This Be U.S. “Conservatism”

“Are you serious?”

This is stunning. Jaw dropping. Staggeringly embarrassing.

As if to prove definitively that there are no real conservatives in the United States, a Republican member of the House of Representatives from Kentucky, Thomas Massie, apparently tried to embarrass former Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting of the Committee on Oversight. Outside of the United States, real conservatives are keepers of history, culture, and tradition. They strive to uphold standards. They accuse liberals and radicals of “leveling,” or erasing existing distinctions. The Catholic Church is a profoundly conservative institution that holds itself out as preserving a tradition of Christianity that reaches back to the fourth century, CE.

It is impossible to be a real conservative in that sense in the United States because the operative national culture has only existed for just over two hundred years, which is the blink of an eye on the conservative time scale, and because the the United States came into existence as the result of the decision to defy the King of England, which is a decidedly unconservative thing to do. In the Anglo-American tradition, the polar opposites of “conservative” and “liberal” originate in the Glorious Revolution in England of 1688–89. Conservatives defended the divine right of kings, the idea that the king got his authority directly from god and was therefore beyond challenge.

John Locke, the philosopher who articulated the ideas of western liberalism, said that was hogwash, that all legitimate political authority emanated from the governed, who possessed natural rights before government and retained always the power to throw off any existing government if they believed that it was not adequately protecting those natural rights.

This liberal theory of government had a huge influence on the Founders of the United States. The Declaration of Independence borrows very explicitly from Locke, and his ideas are clear to the discerning reader throughout the Constitution. The United States is, in its conception, the apotheosis of a liberal republic.

Conservatism is, or can be, relative to the culture it exists in, so some modern U.S. “conservatives” call themselves “classical liberals,” whatever that means, and claim that the federal government in the twentieth century abandoned the principles of the Founders and is not, therefore, properly liberal anymore. They are conservatives in defense of U.S. liberalism, which is not as oxymoronic as it sounds.

Youthful as it may be, our culture does have some well established practices that one could easily defend if one were a genuine conservative. The modern Republican Party makes great show of being “conservative,” but, since Nixon, and with a vengeance under Trump, Republicans want only to destroy and tear down.

One fine cultural tradition in the United States, since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, has been respect for an educational tradition that we call the “liberal arts.” This is not “liberal” in the sense of Lockean liberalism, as in, “not conservative,” but “liberal” in the sense of broad minded, expansive, curious, interested in the world, intellectually boundless. Many universities have colleges of “liberal arts” or “arts and sciences,” which, as the name suggests, exist to encompass many, if not all, branches of human knowledge and inquiry. Duke University’s College of Arts and Sciences, for example graduates 80 percent of the university’s undergraduates in a broad array of majors.

The United States also has a plethora of what we call “liberal arts colleges,” which are usually smaller than universities and confer no degrees beyond the bachelor’s degree, which is typically the first degree people earn after high school (or an associate’s degree at a two year college). Just as “liberal” does not mean “not conservative,” so “art” does not mean, “as opposed to science.” Liberal arts colleges offer the usual array of science majors, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. As our definition of “liberal” above suggests, the categories are very broad, with lots of options lurking in them.

So when this fool from Kentucky asks John Kerry, “So how do you get a bachelor of arts in a science?” he is ignoring this fine, well established tradition in the United States. He is not, that is, being a real conservative. He is being a faux, degraded, U.S. “conservative.” In answering the initial question, Kerry says, “political science,” which clearly, in this context, means his major at Yale University, one of our nation’s oldest, most distinguished universities, and the one that the godfather of U.S. “conservatives,” William F. Buckley, attended.

The fool from Kentucky goes on to say that he thinks it is “appropriate that someone with a pseudo science degree is here, pushing pseudo science….” He goes on, but Kerry interjects, incredulously, “Are you serious?”

Anyone who is at all well informed about the history of higher education in the United States would respond the same way.

This be “conservatism” in its grossly degraded, faux, U.S. manifestation. Willful ignorance of history and tradition in favor of attempts to score cheap debating points by deliberately confusing terms that have long been widely used in the United States.

Republicans only sink lower.

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