Editor’s Note: Accept Complexity

Two interesting articles ran in the Daily the final week of October. The first drew a picture of a “typical” college conservative, and the article was respectful of many of the complexities in modern American conservatism. The second article was a typical illustration of the simplistic stereotyping every conservative encounters all too regularly.

It is worth reflecting on the complexities of conservatism that emerge when we think about these two articles. I will be focusing mostly on the second article, though, because it is a perfect example of the simplistic view of conservatism that could be replaced by something more nuanced in a better, more understanding world.

Laura Holmes wrote the first on October 29, a sympathetic piece titled “Students Illustrated: Coexisting with conservatism.” Whether the author intended it or not, the article illustrated a core conservative principle: respect for the complexity of the world. Liberals and conservatives can learn much from one another if they are open to learning about the full complexity hidden by terms like right and left. Reality is complicated and cannot be described fully by any ideology, as Burke reminds us. By learning from one another, we glimpse more fully this complex reality and improve the level of debate and make wiser decisions. Ms. Holmes’ article was a step in this direction.

The second article was decidedly less nuanced. H. Wells Wulsin, a graduate student in physics inspired by Ms. Holmes’ piece, wrote a letter to the editor on October 31 in which he attempted, in the fourth paragraph, to redefine Holmes’ fictional typical conservative “Dan” with clichéd and simplistic ideas about conservatism. It is tiresome to continue to encounter the stereotype embodied in this letter, and it is disappointing to see such a simplistic definition in print. It demonstrates a pronounced indifference about the truth.

At the end of his letter Mr. Wulsin, challenged conservatives to put forward reasoned arguments for their positions. I will not attempt here to summarize the cogent arguments contained in the thousands of quality conservative articles and books that exist already, although I recommend them to Mr. Wulsin’s attentions. What I will do is try to give a glimpse of a truer picture of what American conservatism is than the misleading and insulting caricature drawn in the letter. There is no one definition of what it is to be a conservative, and there never will be. We can put Mr. Wulsin’s letter to better use by exploding the stereotype it contains and expanding our definition of conservative beyond the narrow one the letter puts forward.

The first sentence of the fourth paragraph in the letter implies that “Dan” “wants government to mandate his lifestyle choice on everyone else.” In one fell swoop, the letter kicks every libertarian out of the conservative tent. But in today’s America, libertarians are simply one strand in the complex weave of conservatism. And they do not want government mandating lifestyle choices. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The letter’s second sentence is particularly rich. The original article described “Dan” as a Christian, but the letter translates “Christian” into “Catholic.” No doubt there are many Catholic conservatives, and the Thomist tradition remains vibrant in certain parts of the country. But the “Christian Right” is mostly evangelical Protestants.

In the same sentence, the letter writes that if “Dan” wants to “inject” his moral beliefs into political decisions, “he will have to justify them on universal moral principles that people from all backgrounds can accept.” My own understanding of Christian orthodoxy and creed is limited, but I’m certain that Christianity often takes itself to address the world with moral principles it takes to be universal and that it believes people from all backgrounds can accept. With over a billion people following Christianity in the world today, the number of different backgrounds represented is quite large.

But this is not the point. The point is that politics can never be divorced from moral philosophy, whether that of secular atheists, agnostics, or religionists. Morality is not the same as religion, but religion contributes elements to the set of all moral views. It would be a strange “universal moral principle” that declared politics has a place for morals, except for religious morals. That is not a principle that “people from all backgrounds can accept,” because it would disenfranchise them. Reading The Federalist, we see that politics is supposed to mirror the opinions and views of the people of the United States. That means all of the people. The moral philosophies that inform American politics are meant to be representative of the plural moral philosophies that hold sway in the minds of the people.

Reflecting on this view of morals in politics, which we could plausibly assume at least a few conservatives in America hold, we see that things are not quite so bad as the letter would have us believe. On this view, morality ought to inform political decisions, but no one moral view is meant to dominate. The overlap between them is what will emerge as the consensus, the manifestation of the will of the people.

This is but one possible position, and it may strike some as not even that conservative. But, in one sense, it is. It emerges from one strand of conservatism, coexisting with many other strands. But awareness of this nuance drops out when we see such statements as those in the final sentences of the fourth paragraph of Mr. Wulsin’s letter, in which he tells us, “To my view, restricting the rights of gay couples is a hard case to argue. So are many other conservative positions on such issues as abortion, gun control, environmental stewardship, torture, and pre-emptive unilateral war.”

What is so maddening about this letter is how it tacitly assumes a monolithic conservatism. It would be easy to conclude that the letter’s view of conservatism is simply drawn from a list of what it sees in the Bush administration. But what would the writers of such letters think if they attended conferences of conservative leaders, young and old, who are furious with the Bush administration? Many of them do not believe the word “conservative” even applies to this president. The letter’s view of conservatism is not drawn from any study of the reality of American conservatism, but from a hodgepodge of stereotypes and soundbites.

Let’s take just one example of the complexity of modern conservatism in America. Someone on the left may disagree with an evangelical Protestant of “the Christian Right,” but will he dismiss the religious fundamentalist who wants to conserve the environment? That is the direction much of “the Christian Right” is now heading in. After all, it is in the nature of conservatism to want to conserve, and that viewpoint can apply as well to the environment as to any other object.

Conservatism is not the monolith Mr. Wulsin’s letter pretends it to be. There are heated debates within the conservative ranks over what, exactly, the “conservative positions” ought to be on abortion, gun control, the environment, torture, and pre-emptive unilateral war. Further, if these cases were so hard to argue from conservative angles, as the letter declares, why do the debates persist? The liberal position should win out easily if the conservative positions are weak. But the world is more complex than that.

Some conservative arguments are stronger than others, some liberal arguments are stronger than others, some liberal positions are stronger than some conservative positions, and some conservative positions are stronger than some liberal positions. And positions change over time. Despite the flux in the world of political history past and present, conservatism retains certain defining features. Debate and disagreement have long characterized it. Why else would there be different strands—neoconservatives, traditionalists, libertarians, and everyone in between?

The letter to the editor revealed precisely the misunderstanding of conservatism that Laura Holmes’ article aimed to highlight and that the Review seeks to combat. Anyone who reads the Review knows that we are not a monolith, that tensions between our writers are easy to pick out, and that each of us is perfectly ready to deliver reasoned arguments in support of our differing views. Such people exist in all the strands of conservatism.

Conservatism is defined most by its own complexity and its respect for complexity in the world. It was refreshing to see people observing this in the online comment threads that grew out of the Daily articles. With continued discussion and engagement, we can come to a better understanding of one another and of the complex reality we live in.

Yours in searching,

Daniel Slate
Editor in Chief

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