What it means to be conservative

[N.B.  This is a talk I wrote to deliver August 20, 2014, in the Sewall Academic Residential Program, UC-Boulder, but decided to give spontaneously at the last moment.  A version of it appeared at The Imaginative Conservative]

To begin, I want to offer the most profound thanks possible to several people: Martha Shernick, Ann Carlos, Doug Bamforth, and Steve Leigh.  Also Kim Bowman and Clint Talbott and Christian Kopff.  I’m a bit overwhelmed by the generosity and the kindness of everyone.  I must state—and I hope this sounds as humble as I mean it to be—it’s wonderful to be wanted.  Really, truly wonderful.  So, thank you.

As to the now, I’ve been asked to speak just a bit about my position as the second holder of the titles Scholar in Residence and Visiting Scholar of Conservative Thought and Policy.

[Yes, try to say this five times in a row]

Two weeks ago, my college roommate and still one of my closest friends, asked me what it felt like to be entering a place with CONSERVATIVE tattooed on my forehead.  

He knows me well, and he also knows that from our first conversations in the fall of 1986 (our first semester in college) I despise labels.  I always have, and I probably always will.  And, Kevin (my friend) agrees with me.  

Almost all labels, even well intended ones, tend to allow us to categorize one another, to consider one aspect of an extremely (incomprehensibly) complex person as the sum total of that person, or, when not well intended, to dismiss another—more often than not in history because of the accidents of birth.   

Regardless of intent, labels almost always diminish rather than elevate.

But, here I am in front of you, bearing the mark of “Conservative” in one of my two CU bestowed titles.  Perhaps it’s emblazoned in neon or mere ink.  I’m not sure.

And, I do bear the title proudly.  And, why not?  I have a great job, I’m surrounded by amazing people endowed with seemingly limitless amounts of energy (Martha, Ann, and Kim, in particular, seem like forces of nature; and I’m hoping to write a Celtic ode to them before the end of the academic year), and I’m speaking in what is arguably one of the prettiest spots in all of North America, if not in the world.  

But, what about that label, “conservative”?  Well, let me explain—as I see it—what a conservative is NOT.

A real conservative is not a loud, platinized, remade and plastically remolded talking head on Fox.

A real conservative is not that guy on the radio who seems to hate everything and everyone.

A real conservative is not the head of the Westboro Baptist Church.

And, a real conservative never wants to bomb another people “back to the stone age.”

My own tradition of conservatism—whether I live up to it or do it justice—is one that is, for all intents and purposes, humanist.

Indeed, I believe there is a line of continuity from Heraclitus to Socrates to Zeno to Cicero to Virgil to St. John to St. Augustine to the Venerable Bede, Alcuin, and the Beowulf poet, to Thomas Aquinas to Petrach to Thomas More to Edmund Burke.

The last one hundred years saw a fierce and mighty revival of the humanist tradition, embracing and unifying (more or less) T.E. Hulme, Paul Elmer More, Irving Babbitt, Willa Cather, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Sigrid Unset, Nicholas Berdayeev, Sister Madeleva Wolff, T.S. Eliot, Romano Guardini, Dorothy Day, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leo Strauss, Flannery O’Connor, and Russell Kirk, to name a few.

George Orwell, both shocked and impressed by the movement, noted in December 1943 that it was nothing more than neo-reactionary: a strange mix of traditionalism in poetry and literature, religious orthodoxy in ethics, and anarchy in politics and economics.

I must admit, though I’ve never called myself a neo-reactionary, almost all of those who Orwell reluctantly admired are certainly heroes of mine.

But as I see it, the conservative or humanist—or, the conservative humanist, if you will, only possesses one job and one duty, when all is said and done, and she or he performs it to the best of her or his ability: a conservative attempts to conserve what is most humane in all spheres of life: in economics, in education, in the military, in the culture, in faith, in business, in government, and in community.   The conservative is, at the most fundamental level, a humanist, reminding each and every one of us what it means to be human.

And, empirically, we can state that the record of humanity over the last 100 years (considering this is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I is a fitting time to announcing the beginning of our own “time of troubles” as Kirk liked to argue) is rather mixed.

Think of several persons over the past one hundred years:

Perhaps you are a Japanese American watching the California business and home of your parents auctioned off as you and your family are forcibly removed to the deserts of Idaho, under the sanction of Executive Order 9066 from the U.S. President.

Or, perhaps you’re in the second row of Carnegie Hall, listening to Miles Davis perform “Teo” in 1961.

Or, perhaps you are a nurse on the early morning shift at the Shima Medical Facility on August 6, 1945.  Little do you know that at any moment the wind will increase to 600mph and the heat to 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit—all stamped with “Made in America” across them.

Or, could you are lounging on the couch in pure leisure with a wealthy Tennessee couple, as a young handicapped Georgian reads her latest story, “The Misfit.”

Or, perhaps you might be overwhelmed by the smell of bodies, alive, dead, and somewhere in-between, as a railway car carries you to a supposed “health resort” in semi-rural Poland.

Or, perhaps, you’re sitting next to a young man from St. Louis in an Irving Babbitt seminar at Harvard, the young man—you, like everybody else, calls him “Old Tom”—is joking about poems about cooking eggs, hippos, and waste lands.

Or, perhaps, you’re holding hands with hundreds of others, signing a hymn after Sunday service, facing very angry looking armed men with water cannons and attack dogs, hungering to “put you in your place.”

Perhaps, you’ve just escaped from the hell that is Pol Pot’s Cambodia, made it to America to resume not only a medical practice but even begin an acting career.  Perhaps you’ve even won the Academy Award for Best Actor, 1985, only to be gunned down on the driveway in an LA gang slaying.

Perhaps you are holding your breath as the third movement ends and you anticipate the fourth as a five-hundred person choir in Bloomington, Indiana, along with a full orchestra pays homage to an early nineteenth century German composer.

Or, maybe it’s not all that dramatic, at least in terms of world changing events.  Perhaps you’ve simply come home to the happy exclamations of children, rushing to you to tell you of the day and assume—quite rightly—that you will hug them with all the love that is in you.

This is humanity.  This is the human condition.  The tragic, the noble, the accidental, the willful, the good, the evil, the true, the false, the ugly, and the beautiful.

Each one of us in this room, each one of us at this university, each one of us in existence is unique in time and space, clothed with particular ethnicities, languages, religious faiths, and a million other things.  

Yet, however different, each person is connected to every other person, from the beginning of time to the very end.

This continuity, this universal quality of human existence, is a blessing, pure and simple.  When we speak, we speak not just to our neighbor, but to Socrates, and he to us.  When we speak, we speak to our children and our grand children and their grandchildren.  What Perpetua did in the Roman area or Thomas More in the Courts of Henry VIII do not become trapped only in that time and place, but resonate across, through, over, below, and next to the ages.

In a spirit of overwhelming gratitude, the humanist looks out upon the world, sighs in frustration at the horrors of the past, and cautiously anticipates what good can come next.

In our first duty—the duty to be human, we must be humane.  We must love, and we must cherish.  We must, when warranted, give thanks.  We must celebrate creativity and peace.

Today, in this room, with this audience, and in this time and place, I thank you.