TCS Daily

Kicking the Burke Habit

By Douglas Kern - January 4, 2006 12:00 AM

By now many of you have read Jeffrey Hart's controversial new essay ("The Burke Habit") on conservatism, and perhaps some of the blogosphere commentary surrounding it. Let me play the small child to Hart's naked Emperor, and blurt out the blindingly obvious: "The Burke Habit" fails at every level. It is a textbook study in how not to write an essay about conservatism, or anything else. The conservatism set forth in Hart's essay is a conservatism I do not recognize, and from which I would run screaming if it constituted a real political philosophy, rather than a grab bag of pet peeves and prejudices.

What's wrong with the essay? Let me count the ways:

Hart employs big abstract nouns in Capital Letters, and then fails to define them.

The Conservative Mind. Hard Utopianism. Soft Utopianism. Beauty. Wilsonianism. These words could mean Anything. But to define them would require Hart to be Specific. And specificity might cause the astute reader to notice that Hart might be Wrong. Which would be Embarrassing. So, lazy conservative writers, use these huge capitalized words with great Promiscuity. Because unusually capitalized words look like Big Important Ideas, rather than Stuff You're Making Up.

Hart grapples with straw men.

"As if by an intrinsic law, when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism it maximizes ordinary human imperfection -- here, greed, short views and the resulting barbarism." Do the zoos of the world contain even a single conservative in captivity who would make such outlandish claims for capitalism? Can we assign positions to The Conservative Mind if we cannot cite a single conservative who holds such positions? We see this silliness earlier in the previous paragraph: "Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats." If "stewardship of the environment" means "supporting unhelpful job-killing international treaties while throwing more money at huge bureaucracies," then Hart might be right. But really: are there conservatives who champion a strong, principled case for killing every tree and poisoning every river? Do these conservatives have names? Or do they live alongside those mythical conservatives who light their cigars with hundred-dollar bills and starve orphans for sport?

Hart commends international action he likes (such as anti-communism) as a "noble enterprise," but dismisses international action he doesn't like as "Wilsonianism." He doesn't explain the difference.

Consider: Hart analyzes the Conservative Mind without making a single reference to "Islam" or "terrorism" or "9/11" or "Afghanistan" or "tyrants" or "children thrown into Uday's industrial-size human shredders." Because God knows those words play no role in the current Conservative Mind. None whatsoever.

Hart endorses a limited judiciary, except when he doesn't.

Says Hart: the court should behave with "due modesty." But when courts confront a "relentlessly changing social actuality" and "address the reality of the American social process," then we had better let them do as they like, lest we be "Jacobinical." How fitting that such guidance should come from a Senior Editor at National Review -- a magazine whose informal credo, as we all know, is to stand athwart history yelling "Sure! Yup! You bet'cha!"

Hart's dismissal of unappealing religious faith is, well, unappealing.

"Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion -- repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms. [...] The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two."

Let me make a confession. I had intended for this essay to be humorous, light-hearted, and sarcastic in a smart-alecky way. But every time I re-read the above paragraph, I became too angry to maintain any cocky fa├žade. My objections are manifold:

  • Theological disputes are notoriously divisive, inflammatory, and hurtful. In the above paragraph, Hart engages in such disputation for no good reason. No one on the Right wants internecine religious warfare. Why does Hart provoke it?
  • Conservatism does not have so many friends that it can afford to alienate millions of Americans who adhere to "emotive" faiths.
  • Pentecostal and Evangelical faiths have thrived in this country since before its inception. No traditional American conservatism can dismiss them so glibly.
  • Intellect, when applied to religion, cannot construct anything unto itself. Many professors of religion possess towering intellects, but lack belief. Many theologians of great subtlety are not especially kind, charitable, or pious. Indeed, it could be argued that intellect is even more unreliable than emotion in matters of the spirit.
  • Faith, not intellect, is the key to spiritual renewal. Many religions "not based on a structure of thought" possess faith in great abundance. Does Hart care?
  • Do any of these religions "not based on a structure of thought" have names? Or is it easier to demean them in the abstract?
  • The fate of the mainline churches should give any thoughtful commentator pause before extolling the praises of "intellectually and institutionally developed" religions over emotive religions.

I omitted one sentence from the above quotation because it deserves special scrutiny:

"What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy."

I have no idea what these words mean. They sound terribly erudite. They encompass an impressive capitalized noun. Individually, they make sense. Together, they are nonsense. How can the Resurrection be a "fulcrum" for a structure of metaphysics? What is meant by "established as history?" What will Jews and atheists use for a fulcrum? What on earth is Hart talking about?

