that Kerwick and I have discussed in books. Worldviews are only relevant to the extent that they determine historical practice.
This piece was originally published in American Thinker.
Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.