Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Jeffrey Hart revisited

About a year ago, I wrote a bunch of stuff in response to a piece Jeffrey Hart published in the WSJ. Power Line’s Scott Johnson calls our attention to James Panero’s profile of Hart, written for the Dartmouth alumni magazine. Hart is still hard at work waging intellectual war against the Bush Administration.

But this chunk says something about Hart’s conservatism:

“Like the Whig gentry who were the Founders, I loathe populism,” Hart explains. “Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity. Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative. My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar’s on the rocks, or both."

Other things in the article suggest to me that Hart is closer to Andrew Sullivan in spirit than to anyone else.

In any event, Hart’s recitation of the ways in which his judgments about issues like abortion and stem cell research are supported by public opinion point to a kind of conservatism that evolves, not one that stands athwart history shouting "stop!" (a bad paraphrase, I know). It’s also not at all clear to me how this "aristocratic" conservatism is anything other than a matter of style, or how it relates to any form of religion. (He clearly doesn’t like evangelicalism because of what he calls its lack of creed, but that obviously paints with too broad a brush. Indeed, the non-creedal character of some evangelicals would surely help them "evolve" in a way of which Hart would likely approve. And a genuinely "conservative" religion is creedal, but, as such, wouldn’t simply give in to public opinion in the way that Hart seems to.

Discussions - 8 Comments

Dear Joseph:

Jeffrey Hart was here at Hillsdale College several weeks ago and he attended a luncheon talk I gave on the subject of multiculturalism">multiculturalism. In the course of my talk, I connected the moral and cultural relativism of multiculturalism to anthropology and its intellectual roots in Rousseau, according to whom reason is unnatural. I then traced the self-destruction of reason and corresponding development of nihilism in modern philosophy, culminating in Nietzsche and Heidegger.

Hart was the first to respond during the Q & A, asserting that I was all wrong about modern philosophy. First he said that no one takes multiculturalism or cultural relativism seriously, aside from one or two academic crackpots. He then proceeded to emphasize and praise Nietzsche’s love of (a certain version of) aristocratic greatness, and he concluded by saying that educated Americans should welcome Heidegger and view him as our "hero." I responded by saying that he, Jeffrey Hart, was, of course, free to view Heidegger as his hero, but that I would stick with Tom Jefferson and Abe Lincoln instead of Heidegger or any other Nazi, to which the audience erupted in applause. He left before the luncheon concluded, so I was unable to press him on his attraction to modern German philosophy.

Tom Krannawitter

Sounds to me like the man is in the throes of some crisis of confidence, of faith.

He doesn’t think anybody takes cultural relativism seriously... what world is he looking at, what foreign policy prescriptions has he been reviewing. We see the ruins caused by relativism all around us. Turn on the television, pick up the New York Times, check out any editorial about any hot button social issue put out by a major newspaper, read about any recent judicial decision mandating legislative compliance with various divisive social rulings. It’s literally and figuratively all around us.

It doesn’t seem much like a New England conservatism but rather like a British conservatism and that’s been a real winner lately, hasn’t it?

Dewar’s? I think Jeffrey Hart badly needs to find a better Scotch, preferably one that a man of taste wouldn’t drink on the rocks.

Evangelicalism is "not creedal?" Well, I’ll leave it to theologians to define precisely, such as the Hart we ought to be reading on this, Darryl Hart, but I remember reading, back in my InterVarsity Christian Fellowship undergrad days, a book by evangelical titan John Stott entitled Evangelical Essentials which, well, was about beliefs considered, er, essential to being an evangelical. Oh, and let’s see who can get a job in an evangelical school, often be it even an elementary school, who doesn’t affirm/sign a detailed statement of faith. Yeah, emotionalism is a problem in evangelicalism. A big problem. But the hidden(?) creedal aspects of evangelicalism keep it from being what people like J. Hart and Alan Wolfe think it is.

Great to see Matt Franck gracing the comments here with discerning liquor advice...y’all do give his NRO Bench Memos blog a visit...last I checked he was setting everybody straight on the 9th amendment.

There’s a certain consistency in Hart’s philosophy. His dislike of populism and preference of an aristocratic conservatism does fit glove in hand with Heidegger. After all, during the 1930s, it was Tories such as Chamberlain and Halifax who were somewhat sympathetic to Nazi Germany and oblivious to the threat Nazism poses.

Hart’s invocation of Edmund Burke is not persuasive. No one explains and expands upon Burke’s thoughts better than Russell Kirk but even he reconciled with religious conservatives and pointed out that they do have a creed and that this creed is based upon the Bible. I fail to see how a creed based upon the Bible is worse than one based upon Heidegger (who, let’s not forget, famously said that the Holocaust was bad, but so is modern agriculture).

And so is human agriculture, of which Hart’s heart is so fond.

He asks "If you had a child with Diabetes Type 1 (debilitating, life-altering) and I told you I had a few cells that could cure her, would you turn this down?”

In the world of common sense there is only one answer to that question: “of course not.”

I would be sorely tempted to rip Prof. Hart’s liver out with my bare hands if I thought it would save my child--but I’m not sure I should be offered the option. If we discover that eating the brains of aborted fetuses cures our illnesses, shall we dine on their carcasses? Would that be right or wrong? If we rely on Hart’s conservative sensibilities, it would be fine--as long as we were wearing cloth napkins and chose the correct dinner wine.

For someone who supposedly "hates populism", Hart relies upon polls even more than Bill Clinton. If 63% of Frenchmen supported the French Revoloution, was Burke wrong? Hart even surveys foreign countries, citing China and Europe’s embyonic stem-cell programs. In China, political prisoners are executed for their parts. In the Ukraine, infants are being murdered for their stem-cells. Is this right? Is it wrong? I know--let’s take a poll!

Hart is even mad that we gave Terry Schiavo one last court review before the State starved her to death, a courtesy that we routinely extend to serial killers. Lighten up, Professor--you got your corpse. Be happy. Go buy yourself a new suit at J. Press and down a Beefeater martini. That’ll help.

Stanilaus Lec once asked "Is it progress when a cannibal uses a fork?" Prof. Hart answers: "It’s not progress--it’s ’conservatism’!"

When I read Hart I realize how badly the end of the Cold War damaged the conservative alliances that once existed. A guy like Hart would keep his mouth shut about unwashed Christians because he was far more concerned that they join him in keeping the Soviets from erasing Western Civilization entirely. That threat is over and his manners have changed to reflect it.

What I can’t abide is the attitude of intellectual superiority dripping from Hart’s virtual pen as he writes about embryonic stem cell research. It amazes me how a literature professor somehow suddenly becomes an expert on science and even a particular scientific development such that he can confidently assert that of course this business is worth killing embryos to sustain it.

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