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Modern Conservatism, or: Who Says That We're Our Brother's Keeper?

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6. Dr. Kirk also changed his Sixth Canon between the First and Seventh Revised Editions. The First Edition states, "[r]ecognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress. Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation...but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.'" (Carter, op cit., 1954.)

By contrast, the Revised Seventh Edition states, "[r]ecognition that change may not be salutary reform: innovation may be a devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress. Society must alter, for prudent change is the means of social preservation; but a statesman must take Providence into his calculations, and a statesman's chief virtue, according to Plato and Burke, is prudence."

What is Wrong with These Canons? They Seem to Consistently Misfire

I believe that Dr. Kirk's First Canon is itself prejudicial, in assigning both the source of political problems and the source of their solutions. We cannot say with certainty if God exists; or that if God exists, what preference, if any, He might have in terms of religion or religious doctrines, governmental forms, social mores and conventions, or economic system types. To those who are atheists, agnostics, or non-conventionally religious (Wicca, Native American, etc.), Dr. Kirk's solution appears to exclude their interests and underlying belief system. This tendency to narrowness of vision, to a concern for satisfying the needs of only a fraction of the people, rather than of all of the people--even if that fraction is a majority--has been one of the great weaknesses of conservative thought throughout history.

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This leads directly to what I believe is the inherent self-contradiction of Kirk's Second Canon. "Variety and mystery" are not to be found in the "traditional"; there you will find only repetition of what has gone before, as reflected in the habits and mores of the dominant group in the society. The "traditional" simply reinforces behavior--both good and bad--as anyone who has ever read a psychology text book will tell you. It is in the unconventional and original that true variety and mystery are to be found, and a failure to take contrary views into account is detrimental to the rights of those who hold them. Dr. Kirk was no doubt speaking out against the awful regimentation and dehumanization that he saw in the Soviet Union under Stalin. But, as is the case with most authoritarians, he transferred his hatred and anger for the misdeeds of Stalin to the "innocent bystanders" who lived on the left in the United States.

"Civilized society" may require orders and classes, as Dr. Kirk states in his Third Canon, but who decides the requirements for those orders and classes? In addition, how easy is it for men and women of superior ability and good moral character to rise through the classes, and what limitations are put on higher classes to prevent their abuse of the lower ones? For myself, the jury is still out on that proposition, and at this moment I believe that, if classes and orders are needed, it is only in the most limited form, perhaps most importantly to institutionalize the differences between a Master, Journeyman, and Apprentice plumber.

To quote Thomas Jefferson (from an 1824 letter to John Cartwright), "And where else will [David Hume,] this degenerate son of science, this traitor to his fellow men, find the origin of just powers, if not in the majority of the society? Will it be in the minority? Or in an individual of that minority?" (The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; volume 16, page 44; 1904. [Words in brackets added for amplification.])

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Certainly, the establishment of a system of orders and classes, de facto if not de jure, with restrictions on both the ability to rise in the social/political/economic order and a lack of rules and regulations to prevent the abuse of the lower classes by the upper classes, must give rise to the unconscionable rule of an oligarchic elite, against which the lower classes must--simply to survive--eventually revolt. If that revolution is violent, it will ultimately be to the detriment of all concerned. As President Kennedy warned his fellow millionaires in his Inaugural Address, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

Related to this is the dependence of one's degree of freedom upon the value of the property one holds, as suggested in Kirk's Fourth Canon. This Canon implicitly limits the highest degree of freedom in a nation to the greatest possessors of wealth. Basing a human being's freedom upon his or her possession of wealth is the worst way I can think of to measure his or her inherent worth. Using that as a measuring stick, Bernie Madoff is a saint, and Mother Theresa was garbage. Worse yet, assigning wealth as the primary determining factor for the basic rights, and concomitant degree of basic liberty, you might enjoy, is, I believe, contrary to American ideals. Wealth demonstrates only your ability to gather material possessions, not the ability to use any of the ancient virtues of justice, prudence, temperance or charity in your dealings with your fellow human beings, especially in matters of governance or in electing representatives or magistrates. Additionally, as we are painfully relearning in the United States today, too great a disparity of wealth is as much, if not more, an enemy of our liberties as the most thorough leveling of economic resources the world has ever seen. It seems once again that Aristotle was right: all things in moderation.

