Conservatism Happens When No One is Paying Attention

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

The actual conservative politics that matters- that actually conserves anything- happens not with grandstanding Senators orating to the cameras or demagogic candidates rousing the crowd, but off-screen, unattended to: the bill that dies in committee, the development that never gets built, the neighborhood that keeps its charm, the church that keeps its service much the same as when its parishioners were kids. Often it doesn’t even call itself conservative, as when the wealthy and well-meaning “protect” a piece of land, under the banner of environmentalism, or when the incumbent residents of a block of brownstones make sure that a luxury apartment building doesn’t get built, under the banner of resisting gentrification or preserving the diversity of a block.

Liberal politics benefits from attention, acclamation, and universal assent. It is the journey we are asked to go on, and the next, and the next. “Over this mountain, oh what you will see!” Conservative politics might require participation and commitment– those zoning meetings don’t run themselves– but the goal is not to fight dragons unless strictly necessary, and in any case to return afterwards to our nice warm hobbit hole by the fire, when the kettle is about to sing. Conservative politics might require an understanding of policy– to perceive and point out the mushy bits and rotten boards in a proposed project or utopian scheme– but it itself does not itself need to be the architect of any but the most mundane and quotidian plan.

The problem with excluding conservatives from the academy is not precisely that conservative politicians will be unable to formulate policy without guidance from conservative wonks. This is partly true. But there’s a reason that the three main domestic policy initiatives of the George W. Bush administration that were actually implemented– Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and programs to expand minority and low-income housing and credit— were all on behalf of liberal priorities, albeit ones with Republican support. Policy- guided by wise experts or responding to “stakeholder” need– is liberal in its essence, its ineradicable bones. It is the meddlesome dramaturg that says that Hamlet can be a comedy if we just change a few lines.

Conservatives need intellectuals. They need an articulation of what is worth preserving and the kinds of means that have a chance of working to do that. But more importantly, the public at large, whatever they call themselves on the never-ending questionnaire of political identification, needs a vocabulary of continuity and belonging that will allow them to resist the endless tide of change, in the ways and places that matter to them, when no one is paying attention but them.




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