Like many people who take an interest in political arguments, I have a lamentable (and probably incurable) tendency to assume that almost anyone who doesn’t agree with me is at best ignorant and at worst arguing bad faith. The fact that I’ve so noticeably failed to cultivate the virtue of open-mindedness in myself, makes me respect it more in others, and this is why, I’m a devoted fan of Ben Six’s Back Towards the Locus. Whilst I violently disagree with about half of the stuff he posts, the man could never be accused of arguing in bad faith; he’s always at such obvious pains to give a full hearing to views other than his own that’s it’s a wonder he ever gets anything done.
Now, as you can probably tell from my deployment of the standard blogosphere “I have nothing but the greatest respect for this person” trope, I’m about to take issue with something Ben said on the internet. Indeed I am. Specifically, this seems to be an object lesson in the dangers of offering people the benefit of the doubt.
Ben’s convinced himself that the problem with conservatism that it has trouble talking about values. Possibly because they’re not allowed to bring religion into it any more. This seems to me to be on the face of it fairly ridiculous, and Ben pretty much gives the game away with his first example – Norman Tebbit’s latest attempt to render the Daily Mash obsolete by giving us the benefit of his wisdom on gay marriage:
“When we have a queen who is a lesbian and she marries another lady and then decides she would like to have a child and someone donates sperm and she gives birth to a child, is that child heir to the throne?”
I actually had to ask what the worry about this is meant to be. Ben cleared it up in comments: “I think he’s saying that you would have a child who was as much the offspring of someone who was not in the royal family as of someone who was.” Now, obviously, this is ridiculous. Ben understands this – Tebbit’s outburst is, in his words, both ludicrous and irrelevant. He goes on to say, however:
What is interesting to me is that Norman Tebbit, that war horse of old Toryism, is phrasing his opinions in the terms of practicalities rather than of values. He, and others like him, are unable or unwilling to defend the virtues of the present but merely admonish us regarding hazards of the future. They caution against change, but give little sense of the value of conserving. This, it seems to me, has long been a problem for conservatives.
There seem to me to be two problems with this. The first is a sort of philosophical one. Conservatism is meant to be the stance of respecting existing institutions because they’ve stood the test of time, and so probably embody greater wisdom than is accessible to the puny brains of those who would reform or abolish them. It’s an admonition not to tinker with any of the political machinery because you probably don’t understand what it does. As Michael Oakeshott put it:
The spring… a conservative disposition – is to be found in the acceptance of the current condition of human circumstances as I have described it: the propensity to make our own choices and find happiness in doing so, the variety of enterprises each pursued with passion, the diversity of beliefs each held with the conviction of its exclusive truth; the inventiveness, the changefulness and the absence of any large design; the excess, the over-activity and the informal compromise.
So when Ben says that he has “no clear sense of the kind of society that it is right to inhabit” and that he’d like conservatives to offer their thoughts on this, he’s asking them to do something explicitly unconservative.
The second point rather cuts against the first. Because real life conservatives don’t look remotely like the political philosophy ones. They’re very happy to have society impose all sorts of values on people. Which as, far as I can make any sense of what Tebbit’s statement, is what it’s meant to be doing. It’s an appeal to the values that have been motivating the Tory base in all this, namely that lesbians are icky and that letting them have kids is weird. You certainly can’t talk about some batshit worry concerning the offspring of our hypothetical lesbian queen as a “practicality” of the gay marriage in any normal sense of that word.
I submit that, insofar as conservatives have a problem, it isn’t so much that there aren’t any values on display, as that the values on display are unappealing to many people.
 Probably more importantly, he’s a fan of both MMA and Jason Molina, and having thus appeased my more fundamental prejudices, gets a free pass with everything else.
 I say “insofar as” because it’s not actually clear to me that this country has a shortage of bigots with the right to vote.