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Another retrospective on conservatism

I hadn’t thought about Jeffrey Hart since as an undergraduate I used to see him walking around the Dartmouth campus looking irascible. While paging momentarily through my alumni magazine before tossing it out recently though I ran into a profile of the man by former student James Panero (now of The New Criterion). The profile made it much clearer to me why I had never been interested in him.

In itself of course it’s trivial whether I’m interested in him, but Hart does stand for a particular style of conservatism, and he’s certainly been influential enough. He’s a long-time editor of National Review, and many of his students, Dinesh D’Souza and Laura Ingraham for example, have made notable careers in the conservative apparatus. So he seems worth at least a brief comment.

Hart says he’s a Burkean conservative, but his Burke seems somewhat reconstructed. The actual Burke, he says, is not Burkean enough, so you have to get rid of the “operatic passages” to get the Platonically real Burke:

Let us try to cut to the core of Burke’s thought. I first tried this in a Columbia graduate seminar taught by Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling. I offered this: “Most of the things we do are done by habit. If you tried to tie your shoes every morning by reason, you would never get out of the house. Try playing a violin by reason.” Barzun accepted this and raised me. “Burke,” he said, “wants his morning newspaper delivered on time.” In other words, social institutions are the habits of society. They make society work.

Sounds more like David Hume or Michael Oakeshott than Edmund Burke, and to my mind not all that interesting except as a corrective to idiocy. Habits are absolutely essential, but the smooth functioning of whatever system of habit happens to prevail is not the point of life or politics. Burke saw that, and saw habit not as something self-contained and self-justifying but as the accumulation and realization of goods that go beyond habit and consequently must somehow serve at least in concept as a more ultimate standard.

For Hart “Burke was a conservative in the sense of William Buckley’s definition of conservatism as the ‘politics of reality.’” The “politics of reality” doesn’t mean much, though, since it doesn’t tell us what’s real or what to do about it, and that, after all, is the whole point of political thought and indeed most other thought. “Don’t be stupid” is a good criticism of No Child Left Behind and recent policy in Iraq, but it can’t serve a constructive function and so can’t explain Burke’s importance, if Burke is indeed important (as I believe he is).

Indeed, it seems to me that when you try to turn “don’t be stupid” into a general political philosophy, you are likely to end by simply dividing policies and politicians into those you like and those you don’t like and leaving it at that. Any reasoning not used opportunistically to support opinions already held would be abstract and ideological, and so non-Burkean. Your politics will tend to become at bottom a matter of asserting general personal superiority. I can’t help but think that something of the sort appears in a passage like the following:

“Like the Whig gentry who were the Founders, I loathe populism,” Hart explains. “Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity. Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative. My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar’s on the rocks, or both.”

To my mind Burke’s comments on religion show a rather different spirit from Hart’s updated version, but perhaps they reflect the operatic rather than truly Burkean Burke. To each his own Burke, I suppose.