There Are Some Conversations Conservatives Do Not Want To Have

There are some conversations that conservatives by nature do not want to have, conversations that push boundaries and ask questions for which there is no ready answer that fits inside the boundary markers.

True conservatism, a la Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, admits of necessary change. But it is not in love with change, believing as it does that present society is an ecosystem that embodies equilibrium of a kind, based on hundreds and thousands of years of human experience. To upset that balance without an awareness of implications for the whole would be foolish.

The true enemy of conservatism is the social planner who knows exactly how things should work, even down to the math, and bows to no traditions. However, to keep that balance requires change, even as nature demonstrates.

So where do we go for that conversation? We first start by listening. To whom? The arts for a starter. As they say, art get there first. Artists in poetry, painting, sculpture, music, dance, etc. wonder aloud and almost genetically explore the “what ifs” of our species. Conservatives are not known for their arts sections in their magazines and newspapers, and nonfiction literature outside of science fiction doesn’t get a lot of press.

Second, we must listen to the aggrieved. Not so much those who pinch hit for them, but to them. Conservatives must clothe themselves in patience and restrain anger so that this story telling has the space to gain shape. I regularly listen to the Open Source podcast with Christopher Lydon. Sometimes I have to make myself listen. Lydon can be outrageous in his identity politics and his incapacity to be thankful, but he is the third rail for conservatives that though electrified and capable of frying my circuits makes sure that I am animated by voices I would not otherwise hear. I also choose to attend a church with diverse ethnicities. I am constantly reminded in worship and Life Groups that I cannot afford to pop off with ill-considered words, something I am more inclined to do if I hang only with those of my background.

Third, politically speak for those left out. If I know they are left out and don’t do anything about it, my conservatism is hollowed out and becomes primarily a tool for self-advantage.

Fourth, don’t be a shill for anybody. None of us is self-sufficient. We need community and support. But be aware of the dangers of group think that lets others do the deciding for us. Fifth, remember that conservatism is not an ideology but a set of principles. It is elastic more than it is programmatic, capable of adaptation and collaboration.

Reflections on Vietnam, Episode 4 – Mogie

Vietnam, Episode 4 – Mogie, a 19 year old who died in the fields of Vietnam in the summer of 1966 when I was entering my senior year of high school, is now an American story.

He insisted on going, and then entered into hell.

The summer he died I was working in ditches in the terrible heat and humidity of Virginia Beach laying water pipe for a construction company. I could hardly breath down in the ditches and my 130 pound frame took a pounding day after day after day. But it would soon be my senior year in high school. My worries were few and my future open with possibilities.

Very different from the ditches in Vietnam, where Mogie was emotionally falling apart, as he wrote, from the strains of war. Just staying alive and getting off the front line was his world. Courtesy of LBJ and “the best and the brightest” who served him.

The next summer I would be working in a dairy processing plant where it was always cold and sterile. That summer it wasn’t Mogie. He had been dead a year. This time it was the son of a man I worked with. He got the news at the plant. I remember the day. I can see the scene as clear as I see the room in which I now sit. The man went home and was gone for a time. When he came back, hardly a word was spoken about it all. He looked and acted broken, hollow.

I came back the next summer to earn next year’s tuition, and he wasn’t there. Don’t know what happened, where he went, how he was. It was like he was never there. I often wonder about him – often.

Christopher Hitchens, The Vietnam War and the Awakening of an Evangelical

The PBS series on Vietnam makes me think of Christopher Hitchens. He was an activist as a journalist against the war.

I know that Christopher Hitchens in many people’s view is synonymous with the antichrist, but one of the things I appreciated about the man was his ability to see what was going on in the world while yet a very young man. While most people were preoccupied with making their own way in the world, Hitchens went to the world’s hotspots and wrote his heart out.

He and I are the same age, but he “saw” things that didn’t even show up on my radar. True, he was a man of the left, a Trotskyite. But he had X-ray vision when it came to human suffering, governmental injustice, oppression, and violations of human dignity. The last thing he was was pollyanna. I was on a different trajectory. My life was the life of the church, ministering at the level of the parish and its local concerns, even if with an eye toward world missions.

In my late 40s and early 50s my eyes began to open up to the world of the social/economic/political. It was then that I intersected Hitchens. He came on my screen when he offended his leftist comrades by supporting President George W. Bush in the war on Iraq. Interestingly enough, I was a fierce opponent of that war. Sort of like changing places with Hitchens. I took a position that many on the left had taken. Hitchens took a position that many on the right took. But he began to speak my language.

His attacks on religion had some resonance with me, though I clearly disagreed with his missives against Christianity and the spiritual world view. Yet he had a grasp of what Ross Douthat called “bad religion.” (Read Douthat’s book by the same name. It’s has staying power). Hitchens demonstrated to me how infantile was so much of my thinking about world affairs and how limited was my exposure to the great literature of the West. His partnership with Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis lit up a part of me that had not registered before. I remain a man of the Right, but Hitchens sharpened my pencil, as it were.

I have read his autobiography three times and still read his articles, though he has been dead for almost six years. In his later years he began to dip his toe into Evangelical Protestantism and formed lasting friendships with some people in our camp, notably Doug Wilson and Larry Taunton. See this analysis of Taunton’s book, “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.” https://www.theatlantic.com/…/larry-tauntons-the-fa…/486164/

Thinking, analysis, passion, and courage – Hitchens paved the path for me in engagement. I wish I had listened to him more carefully when I was in college.