Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Conservatism of Doubt

Conservatism to me means questioning the old, doubting the new, yet comfort with necessary change.


There is a common arc to all our competing histories. An idyllic universe disturbed by barbarians, vain-glorious battles to right all wrongs, an Elysian future once light has vanquished darkness. The inherited old - our tradition - is thus more theater than theology. To accept such hand-me-down tradition on blind faith, without reasoning through its validity or merit, would be herding together as unquestioning sheep. This is anathema to conservatives.

Naipaul thus is insightful for he questions our airbrushed history. Rushdie matters for he re-imagines his foundational past. Ramanujan is important for his mythology is in plural voices. Lelyveld is interesting for straying from our narrow hagiography of the Mahatma. Hussain is beautiful for liberating the Goddess from the imprisoning confines of the temple.

For conservatives, such discourse is welcome for it disturbs our kitschy sense of inherited self-delight. Without such questioning, history becomes a predetermined flow of time and tradition becomes dogma. Determinism and dogma are the antithesis of free choice and expression. That is the territory of the Marxist.

Doubt illuminates understanding. The conservative wants to understand.      


Just because a conservative questions the old, however, does not mean he embraces the new easily.

The new is seldom new. When conservatives hear the phrase "this time it is different", they head for the hills.

It may be easy to market the sizzle of revolution but, if one questioned history one would know, "revolution" is the old game of Three-Card Monte that distracts attention while shedding blood and stealing power. What revolution has not been followed by killing fields and new, even more cruel, emperors?

To conservatives, the status quo - with all its warts - is usually a better place than the untested unknown. Gradual reform is welcome, instant revolution is not. Not for us the caprice of constantly shifting public preference, we are the custodians of stability. Not for us social change imposed by unelected do-gooders in courts, we'd rather wait for society to mature enough to change itself through democratic legislation.

This is what William F. Buckley meant when he famously proclaimed a conservative as one who stands athwart history yelling stop. And, if I may reference it, this is also the core message of The Dark Knight Rises - where a conservative Batman defends his broken city from the shadow of Bane's anarchic revolution.  

When doubt is finally dispelled, however, and a new narrative becomes necessary through the force of moral truth, historical inevitability, or social acceptance, the conservative adopts it with dignity.

There is this great story about the end of the American Civil War. In Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, there fell a pall of gloom and confusion. At a Sunday service in a prominent church, where the defeated elite had come to God's house, the priest called on the worshipers to come forth and take communion. A dignified black man walked up to the pew and kneeled down, much to the consternation of the shocked audience.

Then, an equally dignified bearded white man rose and walked up next to the kneeling black man and joined him for the communion. He was the defeated General Robert E Lee leading his people into a new post-slavery age.

Perhaps the story is apocryphal, and there are variations on the theme out there, but it is a great story about societal redemption that captures the essence of conservatism.

Another great story is that about John Profumo, the disgraced conservative British defense minister from the 60s whose dalliance with Christine Keeler cost him his job. His fall from the top of the heap was epic. He retreated into the shadows and toiled for forty years in a home for the poor in London's East End, washing dishes and cleaning toilets among other acts of service. He asked for nothing in return and when queried what he had learned from the experience, he simply said: humility.

This was "remorse of conscience" as epic as his Icarus like fall. Let me quote from (Reagan speechwriter and conservative) Peggy Noonan's essay to describe what happened next:

Nothing quite said what needed saying like what happened at Margaret Thatcher's 70th birthday party, in 1995. To show their countrymen what he'd done—and what they thought of what he'd done—they invited him, walked him through, and put him in a particular place. They seated him next to the queen. People wonder about the purpose of establishments. That is the purpose of establishments.      

This possibility of human remorse and societal redemption is also a conservative virtue. A Marxist would have thrown his distinguished life into the dustbin of history and made a forever example of his decadent bourgeoisie fall. Only the conservative establishment could have lent him a hand up all the way to a place next to the Queen in applause for his astonishing humility.


Indian conservatives, in my humble view, are full of too much certainty  and too little doubt. Furthermore, they champion idealized illusions of the past, display a (revolutionary) anti-establishment zeal, and have no will for remorse or reach for redemption. Someday, one hopes, this will change for India does need a vital conservative movement.