Liberalism in Slow Motion

slow motion

Catholic blogger Peter Kwasniewski observes that Conservatism is Liberalism, only slower.

A conservative is one who wishes to conserve the good at hand, which means maintaining the status quo while correcting notorious deviations. But the conservative has no principled motivation to return to and recover what has been lost, for he has no compelling reason to see it as more precious, more valuable, than a constellation of goods that happens to exist right now. (“Are there religious sisters who wear a kind of uniform and a crucifix? Great! Let’s keep that going, for we don’t want to lose it. After all, something’s better than nothing.”) The lover of Tradition, on the other hand, has the mind of the fifth-century father of the Church, St. Vincent of Lerin. For Vincent, as for a host of fathers, doctors, and popes, Tradition as such is superior to novelty; novelty is to be distrusted, resisted with all one’s might. (“If nuns are not wearing full habits with veils, time to give them two alternatives: embrace the traditional attire, or return to the world.”)

Consequently, wherever traditional things have been lost, the traditionalist strives to restore them as fully as possible, whereas the conservative contents himself with preserving what is at hand – even if it may be mediocre in itself or was a novelty only a few years back. This helps explain the bizarre fact that, after so much bitter experience and so many irrefutable critiques, one still finds Catholic conservatives defending the Novus Ordo and popular church music. “These things are a few decades old, you know, and they’re what we’ve got right now, so we might as well conserve them!”

This is why conservatism, in the end, turns out to be a slower, less self-conscious version of liberalism. Liberalism takes as a principle that change is inherently good and, thus, that faster change is even better – as long as the change is in any direction away from tradition. Conservatism takes as its supposedly contrary principle that it is better to hold on to what one has than to give it up without a fight, but it fails to recognize the problem that, due to the prevailing liberalism, more and more good things are surrendered, undermined, and habitually ignored with each passing year, leaving less and less to conserve.

For these reasons, conservatism is liberalism in slow motion. What conservatives preserve, they preserve by force of custom and free choice, not by the firmness of a non-negotiable principle. As the truth fades away and people grow accustomed to its loss, the conservative has no ground to stand on; he wrings his hands while he watches beautiful things getting dismantled and sent away. (Sometimes it’s worse than that: the conservative will drive himself insane, zealously defending the same horrible novelties he would have decried only a few years before. We’ve seen this rubbery allegiance time and again. For example, it’s wrong to wash women’s feet at Mass on Holy Thursday – until the pope says it’s okay. Suddenly, out come the specious arguments to back it up, as if it had been true all along!) In contrast, adherence to Tradition goes beyond conservation of whatever minimal good is at hand, for it demands the love and honorable defense of an inheritance that is received and must not be squandered. And if part of this inheritance has been lost, the traditionalist knows that it must be restored with unstinting effort and in the face of all opposition.

Another point Kwasniewski brushes up against, and which I’ll state plainly here, is that Conservatism isn’t just slower Liberalism, it’s inconsistent Liberalism.

That’s the argument I put forward on Fighting the Void recently. Time constraints prevented me from fully developing the idea, so I’ll expand on it here. Liberalism–yes, Classical Liberalism–is the attempt to absolutize freedom. As a political ideology, Liberalism seeks to let individuals pursue their personal preferences with a minimum of external coercive impediments. Anything non-Liberal must be considered an impediment, hence the self-negating “Our tolerance doesn’t require us to tolerate your intolerance!” canard. The word for a political ideology that fundamentally cannot tolerate competing ideas is totalitarian.

Because it is totalitarian and upholds freedom absent any reference to the good as the only absolute, Liberalism is progressive by nature. Any effort to limit the scope of an individual’s pursuit of his preferences is deemed an arbitrary imposition on the actor’s will. This is why Conservatives couldn’t conserve women’s restrooms. It is why they will likewise fail to prevent the normalization of pedophilia, bestiality, cannibalism, etc.

Liberals and their slower Conservative enablers both start from a false conception of freedom. There is no freedom apart from the good. Whoever says, “I support freedom!” makes a content-free statement that begs the question, “Freedom to do what?” The value of freedom depends entirely on the objective worth of the good it gives you access to.

Conservatives set themselves the impossible task of arguing for traditional positions based on Liberal principles. On an intuitively rhetorical level, people correctly perceive the attempt as internally inconsistent.

The answer is to abandon the false Liberal concept of freedom and embrace pursuit of the true and the good. Traditionalism is not a matter of going back to a theoretical point in time when civilization had attained perfection. It’s about upholding eternal first principles that are true in every place and time. These principles are derived from human nature. Acting contrary to nature risks harm. We can see the disastrous results of three centuries spent defying nature as Western society implodes.

We face a stark and tragic choice: return to tradition, or blood.

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