Is American “Romantic Conservatism” a Thing?

A recent short piece in The Atlantic caught my attention: “John McCain and the End of Romantic Conservatism.” Romantic conservatism seems an obvious oxymoron.

The author of the piece, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, contrasts the international idealism of Sen. McCain–now ill with cancer and absent from the Senate–with the “America First” nationalism of President Trump and most other D.C. Republicans through an interview with Mark Salter. Salter is McCains’ long-time speechwriter and co-author of a new McCain memoir, The Restless Wave:  Good Times, Just Causes, Great Fights, and Other Appreciations. 

Sen. McCain is apparently a conservative “romantic” in the eyes of both Wallace-Wells and Salter because he still believes in spreading democracy and human rights (McCain has long spoken out against justifying torture), rather than making nice with various dictatorships. While this may be true, McCain has also been a leading vocal supporter of U.S. military intervention in the neoconservative vein.

Neoconservatives are, to put it bluntly, anti-romantic warmongers.

Diplomacy, in which people romantically, idealistically attempt to resolve international conflicts without resorting to war, has not been a big part of Sen. McCains’ conservative philosophy. But, on the other hand, Sen. McCain did work with former Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance reform and cast the deciding vote to preserve what remains of the Affordable Care Act; McCain was also censored in 2014 by the Arizona Republican Party for his supposedly liberal voting record. So I suppose that, compared to most American conservatives, Sen. McCain is “romantic.” Wallace-Wells writes of the general acclaim McCain is now receiving:

But the homage has been so personal that it has obscured the political matters of why the President continues to make an enemy of him, and of what conservatism will lose when McCain is gone.

What conservatism will lose when Sen. McCain is gone is a moderating voice (at least in terms of domestic policy), but to what extent has American conservatism in general ever been “romantic” in the literary/philosophical sense of the word?

I’d say, except for the marginalized agrarian conservatism of someone like Russell Kirk (which links back to the agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson), just about zero Romanticism. Conservatism and conservation have long been divorced, as has official conservatism and the imaginative emotion of sympathy for the disadvantaged. I do believe, however, that there is a true source of Romantic conservatism (traditional liberalism?) to be found in Britain and Canada. More on this in a following post.


The Pacific Has Returned

The Pacific has returned (it seems to come and go like the tide) to the digital realm and intends to stick around. It will now be known as an “oceanic journal of criticism,” addressing peaceable politics,  literature, culture broadly-speaking (including the fine arts), as well as topics relating to marine environmentalism in general and the Pacific Northwest coast in particular.

This personal journal will take for its guide the definition of criticism used by Matthew Arnold in his essay, “The Function of Criticism.” Arnold, who was both poet and critic, wrote:

I am bound by my own definition of criticism: a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. 

We most commonly use the word “criticism” in its sense of negative feedback, as in “He was criticized for not making up his mind.” Most of the public criticism we see daily is political squabbling, a verbal sparring between two sides. Criticism also has a literary/artistic sense, in which professional “critics” discuss works of literature and art to help the audience understand and judge creative merits. Arnold, however, did not want to be held to a narrow idea of literary criticism; books, after all, exist in a wider world. But Arnold also did not want a un-literary world of political sterility, in which “practice is everything, a free play of the mind is nothing.” Partisan argument was not for him. The goal of being a critic in the broadest sense is to “create a current of true and fresh ideas,” to “leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications, questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them.” So for Arnold, a critic should never confuse criticism with activism. The critic should, of course, think widely and pronounce judgements, but only in a “disinterested” way. The critic’s job, much like the poet’s, is to present ideas or images that open and move the mind: it is a fundamentally intellectual line of work.

These days, we in the United States are swamped with calls for practical, political activism. Americans are great believers in action– getting things done, preferably without delay. What we have far less faith in is patient pondering, intellectual musing, academic discussion. Our faith in technology and scientific revolution expresses our impatience with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge; we generally find no profit in the humanities, either personally or economically. We often say that “dead white males” (like Matthew Arnold) have nothing to teach us anymore. 

I don’t wish to disparage all political activism, of course; public protest, civil disobedience and political involvement of various sorts is certainly necessary and useful at times. (I even sign online petitions once in awhile.) But sometimes we act before we think, or before we have thought long and hard. Thinking well before acting (or deciding not to act) is almost always the wisest course of, well, action. Picking up and reading a book, whatever the genre or subject, is as much a physical movement as marching down the street, but solitary reading won’t garner you media attention. Yet it is certainly possible that a well-written book or essay or poem may ultimately change more minds and lead to more beneficial, practical, real-world improvement than marchers bearing signs.

Here’s the thing: language can be its own reward. There’s much to be said for writing and reading, for thinking aloud, for stringing words together in unforeseeable ways. Ideas all spring from arrangements of words, and such words will maybe rearrange the world. Maybe not. The Pacific will be disinterested, yes, (nonpartisan and liberal in the sense of open-minded, welcoming and democratic) but also very interested in criticizing the thoughts, works and actions of prominent people in various fields.

No critic, of course, is shielded from criticism, and whether I am right or wrong will ultimately depend on the judgement of my readers.  All comments that meet the standards of thoughtful criticism will be appreciated and published.

So welcome or welcome back.