Sometimes We’re Wrong
Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing on conservatism:
But if you are the slave, that essentially conservative approach will always privilege your master over you. Conservatism, with its belief in institutions, traditions, and the past, will seemingly always privilege (perhaps inadvertently) the powerful over the powerless. Institutions, traditions and the past belong to those with power. Privileging them, privileges their agents.
I suppose this is true, but that’s rather like saying that modern liberalism, with its faith in scientific management, progress, and the future will always privilege forward-looking ideas that, in retrospect, frequently seem silly and counter-productive. Does the American Left’s transitory infatuation with the Soviet Union disprove every subsequent argument put forward by progressive leaders? I think not, which is also why I believe it’s OK to admit that your assumptions – whatever they may be – are going to be wrong sometimes.
I think it’s quite possible to argue that there were no good conservative answers to slavery or Jim Crow. But I don’t think this invalidates every conservative insight into the nature of our politics and culture. If anything, it’s a simple acknowledgment that some problems really do transcend rote ideological responses, and that no interpretive framework can provide a universal set of predictive guidelines for dealing with every possible eventuality.
All of which is to say that you should read William Brafford on political traditions, which remains one of my favorite posts from the League to this day:
I use “ideology” as a pejorative. We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology.
Undue confidence is one of the vices that can be found on either side of the virtue of proper confidence. On the other side, there’s indecision. The politically indecisive person is the one who is paralyzed by a complete inability to make decisions in light of limited knowledge of consequences. The virtue is proper confidence, which, when coupled with political courage, is the disposition to take stances on what one believes to be right while watching for signs that one may in truth be wrong.