“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it”.
Edmund Burke, the great conservative thinker, believed that prudence is the first among virtues. He also said that we are dwarves on the shoulders of giants. Burke’s conservatism was temperamental and not ideological. He was advising us that almost everything we face is not truly a case of first impression. Our human problems have probably been faced before. They may not have taken the same form as our present issues and we may not have found the right answer. But our history should inform us and guide us in the identification of current problems and the solutions offered for them. And our history should humble us.
Burke also believed that humans formed many social arrangements that had served well in setting an order to our lives and a basis for our future endeavors. Some of these arrangements, particularly on a larger scale, resulted in bad outcomes and even evil institutions. However, on a smaller scale, many of these social arrangements supported a constructive and mutually beneficial order and reliability to our lives that helped us live peacefully and productively. Often these social arrangements guided us by giving us the map of history and the compass of compassion. The Lions Club, the local church, boy scouts, girls scouts, trap shooting leagues, bowling leagues, a Habitat for Humanity project–these things not only bind us together but they bring out the better angels of our nature. These arrangements can move us away from our fears and humanize ourselves to one another. History has shown us that small, voluntary arrangements such as these form a social fabric that is enduring and uplifting. We need to always guard against Klan like arrangements to be sure. We know that socializing around fear leads to a very different result than socializing around good will.
Conservatism is mindful of the human condition and the historical underpinnings that teach us about human nature and interaction. In this sense, I am a conservative. I am a conservative by temperament and disposition. I am a conservative by nature. Unfortunately, this nature does not fit well with the common identifying political issues ascribed to “liberal” and “conservative”.
This can make political choices agonizing and confusing. Neither democrats or republicans seem to offer much to a conservative disposition. Presidential candidates rarely talk about the subtler things that represent the human experience, leavened by time. The very nature of political campaigns does not lend itself well to obvious thoughtfulness and measured consideration about what our past has taught us. It’s easier to build walls and talk about special places in hell than to look further into our history in dealing with a changing demographic and the nature of power structures. It seems more politically expedient to identify an “us” and a “them” rather than to see the ever changing complexity inherent in “we”.
Matters are rendered even more difficult with 24/7 news that, ironically, favors the sound bite and the “gotcha” moment over the deeper discussions that could be had. Alas, we spend our time talking about pictures of candidates wives or past sexual indiscretions of candidates husbands. For the ubiquitousness of social media, we seem to favor the speaking component of the device rather than the listening potential. Thus we have campaigns geared toward themes that are poorly developed yet seemingly incapable of being teased into something more thoughtful. Instead our political currency is “greatness” and “revolution” because the equally banal “hope” and “change” were already spent.
Meanwhile, little actual thought is really given to things like small communities, small businesses, middle class lives, black lives, immigrant lives, Muslim lives, family cohesion, meaningful educational advancement, and so forth. We either want to eliminate poverty programs or create dependency on them. Solving such issues would require more thought and more time.
History teaches us a certain humility if we believe that such solutions would be easy or complete. Yet history also teaches us that we would do well if we show compassion by easing human hardship as best we can. We will likely fall short of our goals in our polity but we need to still be purposeful in our attempts. And we should never forget that easing at least some human hardship will likely come from that Habitat for Humanity project and the small donations made by the local Lions Club. If the local church can avoid legalizing and announcing godly political edicts, it can show love beyond comprehension when it cares for the local family who just had a house fire or when it packs food for Feed My Starving Children.
As for idealistic solutions, they are almost always ahistorical. Humans don’t do well with complex problems when we look at the world through time. It is easier to memorize the image of a snapshot of that which we think we see. Then we can go off and think through solutions. And the result tends to be easily imagining an inevitable arch that leads to Marxism or friendly democracies magically flourishing in the Middle East after we enact regime change. The badges and incidents of slavery can be solved quite readily in the isolation of the idealistic mind while young black men cycle through a system of prison and poverty created by white folks, liberal and conservative.
Human history shows that we are capable or listening to our better angels. We know that we are also capable of listening to our demons, especially when we forget what our past has taught us. History can serve as a map. Compassion can point us in the right direction. Together, they may help us find a better way.