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Obscurantist? Give Me a Break!

Of course there’s a long-running conservative critique of the cult of progress – it’s comes from the cult of tradition — and in the 20th century in particular this critique of progress was mostly ineffectual; which is why I’m surprised it’s so lovingly embraced here. One of the great contributions to conservatism made by the neoconservatives was in recognizing the limits of the trad argument in a post-Enlightenment age; neocons encouraged a turning away from the obscurantism of trad con writing and thinking. What is different today that would convince crunchy cons that trad arguments will have any greater resonance than when neocons replaced them with a reliance on empiricism? ~Nick Schultz, Crunchy Cons

Note that: the critique was "ineffectual." No word on whether it was true or not. Perhaps the folks at the CC blog might think this idea would have resonance today as more and more people awake to the bankruptcy not only of the cult of progress, but also of the very idea of progress as it has been conventionally understood. The critique of progress in the 20th century gained less traction because a great many people were convinced, all things considered, that overall progress had taken place without a loss of anything that really mattered. Now the costs of that progress are becoming more clear, and fewer people are willing to accept the sacrifices that Progress claims is necessary.

Obscurantist is a word for people who think that tradition is something from which man needs to be freed, a bondage from which he must be emancipated. It is a word for someone who believes scrapping tradition is enlightenment and holding to tradition is to hide in the dark. The only thing more dismissive of and insulting to a traditionalist might be "hidebound."

I understand why neoconservatives would use the term obscurantist, because they have never had much time for anything that dates before 1920. Most other conservatives take a somewhat longer view and place tremendous value in the enduring habits and customs of our civilisation (as well as in many worthwhile habits and customs that have not endured as well but should in some measure be revived).

Why we "trads" (would that make our opponents into progs?) should find the accusation of obscurantism against our intellectual forebears is less clear. The difference between today and 20 or 30 years ago may be that fewer conservatives are going to fall for the arguments of putative conservatives that traditionalism is somehow less conservative than progressivism, managerial government and creating a more efficient welfare state. Indeed, the "cult of tradition" is opposed to the cult of progress, broadly speaking. Mr. Schultz's observation on that score answers his own question as to why conservatives, crunchy or no, would embrace it and why they will stand against the concrete pourers and cement mixers and those that sing their praises. In brief: Treebeard, yes, Saruman, no.

Daniel Larison | March 21, 2006


Personally, I think we should avoid both cults. Russell Kirk invoked "Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change," in his "ten conservative principles."

"Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation."

Those who fetishize progress should be reminded that radical change is cancerous, but those who fetishize tradition should be reminded that utter stagnation is no less deadly to a culture.

I truly believe that the crunchies at that blog do not totally fetishize tradition, but they should realize that others could very easily draw other conclusions. And they should realize that they invite those wrong conclusions when they insinuate that other conservatives fetishize progress when it is more likley the case that they merely draw a different line than the crunchies do on the question of tradition versus change.

And there is a middle ground between Ents and Saruman -- such as hobbits who (I suppose) did not perpetually forage for food but rather eventually farmed and ate in inns.

Bubba | 03/21/06 19:23

To paraphrase Johnson: language most shows the man, speak (write) that I may see thee. I found Mr. Schultz use of language so "prog" as to be insipid. What folks who espouse his sort of knee-jerk futurism seem to miss is that the roots of their pathology spring from the tradition of liberalism -- and liberalism is a tradition.

David Walsh, in his The Growth of the Liberal Soul, informs the anti- "trads" (what a very silly neologism; have we become so lazy to be reduced to such faddish coinages) that liberalism is a tradition. In a sense, man is, among other things, homo traditium. As Joseph Pieper recognizes our culture -- cultus -- is the receptor of, expositor, and guarantor of ordered traditions. Progressivism, and its variant futurism happen to represent traditions that feed and rest on the constancy of disorder and continued unmitigated change for change sake. This is distinctly different, in kind and degree, from the Kirkian/Burkean sense of evolutionary change, which must have its roots in an ordered being.

In all honesty, Bubba, who do you think Schultz was taking to task? Hint - it is Kirk and those faithful Kirkian (as oppose to the unfaithful types like Wilfred McClay), so it's a bit disingenuous to reference Kirk in order to provide any credence to the points Schultz posits or as a corrective to the valiant effort of the CCs.

For those who have read and understand Kirk for that matter (and Burke), would recognize that underlying Kirk's principles is a predisposition toward the permanent things of tradition – not a simply a line drawn in the sand.

Regarding the proper disposition toward change, your benchmark that it is simply drawing a different line really brings home to me all of the issues Daniel has eloquently noted about the anti-CC criticism…

MJK | 03/22/06 11:59

MJK, I don't see how you can think I'm defending Schultz's point when I wrote, "I think we should avoid both cults" -- that is to say, both the cult of tradition and the cult of progress.

Bubba | 03/22/06 18:14

I take Bubba's point that we ought to avoid "cults" of either. I am often left wondering, though, where these "calcified traditions" (to use Caleb's phrase) have ever existed and, even if they did exist, what they have done that has made them so heinous. The costs of Progress are far more clear to me, and they seem to far more far-ranging and destructive. Anything tradition that endures over time has, by definition, not calcified, but continues to adapt and incorporate changes into itself. One value of tradition and inherited wisdom generally is that it has distilled ages of experience and changing circumstances into a body of knowledge and habit that shelters and guides people who would otherwise be left thrashing around in the dark trying to find their way. What I usually take "calcified" tradition to mean is a tradition in which formality and rites play a large role, which usually misunderstands that no form could endure unless it holds meaning for the people who use it. Tradition, broadly speaking, does not oppose change, but presupposes it. What is questionable to my mind is whether there is such a thing as general progress, capital P or not. If Progress only means growth, as Prof. Lukacs' quote said, it is not something with which we should have any part.

What I generally find less convincing was Mr. Schultz's idea that traditionalist critiques of "Progress" are somehow unworthy because they do not translate into a handy political program. That is the perpetual retort of the other side of the "fusionist" alliance: "why don't you get a working political platform together, traditionalists?" (The traditionalists already have their "platform" in reproducing the tradition they have received--that is the main work of generations, and more important than getting the "right" people elected.) This was the charge that Meyer leveled at Kirk, and it is the one that enthusiasts for Progress frequently level at traditionalists, and it has been this impulse to have a platform, a list of policy proposals, that has done more damage to conservatism as a persuasion, a sensibility, than anything. It reaches ludicrous proportions today where alignment with a party's agenda defines, in some circles, what is conservative and what is not, rather than judging the agenda by conservative principles that involve much more than questions of policy.

In the end, there seems to me to be a choice that everyone has to make between generally being on the side of the Ents or generally being on the side of Saruman. The hobbits are a perfectly good model of a moderate position to take (though I quite like the Ents myself), but in the end they were fighting alongisde the Ents in destroying the destructive factories of Saruman. I would like this to be more than a reiteration of the old saw that "you have to pick a side," because in so many ways this sort of rhetoric is used for very stupid goals, but there is some truth to it. Mr. Schulz's remark about obscurantism tells me that he would prefer to be on the other side rather than be associated with obscurantist Ents, and that is a real problem for someone who calls himself conservative.

Daniel Larison | 03/29/06 14:10

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