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The other day, I had the occasion to look over some of my past essays at The Imaginative Conservative. Much to my surprise, I’m quickly approaching my 250th essay. I might actually have reached and passed this number. Because I’ve failed to label my essays correctly, I am probably over 250 essays.

Officially, though, Google stats tells me this is my 245th essay. Considering Winston founded The Imaginative Conservative less than 2.5 years ago, this seems like something to celebrate. What a blessing to have such a forum.

When Winston (and I; but mostly Winston) started The Imaginative Conservative, we wanted to provide a forum on the internet where folks of good will could discuss serious issues, issues more important than generally found in the fleeting moments of the world. We wanted something different than what one might find on Fox or CNN or what one might hear on average conservative talk radio (Mike Church excepted, of course). We also wanted to distinguish ourselves from our conservative and libertarian brethren on the web who often focused on policy issues or who wrote rather esoterically and exclusivistly (yes, I’m making up this word) for a limited audience or an “in group.”

So, the rules of The Imaginative Conservative from the beginning were essentially: no rules. Just be polite and reasonable, and speak your mind but also your soul. Post as you will, with no real litmus test except this: we need to conserve the best of the western and the humane traditions.

Oh yeah, and we really, really hate it when readers comment on our essays anonymously. But, that’s another story and, perhaps, another rant. Besides, John Willson could rail against this far better than I. Though, I share his sentiments.

In those first few months of The Imaginative Conservative’s existence, we were getting only 10 to 20 “reads” per piece total. Now, thanks to Winston’s dedication and vision, essays are getting that many reads in just the few seconds of the essay appearing on the web. According to the prestigious Alexa ratings, The Imaginative Conservative now ranks in the top 43,000 most influential websites in the U.S., well ahead of a number of others who speak to a similar audience and who inspired us originally to create The Imaginative Conservative.

So, in taking all of this into account, I looked back over my essays. I shouldn’t have been surprised that a serious number of the roughly 250 essays have involved tiltings against Leviathan. I seem rather obsessed with despising the presidency, the TSA, military scientists, and the national security state.

But, an equal number of essays are searching and definitional. That is, several of us at The Imaginative Conservative have been trying to explore the meaning of conservatism, libertarianism, and other non-isms that hover over, around, beneath, below, and next to our own individual beliefs.

In the movement today–in and around The Imaginative Conservative–much debate exists over terms. Winston despises the term “libertarian.” John Willson has renounced the term “conservative”, as has, at times, Mike Church. Willson, especially, has embraced the term “traditionalist.” Church prefers “[r]epublican.” Peter Lawler is “post-modern” as are Gerald Russello and Pete Blum. Dan McCarthy calls himself a “Tory Anarchist.” Jim Otteson calls himself a “classical liberal.” Steve Horwitz, Aeon Skoble, and Robert Higgs readily identify with anarchism. Sarah Skwire is a humane libertarian. Patrick Deneen is a “Front Porcher.”

This is not entirely new in the anti-statist movement. Kirk called himself a “Bohemian Tory,” and a conservative. Voegelin and Strauss refused the label of conservative altogether, preferring to be thought of as philosophers. Nisbet proudly called himself a conservative, but he also believed conservatism to be an ideology. Dawson laughed at the idea of liberalism, believing it to be merely a transition from Christendom to tyranny, but he only once or twice called himself a conservative. Hayek wanted to be known as an “Old Whig.” And, the list could go on.

For what it’s worth, I’m perfectly fine with being labeled a libertarian, a conservative, a republican, an Old Whig, an Augustinian Reaganite, or whatever happy or unhappy label anyone would want to give me (should I be worthy). Or, to put it more directly, I quote Ferris Bueller:

It’s not that I condone fascism. . . or any ism for that matter. Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism. He should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon. ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’ A good point there. After all, he was the walrus.

Oh, I miss John Hughes. But, that’s another story, and, with this story, I probably have more to say than John Willson. He could readily outdo me on issues related to Pogo, though.

With Kirk and Dawson, I don’t think the left-right spectrum is a very real thing. It’s a quasi made-up deception, drawing our eyes toward the leveling horizon and missing the Transcendent.

Quasi because, as with all devices of the ideologues, it takes a truth and exaggerates it at the expense of a number of other truths.

Dawson warned that embracing the Left or the Right or even the Left-Right spectrum would prove “the way to destruction.” By necessity, such a divide overly politicized life and all aspects of culture and life. The divide, as many others have argued, is not between man and man, but between man and anti-man, and Christ and anti-Christ. “The way of life is the way of justice,” Dawson wrote. “It turns neither to the Right nor to the Left.”

As I got caught up–far more than I should have–in the recent elections, I sometimes lost sight of what always remains and what is fixed in all times and all places.

