By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Perhaps the women in question should not be criticized. It strikes me that we no longer have publications on the right that explore in a thorough and serious manner the difference between the traditionalist and libertarian wings of the conservative movement. That said, the young ladies jumped into a fight that need not be fought.
I am talking about the young women who appeared on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News program a few weeks back. They were calling attention to the liberal bias of the textbook Introduction to Social Work & Social Welfare used in their college course at the University of South Carolina. “I was tempted to throw the book away,” said one of the women, a sophomore majoring in political science. “This book goes out of its way to glorify liberalism and demonize conservatism. I don’t think it can get much more in-your-face than that.”
Now I have no doubt that the textbook is as left-leaning as the students say; no doubt that it is opposed to free-market principles, a vigorous American military presence in the world, and laws that reflect the moral beliefs of the Christian West. But when the women protested that the textbook charges that conservatives hold a “pessimistic view of human nature,” they took issue where none should be taken. Conservatives do hold such a view. It is central to the conservative position on the major issues of the day.
Perhaps I should rephrase that. It is a view central to the “social conservative” or traditionalist position on the issues of our time. Libertarians — or “economic conservatives” — do not agree. But let us put off for another day a discussion of the reasons for that difference of opinion between the wings of modern conservatism. The point just now is that the beliefs of those most Americans have in mind when they use the term “conservative” — “law and order” advocates who favor a strong military and laws against pornography, abortion, and recreational drug use — are very much rooted in a pessimistic view of mankind.
More to the point, they don’t think it is something to be ashamed about. Conservatives writing for National Review, Modern Age, and the Intercollegiate Review in the 1950s and 1960s used to call it a recognition of “mankind’s fallen nature” and the “scars of original sin.” It is the conviction that mankind has an inclination toward evil that must be held in check by religious beliefs, customs, and the force of law. It is the message of Edmund Burke, and his American disciples, William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and Richard M. Weaver.
One need not accept a literal reading of the Book of Genesis to hold to this conviction. There are atheists who see the story of Adam’s and Eve’s decision to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden as a myth, who accept it as well. They base their pessimism about human nature not on religious belief but on common sense and the historical record. Like those whose views are rooted in religious belief, they are convinced that mankind needs structure, order, and a reverence for traditional values to remain virtuous.
It is this pessimism that leads to the conservative positions on the leading issues of the day. We can run through the list: Conservatives are convinced that we need a strong military because there are those who would seize upon weakness to take advantage of neighboring countries in the world arena, people who would deny others their freedom and access to the natural resources needed for their economic well-being. Those who take this position will point to a long line of conquerors who have done just that over the course of history, from Xerxes to Genghis Khan to Hitler and Stalin. They are convinced it is naive to think that if we reduce our military strength our adversaries will respond in kind. They point to history as proof that the world does not work that way.
When the issue of the criminal justice system comes up for discussion — whether it is capital punishment, the rights of the accused, or the operation of our prisons — the conservative position is based on the conviction that there are those who would commit crimes against their fellow citizens if not for the fear of quick and sure arrest and punishment. The pessimistic view of human nature is what leads to the belief that is foolhardy to put too great an emphasis on the rights of criminals and on the need to construct our prisons as places of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Conservatives are convinced that the most important characteristic of a prison is its power to make would-be criminals not want to go there.
We can also see this understanding of human nature at work when parents check regularly on their children’s homework, on their choice of friends, on what they read and see on television and the Internet, when they establish curfews and rules for proper dress. Parents with traditional values may not resort to the term “scars of original sin” when they impose these structures on their families; they may not even know what the term means. But it is what people mean when they say, “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” It is why these parents are so concerned with bringing the lessons of fine literature and the performing arts into their children’s lives. They see them as civilizing influences.
We could go on: Why not permit abortion on demand, free access to recreational drugs, and sexually explicit material in the home? Because, conservatives are convinced, many of our fellow citizens would kill their unborn children for selfish and frivolous reasons and ruin their lives through drugs and porn, if we do. The term “victimless crime” is not a part of the lexicon of social conservatives. They are convinced a healthy and moral society helps its citizens overcome the moral weaknesses that are a consequence of their fallen nature.
I repeat: I don’t want to be overly critical of the young women from the University of South Carolina who appeared with Megyn Kelly. I am uplifted by the realization that there are college students who do not sit back and soak up the agenda of the academic leftists. But it is important that these young women, and those who cheered them on, be prepared for the attacks they are likely to receive from their left-wing professors and fellow students. They have to be ready to answer the charge: “If you are not pessimistic about human nature, why aren’t you willing to trust people to make their own decisions about their reproductive rights and what they read and watch on television and the movies?”
Their answer, of course, should be, “We are pessimistic, in the manner of St. Augustine, Edmund Burke, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Modern society needs a lot more pessimism of that kind.”