December 1, 2013
In the rough days ahead, and you and I know there will be such days, I hope that you’ll be like the mother of the young lad in camp when the camp director told her that he was going to have to discipline her son. And she said, “Well, don’t be too hard on him. He’s very sensitive. Slap the boy next to him, and that will scare Irving.” [Laughter] But let us also, tonight, salute those with vision who labored to found this group — the American Conservative Union, the Young Americans for Freedom, National Review and Human Events.
It’s been said that anyone who seeks success or greatness should first forget about both and seek only the truth, and the rest will follow. Well, fellow truthseekers, none of us here tonight — contemplating the seal on this podium and a balanced budget in 1984 — can argue with that kind of logic. For whatever history does finally say about our cause, it must say: The conservative movement in 20th century America held fast through hard and difficult years to its vision of the truth. And history must also say that our victory, when it was achieved, was not so much a victory of politics as it was a victory of ideas, not so much a victory for any one man or party as it was a victory for a set of principles — principles that were protected and nourished by a few unselfish Americans through many grim and heartbreaking defeats.
Why, when all is said, do any of us look to the interest of the rising generation, and to the interest of the generations which shall exist in the remote future? Why do we not exhaust the heritage of the ages, spiritual and material for our immediate pleasure, and let posterity go hang? So far as simple rationality is concerned, self-interest can advance no argument against the appetite of present possessors. Yet within some of us, a voice that is not the demand of self-interest or pure rationality says that we have no right to give ourselves enjoyment at the expense of our ancestors’ memory and our descendants’ prospects. We hold our present advantages only in trust.
A profound sentiment informs us of this; yet this sentiment, however strong, is not ineradicable. In some ages and in some nations, the consciousness of a sacred continuity has been effaced almost totally. One may trace in the history of the Roman empire the decay of belief in the contract of eternal society, so that fewer and fewer men came to sustain greater and greater burdens; the unbought grace of life shrank until only scattered individuals partook of it-Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, here and there a governor or a scholar to knit together, by straining his every nerve, the torn fabric of community and spiritual continuity; until, at length, those men were too few, and the fresh dedication of Christian faith triumphed too late to redeem the structure of society and the larger part of culture from the ruin that accompanies the indulgence of present appetites in contempt of tradition and futurity.
Robert Kagan, the top foreign policy theorist of something that has become known as “national greatness” conservatism, has insisted that thoughtful Americans come to grips with the new post cold war world by adopting a new foreign policy construct consistent with his views.1 A serious debate on foreign and military policy cannot be avoided any longer, and traditional conservatives must accept the challenge to state their views.
Since Kagan began his analysis with a criticism of the Clinton-Gore foreign policy, the place to start is with the views articulated by Vice President Al Gore in a major speech on April 30, in Boston. Unfortunately for him, however, in responding to post speech questions, the Vice President was less than adroit in explaining his policies. Indeed, once he got off the script, it did not turn out very well at all. He seemed to imply that those who envisioned any limits to U.S. military involvement abroad ought to be dismissed as out of date “isolationists.” Asked if Republican nominee George W. Bush was part of this “isolationist wing” of the GOP, he intoned: “What he has said has often been isolationist in tone … I think that is a kind of old cold war mentality.”2 The historic fact that both parties assumed a fairly “internationalist” stance during the cold war as their leaders agreed on the need to confront or contain communist expansion seems to have been lost on Mr. Gore. How else would one explain his view that one could be both an isolationist and a cold warrior at the same time?
Western Civilization arose in southern and western Europe on the ruins of the Roman empire, the final political form of Classical civilization. It is and has always been unique among the great civilizations of the past five thousand years, whose existence is the substance of recorded history. It is unique not simply in the sense that each civilization-the Egyptian or Chinese or Classical-is manifestly different from all the others, but in a much more profound sense. In its most important characteristics it stands apart not merely from each of them but from all of them; it is differentiated from them by almost as sharp a leap as differentiated the other civilizations from the precivilization cultures of the Neolithic age. This is, I know, a disconcerting, even a shocking, statement by the standards of the cultural relativism that prevail in twentieth-century historical thought. I can only ask my readers to bear with me while I attempt to sustain it with a brief discussion of the civilization history of mankind and the place of the West in the sweep of that history.
There is widespread agreement nowadays that, somewhere along the way, Western society has taken a wrong turn – that it has strayed from the values which once made it strong and informed it with purpose. Unfortunately, there is considerably less agreement as to what, exactly, those values are.
Those who have been most vocal in decrying our fallen state have usually been identified as “conservatives” – a term which conceals a number of deep and inhibiting disagreements. In the case of anything so vast and disorderly as modern error, it is only natural that there should be some confusion as to what is the matter. And while the question is difficult and philosophical, it is of more than academic interest; until we have some kind of agreed analysis, those concerned to correct things can hardly marshal the resources necessary for the job.
We live in a world of dynamic change. It has always been thus; but now the rate is warp-speed. Change challenges tradition, culture, institutions, morality and the other fundamental structures that undergird the social, economic and governmental life of a nation. For much of history, change came from the brute forces of natural calamities and human coercion–wars by foreign powers intent upon conquest, domestic factions seeking to overthrow existing authority, or domestic governments forcing internal change through raw power. While these remain significant factors, even nations at peace are now subject to very significant upheaval. Peaceful change results mainly from market forces. Karl Marx called the capitalist, bourgeoisie system the most shattering force in human history1. A more sympathetic philosopher of capitalism, Joseph Schumpeter, called the dynamic force that moves the market, “creative destruction.”
Once upon a time, not very long ago, there was no conservative movement. Then, for a half century, it rose and grew ever stronger, finally, to contest for control of the major American political institutions. At the height of this climb, under President Ronald Reagan, powerful liberal establishment observers could no longer ignore the movement that had developed so quietly over the years, essentially under the media radar screen. Yet, once Bill Clinton won the Presidency and control returned to the Democrats, they wondered whether conservatism had been a mirage. Conservative control of the House of Representatives was declared a failure after 1995 and it was even said that George W. Bush could not get elected without qualifying his conservatism as “compassionate.” Soon conservatives themselves, not unaffected by this media buzz and the caution of their own elected officials, doubted it all too. What had happened?
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