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From The Editors:
What Counterpoint Offers

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece by Peter Berkowitz on the role, or lack there of, for conservatism in a liberal arts education. Berkowitz laments the absence of serious discussions and analysis of the American conservative tradition in the university, lamenting that “if they can find time for feminist theory, they can find time for Edmund Burke.” What keeps his suggestion from merely becoming an attempt at a sort of reactionary affirmative action are several assumptions in the piece about that strange beast we call American conservatism. The first assumption is that American conservatism is a well-defined (and definable) ideology. Second, that it has historical antecedents that coincide with the same foundations of American political ideology and theory. Third, that this wealth of information is worth studying. Fourth, that this tradition is itself a significant deviation from other political theories and identities. What Berkowitz in his column cannot do—for, at a minimum, a lack of space and time—is answer these questions. That is where Counterpoint comes in.

We hope to support intellectualism among conservatives by taking the left and their arguments seriously and by treating the movement with a self-critical eye. The danger we face as a movement, according to Mark Lilla, professor of Humanities at Columbia, is in the “anti-intellectualism [that] has always dogged conservative tradition… Hopped up on Fox News, too many young conservatives have become ignorant of the conservative intellectual tradition and incapable of engaging civilly with their adversaries.” We hope that, far from acting as a talking points repository, Counterpoint will provide students with critical, scholarly analysis of the great and timeless issues facing our nation.

We believe that American Conservatism possesses its own philosophical and ideological tradition, rich in observations about human nature and social interaction, both suitable for and deserving of serious intellectual investigation. This tradition is built on several important core beliefs: the emphasis on moral and intellectual excellence, a sense of enduring and inescapable human frailty, the worry that certain democratic practices and egalitarian mores will threaten individual liberty, the importance of religion and the role it can play in molding good citizens, a concomitant understanding of the importance of national and local identity, the inherent fragility of the state and the importance of the use of force to maintain it, a thoughtful suspicion of utopianism, and both a vigorous defense of free-market capitalism as the best and most just socio-political system and a critique of the social consequences of capitalism, both positive (the insight that democratic capitalism is the impetus of creation and prosperity) and the negative (the destabilizing and largely nihilistic machinations of creative destruction). We believe that these principles do not only outline the basis for what a more just society would look like, but a more prosperous and dynamic one as well.

But these beliefs, as animating or powerful as they are, do not make a coherent ideology or philosophy. The overarching idea that binds conservatism together is opposition to radicalism. Conservatism is set up as both the defender of the American Constitutional tradition and, implicitly, the attacker of those who seek to change this. What we are working to conserve, partially, is the dynamic and creative powers of the capitalist system. It is a conservatism of a radical era: it can be, at least somewhat thought of as the conservative corollary to the Western liberal tradition. As the sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote, “Conservatism arises as a counter-movement in conscious opposition to the highly organized, coherent and systematic ‘progressive’ movement.” But it is through this opposition that the liberal regime—democratic capitalism—is best expressed. As Harvey Mansfield put it:

 

Liberalism, based mostly on self-interest and the virtues of self-interest, is indeed too selfish and ignoble. Liberalism needs sensible defenders who are aware of its vulnerabilities, who understand its principles and are ready to use prudence in applying them. These sensible defenders are mainly conservatives, because most liberals are so devoted to liberal principles that they overlook the weakness of those principles. A partisan liberal typically pursues liberal principles regardless of the common good, and conservatives need to hold liberalism to the standard of the common good, which includes supporting the virtues of generosity and nobility, even though these virtues are not very liberal.

 

That, in a reflection on a minute aspect of liberalism, is the essence of an important part of the soul of conservatism: it is the moderating influence on the liberal regime that seeks to maintain the best parts of the regime in conjunction with greater traditions and ideas beyond the regime. It is not so much an idea that is separate from American liberalism, but rather an idea that was born in conjunction with it; the two political traditions are inexorably drawn from the same desires and cut from the same cloth and they differ only in their dispositional attitudes to problems and their understandings of human nature. We believe, however, American Conservatism to have the superior disposition and the richer understanding of human nature.

No discussion about American Conservatism would be complete without acknowledging the fact that as a political movement, conservatism has declined in importance and relevance since the end of the Cold War. The presidency of George W. Bush, far from revitalizing political conservatism, pigeonholed it according to the populist appeals of his governance, a stark contrast to the intellectual lineage of an essentially elitist philosophy. Whatever be the state of the political organ of the conservative movement—its natural ebbs and flows in popularity—Counterpoint will, for the most part, exist independent of this fact. Let others in the movement try and win elections; we will concern ourselves with reinvigorating the intellectual side and, in turn, the nexus of the two.

And this is why we refer to ourselves as  Counterpoint; we do not wish to replace the current discourse on our campus with something new or radical, nor do we wish to be a burdensome monolith for our classmates, but we do wish to add our own elements to this discussion. Our name is taken from a noble publication of this University’s three decades our senior. Like musical counterpoint, our journal is designed not to overshadow the deliberations of and within political liberalism but to rather add our own counter melody. Naturally the multiple melodies may at times seem very dissonant and discordant, and our line may remain consistently suspended while the other ones pulsate wildly up and down our own intellectual staff paper; these deviations and contrasting actions may seem harsh and argumentative, but the sum of the parts will be a dialogue much enriched by the existence of the separate perspectives. As with music, what we seek is a campus-wide dialogue that is extremely rich harmonically and always clearly directed tonally, while keeping the individual ideologies and perspectives unique. We are not here to merely discuss conservatism as an abstraction, however, but we will apply our principles in, what we hope are new and intellectually exciting ways to the problems besetting society in general, but also our own University of Chicago campus in particular.

            We hope to enlighten and engage the campus with this publication, enriching the discourse and, maybe, even sowing the seeds of real dissonance on campus. We gladly invite you, whoever you are, to read on.