Hart's contempt toward the South and West is contemptible.

"The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its [the Republican Party's] center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of 'Republicanism.' The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture."

I refuse to "refute" an assertion that is neither self-evident nor supported with any kind of evidence or argumentation. More interesting is the puzzling question of just what Hart wants us to do with this insight. Ought the Republicans tell the South and Sunbelt to take their Electoral College votes and go jump in the lake, because Arizona State isn't quite the equal of Harvard? Ought conservative intellectuals from Alabama to sit quietly and mind their betters from Vermont and Maryland? Ought we to pine for those halcyon days (1956), when the Republican National Convention resembled a leisurely seminar on the later political thought of Orestes Brownson? Forgive me for repeating myself, but: what on earth is Hart talking about?

Hart's idealized Republican Party has been tried, and found wanting.

So what kind of Republican Party would meet Hart's exacting standards? Let's see: it would be a party mildly in favor of free markets, but committed to environmentalism and a healthy skepticism for the good that economic freedom can do; a party generally opposed to Communism but disinclined to any strenuous international action, as "realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations;" a party that beholds the depredations of the judiciary into vital social concerns, and shrugs; and a party that rejects the uncouth regions of the South and West and the childish religions of the unwashed masses in favor of the civilized redoubts of the North, the East, and high-church Episcopalianism (with a little Catholicism thrown in for ethnic flair). Behold the Republican Party, circa 1975!

The pedantic tone of "The Burke Habit" is intolerable.

Let us consider one perfect example, keeping in mind that there are many, many others from which to choose:

"The mind must possess the process that leads to conservative decisions. As a guide, the books, and the results of experience, may be the more difficult way -- much more difficult in a given moment than pre-cooked dogma, which is always irresistible to the uneducated. Learning guards against having to reinvent the wheel in political theory from one generation to the next."

You mean that we should think, instead of just memorizing simple answers? You mean to say that we should read books? You mean to say that learning is a good thing? I am swooning -- swooning -- at the illimitable courage and sensitivity of soul needed to compose such a moving passage. Move over, Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- here comes Jeffrey Hart, fearless champion of the radical notion that Reading is Fundamental.

Friends, if I ever write a sentence containing the phrase "As a guide, the books, and the results of experience, may be the more difficult way," please stage a pretentiousness intervention for me. Gather my friends and loved ones, lock me in a room with them, and confront me with my shame. Barring that, send me to the George Orwell Non-Barbarous Writing Clinic for a twenty-eight day dry-out. And if all else fails, hire someone to kill me. Given the choice between writing the words "realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations" and facing the Final Judgment, I'd prefer to take my chances with a loving and merciful God.

The great shame of Hart's essay is not simply that it fails, but that it fails at a task that urgently needs to be done right. Conservatism aches for the wisdom of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk as it confronts the novel challenges of biotechnology, immigration reform, and nation building, to name just a few. Now more than ever, the conservative masters of old must speak clearly. Hart is right in this respect: we do need "Burke interpreted for a new constitutional republic and for modern life." But it will not suffice to sprinkle Burke over a hodge-podge of snobby, disjointed attitudes and call it conservatism. Conservatism deserves better.

Doug Kern is a lawyer and TCS contributing writer.


Bravo, Kudos, Encomiums!
When I read Hart's essay I was stunned into an inarticulate state by its shabbiness, lack of rigor, and phony intellectual posturing. Thanks, Doug, for systematically deracinating the so-called ideas in this odious load of tripe. It was very disappointing to see Hart's name on something like this. I'll have to go back and re-read some of his earlier stuff and see if I can spot the moment when he became so "open-minded" that his brains fell out. Thanks again for being "at court" when this jaybird assumed the full moon position.

The odious load of tripe
Yes, absolutely, although it is possible that I am being "Jacobinical".

Hart's brains have fallen out.

Steve Laib, JD, MS

Barry Goldwater; Robert Taft
Messers Kern & Laib are under no obligation to espouse views in any way connected with the evolution of American conservatism since its schism with the vile Whiggery of Burke's opponents . But though their discourse often illustrates the disconnect between their views and that tendency , and the identity of the prefixes Neo- and Pseudo- I am obliged to them for bringing it into such clear political focus.

When the two Conservatives referred to in this messages title flourished , 'neoconservatives' did not exist ,but Mr. Kerns views did, just as they did in Burke's day.

What would he call himself today if continuity in any way figured in his views? If he will not read Jeffry hart,will someone plese reprint hugh Kenner's 'Rhetoric Of Motives ?

TCS Daily Archives