"a loathsome Plague Called Reaction": Fear in Prescriptive Conservative Thought



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C.Fear of Chaos


Kirk’s understanding of Burke’s final fear is a little less apparent in his writings. As a whole, Kirk is less bombastic a writer than his idol and more moderate in persuasion, while still maintaining the integrity of his message. Still, Kirk in The Conservative Mind seems to almost accept that a state not adhering to conservative principles will simply be a less ideal form of government than one carefully considering the lessons of the past. The closest thing we can come to a fear of chaos is his concern of man losing sight of their natural “prejudices.”151 Kirk takes the word prejudice to mean something slightly different than the negative connotation the word holds today. He describes it as “the half-intuitive knowledge that enables men to meet the problems of life without logic chopping.”152 The notion is paired with his concept of prescription- “the customary right which grows out of conventions and compacts of many successive generations”- and presumption- “inference in accordance with the common experience of mankind.”153 Without these three guiding principles of humanity, “society can be saved from destruction only by force and a master.”154 Reason itself is the fourth mode through which Kirk believes Burke thought men think, but holds that “the mass of mankind reason hardly at all.”155 Kirk acknowledges that these three “p’s”- prejudice, prescripton, and presumption- are not exactly rational, but instead they are suprarational, and the ways in which citizens connect to the great wisdom of humanity. Prescription is central to the ideas of prescriptive conservatism in general- hence the name- and presumption takes much the same meaning as it does today, albeit with a much more positive spin. Prejudice, instead, is the one that piques the most interest. Instead of running from biases, they should be embraced, for they exist in our subconscious for a reason. This prejudice reveals itself in many forms, folk wisdom chief among them.156 It is important to note that Burke does not hold these principles to mean society should remain static- “change is inevitable; but let it come as the consequence of a need generally felt, not out of fine spun abstraction.”157 Kirk holds that this notion of prejudice is the most vulnerable, as even when Burke wrote it three hundred years ago he was nearly held in contempt by the literary public.158 Yet it is the most important of all virtues to hold dear- without it, we risk a return to the Hobbesian life- “nasty, brutish, and short.”159

More critically, it appears prejudice is not something that can be reacquired once it is lost.160 Kirk holds that Burke “has very little to say concerning the greatest social quandary of our time” but thinks it is likely he doesn’t believe a return to providence is possible.161 Still, we can understand Kirk’s own feelings by looking to his later works, as in The Politics of Prudence he speaks with a different manner of clarity and conviction. As if often the case, Kirk’s strongest words are spoken in someone else’s voice, this time T.S. Eliot: “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”162 He laments that we have “yet to elect a Congress of which the majority will be intellectually conservative- much though the times call out for a conservative renewal… of some measure of order and justice and freedom.”163 In his concluding chapter, entitled “May the Rising Generation Redeem the Time?” he imparts some final advice for those taking care of the world after he is gone.164 He refers to the 20th century as “a time of decadence,” and calls for a reinvestment in religion and social values.165 In terms of specific actions, Kirk recommends young people to go into law- “if you can endure the boredom of law school nowadays”- teaching- “if you can surmount the dull obstacles to certification,”- or the clergy.166 Still, this generation must hurry. “If we aspire to redeem this age of ours, so far gone in decadence,” Kirk concludes, “we have no time to lose.”167


IV.Other 20th Century Prescriptives


Now that we have built the stable structure and classically designed house of Burke and Kirk, it is time to begin to throw stones. In casting a definition of prescriptive conservative down from on high, we must begin to determine who fits into this category. Russell Kirk is, as it seems, the obvious candidate- his fellow New Conservatives Robert Nisbet and Richard Weaver not too far behind. But at seems at this point poignant to question, who else might this Burkean Standard apply to? This section will address three of Kirk’s contemporaries- though Kirk himself may not have identified them as such- who have all impacted prescriptive conservative thought in the 20th century. It is not worthwhile to apply the entire Burkean Standard to each one, but some investigation will be made into the political theory of each in attempts to make an argument for why they should be considered as part of the prescriptive tradition.

