No Comment — May 31, 2007, 6:05 pm

Defining Conservatism Up

Among the army of columnists that populate the American print world, George Will is my favorite Tory. I use “Tory” in the best sense – in the sense that Samuel Johnson and Dr. Arbuthnot were Tories, for instance. In an English way that lays a proper value on tradition and the cultural accomplishments that have gone before us. In a way that longs for a thick chop and pint of ale.

Will is not likely to be found in the pantheon of too many Harper’s readers (I have a theory formed from reading my Harper’s email box that our median reader, particularly when we apply the “democracy of the graveyard,” is a Congregationalist clergyperson from Waltham, Massachusetts), and his political views often vex me. But then I consider what a marvelous writer he is. Today in the Washington Post, Will offers one of his best columns in recent memory. Go pull it out. He writes:

Conservatism embraces President Kennedy’s exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” and adds: You serve your country by embracing a spacious and expanding sphere of life for which your country is not responsible.

Here is the core of a conservative appeal, without dwelling on “social issues” that should be, as much as possible, left to “moral federalism” — debates within the states. On foreign policy, conservatism begins, and very nearly ends, by eschewing abroad the fatal conceit that has been liberalism’s undoing domestically — hubris about controlling what cannot, and should not, be controlled. Conservatism is realism, about human nature and government’s competence. Is conservatism politically realistic, meaning persuasive? That is the kind of question presidential campaigns answer.

This gave me pause – and that ever-so-conservative sense of loss. Yes, George Will, this is what American conservatism used to be. And your quotation of Kennedy reminds us of the proximity to our traditional American liberalism. Two philosophies, both borne of the spirit of Edmund Burke. And then that sense of loss. That was before George Bush and Karl Rove arrived on the scene. Will things ever be the same again?

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