The first chapter of Mr. Ted Honderich’s 2005 book Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair? floats several meanings of the term ‘conservatism.’ He proposes each tentatively and then shoots them down. Charmingly conveying his argument in the form of an honest inquiry, Honderich problematizes the concept of conservatism in order that we might become surer of its meaning. This article will use the same method to clarify culturism’s position within the conservative world. And, in doing so it will show that Honderich fails to note convervatism’s being oriented towards the future.
In his very thoughtful inquiry Honderich questions what the mission to conserve traditions implied in the word conservatism entails. One problem concerns how far back the proposed time period conservation seeks to maintain lays. Does conservativism require we reinstall the West’s old distinction between nobles and commoners? Then again, after how long does a feature become a tradition? Fifty years after the implementation of Obama’s health care legislation will it become a tradition conservatives will seek to preserve? Honderich casts about for a method of distinguishing the nature of values beyond their age.
Honderich’s inquiry reviews Edmund Burke’s foundational book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Written while the French revolution was underway, Burke contrasted change and reform. In the age of Obama, it was refreshing to remember Burke’s attack on change. The agenda of change, in Burke’s usage, sweeps away too much of the past in the name of the new, whereas reform conserves much of the past as it improves society. As Burke predicted the French Revolution became a nightmare because it tore up all of the relationships that helped stabilize society.
But the author then honestly interrogates Burke’s concept of reform. He asks if some self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives’ efforts to get rid of government programs constitute change? Casting out programs such as welfare would mean a radical disjunction with present policies. Both Reagan and Thatcher brought on great changes. And, if this, again, constitutes a return to the 1900s, do we not want to acknowledge some progress, some change that has happened since then that is worth adopting? Thus Honderich finds the facile definition of conservative as one who wants to conserve traditions to be inadequate. The culturist answer to his problem would come from noting the future orientation of our past.
The West, ironically, has a long- standing, even ancient, tradition of being progressive. That is our past has traditionally aimed at creating a better tomorrow. Our very history shows a struggle towards ever more progressive values. We have struggled against the odds to reignite Athens’s view that men can self-govern. The West has vindicated the right of men to dissent. We have embraced the goal of women’s rights and the separation of church and state. To support our civilization, to guard it by conserving its cultural and economic foundations, is to protect progressivism in the world. It is to conserve the past in the name of passing “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
Being appreciative and protective of our progressive culture requires that we once again adopt the traditional Western civilization narrative wherein America stands as a light unto nations. We must look back with pride upon our progressive history. Conservatives have not fought the textbook wars in order to bring us back to a repressive golden age. They have done so to sustain the only progressive civilization on earth. In a world full of Jihadis, preserving America means preserving progressive values such as the separation of church and state. In a world where China is ascendant, protecting America means allowing freedom in a non-racist state that believes in freedom of speech and individual rights to survive.
Those who recognize that liberty is always under attack know that conservatism is the new progressivism. Multiculturalists look upon the Old World and tradition worshipping cultures with rose-colored glasses. They dream of a world where tradition locks men into their station within a stagnant community. But, worshipping the past blindly, looking with favor on nations that are not increasingly exulting the capacities of individuals, falls outside of our traditions. Western culturists affirm western culture. And they seek to distinguish liberty from license as the Greeks, Romans, Puritans, and Founding Fathers did. But that celebration of the heroic duty-bound past gets embraced with a view to securing our liberties. The West likes the new and improved. We locate our hopes in the future.