Two roads to Hell

Do you remember how we used to hear from center-Right intellectuals about the need to distinguish the English way from the Continental way?  The French Enlightenment was radical and anti-religious; the British Enlightenment was good and healthy.  Continental conservatives were dangerous reactionaries; English conservatives were freedom-loving advocates of prudence.  If only reactionaries like the pope would notice how wonderfully different English liberalism is from Contintental liberalism, he would embrace the former wholeheartedly.  Sometimes they still say crap like this on First Things.

This fed into a longstanding argument among conservatives about whether the intransigent Catholics or the moderate Protestants were better at holding off the liberal advance.  Sometimes the passage of time simplifies things.  Today, you can compare England to France, or any one part of Europe to any other, and it’s hard to say that any part of Europe has succeeded in resisting liberalism better than any other part.  Every European nation has surrendered to it completely.  I would argue that the United States is really no better.  We like to think it is, but if you look at our abortion laws, our school curricula, our marriage/divorce/cohabitation laws, or the stated beliefs of our elected representatives, there’s just no justification for saying that the USA is anything other than a hard-Left nation, as hard-Left as any in the world.  (I would argue that the US is more Left-wing than China.)

It seems that the question of whether the Catholic or Protestant strategy worked better can now be put to rest.  They both failed completely within about the same timeframe.  Future historians of the Right (assuming we are remembered at all) will see little evidence of Anglo-American exceptionalism.

2 Responses

  1. Yes, they still do say crap like that at First Things, though now they tend to just stick to the neo-con position.

    Anyway, I believe this rather tendentious argument might have originated with Russell Kirk. He wanted to defend the American order against the left, so he argued that the American Revolution wasn’t a revolution in the same sense as the French Revolution but rather a conservative revolution, or better yet a rebellion intended to preserve the long-standing rights of freeborn Englishmen.

    It’s been a while since I read Kirk, but the impression I got from The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order was that Kirk wanted to show that there were was a traditionalist strand in American politics, which is fine and good, but unfortunately he played fast and loose with the actual history, and that’s how we ended up with this argument that the American Revolution wasn’t really a revolution.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I think you’re right about Kirk; he put people in the conservative canon who don’t belong there. My personal beef with him was that he left out people who should be there: the French, German, and Italian counter-revolutionaries.

    I suppose we must always be grateful to Kirk for starting up a self-consciously traditionalist movement in America, but his actual beliefs and writings require serious qualification and addition.

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