Should Conservatives Be Cheerful?

Should Conservatives Be Cheerful?
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Roger Kimball

Some time ago, I began keeping a file marked “Conservative Gloominess.”

It’s full of articles and animadversions by various hands: dire prognostications about who the next occupant of the White House will be, harrowing descriptions of disarray among conservatives, and despairing portraits of U.S. or European society.

What’s odd, or at least uncharacteristic, about these bulletins from the abyss isn’t their substance—to be candid, I’ve written plenty of items that could justly be filed there—but their tone and what we might call their existential orientation.

From time immemorial, conservatives have delighted in writing works with titles such as “Leviathan,” “The Decline of the West,” and “The Waste Land.”

There’s a reason that Jeremiah is a founding member of Conservatives Anonymous.

Nevertheless, by habit and disposition, conservatives tend, as a species, to be less gloomy than—than what?

What shall we call those who occupy a position opposite that of conservatives?

Not liberals, surely, since they’re so often conspicuously illiberal, i.e., opposed to freedom and all its works.

The outcry by the left over Elon Musk’s efforts to restore the spirit of liberalism and its indispensable handmaiden, free speech, is a case in point.

Indeed, when it comes to the word “liberal,” Russell Kirk came close to the truth when he observed that he was conservative because he was a liberal.

In any event, whatever the opposite of conservatives should be called—perhaps John Fonte’s marvelous coinage “transnational progressives” is best—they tend to be gloomy, partly, I suspect, because of disappointed utopian ambitions.

Conservatives also tend to enjoy a more active and enabling sense of humor than their counterparts.

The 19th-century English essayist Walter Bagehot once observed that “the essence of Toryism is enjoyment.”

What he meant, I think, was summed up by the author of Genesis, when that sage observed that “God made the world and saw that it was good.”

Conservatives differ from progressives in many ways, but one important way is in the quota of cheerfulness and humor they deploy.

Not that their assessment of their fellows is more sanguine.

On the contrary, conservatives tend to be cheerful because they don’t regard imperfection as a personal moral affront.

Being realistic about mankind’s susceptibility to improvement (between us, it’s tentative and notoriously spotty), they’re as suspicious of utopian schemes as they are appreciative of present blessings.

This is why the miasmic gloominess emanating from many conservative circles today is so dispiriting.

It goes against the grain of what it means to be conservative.

It’s dampening, and I for one hope it will prove to be a quickly passing phenomenon.

Among other things, this recent access of personal gloominess makes the practice of professional gloominess—the robust deployment of satire, ridicule, and so on—much more difficult and less satisfying.

This brings me to the issue of truth.

Conservatives are realists.

They like to call things by their proper names.

Like Oscar Wilde’s Cecily Cardew, when they see a spade, they call it a spade, unless doing so is explicitly outlawed, just as they prefer to call “affirmative action” “discrimination according to race or sex,” taxation “government-mandated income redistribution,” and “Islamophobia” a piece of Orwellian Newspeak foisted upon an unsuspecting public by irresponsible “multiculturalists” colluding more or less openly with Islamofascists.

Some years ago, I was taken aback when a supposedly conservative pundit advised the world that “the fact of change is the great fact of human life.”

Accordingly, he wrote, conservatives ought to “adapt” to change and retake the intellectual and political initiative.

Some such rhetoric might be required on the hustings.

But I confess to having mixed feelings about that exhortation, if for no other reason than that I believe change to be not the but a great fact of human life.

An equally great fact is continuity, and it may well be that one “adapts” more successfully to certain realities by resisting them than by capitulating to them.

“When it is not necessary to change,” Lord Falkland said some centuries ago, “it is necessary not to change.”

I recognize that “change,” like its conceptual cousin “innovation,” is one of the great watchwords of the modern age.

But William F. Buckley Jr. was on to something important when he wrote, in the inaugural issue of National Review in November 1955, that a large part of the magazine’s mission was to “stand athwart history, yelling, ‘Stop.’”

It’s rare that you hear someone quote that famous line without a smile, the smile meaning “he wasn’t against change, innovation, etc., etc.”

But I believe that Buckley was in earnest.

It was one of the things that made the early National Review “unzeitgemasse,” “untimely” in the highest, Nietzschean sense of the word.

National Review, Buckley wrote, “is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and The New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.”

Australian philosopher David Stove saw deeply into this aspect of the metabolism of conservatism.

In “Why You Should Be a Conservative,” which deserves to be better known than it is, he rehearses the familiar scenario.

“A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion,” Stove wrote.

“You introduce contraception to control population, and find that you have dismantled a whole culture.

“At home you legislate to relieve the distress of unmarried mothers, and find you have given a cash incentive to the production of illegitimate children.

“You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait.”

This, he wrote, “is the oldest and the best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences.”

Progressives can’t wrap their minds (or, more to the point, their hearts) around this irony: that “reform” so regularly exacerbates either the evil it was meant to cure or another evil it had hardly glimpsed.

The great Victorian Matthew Arnold was no enemy of reform.

But he understood that “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith had left culture dangerously exposed and unprotected.

In cultures of the past, Arnold thought, the invigorating “saving remnant” of those willing and able to energize culture was often too small to succeed.

As societies grew, so did the forces of anarchy that threatened them—but so also did that enabling remnant.

Arnold believed that modern societies possessed within themselves a “saving remnant” large and vital enough to become “an actual” power that could stem the tide of anarchy. I hope that he was right.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads.”
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