Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Difference between Constructive Conservatives and Status Quo Conservatives.

Shouldn't we make a distinction between the constructive right vs the status quo right? Think of Edmund Burke or the rightish-leaning Alexis de Tocqueville. Neither was opposed to change and indeed even welcomed it. What they opposed was radicalism--the idea that a bunch of smart men or firebrands could come up with surefire formula for creating utopia or the NEW MAN overnight. They weren't arch-reactionaries but men who believed that change must grow out of past achievements, wisdom, habits, and values tested over time and serving as the foundation of social stability. They were for cautious and thoughtful change as opposed to radical and violent change; they argued that tradition and/or past experiences were the crucial map for our trajectory into the future. People like this could be intelligent--both knowledgable about the past and open to new ideas and sensible progress.

But, there's another kind of conservatives who might be called "status quo conservatives". They generally tend to lack curiosity or knowledge of the past. Their mental life has little to do with reverence for past achievements or commitment to learn/remember/preserve. They may embrace certain SYMBOLS of traditionalism, but in many cases they lack real knowledge or interest. So, what they really want to preserve or conserve is their PRESENT privilege, advantages, or domination. They oppose change not because it's wrong or foolish but simply because it challenges or disrupts their own power or privilege. This is a purely selfish kind of conservatism, and it has existed in many communities. Certain white conservatives opposed anti-discriminatory laws simply because they threatened white privilege. And today, many blacks who benefit from Affirmative Action oppose any change or reform because it threatens their power. Whites may use the symbolism of glorious tradition and blacks may use the banner of justice(for past injustices), but it really comes down to preserving their CURRENT power.

The notion that conservatism is necessarily for the preservation of tradition or the past isn't really true. (Take the NPR vs Talk Radio Test. I'll bet NPR liberals are more curious about Western history, arts and culture--even of the West--than talk radio listeners are. Though liberals are caricatured as people who obsess romantically about non-Western cultures, the fact is that THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Those with more interest in other cultures also tend to have more interest in their own past. Why else are most candidates for Ph.D in history liberals? Liberals are interested in matters beyond the HERE AND NOW.) For starters, many 'conservatives' throughout the ages have been ignorant and illiterate. In many third world countries, illiterate poor folks tend to oppose change more than the rich educated ones do. Is it because the poor and uneducated know more about the past and thus revere it? How much about the past or tradition can poor illiterate people possibly know? At best, they have a SENSE of the past and tradition-as-HABIT in daily life, but they have little or no real knowledge. Many people who claim to be traditional actually know very little about their own past, while many liberals who oppose tradition are very knowledgeable through book-reading and scholarly research. Maybe, we need to distinguish tradition-as-myth vs tradition-as-knowledge. The less you know, more mythic power it has over you. The more you know, the less magical hold it has on you--like getting closer to the Wizard exposed his bogusness in Oz-land.

A lot of liberal Bible Scholars are supremely well-read and knowledgeable about ancient and Biblical history. Some of the most passionate 'conservative' Christians mainly know the Bible through sermons, singing-and-dancing, and literal-minded reading of the text. The liberal KNOWS more about the tradition and 'believes' less, whereas a conservative knows less about the tradition but believes more. (At least that's the case with status quo conservativs as opposed to constructive conservatives like Burke who studied the past to fashion a better map for the future.)

No comments:

Post a Comment