When Winston and I founded The Imaginative Conservative, we wanted to be not reactive conservatives or instinctive conservatives or avaricious conservatives or power-obsessed conservatives. We wanted to be conservative in really one fundamental sense: we wanted to conserve the best of the western tradition, the part and the narrative that upholds the dignity of the individual human person in all of his fallenness, shame, and glory.

This, I believe, remains the only legitimate and decent form of conservatism: the conservation of dignity.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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17 replies to this post
  1. How appropriate that this is the first post I've read here. I feel as if I have found the all-you-can-eat conservative buffet that my heart has hungered for. Please keep your hands away from my plate as my appetite for knowledge and clarity is voracious and I'd hate to see any innocent bystanders lose fingers on my account.

  2. This is a welcome post, but from my perspective it shows no signs of recognizing a certain blind spot in the perspective of most regular writers on this website. It is all well and good to want to distinguish yourselves from those who write "rather esoterically" and with "exclusivistly," but I hope you will take my critique to heart in the best and most constructive way possible, when I claim that as a group, you have surely failed in that goal.

    There is a certain venom toward neoconservatives and free market globalizers that regularly issues from this website, and I don't think it's particularly healthy. I feel my side is unwelcome here, and moreover, that there is a casual tolerance of baiting with scarecrow arguments, usually accompanied by words such as "ideologue" and "Jacobin" and "plutocrat," as if those who agree with the ideas of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, Lord Acton, Irving Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., are merely power-hungry materialist Randian ideologists, completely anathema to all the good things about conservatism that supposedly can only be championed by the revered saints Russell Kirk or Edmund Burke. I hope this post is a sign that change is possible here, and that taking the other side's arguments seriously is something that can actually happen.

    I visit here only because my "side" has been completely obliterated. The closest thing I now identify with might be Whig Thomism, but since I oppose the "anti-imperialist" strains of the Tom Woods & Ron Paul factions with all my heart, I recognize that I have no real political allies anymore. I am almost completely alone. I have no national culture that I can still recognize as home. I have no genuine family. I know what it means to be a pilgrim struggling in a strange land. So please, stop hitting below the belt when attacking the things I believe in.

  3. Well said Brad. TIC is a wonderful sentiment and a respite from the insane political bickering. If the politicos and the public spent more time in front of TIC v. FOX, CNN, MessNBC or the three networks and so-called MSM America would be in a much better place; not a utopia, but in a tolerable civil society. To quote Kirk from his sixth principle, "To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order."

    BTW Brad, how about those Fightin' Irish? The art of the possible indeed.

  4. Brad,

    I'm not sure I get this aversion to left-right. Why is it not real? Why is it a deception? Why does it cause us to miss the transcendent? How does it take a truth and exaggerate it at the expense of a number of other truths? How does it lead to destruction? How does it politicize all of life and culture?

    I would think, based on this, that left-right is the devil himself! Are labels not helpful? Is calling a progressive progressive inaccurate? Is describing political and cultural beliefs on a spectrum such as left-right unhelpful? Or dangerous as some traditionalists imply? Or assert?

    Very curious about this, because I don't get it at this point. Maybe you can help. Thanks.

  5. GEF, I once had a discussion with a Mormon friend who told me that he had tried alcohol, and ended up face down in a gutter. I suggested to him that there is quite a range of behavior between teetotalling and lying in your own vomit. Your attempt to make yourself a victim in this overall discussion reminds me of that prior one. I regard neoconservative foreign policy as evil, and our wars in the Balkans and the middle east as a form of imperious behavior utterly unworthy of our (sadly, now diminished) republican ideals. Do you think I could get a hearing in The Weekly Standard of National Review or The American Spectator? What you describe as your deep beliefs seem to me to fit exactly with those venerable "conservative" publications. Why would you want us simply to conform to them?

  6. GEF, I don't mind the criticism in the least, but I'm also not in the least convinced it applies to me. You're more than welcome to show me where I've ever disagreed with Goldwater, Buckley, Friedman, or Lord Acton. Why you place Krisotol and Wolfowitz in this list is beyond my understanding. I consider myself a a conservative libertarian or, at certain moments, a quasi-anarchist. Again, you need to prove the case that I've been close minded. Yours, respectfully, Brad

  7. Thanks, Mike. For what it's worth, I do think all labeling is inhumane. We use it as a convenience at best, but I think it is generally used as a tool to dismiss others. It's one thing to describe a policy or idea advocated by a person as progressive, liberal, etc. (though, this is probably problematic as well), but once we substitute the person, we fall into grave error. My thoughts, for what they're worth. Thanks for writing.

  8. Dennis–great post! Thanks. Everything important takes a great deal of time to explain, hone, etc.

    By the way, the last time ND won a national championship, I was a junior there.

