January 19, 2015
Conservatives, free speech and the disputed question
Disputation on the subject of Free Speech arises again. I have written before that, generally speaking, conservatives have a temperamental inclination to let everyone have his say, while at the same time a robust understanding of the inherent philosophical limits on free expression. The conservative as a dour censor, ever ready to silence dissent, is little more than a calumny from the port side of the political spectrum. The enormous diversity of conservative opinion and the eccentricity of its notable characters should be evident on even a cursory study. Stated simply, conservatives have a very hard time holding a party line. Beyond opposition to abortion and a distrust of government intervention, no strict orthodoxy of opinion can be found. Furious quarrels regularly bubble up on economics, political theory, culture, foreign policy, and theology, among other things.
Right-wingers in America, especially those in media and academia, have long experience with being, intellectually, “behind enemy lines.” It goes back at least as far as Buckley’s God and Man at Yale. Last year, a new hue and cry was raised against Harvard’s only prominent conservative, Harvey Mansfield, purposed toward silencing him for deviation from feminist orthodoxy. On matters of sexual mores and environmentalism, the puritanical urge to snuff out dissent from the Left is particular determined.
From this conservatives have developed very thick skins. Likewise, they have been habituated to a higher standard of quality, arising in part from a close familiarity with the doctrines and monomanias of liberalism; they know their opponents’ arguments well, and they know how to seek out and discover the best arguments among them. The contrast could hardly be plainer: few pro-abortion agitators have even a passing familiarity with the best pro-life arguments. Not two out of ten Leftist culture warriors could supply a single pertinent fact about Russell Kirk. Books like Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Great Melody are so noteworthy because they are so uncommon: here is that rare man of the Left who treats Burke with seriousness and sympathy. (Indeed, the first portion of O’Brien’s book is precisely dedicated to exposing the egregious and unscholarly belittling of Burke’s life and work by the British historical establishment; his denunciation of the “Namierite” school of Burke denigration is enough to make conservatives stand up and cheer.)