A.Clinton Rossiter- Justified Fear vs. “Standpattism”


In terms of mid-20th century conservatives, few thinkers rival Clinton Rossiter in terms of relevance. Rossiter, a historian and political scientist active in the immediate post-war period, rose to prominence in the mid-1950’s as a counter to Kirk, agreeing with him in many ways but taking in general a much more moderate approach.168 His rise to prominence began in when he started teaching at Cornell in 1947. Although his earlier books, Constitutional Dictatorship chiefly among them, have found increased acclaim after his death, it was his 1953 text Conservatism in America that entrenched his position as a 20th century conservative icon. In this book, Rossiter argued for a four-tiered approach to thinking about conservatism. This mindset in some ways runs counter to that of Russell Kirk, but in other ways finds deep agreement with him. Most importantly, however, is that Rossiter embraces the fear that is the basis of the conservative mindset, bringing the subconscious to the forefront.

Conservatism in America embarks with a specific purpose- to explain conservative principles as a whole, and to understand how they apply to the political climate of the contemporary United States. In his introduction, he begins with a quest to examine the word “conservative.” He claims there are “four connotations with which students of American conservatism must be fully conversant.”169 The first and most common is “Tempermental Conservatism,” which he explains as a psychological stance at the basis of all conservatives, the natural hesitance to change. Fundamentally, conservatism takes root in man’s innate inertia, and Rossiter says this is caused by two key factors: fear and emulation.170 Rossiter’s paragraph on fear is excerpted here, with emphasis added:

Fear is both an instinctive and culturally-determined element in the psychology of conservatism; as such it takes the shape of anxiety, guilt, or shame. Fear of the unknown and unexpected, fear of the unconventional and unexpected, fear of the group’s disapproval and one’s own weakness- these and a thousand other fears persuade a man to be conservative. The most important fear of all in shaping the conservative temperament is the fear of change, which dislocates, discomforts, and, worst of all, dispossesses.171


This explicit endorsement of fear as motivating factor for humans to turn to conservatism is compounded by his next paragraph on “emulation,” which he describes as a “fear of alienation” that pushes when to “abide by the established.”172 This results in an adherence to tradition and a respect for the status quo.173 Rossiter’s words on tempermental conservatism might appear critical, but they are not- in fact, he claims that this mindset is “essential”- without it, “men cannot hope to solve such ever-present problems as procurement of food and shelter, division of labor, maintenance of law and order, education and procreation.”174 He goes on to place tempermental conservatism as the base of other three key connotations. “Conservatism of possession,” the idea that one has something worth protecting, comes from a fear of the alternative of leaving said property unprotected.175 “Practical conservatism” is, Rossiter claims, “the conservatism of temperament and possession operating in a new dimension, the community,” meaning it is the mindset of someone who has “recognized, however fuzzily, that he is a member of a society worth defending against reform and revolution.”176 This interpretation seems to tie itself closely to that very Burkean fear of losing tradition. The fourth and “highest” kind of conservatism is his so-called “philosophical conservatism,” which combines the practical conservative with a higher sense of consciousness and theoretical purpose.177 “Awareness, reflection, traditionalism, and at least some degree of disinterestedness- these are the qualities,” Rossiter claims, “that distinguish the genuine conservative from all other that bear this label.”178

Rossiter’s placement of fear at the heart of prescriptive conservatism is prescient and inspired. While Burke and Kirk seem to rationalize their fear, Rossiter embraces it, placing it on high for the world to see. He also makes the choice to draw in opposition to his ideal of conservatism a concept he refers to as “standpattism.”179 Standpattism, read as “stand-pat-ism,” is painted as the perversion of true conservatism, when careful consideration gives way to obstinacy. Rossiter writes that “the conservative conserves discriminately, the standpatter indiscriminately, for he fears movement in any direction.”180 This aversion to action is “simply an excess of conservatism, compounded of fear, ignorance, inertia, and selfishness.”181 Rossiter connects this stubbornness to its backward looking cousin- reaction. “The true reactionary,” he says, “refuses to accept the present.”182 They harken back to an age at which they believe life was better, and actively seek to return to that point. Rossiter argues for a kyklos of political philosophy, where conservatism perverts to standpattism, which perverts to reactionism, which then leads to hermitism, anarchism, and radicalism.183


