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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Conservatism revisited

The conservatism President Bush has practiced in the past few years was one often based on an unyielding conviction, seemingly oblivious from any form of doubt. Yet that’s not what conservatism, as a philosophical thought, demands. Instead, [a]ll conservatism begins with loss, so declares Andrew Sullivan in his book The Conservative Soul. And it is: Conservatism is a natural response to loss, an approach that embraces the need to conserve and preserve in times of challenge.

A conservative is defined by his application of doubt to far-reaching rhetoric. A conservative, characterized by his profound grasp of the limits of human understanding – as Sullivan remarks – recognizes his inherent limitations in the face of unlimited possibilities. A conservative does not subscribe to a monolithic certitude or a status quo, but relents to a wavering, skeptical questioning about the aggrandizement of promises. Conservatism, in this sense, is a cajoling to reconcile the strands of idealism with realism.

Conservatism champions the rights of an individual to be the legislator of his own destiny, all while free from government oversight. An individual, after all, knows himself best. The government, as Sullivan suggests, should play little in dictating or regulating an individual’s life. Instead, its only function should be to protect the nation’s broader security. For a conservative, this absence is an incentive, even empowerment, for the individual to make his own choices, to determine his own direction, to utilize his own resources for maximum gain and to attain his own goals. Such liberty invites self-sufficiency.

A desire to preserve, moreover, doesn’t imply that conservatives resist change. Chance favors the bold, an idiom often rhapsodized, but change, radical or not, isn’t merely the product of lofty plans or the privilege of grand beliefs. Instead, for the conservative, change is the consequence of gradual planning and accumulating wisdom, a sometimes slow, but authoritative, process. The focal point of this ideal is to prepare oneself to meet expectations through a sense of fortitude, gained from deliberative practice. The practitioners, in this construct, are not static bystanders; they are active participants facilitating change.

While a benefit of a conservative’s independence is the pursuit of mastery, few ever achieve it. But this challenge is not a reason for not trying. It is an imploration to resist in defiance. It is about the human endeavor, the commitment, the devotion, the dedication, the passion, the investment and the strides, all performed irrespective of the final result. In acting without unnecessary restraints, the attempt might not necessarily succeed, but in the process of trying, one learns. One approaches the height of human consciousness.

Undoubtedly, conservatism’s premise can be flawed – individuals frequently make irrational decisions, violating the precepts of logical, gradual increments. But the choice is left entirely to the individual. As Aggie columnist Rob Olson recently noted, [C]onservatives favor certain kinds of actions. The opportunity to succeed in life is fully dependent upon one’s own actions, whereby one is provided the chance to strive for the best despite or because of another’s influence. However, it is not privilege obtained through the effort of another. Conservatism, thus, is neither a barrier to progress nor what it seeks to rebuke. Instead, it makes the individual’s decisions, filled with triumphs and failures, the central focus. In the end, the individual has tried. And that’s where one finds meaning.

Ultimately, for a conservative, the final goal is to live a life one simply desires. To quote Sullivan’s flourish, [Conservatism’s] modesty is the point. It is austere and restrained. It makes no grand claims about humanity…. [Conservatism] just accepts the fog of human existence … But why? As we inch toward the least we can say, we stumble across the thing we have been looking for all along. We have discovered freedom.

That’s a premise of a conservative.


ZACH HAN is conserving for his finals, but he will preserve your e-mails at zklhan@ucdavis.edu. XXX


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