The man of conservative temperament believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better.
by Gwendolyn Brooks
If you have never heard of Michael Oakeshott, you are in good company. He was a British economist, thinker, philosopher who hit his academic zenith in the 1950’s and 1960’s. His dictum was society since the enlightenment had fallen down the rabbit of hole of a misplaced faith in “rationalism.” Oakeshott believed that all of our carefully considered plans of the past 200 years had created an illusion that bureaucrats and governments employing an army of rationalists with the latest “technical knowledge” could solve all our problems, when in reality, no government, regardless of its political disposition can solve the complicated problems our world faces. This dictum supports the concept of a right to privacy as individuals, as the more government gets involved in our personal life the more onerous becomes the intrusion. Government needs to function to create the foundation for a shared public good, build the infrastructure on which we can all conduct business, create some framework of fairness, protect some level or right to privacy and basic liberties to conduct our own lives and a process to implement justice. But what Oakeshott was advocating for is to not ignore “practical knowledge”, i.e. tradition, in favor of radical change, even a radical change to return to a distant past.
Oakeshott refreshingly did not feel government and politicians should be free of ideology or careful thought. In fact he felt poetry had a role to play in constructing the balance between our public and private lives and the positive influence it could have on shaping public discourse. He felt poetry should inspire society in grappling with complex topics that are difficult to frame in written communication, required for the crafting of laws and regulations. Oakeshott admired poetry’s ability to create the illusion of what he called an “eternal presence” between the author and reader, “conveying our most intimate moments, sharing with us their most intimate feelings feelings, whispering in our ears in the most delicate ways.”
Today’s poems are great examples of how words can be incomplete, yet convey complex ideas on sex, pregnancy and reproductive rights. Abortion is a difficult topic and a very difficult personal decision, but one best left to the individual and their loved ones to make. As a society our ability to provide safe and equitable access to women’s health care helps communities across the economic spectrum be healthier than they would be without that access.
Oakeshott advocated for the role of a “conservative” government, not in the sense of how we might define it today, where conservatism only means leaning right. In his definition it could equally apply to both ends of the political spectrum. His vision for a conservative government was a way to control what he called “monomaniacs”, individuals overly focused on single issue politics. Oakeshott wrote; “we tolerate monomaniacs, but why should we be ruled by them?” Oakeshott believed in the concept that the individual had a right to continue their traditions. The problem with a pluralist society of immigrants we barely call a democracy anymore, is there are no widely shared traditions and the monmaniacs have run a muck. We have become a nation of individualists, armed with the portion of the constitution we believe protects our “freedoms” when in fact each side wants nothing to do with the other’s penchant for extremism and want’s the courts to side with their interpretation of the laws. Let’s see where that gets us as a society in another 20 years.
Maybe we all need to read a bit of Oakeshott in the wake of the insanity of the kinds of laws and jurisprudence dominating the headlines, laws that seriously undermine all of our right to privacy. Texas has decided to deputize its citizens to enforce a law that reaches all the way into the realm of rooting out thought crimes among our families and neighbors, even those we don’t know. The law has been constructed in such a way as to make it difficult to challenge and pits individuals against individuals, the rich against the poor. It is a law that isn’t meant to make sense, it is intended to be confusing and convoluted, to create fear and create the illusion of access to health care. Make no mistake there is big money behind this scheme for reasons I have yet to comprehend other than it is a test case for a minority power grab.
The question through Oakeshott’s lens is what is tradition? I believe tradition in 2021, the tradition the vast majority of Americans believe in and trust, is the right to make our own health care decisions, including reproductive health care decisions. Roe vs Wade has become interwoven into the fabric of our society and stands for more than just reproductive health, it stands for a level of protection to our personal destiny that all of us rely upon in our concept of well being, the idea that we are in control of our own lives.
Oakeshott wrote, “Is it not the task for a government to protect its subjects against the nuisance of those who spend their energy and wealth in the service of some pet indignation?” The problem is we are now locked in a battle in this country, between a dwindling minority of religious zealots who believe they are on the side of their religion on issues like abortion, for which the growing majority of Americans believe abortion rights was decided law two generations ago, who believe that American society protects separation of church and state on personal health care decisions. The vast majority of Americans believe the present American tradition is access to safe and affordable abortion as part of the foundation of a woman’s individual freedoms. Tradition works both ways and what was new 50 years ago, is now established law that the majority will organize to protect. There is a question that the Republicans who think they have been clever should ponder; What is the size of the hornets nest of passionate zealots who believe in the right to privacy as a fundamental underpinning of Roe vs Wade that will be flying forth in the years ahead? And the question everyone who opposes this erosion of our personal liberty should be asking, what are you prepared to do to protect your rights in terms of your time and money to counter this serious attack?
by Patti Smith
yum yum the stars are out. I’ll never forget how you
smelled that night. like cheddar cheese melting
under fluorescent light. like a day-old rainbow fish.
what a dish. gotta lick my lips. gotta dream I day-
dream. thorozine brain cloud. rain rain comes com-
all over her. there she is on the hill. pale as a posy.
getting soaking wet. hope her petticoats shrink.
well little shepherd girl your gonna kingdom come.
looking so clean. the guardian of every little lamb.
well beep beep sheep I’m moving in.
I’m gonna peep in bo’s bodice. lay down darling don’t
be modest let me slip my hand in. ohhh that’s soft
that’s nice that’s not used up. ohhh don’t cry. wet
what’s wet? oh that. heh heh. that’s just the rain
lambie pie. now don’t squirm. let me put my rubber
on. I’m a wolf in a lamb skin trojan. ohh yeah that’s
hard that’s good. now don’t tighten up. open up be-
bop. lift that little butt up. ummm open wider be-bop.
come on. nothing. can. stop me. now. ohhh ahhh.
isn’t that good. my. melancholy be-bop.
Oh don’t cry. come on get up. let’s dance in the grass.
let’s cut a rug let’s jitterbug. roll those tiny white
stockings down. bobby sock-o let’s flow. come on this
is a dance contest. under the stars, let’s alice in the
let’s swing betty boop hoop
let’s birdland let’s stroll
let’s rock let’s roll
let’s whalebone let’s go
let’s deodorize the night.