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Searching for a heart but losing the will

July 13, 2008|By ALLAN POWELL

Modern American conservatives are still wrestling with an identity crisis. In a recent column in The Washington Post, conservative apologist Michael Gerson, (The Heart of Conservatism, Dec. 12, 2007) traces the intellectual roots of conservatism back to the properly renowned British writer, Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

In doing so, Gerson recognizes two branches of conservative thought. One branch is very resistant to any attempts at social reform while the other branch will tolerate a well-modulated and restrained sense of social improvement. Burke accepted social reform when it was necessary, but required such attempts to be "gradual, cautious and rooted in the habits and traditions of the community."

Burke has written that "The occupation of a hair-dresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person - to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such description of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule." It is evident that Burke wanted the ruling class to be composed of only those with title, property and symbols of rank.

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A look at traditional conservative values suggests that certain elements of both ideologies of the conservative party come and go according to public interest. There are periods when ideas such as "compassionate conservatism" is given notoriety, while at other times we hear more about the selfish and aggressive side of human nature. The Duke of Wellington is reported to have blurted, "I told you years ago that the people are rotten to the core."

There is a core of conservative ideas that are more or less retained today. They wish to preserve the established values, resist change, look to the past and tradition, hanker for a flavor of the aristocratic and monarchic, regard property rights as prior to human rights, limit the outreach of government and view mankind as essentially selfish and aggressive. But, as sociologists remind us, there is a considerable gap between an ideal and real culture.

One would be living in a dream world to suppose that present day Republicans who continue to support the Bush administration really have any deep attachment to the foregoing list of social values. They are certainly living proof that man is selfish and aggressive and prefer the company of Jack Abramoff to St. John the Divine. Their problem is not a lack of values, but the will to act in accordance with the demands of those they claim to believe.

Traditional conservatives have been staunch supporters of a morality claimed to be immutable and grounded on an objective moral order. They have openly condemned morality that is instrumental, human in origin and relative to time, place and circumstance. But the media reveals a different world. Daily reports of the sordid antics of conservative public figures are alarming. Worse, they hang together and support each other.

They have almost succeeded in persuading this writer that a central theme of democratic liberalism is suspect viz. that man is essentially rational and good. Mankind may be, as conservatives insist, - aggressive and selfish. The historical record is clearly on the side of the conservatives - man's inhumanity to man is a dismal record. Conservatives aggravate the situation by acting out a self-fulfilling prophecy. They assert that "people are rotten to the core" and then set about proving their case by their own misconduct. It's enough to make a preacher cuss.

One of the most transparent fictions put forward by present day conservatives is the sanctity of a "free" market. The merits of the "free" market arguments set aside; it is enough to point out that no aggregate in American history is so active in manipulating the market in their favor. The market is anything but free. Their lobbyists are ever watchful on their behalf, congressmen are too willing to do their bidding and regulatory agencies are, at times, ineffective in enforcement of requirements of the law.

In brief, they are a pampered population who has an historic ideology that is used for very pragmatic purposes and is almost devoid of true idealism. Modern conservatives may well be wrestling with the nature of reform. But if they lack the will to act on their thoughts, all of their activity is "sound and fury signifying nothing."

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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