A quick, but related, sidebar here: The real reason why the oligarchs have worked so hard to establish the legal precedent of increasing rights for corporations is quite simple, although it only became self-evident to me this summer when I seriously thought about the Supreme Court's giving credence, in its decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission , to the ludicrous idea that money--especially unlimited money--and free speech are the same thing. When I first looked at the decision in the context of the rise of the oligarchic corporate state, together with the men who made the decision--the five most reactionary current members of the Court--the reason behind it became clear. What is happening now in America, from a purely historical viewpoint, is the establishment for the members of the "ruling class" of a greater degree of protection under the law, in the form of rights and powers, than those of the common people they dominate. This has happened with every aristocracy and oligarchy in history. Corporations are the skeleton upon which this additional protection has been hung to benefit our current oligarchy.

I have already dealt with one of the faults in Dr. Kirk's original Fifth Canon, the one having to do with tradition, in the paragraph discussing his Second Canon of Conservatism. Prejudice (which Kirk changed to prescription in the Seventh Revised Edition of The Conservative Mind [see p. 62]) and distrust of reason are inherent faults in the Providential Theory of History that Kirk espouses in his classic work. We have seen in recent times the disrespect with which today's so-called Conservatives (in reality, Reactionaries of the sort that Dr. Kirk warns us against elsewhere in the work [pp, 472-5, 483-6, 489, 493-4]--not directly, but by strong implication) treat our nation's history. David Barton, who attempts to turn all of the Founding Fathers--the best known of whom, including America's first "dirty old man," Benjamin Franklin, were Deists and religious iconoclasts--into a group of "evangelical Christians," which they were not. Barton is simply the best known, and the most refuted, of an unsavory lot. (See Chris Rodda's book and website, Liars for Jesus:The Religious Right's Alternative Version of American History, for more on Mr. Barton's insane flights of fancy.) Additionally, individuals, like Senator Rand Paul's Social Media Director Jack Hunter, have taken Dr. Kirk's tacit permission to be prejudiced and dismissive of reason as a license for them to be bigoted and borderline treasonous. (See "Rand Paul's Aide: A Dunce on the Confederacy," The Atlantic, July 11, 2013.)

Prejudice--including prejudicial legal prescriptions--is nothing more than an excuse to not think: to not find out the truth of a situation and to treat another human being as a thing, which, as I have written many times before, beginning with my August 5, 2009 OpEdNews article, The Hope for Audacity, is a human being's first step toward an act of evil.

Avoiding the use of your reason is likewise an excuse to be less than human yourself, and to give yourself permission to treat others as equally subhuman, which by my definition is doubly evil. We cannot permit ourselves to become anything less than the best human being we possibly can be. As I wrote in my January 3, 2013 OpEdNews article "Human State," humans are the animals that choose, and choice always has moral implications. We are the only ones who have a conscience (unless there is a study of lesser primates or cetaceans of which I am unaware) to bother us when we do wrong. Our only tools when choosing between right and wrong are our reason and experience.

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The First Century B.C.E. Jewish teacher, Rabbi ben Hilliel, was once asked by a student if he could explain the essence of the Torah (the first Five Books of the Christian Old Testament) while standing on one foot. The old Rabbi stood up on one foot and said, "That which you would not have done to yourself, do not do to others. This is the essence of the Torah. All of the rest is commentary: now read the commentary." The old Rabbi had used his reason, as well as his years of experience, to distill the essence of the Five Books of Moses--the Heart of Judaism--into a single sentence. It has come down to us--in slightly altered form--over the centuries as the Golden Rule. Everything else is, in fact, commentary. This, the use of both reason and experience to arrive at a simple truth, is a mode of understanding that Dr. Kirk seems to have either forgotten or overlooked, if he ever knew it at all.

Any attempt to keep a nation's Constitution, laws, systems and customs static in a constantly changing world not only does not serve the best interests of the nation or its people, but is in fact harmful to that nation in both the short- and the long-term. Dr. Kirk realizes and accounts for this fact in his book. (See Kirk, op cit., p. 9, among other places in the Seventh Revised Edition.) Regrettably, the reactionaries of America's so-called "Tea Party" have either forgotten, or have never understood this simple fact.

Finally, we have Dr. Kirk's innate distrust of change and innovation in society. He favors instead an ambiguous "reform," which is at the heart of his Sixth Canon. This should not surprise us. Dr. Kirk, at the end of The Conservative Mind (pp. 476-90), makes the argument that the "radical" left (liberals and others he disagrees with on the left) has offered nothing new to the public since 1950. With this view, Dr. Kirk blithely ignores the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir, Erich Fromm, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Rawls, Reverend William Coffin Sloane, Riane Eisler, and the rest of the major protagonists in the Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and Gay Rights movements in America, as well as the anti-nuclear, anti-war, and other Human Rights movements around the world.

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Richard Girard is an increasingly radical representative of the disabled and disenfranchised members of America's downtrodden, who suffers from bipolar disorder (type II or type III, the professionals do not agree). He has put together a team to (more...)

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