In a recent Twitter thread, Princeton Professor Robert George gets at a question that has long interested me: How can you tell who you would have been in ages past — what side of a controversy you would have taken?
In some recent podcast or other, writer Jonah Goldberg mentioned a statement that William F. Buckley, Jr., made some decades ago when asked about the risk that history will fault conservatives for some of the things they’ve striven to conserve. Buckley was not bothered by the prospect. Conservatives’ objective is to slow down change to the point that decisions can be made with appropriate care, so of course they will from time to time be slowing down changes that turn out to have been to the better.
So, if we assume that being conservative, in the sense of being cautious about political and social change, is a somewhat innate temperament disconnected from the specifics of the day, then conservatives would have to consider that they’d have been on the wrong side of some very important questions, like slavery.
I don’t think that analysis is sufficiently deep, however. Today’s conservatives are specifically striving to conserve American principles of liberty, as well as the values and beliefs of traditional religions. Those also are a matter of temperament that could be as innate as the preference (all else equal) to change slowly. Complicating things further is the fact that conservatism in our time is countercultural, which is arguably the key aspect attracting some of us (ahem).
Here’s where Professor George offers a helpful guide. He mentions his repeated finding that every one of his students claims that he or she would have been an abolitionist in the time of slavery. Finding this result laughably unlikely, he goes on:
So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing:
- that it would make them unpopular with their peers,
- that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society,
- that they would be abandoned by many of their friends,
- that they would be called nasty names, and
- that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness.
In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.
Surely, many in George’s Twitter audience will recognize his measuring stick as conspicuously like the witness of many conservatives, particularly those of us who are pro-life. That familiary applies even if we are more general in our terms.
Whether we would have recognized the humanity of people who were maligned in common wisdom, as well as according to the convenient scientific theories of the day, is a haunting question, no matter who we are. We can be a little less haunted, though, if we’ve proven a willingness to follow our lights despite the contrary encouragements of the authorities and popular role models of our times.
Featured image: An illustration from the original edition of Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.