  9. Gosh, Brad, labeling is like prejudice–as Kirk and many other have said, if we didn't have such shorthands, our days would be endless! What bothers me is the obsessive need of conservatives to define themselves, like Baptists who excommunicate each other over commas and apostrophes.

  10. Perhaps I can offer up a sufficient rejection of labels: back in 2000, when I was fired from my internship with Senator Kennedy for supporting Buchanan for President, the intern coordinator at the Senator's office was incapable of comprehenending the idea of public service. The simple fact was that I had grown up in Cambridge, MA and all of my fondest memories of my country came from there. I wanted to volunteer my time to serve the state that had reared me, in the spirit of Socrates Phaedo, where the philosopher refuses to break an unjust legal verdict out of respect for the city that gave him his education and life. The Senator's intern coordinator told me that "in this town you pick a side and stick with it." Naturaly she was oblivious to the fact that a citizen could pick the side of America. In later years, I would go on, in Poland, to work for both the Friedmanite monetarist president of the central bank and a radical New Left subsidiary of the Ministry of Culture. In the first and second capacity, I maintained a consistent line of thought and action, as any number of publications, speeches and colleagues will attest. I currently cooperate with the Ludvig Von Mises Institute in Warsaw, where I lecture on the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln and classical republicanism (none of which is contradictory, unless we want to refight the civil war). This was all possible because despite many flaws, Poland's moral fabric as a nation is in tact. Everyone is more interested in ideas and the public good, and the art of public relations, while sadly gaining influence (one of many imported diseases) is not widely practiced. Everyone here is still more Catholic than they realize and less vicious. The result of these opposing examples of character are clear: Poland has not suffered recession, it still has a growing vibrant economy, Churches are full, evils limited, liberties guarded. Meanwhile, in America there are people who take sides to the detriment of the public good, and there have been for a while. Corruption likely awaits Poland's republican order, as is the natural course of such things, still a nation that visits and cleans the graves of relatives en mass, in which one of the most popular soap operas is about an idealistic priest who helps the police solve crimes and acts a a kind of moral police for the city must surely have a brighter future than a country where not Westerns or Dynasty, but Modern Family and the like rein supreme. America does have a knack for turning things around. We shall see if the nation commits collective suicide or not.

  11. Mr. Rieth, Heaven knows if we agree on everything but I will say for the record that if ever we are both in London kindly join me for a wyborowa and apple-juice (or champagne)at my club, among English Polophiles, Polish Anglophiles, people married to Poles and thus improving themselves, Poles who work there, etc. It's not a Polish institution in any way, we're just blessed I guess.

    From afar I think I can concur with you about Poles retaining their faith and values and culture. The Welsh retained their Christianity in isolation through the Dark Ages, and just as wonderfully, the Poles emerged from communism while being still in full blossom! It is not short of miraculous. I predict that it will not be long before Poland again becomes European civilisation's acknowledged leader.

    And Poles have such culture and style, dash and elan! Members of the Polish Army in exile, in St Andrews, survived to my time there. They said at the war's end 500 Poles married 500 Scots girls, while membership in the Catholic Church and the Conservative party increased by one thousand each. Scotsmen were jealous, jilted by so many local maidens who fell for the brave, handsome and gallant Poles.

    Meanwhile, anyone who told his colleagues in Ted Kennedy's office that he was supporting Pat Buchanan contains something of the dashing and fearless Polish hussar.

    Where might I read more about Poland's elected kings of old? This intrinsically Polish form of Catholic, democratic monarchy sounds intriguing.

  12. John, Kirk's brief definition works fine for me.

    Buddha said you need a boat to cross the river to wisdom, then you need not lug the boat any further. Defining, as Kirk did, helps us identify what we are and what we are not. It helps us to keep safe from folly. Then a conservative needs to move on, learn and accomplish.

  13. Here I must clarify and confess that my knowledge of Poland is vastly limited to personal experience. I have not studied the history thoroughly and was not educated there beyond three years of grade school.

    That said, my very limited knowledge of the intriguing democratic monarchy stems from a cursory reading of the classical May Third Constitution, which explicitly grounds religious liberty and toleration in the teaching of the Catholic Church, much like the recognition of the distinction between imperfect man and perfect God is the basis for the teaching regarding equality in America's Declaration of Independence.

    There are still marginal political factions advocating for a monarchy, but I have little interest in them, as I am a republican and find monarchy in principle bad. Elected by Nobles or not, a monarchy is still inferior to a self-governing citizenry.

    I think, given your associations, that I would learn more about Poland from you than you would learn from me. As to London, thank you kindly – when I travel, it is to the land of Tintin, but who knows, perhaps I shall one day find a reason to be in the UK.

  14. Adding to an old discussion: I find it bizarre that anyone who claims to be an anarchist of any stripe also claims to be conserving the best of the Western heritage. But perhaps time will produce enough wisdom to overcome such youthful follies.

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