Against the Neoconservatives: The Debris of Ideas

Against the Neoconservatives: The Debris of Ideas

American conservatism has not been, by and large, intellectually very precise. Lionel Trilling’s judgment in 1950?which every conservative writer or anthologist seems dutybound at some time to mention in rebuttal? remains apt: “with some isolated and ecclesiastical exceptions” conservative impulses in America express themselves not in ideas but “in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” On this matter, conservatism tends to have its cake and eat it too: first, the charge isn’t true but, second, if it is it’s because conservatism begins with lived experience, rooted traditions, and those rights assumed to be ancient, obvious, and unarguable, which Edmund Burke called “prescriptive,” instead of with a priorism and rationalistic engineering. The question is begged, when it’s convenient to beg it, whether rationalistic and intellectual are interchangeable terms. Another question begged is whether mainstream American conservatism has anything to do with Burke, or with the lyricist of tradition Coleridge, or even with John Adams. Clinton Rossiter, certainly a friendly student, in Conservatism in America listed among those principles of traditional conservatism about which the American conservative “is serenely unconcerned,” “the mystery, grandeur, and tragedy of history”; among those with which “he substantially disagrees,” “order, unity, equity, stability, continuity, security, harmony, and the confinement of change as marks of the good society”; and as the one with which “he completely disagrees,” “the primacy of the
community.”

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