But it would be a grave mistake to think that Cannibal is only about South Africa. It is not. As its author describes it, and as its subtitle makes clear, it is a “labor of love” to her homelands old and new. Mercer is determined to spare America the same fate that befell South Africa. Furthermore, it would be as equally egregious a mistake to think that Cannibal is only, or even primarily, about race. There are larger issues to which Mercer speaks, issues with which conservatives have grappled from at least the time that their “patron saint,” Edmund Burke, first articulated them.
Though Mercer insists that she is no conservative, there are similarities, striking similarities, between her and Burke. The latter made an impassioned defense of his 18th century England against the radicalism of the French Revolution that he feared would soon enough ravage his country. It was in response to these ideological excesses that conservatism first emerged as a distinctive tradition of thought. Mercer carries on this estimable tradition inasmuch as she seeks to defend her new country, America, against the ravenous radicalisms that threaten it.
The forces that imperiled France and England in Burke’s day are the same forces that consumed South Africa and that imperil America in our own. These forces boil down to a lust, an insatiable lust, for revolutionary change and the ideological abstractions that inspire it.
As the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott memorably remarked, change is emblematic of death. Thus, conservatives have always preferred changes that are slight to those that are vast, changes that are necessary to those that are not, and changes that are gradual to those that are radical. Changes that are “fundamentally transformative” siphon the life out of a society by severing its present from its past.
Unlike most of us, Mercer knows all too well how an agenda to “fundamentally transform” a society, pursued with all of the recklessness with which such agendas are inevitably pursued, is guaranteed to destroy that society—however beautiful-sounding the abstract ideals in the names of which it is executed.
However, it isn’t just the usual suspects—leftists or Democrats—who have an ardent affection for radical change and abstract ideals. The GOP and “the conservative press” have had more than their share of true believers as well.
It was, after all, “conservatives”—or, more accurately, neoconservatives—that most rigorously supported George W. Bush’s campaign to “fundamentally transform” the Middle East into an oasis of “Democracy.” Noting that abstract ideals like Democracy are not timeless principles written in “human nature” but the hard-earned gains of a civilization that has been millennia in the making, Mercer was among those who argued mightily against this fool’s errand from the outset. Though she fell out of favor with some notable “conservative” media personalities for doing so, time has vindicated her while indicting her critics.
Like Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Ilana Mercer’s Into the Cannibal’s Pot is at once timeless and all so timely.
Jack Kerwick received his doctoral degree in philosophy from Temple University. His area of specialization is ethics and political philosophy. He is a professor of philosophy at several colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Jack blogs at Beliefnet.com: At the Intersection of Faith & Culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on facebook. You can also follow him on twitter.