Friday, November 20, 2009

Wills: Confessions of a Conservative

A couple of weekends ago, on a lark, I picked-up my copy of Garry Wills's Confessions of a Conservative (1979). As it turns out, the 30th anniversary of its publication. It was, again, a delight to read. Wills talks about how Bill Buckley plucked him from obscurity and gave him a position at the relatively new National Review as a cultural and book reviewer. During this time, Wills also learned a lot about politics and reporting. Coming out of a Jesuit seminary, Wills described his politics as "distributist" (a la Chesterton) and appropriately Catholic anti-Communist. He'd only read Plato's Republic and St. Augustine's The City of God for reasons other than their political theories. He recounts reading in the traditional works of political theory under the tutelage of some of the NR staff. However, perhaps more interestingly—and he claims more significantly—he also received guidance in his political thinking from Samuel Johnson, Newman, Ruskin, and Chesterton, among others. This made for a very interesting (and heretical) conservative. His take on "conservative" offers a very different perspective on the topic. Indeed, it ended up with him thrown overboard from the NR world, but he expanded thereby to a much wider audience.

The other fascination thing about this book is his insight into the political process. His appreciation of politicians, bureaucrats, elites, prophets, elections, and other political phenomena truly enlightens. He quotes the likes of Duncan Black and Kenneth Arrow, who provide the formal analysis of what Wills apparently grasped intuitively: that elections don't give us "the best man" (or woman), and the compromise will inevitably result in our system. Thus, he critiques "liberal" political theory (or what I think is more a "good government" theory of politics).

The final part of the book includes an appreciation of St. Augustine and Homer, reminding us that Wills brings a classicist's eye to his perspective on our political world today.

Finally, a quote that reminds me of that "reactionary" that I've been reading, John Lukacs:

    "Insofar as we steer rationally toward the future, we do so by our rear-view mirror. There is no windshield, because there is nothing to "see" up ahead. We go forward by seeing backward. By tracing the trajectory of past events we extrapolate to future positions. But if we trace only one trend, the chances of steering well are slim; too many other things will jostle and interact with the simple arc we are imagining. That is why so many simple reforms or five-year plans or platform pledges are bound to go awry, even with the best of wills. The best guides to the future are those whose knowledge of the past is broadest and deepest, who are the most cautions and aware of complexity, least confidant that they can "see" something up ahead." (216-217).

How absolutely true!