How to Dispense with Conservatism in One Essay

This essay by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig is several things: a memoir, a moving tribute to a teacher, a celebration of Pope Francis, a denunciation of Pope Francis’s critics — and an attempt to describe conservatism.

One might have thought the last a bridge too far for an essay of fewer than 5000 words, but Stoker Breunig shows no hesitation. In order to define and dismiss conservatism, she briefly cites two essays by conservatives, then overrules conservative self-undestanding by briefly quoting a theologian — a smart one, I must admit, Alastair Roberts, though he’s wrong about the matter cited — and then (decisively!) Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. This eventually leads to the peroration:

Conservatives inside the Church and out will, in all likelihood, continue to rankle at Francis’s presence, his persona, his wildly successful evangelism. With every word, he offers an obviously superior approach to theirs, one that renders the conservative disposition as unappealing as it is impossible.

Well, there we have it! Pope Francis: “wildly successful,” “obviously superior”; the Pope’s critics and indeed “the conservative disposition” tout court: “unappealing” and “impossible.” (Not sure what “impossible” can plausibly mean in this context, but I suspect it’s not a compliment.) Done and done! And it’s not even tea-time.

Ross Douthat has already pointed out, in response to Stoker Breunig’s article, that even the conservative Catholic critics of Francis come in several distinct varieties from several distinct intellectual traditions; but I would be surprised if Stoker Breunig were to take this point as seriously as it deserves. Her inclination to cite Corey Robin as an authority in these matters is not a good sign, given the blitheness with which he waves away distinctions — “I use the words conservative, reactionary, and counterrevolutionary interchangeably” — in order to define conservatism with a lack of charity that seems to have provided a model for her own tone: “That is what conservatism is: a meditation on — and theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Not “This is a recurrent element in conservatism” or “This is an eternal temptation for conservatism, to which it all too often succumbs” — statements that would have the double merit of charity and accuracy — but “This is what conservatism is.”

Sad to say, I’ve already seen a number of responses from the right to Stoker Breunig’s essay that make her argument seem open-minded and gracious — maybe I’ll get to those in another post, though they’re too repulsive for me to want to think about them further. But it was curious to me how many of them focused on her youth, as though that were somehow disqualifying. It isn’t. But in any case, as I read the essay I didn’t think of the author’s youth because, to me, it did not seem to stem from a youthful mind. It closed doors, rather than opening them; it treated ancient and fundamental questions about the political life as though they were (“obviously”) settled; it dismissed people whose judgments differ from the author’s with a rhetorical wave of the hand (“unappealing”), not bothering to inquire into what those judgments’ best representatives think or why they think it. The essay seems to me to be afflicted by the impatience with other points of view that I associate with old age. Its greatest flaw, in its treatment of conservatism anyway, is its utter lack of intellectual curiosity.