An Oakeshottian “intimation” of Gay Rights

With the Michael Oakeshott Association conference in a few days my thoughts turned to my late chum Ken Minogue. I haven’t had time to write up my recollections of Ken (but I will get to it). Anyway, I was pleased to notice Andrew Sullivan’s post marking the death of Ken:

I have a personal reason to be grateful to Minogue as well. Unlike almost everyone on the American right, he saw what I was trying to do in Virtually Normal and understood it, as I did, as an exercise in Oakeshottian restraint and Burkean adaptation to social change – rather than a revolutionary ideology. He reviewed it in National Review (no longer online) with the following words:

Andrew Sullivan has done for homosexuality what John Stuart Mill did for freedom: he has presented the whole range of social opinion about his subject with lucidity and fairness, and gone to work refuting most of it … Only those familiar with the deep wells of the history of political philosophy … will recognize the scale of his achievement.

Given all the abuse I’ve received from the hard right on gay equality, it was a tonic. It remains the review I’m proudest of – because it came from an Oakeshottian conservative of such learned good humor and intellectual rigor. It helped remind me that I was not betraying conservatism in writing that book, but doing my best to represent it in a new way for changing times. I was trying to integrate gays into their own society and families – with as little social disruption as possible.

I’m in full accord with Andrew but I would put it this way. What was being claimed in the name of human rights can be redescribed as an Oakeshottian “intimation” that was being ignored. I would also claim (using the current argot) that this is an instance of embedded/situated knowledge and cognition. Oakeshott made this very same point about univeral suffrage. As Ken himself wrote in “OAKESHOTT AND POLITICAL SCIENCE” Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 7: 227-246 ( June 2004):

[T]he answer Oakeshott suggests is that the actual political status of women coheres with the rest of life, and that it was not until the eighteenth century that changes were taking place in the social and legal position of women in Britain (and in other countries) that made their exclusion from a universal franchise look increasingly odd. This perceived incoherence in political arrangements “intimated” a reform. Oakeshott sometimes expresses the point by suggesting that politics is “the pursuit of intimations.”

As Paul and I reitterated in our intro to the Penn State Companion:

“It is not at all inconsistent,” Oakeshott wrote, “to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.”