Perhaps most compelling about Rossiter as a conservative was the ways in which his own life reflect the theory he articulated. The greatest example of practicing what he preached was his actions during a period of high racial tension at Cornell in spring of 1969. On April 20th, 1969, over eighty members of Cornell University’s Afro-American Society marched out of the student union in protest of sanctions levied against activists, as well as an administration that had proved inadequate in meeting their needs.184 What escalated this situation more so than the hundreds of other protests at colleges and universities across the country was that these students- and several fraternities who opposed them- were armed, brandishing rifles and bandoliers at the height of white hysteria over the black power movement.185 Naturally, this created a crisis and the university was forced to respond. Rossiter, as a professor at the school, was cast into a precarious position. Originally, he held that this radicalism was caused by the deterioration of student government on campus, which created a power vacuum from which chaos arose.186 As the situation worsened, Rossiter joined a faculty consortium called the “Group of Forty-One,” which lobbied the president to postpone any kind of vote in reaction to the violence.187 Eventually, it became apparent that the Government Department, where both Rossiter was housed, was positioning itself in opposition to the administration. Chief among the dissenters was Allan Bloom, a Straussian who staunchly opposed any restriction to faculty freedom. According to Don Downs, a historian who wrote the definitive account of these events, Bloom circulated a resolution- also signed by Rossiter- stating the government department would stop teaching classes if the administration caved to student demands.188 A faculty vote on Monday, April 23rd, three days after the beginning of the occupation, sided with Bloom and opted to chastise student protestors instead of include them in the conversation.189 Rossiter supported the decision, saying “If the ship goes down, I’ll go down with it- as long as it represents reason and order.”190

However, the next day Rossiter began to talk with students, and his mind changed. Administration had asked professors to speak to their students about the situation, and Rossiter found himself more convinced by their arguments than those of his colleagues.191 The Government professor who earlier had opposed the accepting of student demands now, after engaging in dialogue, felt it was imperative to change. Cornell was no longer being driven by “reason and order,” and action was necessary.192 Despite the Afro-American Society’s further deluge into radicalism- including threatening the life of Rossiter himself on a college radio station- Rossiter stood in front of the faculty on Wednesday, April 25th, in favor nullifying the sanctions levied against AAS activists and effectively ending the crisis.193 Rossiter was the key voice in reversing the faculty’s decision- an opposing professors recalled “I knew that when [he] supported reversal of the cause our side was lost.”194 Rossiter’s proposal passed, and the students and faculty were once again reunited in their efforts to make a better Cornell. Naturally, this was controversial among his fellow professors. In the weeks and months following the events, Rossiter became “persona non grata” at Cornell, and former many friends, Bloom included, refused to speak to him.195 Bloom went on to write The Closing of the American Mind, a treatise in defense of intellectual liberty and perhaps his most famous book, inspired by the events at Cornell.196 However, Rossiter did not fare as well- his pre-existing alcoholism and depression only worsened, and he committed suicide a little over a year later.197

While Rossiter’s suicide is a great tragedy, it certainly can contribute to an understanding of how much he was willing to risk in pursuit for what he deemed was right. In applying these actions to Rossiter’s own political theory, it can be understood that accommodation and cooperation are central to what it means to be a conservative. One might imagine that Rossiter thought of his own actions at Cornell in the context of conservatism: holding a natural disposition to change and a healthy fear of what might ensue, but being willing to accommodate change when it is necessary. Bloom might serve well in this context to play the reactionary- entrenched in his beliefs, refusing to teach unless he gets his way. It is unclear whether Rossiter would hold that Bloom is suffering from standpattism or not, but he certainly appears stubborn when juxtaposed with Rossiter’s own w illingness to listen to students and change his mind upon the appearance of new information. It is impossible to determine which approach may have been more effective in the long run, either in the case of Cornell or American society in general. Still, it seems Rossiter highlighted the great tension of conservatism in the 20th century- between those who chose to act intentionally, with an eye towards preserving tradition and respecting moderation, and those who take an attitude of recalcitrance and openly refuse change for the sake of the refusal and not the change itself.




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