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Maurice Manning on Conservatism

By Harriet Staff

Maurice Manning wrote this essay for The NY Times. In it, and in light of the recent campaign, Manning takes a look at the ways conservatism have changed.

He begins:

Cutting firewood on a recent afternoon in the woods at the back of our farm, it occurred to me that the term conservative has lost all connection to its original meaning.

The root of the word comes from the Latin verb “conservare,” which means “to keep and preserve.” It’s interesting that the origin is a verb and not a noun, a term that implies action and duty, rather than merely a stance. Other meanings suggested by conservative have to do with frugality, modesty and the preservation of tradition.

By these lights, I would qualify as a conservative. My goal in tending our 20 acres is to preserve the character and health of this land. I don’t pile chemicals on our soil; I plant our gardens on our few patches of level ground, and every fall I am careful to rebuild the soil with leaves and compost.

And I am pleased to preserve the traditional order of this land. If I leave a rut in a field, I repair it; if, in moving one of the many rocks that dot my property, I uncover a pair of salamanders, I put it back and leave the spotted creatures to their lives, as they have left me to mine. My most modern farm implement is a 1967 International Cub tractor, Old Yeller I call it, and it runs like a top.

I managed to pay off our $70,000 mortgage this spring after just nine years of indebtedness, which has required working two jobs at times, considerable frugality and considerable sweat. These are values I learned from my grandfather, who after buying a house following his service in World War II took on two jobs and paid off his home in seven years. It is the only home he ever owned.

After further mediation on his version of conservatism, Manning then takes a look at the term through the lens of recent politics:

This version of conservatism, however, runs counter to the model presented by the Republican establishment. The latest Republican administration got us enmeshed in two wars, neither of which is winnable, and both of which have cost us blood and treasure, as the old saying goes, that cannot be calculated. A small number of extremely elite “conservatives” has even profited from these ventures. Is that conservatism?

It was obvious from the beginning that our national economic woes come from Wall Street, not the government. Yet our “conservative” leaders think we should do away with oversight and regulation and give the financial world absolutely free rein. It is a freedom that has not been earned. And allowing our financiers to run unchecked is about as conservative as leaving the faucet running. Financial regulations discourage waste and fraud, two values that ought to be at the forefront of any conservative mind-set.

Here in Kentucky we have a number of so-called conservatives who advocate mountaintop removal, a destructive technique used by the coal industry. It is surely the most egregious and unnecessary form of coal extraction: thousands of acres of land are blown up and bulldozed away, as if the land itself is an unpleasant encumbrance without any value whatsoever.

Yet Jim Booth, a Kentucky politician and coal operator, was recently hailed here for sealing a deal to sell Kentucky coal to India, a deal that will make many millions for a few, but that, curiously, will export American energy resources in favor of mere monetary profit and at the expense of American energy independence.

Mitt Romney is keen to say he “is a friend of coal.” But I doubt Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan has ever looked out on the vast wasteland of a mountaintop removal site and pronounced it good.

Good stuff. Full essay here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, November 8th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.