“Conservative” Shouldn’t Mean Just “Grumpy and Complacent in Privilege”

This article, touted by a good friend of mine, but written by someone not known to me, is a prime example of why I stopped subscribing to, and then reading at all, First Things…and similar journals in other countries.

I keep being astonished by the easy sense that in Olden Days things were pretty much fine when it came to university life. Yet I’m not inclined to celebrate ethnic and sexual quotas for admission and hiring, old-boy networks, or DWEMs so dominating the Great Conversation that they were simply assumed to be generic human beings with a generic human outlook.

Likewise, the author’s sardonic dismissal of “X Studies” as hopelessly ideological and academically useless entails that (a) we haven’t learned anything valuable thereby about, say, women (or men), native Canadians or Americans, African-Americans, and other groups that apparently were given full and proper attention in the academy before, say, 1960, and (b) academic departments elsewhere in the university, then and now, are not in the grip of ideologies…and especially is this true of the author and those who think as he does—namely, non-ideologically.

This attitude nicely dovetails with a similar outlook on economic life also: hence the absolute faith in “the market”—another place where white middle-class male dominance was taken for granted as merely the “invisible hand” of the Good and True. As a Canadian, I have to look back only to the prairies during the Depression to suggest that trusting “the market,” dominated as it was (and is) by banks, insurance companies, and other dubious tribunes of the common worker, might not be all there is to the most just, let alone most Christian, approach to economic life.

This obtuseness about The Way the World Works is especially hard to take from such people given the overweening self-congratulation for being Right (in every sense) that frequently marks this discourse. To this attitude is now added the piquant moral assumption of martyrdom at the hands of the Establishment (the author’s term, not mine). I don’t doubt that outlooks different from this one dominate much of university life. But if one looks back to the putative halcyon days of yore (say, the Ivy League before 1960), does one seriously want to suggest that the situation of today’s conservatives can be plausibly compared to the marginalized situation of, say, blacks, or Asians, or homosexuals, or socialists, or even women?

Two wrongs don’t make a right, of course. And I, too, have objected to stupid and wicked things on campuses here in Canada and beyond. Moreover, I have suffered professional antagonism myself at the hands of ideologically driven university (and media) powers, and I didn’t like it. It’s just that when people complain from tenured positions at respected institutions that they and their ilk are suffering so very much, one must ask for a little better perspective on what persecution really means.

Even if we hold our noses about all that, though, fundamentally I object to the sheer analytical laziness of lumping together Everything Right-Thinking People Don’t Like on one side and Everything We Do on the other—as if feminist and pro-life concerns cannot coincide (news flash: they can); as if no postmodern epistemology can emerge from Christian conviction (news flash: it has); and as if the traumas and sensibilities of people different from oneself cannot be compassionately acknowledged and accommodated while maintaining a balancing regard for both common sense and the common good (news flash: they are so balanced by lots of us in the university, all the time).

My main beef, in sum, is that dividing the world once more into Two Kinds of People is not the way forward in a complex situation such as the contemporary university, let alone North American society at large.

It’s a good way to feel good about oneself and one’s team, of course.

But it isn’t the most politic way forward: to form alliances to advance justice and learning and opportunity and accuracy on this issue, and then on that one, and then on another one, piece by piece (as one would think true conservatives would acknowledge).

It isn’t the most hospitable and humble way to cultivate regard for the good things others bring to the conversation, since all Good Things have already been ascribed to Us.

It isn’t even true to the facts. And thus it keeps failing even by its own (and my own) treasured standard of realism.

Let’s do better in 2016, shall we?

5 Responses to ““Conservative” Shouldn’t Mean Just “Grumpy and Complacent in Privilege””

  1. Paul Sorrentino

    Thank you John. I am in strong agreement. Christena Cleveland, in her book “Disunity in Christ,” does a superb job of analyzing the ways we categorize groups/ideologies and distance ourselves from them so that we feel better. I like her analogy that we go into situations knowing we have one part of the puzzle and looking for pieces others hold. It’s consistent with the body of Christ analogy of differing parts.

  2. Paul

    John, I would really appreciate it if you could introduce me to an intellectually honest post-modernist. I have searched long and hard without success. All of the ones I have encountered so far have been “intellectual imposters” peddling “fashionable nonsense” as Alan Sokal would say.

    • John

      Thanks for asking, Paul. I understand your sense of despair! But I have been helped by several philosophers who work in various forms and degrees of postmodern thought: Merold Westphal, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and Lorraine Code. (The first two are Christians.) I often disagree with Jamie Smith (James K. A. Smith), but I more often agree with him, and he could be identified, I think, as postmodern in key respects.

      Indeed, the venerable Thomas Reid and even John Locke before him were “postmodern” in their skepticism about claims to certainty in knowledge. Much more recently, Thomas Kuhn (“The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) and Michael Polanyi can be seen to be postmodern, even as they both go further than I’d go here or there.

      So there are a few thinkers–most of whom I cite in my most recent book, “Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology,” which you might find pertinent in this regard.

  3. Dave Jorgensen

    Merry Christmas, Dr. Stackhouse:

    Since the 1980’s and the ascendence of Dobson, Falwell, et al, I have seen North American Christianity increasingly aligned with Republicanism – and in the process, ‘righteousness’ has become [at least for the cameras] an incessant stream of self-righteous and self-aggrandizing comments. Yet Kung and Bonhoeffer, just to name but two, gave us a way to discuss the miracle of the risen Christ while at the same time knowing we can only see through a glass darkly. Sadly and ironically, the more strident the Christian Right becomes, the more existential my own walk becomes. Perhaps we have a respite from that in Canada for the time being [longer than four years, I hope,] but I am afraid that south of our borders this toxic mix of Christianity and Manifest Destiny is once again going to pollute the airways – at least until November, 2016. I have found no inoculation to all this silliness, sadly.

    In any event, happy new year,

    Dave Jorgensen


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