First things first.
I admire and adore Nevi. Not only does she speak better Yiddish than I do — she is one of the strongest, smartest, bravest, funniest and awesomest women I’ve ever met. (She’s also one of the most entrenched proponents of the catriarchy, but hey, everybody needs a hobby.)
I kid, of course. But there’s almost no one better at calling me on my privilege; as a straight white guy (OK, not strictly — I’m Jewish, but I’ve been passing), there are obstacles I simply never have to face. As someone recently put it, it’s like playing the life game with the difficulty on the lowest setting. And it’s because of what I’ve learned from her that I’ve become more aware of things like sexism, racism, homophobia, gender bias, classism, inequality, barriers to getting out of poverty, and other cultural, social and institutional dysfunctions. Moreover, it’s thanks to friends like her that I’m more inclined to defer to people of colour, women, LGBT people, and other traditionally marginalized citizens when it comes to those questions. It’s not rocket surgery, really. I don’t experience them the same way (or even at all, for the most part), so I don’t get to tell them what is or isn’t racism or sexism or whatever. It’s a long journey, and god knows I backslide sometimes, but I’m lucky to have her as an interlocutor, and greatly honoured to be considered an ally (to the extent that I am).
So let’s talk about conservatism. Those of you bored enough to read my wankery may know of my wish to reclaim and rescue it. Even if I don’t identify as a conservative, that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge genuine, principled conservatism as an honourable and established intellectual tradition from which we can learn much of value.
Allied to that is a consistent focus (obsession, more like — ed.) on the meanings of words. Words are the basis for civil discourse, which is, in turn, the most basic currency of citizenship and civic engagement. They are the means whereby we define ourselves, that which we value, and communicate with one another. Essential to that is a common agreement upon their meaning; if we cannot agree upon the definitions of the words we are using, we cannot communicate rationally and effectively. Hence my obsession; one of the most important hallmarks of integrity and good citizenship is vigilance regarding the meanings of the words we use.
This is part of the background for our disagreement. It’s because of this that I insist on distinguishing genuine conservatism from the contemporary right, which has enjoyed a great deal of political success by stripping words of their meanings and repurposing them for its own nefarious ends. It’s why it’s so important to insist on safeguarding definitions. It’s not just a matter of controlling connotations and the greater discursive turf; there’s a strategic imperative as well. If we allow our adversaries to define the terms of the discussion, we’ve lost before we even begin.
And this is the heart of my disagreement with Nevi (whom I nevertheless adore). In fact, I would actually agree with her to a certain extent, but I’d amend her argument thusly: conservatism has never meant solely what I want it to mean. Admittedly, by opening myself up to accusations of picking and choosing only parts of a term’s definition, I may be stumbling backwards into a rhetorical or logical trap of my own making, so let me set out some fundamentals.
At its heart, conservatism, as I understand it, means identifying and working to preserve those parts of our history and tradition that are worthwhile and decent and honourable. It carries elements of generosity, civic engagement, commitment to our communities and our neighbours, and above all, a recognition of our obligations to our fellow citizens. In sum, it’s tied in with the acceptance of something greater than atomized individuals sinking or swimming in some mythical “free market.”
Applied to current circumstances: Canada has a generous and extensive system of public services and social-safety net: not just community safety services like fire and police, or public infrastructure like roads, hydro and water, but also health care, social assistance, employment insurance, the right to unionize, and more. I’d argue that those are integral, in fact, to the Canadian character and to the notion of citizenship itself. Is the system perfect? Does it extend far enough? No, of course not. Does it mean it’s not organically infused with elements of race, class, gender, privilege, and even myth? No, of course not. These are, however, things that have been built up over generations by Canadians who struggled and fought and sometimes died for them. And they need to be preserved, cultivated, and protected from those who would tear them down for ideological or financial reasons. That, I’d submit, is very much consistent with the conservative tradition.
Moreover, I don’t believe I’m alone in that. I’m not talking merely about upper-case Party Labels here, so much as the Red Tory tradition. There are plenty of decent and honourable people in Canadian political life who have carried the conservative label. Were they perfect? No, and I don’t believe that anyone’s arguing that they were. But it’s important to distinguish them from the people currently calling themselves Conservatives. It’s part of my ongoing project to rescue and reclaim conservatism, by making reference to its elemental impulses of generosity, community spirit, and respect for what the people who preceded us worked to build. You don’t get to waltz in and attack the fabric of society and foundations of community with meat cleavers, blowtorches, and sledgehammers, and call yourselves “conservatives.”
Now, does that mean that conservatism hasn’t arisen from systems of privilege and repression? Does it mean that conservatism hasn’t always been, in part, about preserving those privileges, along with their overarching elements of race, class, gender and so on? No, of course not, and I’m not arguing otherwise; I have to approach this honestly and acknowledge that those who point this out are absolutely right.
But does it mean, by the same token, that those things are always and eternally integral to conservatism? I don’t believe that it does. It’s kind of like The Force that way; it can have its Good Side and its Dark Side. But in my naivete, I like to think that people, institutions, and intellectual traditions can grow, develop, and transcend their origins. In that sense, conservatism isn’t incompatible with being progressive, or feminist, or even socialist.
Come at me, internetz.