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politics & psychology - the Conservative mind
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politics & psychology - the Conservative mind

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Posted by Jan den Breejen ( on August 31, 2003 at 09:13:27:

When I see people who think in the conservative modus, and this seems to fit their character well, I tend to think that the Oldham style most fitting with the conservative mindset I don't mean ' reactionary' people here - is the Serious Style. There is allways that disappointment with the products of optimistic Enlightenment (thinking that society is ' makeable' : socialism and liberalism. A mild scepticism towards new optimistic idea's and sometimes even gloomy pessimism or melancholy seems to be the charaterological core of the ' conservative ' thinker.


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An associate once said of Russell Kirk that he had the heart of a liberal which he kept in a jar on his desk. Yet “The Conservative Mind” is not stodgy nor is Kirk’s view of the human condition stagnant. It is surprisingly both “liberal” and “conservative” in the traditional sense of the words. Kirk seeks to reconcile the conservative values of respect for tradition, custom, order, hierarchy, as well as awe of the divine (though he includes the freethinker Santayana in his analysis) with the liberal values of innovation, growth, and reform.

Slow change is a means of conservation, Kirk explains. A conservative is never so noble as when he acquiesces to unwanted change for the sake of general conciliation. The great 18th century philosopher and statesman, Edmund Burke, is the locus of conservative philosophy, with whom Kirk opens his study and he repeatedly compares Burke’s successors with the original lodestar.

And it is noteworthy that the hidebound Tory was a staunch supporter of self-determination for the peoples of India, Ireland, and North America. This was not a break with conservatism; Burke simply felt that the same respect for liberty, as well as local tradition and custom, due British aristocracy was also due these peoples. As Kirk says, “Burke was liberal because he was conservative”.

And while American liberals like to claim the American Revolution as their own, Kirk shows that it was actually a conservative rebellion against royal hegemony, in accordance with precedents set by British nobles of earlier generations.

Burke and most of his successors largely distrust democracy. Government by aristocracy is preferred, though the definition of an aristocrat is startlingly broad: anyone who can command the vote of another besides his own. It’s confusing that any conservative would dignify the demagogue and the political boss with such a phrase. Kirk’s yearning for aristocratic government seems to anticipate the restoration of an Adams dynasty; what he would later receive would be the enthronement of the Kennedys. Clearly, aristocracy is not always synonymous with conservative caretaking.

The post-Burke history of conservatism is largely a gloomy one. In England, industrialization, technology, massive population movements, and increased literacy shake traditional landed aristocracies and old loyalties. Popular attacks on property rights are fueled, as Marx attempts to incite radical discord.

Into the fray steps Benjamin Disraeli, whose conservative reforms alleviate material shortages and enlarge the franchise sufficient to stem the revolutionary tide while preserving as much as possible of old ties. But time marches on, and the American Civil War, in particular, does irreparable damage to the state of the nation and to the Southern half that is its repository of tradition. Kirk denounces slavery in ringing tones, acknowledging it to be a monstrous cause for the Confederacy to have based its own declaration of independence.

But Kirk is still at his clumsiest when discussing Southern conservatism. He attempts to memorialize the eloquence of antebellum conservative, John Randolph, and the ice-cold zeal of his successor, John C. Calhoun on behalf of Southern independence, while distancing himself from their viewpoints on race. In so doing, he fails to adequately address the hypocrisy inherent in Southern agitation for minority rights on a federalist scale, even as the agitators were engaged in denial of same on a local scale.

Still the Union victory produces a smug and interfering Puritan leadership class, as well as the era of the robber baron. As conservatives, Kirk and his sources are vigilant in defense of property ; yet he finds the 19th century capitalists unwholesome. The landed aristocrats that he admires, taking their wealth for granted, exercise it in a way beneficial to their rural communities. The capitalists simply engage in unlimited acquisitiveness for its own sake without regard to consequences. One can imagine how Kirk would regard today’s CEO’s and dot.com millionaires.

As the book draws to a close in 1953, Kirk perceives two dangers to conservatism in general and to society at large: the expansion of the managerial state (borrowing from James Burnham) and a post-war era in which gratification of the physical senses without regard to moral context becomes the predominant ethic. He sees bases for optimism that these trends will reverse, but unabashed pessimism would have proved more prophetic.

And Kirk, who lived until 1994 and never allowed a television set into his home, presumably came to realize this. If in 1953, he regarded jazz on the radio and comic books in the drugstore as cheap demoralizing sensations, one can imagine how he would regard hip-hop and unexpurgated raunch displayed in TV and movies, and their attendant consequences on human conduct.

Few conservative candidates would dare attempt today, Adams-like, to affirm the moral nature of society, as Kirk urges; for that matter, few clerics attempt to do so, their theology having been annexed by this newer creed. So much for Kirk’s faith in American religious institutions. The last politician to attempt to seriously discuss values was laughed out of office. Today Republicans compete with Democrats for the MTV vote.

And the managerial state achieved its conquest with the advent of the Great Society, effectively declawing the conservative administrations which followed. The last presidential election featured the nominally conservative and liberal candidates debating over just how much the social security Ponzi scheme should expand, whose national prescription drug plan was the most efficacious, and how much wealth the state should appropriate from its subjects.

Kirk seems to be as distrustful of counterrevolution as of revolution, and as a result, he fails to leave conservatives today with a blueprint on how to respond when the hammer has fallen and Sansculotte has fully taken over. But he would regard today’s world in much the same way he regards, in the first chapter, the living Irish orators in Burke’s birthplace of Dublin proclaiming through amplifiers their success in increasing widows’ pensions. He would sadly shake his head and deliver the epitaph of the West, proclaiming, as Burke once did, “What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!”

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