From 1986: Will’s defense of the civil rights revolution in terms of classical conservatism is an erroneous application of a traditionalist principle. “But the enforcement of the law,” he writes, “by making visible and sometimes vivid the community values that are deemed important enough to support by law, can bolster these values.. . . Of course, nothing in a society, least of all moral sentiment, is permanent and final. Indeed, there have been occasions when the law rightfully set out to change important and passionately held sentiments, and the law proved to be a web of iron.” One such occasion was the abrogation of the rights of owners of public accommodations to deny service to blacks, enacted in the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The exercise of this right became “intolerably divisive” and therefore had to be abridged by congressional action.
“The most admirable achievements of modem liberalism — desegregation, and the civil rights act — were explicit and successful attempts to change (among other things) individuals’ moral beliefs by compelling them to change their behavior. The theory was that if government compelled people to eat and work and study and play together, government would improve the inner lives of those people.”
“Moral sentiment” does indeed change, but absolute moral values do not, and only if we believe that egalitarian values are superior to the rights of property can we accept the legislation Will is defending as legitimate. Nor it is clear that the civil rights revolution has really improved our inner lives or even changed our external conduct to any great degree, and if it has, the change has derived not only from government but also from social and nonpublic sanctions as well.
That “stateways” can make “folkways,” that coercive imposition by an apparatus of power can eventually alter patterns of thinking and conduct, is true. The Christian emperors of Rome after Constantine certainly did so, as did Henry VIII and his successors in the English Reformation. What the conservative wants to know, however, is by what authority a state undertakes such massive transformations and whether what is gained adequately compensates for the damage that is inevitably done. In the case of the suppression of paganism and its replacement by Christianity, Christian conservatives will have little doubt of the authority and ultimate value of the revolution. The processes by which the civil rights revolution was accomplished are more questionable. It is not clear that they have led or will lead to more justice and tolerance or to greater racial harmony. They certainly did damage to the Constitution by allowing the national legislative branch to ovemde state and local laws. They also damaged the political culture by popularizing and legitimizing the idea that every conceivable “minority” (women, sexual deviants, and all racial and ethnic groups) may use the federal government to satisfy its ambitions at the expense of local jurisdictions, the public treasury, and the social order. Nor is it clear on what authority Congress overrode traditional property rights to impose new rights. The exploitation of the national government to abrogate and create rights by which the ambitions and private dogmas of a faction may be satisfied is no less an instance of the degeneration of modernism than the abuse of government by the constituencies of the welfare state. The civil rights revolution and the welfare state are not, then, reactions against the tendencies of modernism as Will presents them, but rather their fulfillment.
Indeed, for all his expostulations in favor of the high-minded and aristocratic enforcement of virtue, Will repeatedly expresses his deference to the conventional and the popular. The rights of proprietors in 1964 “had become intolerably divisive,” so conservatism properly understood accepts the will of those who initiated the division. “An American majority was unusually aroused,” so authority must follow the majority. The welfare state is an idea whose time “has now come,” so conservatives must accept the idea and must not resist the times. “If conservatism is to engage itself with the way we live now,” it must adapt itself to current circumstances, and perish the thought that we might really change the way we live now by rejecting the legacies of liberalism, dismantling its power structure, and enforcing and protecting the real traditions of the West rather than indulging in Will’s elegant pretense that that is what he is doing and expressing open contempt for the only force in American politics that has ever seriously sought to do it…
Although Will is sometimes called a “neo-conservative,” he is not one. Neoconservatives typically derive more or less conservative policy positions from essentially liberal premises. Will in fact does the opposite: he derives from more or less unexceptionable premises of classical conservatism policy positions that are often congruent with the current liberal agenda. It is because he accepts, and wants to be accepted by, the “achievements” of modem liberalism that he ignores or sneers at the serious conservative thinkers and leaders of our time who have sought to break liberal idols and that he voices no criticism of the powers that support liberalism. It is therefore not surprising that his commentary is welcomed in and rewarded by liberal power centers. They have little to fear from him and his ideas and much to gain if his version of “conservatism” should gain currency. He enjoys every prospect of a bright future in their company.
COMMENTS AT RADIX:
* The key phrase that gives away Will’s thought process is where he says, “Once politics is defined negatively…” Politics has supplanted theology as the so-called queen of the sciences, but it uses the same methods, terminology, and metaphysics that the former queen used, and largely written by the same philosophers. Defining God apophatically is the theological equivalent to Will’s expression of a negative definition of politics. And apophatic theology is the most humble and conservative ways of approaching God. It is also the most humble and conservative way of approaching politics. The unspoken alternative offered up by Will is cataphatic, or positive theology/politics, in which positive declarations are made about the nature of God and the world. It is brash and unconservative. And Will’s method of justifying this change (!) in approach is not to justify it on it’s merits, but to punch to the right. He knows in his heart, if one indeed he has, that what he is doing is against all tradition and solid thought, and that in order to get his way he cannot rely on argument, but must destroy any as yet unseen opposition by preemptive proscription. This methodology is the mark of a truly evil man. I wish I could have seen this more clearly years ago.