I’m no longer surprised by the cluelessness of Jewish educational institutions. Thus a friend studying at a certain Orthodox-affiliated college emailed me this week, asking for my definition of conservatism. He explained that he is taking a class in advanced psychology, the specific topic being the “authoritarian personality.”
That phrase encapsulates a highfalutin’ slur on religious and other conservatives, inspired by psychologist Robert Altemeyer. It holds that conservatism arises not from ideology, but from a personality deformation associated with “conventionalism,” “authoritarian aggression” and “authoritarian submission.” Since most of his fellow students, as Orthodox Jews, would likely rank as right-wing authoritarians on Altemeyer’s scale, my correspondent wrote with his earnest request for an outside perspective.
Interestingly, my young friend’s demanding course has exactly two required texts. One is by Altemeyer. The other is Watergate alumnus John Dean’s recent “Conservatives Without Conscience.” Dean claims that, especially on the “religious right,” conservatism has no meaningful definition but simply masks certain resentments and anxieties.
He cites a canonical work among conservatives, Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” (1953), in which the philosopher expressed reservations about ideology. But in the same book, Kirk admirably crystallized six basic “convictions or sentiments” of a conservative.
Long before anyone dreamed up the fancy that the boogeymen of the Christian right would hijack the Republican Party, Kirk made clear that a spiritual view of reality is at the heart of conservatism. He describes the No. 1 “canon of conservative thought” this way: “Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”
Another, related “canon” is No. 5: “Faith in prescription and distrust of ‘sophisters, calculators, and economists’ who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs. Custom, convention, and old prescription are checks both upon man’s anarchic impulse and upon the innovator’s lust for power.”
In other words, being a conservative means to respect the genius of previous generations and to see yourself as a conservationist of their ancient traditions. Writes Kirk: “The experience of the species is treasured up chiefly in tradition, prejudice and prescription — generally for most men, and sometimes for all men, surer guides to conduct and conscience than books and speculation.”
Such inherited judgments, an irreducibly complex organic whole, make civilized life possible. Vaporize one and you endanger all. We mess with them at our peril. In rereading Kirk, I was reminded that I became a conservative first and only afterward, as a direct result, an Orthodox Jew. I was in college at Brown in the mid-1980s when I realized what a bunch of preachy blowhards my fellow left-wing activists on campus were, with their assumption that they knew better than anyone else who had ever lived. It was in response that I opened myself to the possibility that our ancestors weren’t fools after all.
I found that investigating Jewish beliefs, prejudices and customs, with an open mind and heart, tends to bear that out. It was this realization that led me to reconsider my previous assumptions about Torah, namely that Jewish tradition was just adorable nonsense in the spirit of “Fiddler on the Roof.” So I had been raised to think at the Southern California Reform temple where I grew up.
The genius of Judaism, as Kirk would have understood, is a matter not only of books, but of the entire way of thinking and living that Jews once inherited as a matter of course.
Like any work of genius, tradition can be picked apart, its pieces arbitrarily isolated from each other so as to produce what looks like a work of idiocy. In their new book “A Meaningful World,” my Discovery Institute colleagues Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt compare the genius of nature’s design to that of humanity’s great artists. As they point out, Shakespeare has been picked apart savagely by critics who “deny anything that exceeds their grasp.”
Attacks on religious conservatism take the same form, as in the recent polemics of celebrity Jewish atheist Sam Harris. Writing in the November 13 issue of Newsweek about the “untold damage to our politics” done by religion, Harris railed against a straw man — actually a parody of a straw man:
“Those with the power to elect presidents and congressmen — and many who themselves get elected — believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s Ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the Earth and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.”
What a pathetic simplification of a grand tradition possessing depths far beyond anything in Harris’s telling.
To answer the question from my young friend: the essence of conservatism lies in the acknowledgment that, in the wisdom of the dead, much lies beyond our grasp. To deny this basic recognition requires no psychological disfigurement like the one attributed to us by Altemeyer, but rather only the combination of those familiar foibles, arrogance and ignorance.
David Klinghoffer is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of the forthcoming “Shattered Tablets: Why We Ignore the Ten Commandments at Our Peril” (Doubleday).