Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kicking conservatism while it's down

P.J. O'Rourke wrote a widely-read article called "We Blew It" about how the right unaccountably has lost power despite their manifestly better approaches to life, money, etc.

For some reason the article calls to mind Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin. The Party has been let down, it has clearly lost sight of the true nature of (conservatism) (Marxism/Leninism), we need to do better in the future. We are absolutely certain that our party, armed with the historical resolutions of the 20th Congress. will lead the Soviet people along the Leninist path to new successes, to new victories. We see how well that worked out.
Where is this land of freedom and responsibility, knowledge, opportunity, accomplishment, honor, truth, trust, ...It lies in ruins at our feet, as well it might, since we ourselves kicked the shining city upon a hill into dust and rubble. The progeny of the Reagan Revolution will live instead in the universe that revolves around Hyde Park....Those leafy precincts will be reserved for the micromanagers and macro-apparatchiks of liberalism--for Secretary of the Department of Peace Bill Ayers and Secretary of the Department of Fairness Bernardine Dohrn.
I really like this effort to paint Hyde Park (home of the University of Chicago) as the new Berkeley, since I was born there. I haven't spent much time there in the last 30 years, but it's hard to imagine a more sober-minded academic community. The winters help with that.
After the events of the 20th century--national socialism, international socialism, inter-species socialism from Earth First--anyone who is still on the left is obviously insane and not responsible for his or her actions.
Oh, it's "Hitler -- man of the left" time again. I thought Jonah Goldberg had the copyright on that.
Blacks used to poll Republican. They did so right up until Mrs. Roosevelt made some sympathetic noises in 1932.
No, they did so because the Democratic party used to be the party of southern segregationists, until the Dixiecrats split off, Johnson realigned the party behind civil rights, and Nixon grabbed the racist demographic. Roosevelt did start this process, to be sure, but it took considerably more work than "sympathetic noises".

The subtext of this is that Blacks are stupid enough to change parties because someone make sympathetic noises, and it ought to be easy for the Republicans t make similar noises and recapture them. Right. Good luck with that.
Nobody with kids is a liberal, except maybe one pothead in Marin County. Everybody wants his or her children to respect freedom, exercise responsibility, be honest, get educated, have opportunities, and own a bunch of guns.
Well, I have kids and live in the Bay Area, so maybe I'm the one pothead, but it's deep thinking like this that got the Republicans out of power. Yes, I know O'Rourke is allegedly some kind of humorist, but he is also supposed to be one of the saner people on the right -- his article is structured as a plea for Republicans to refrain from various religious excesses, including giving up opposition to abortion. REAL good luck with that one!

Furthermore, having kids tends to put one in mind of thinking a bit more seriously about the future, and who can doubt that the Democratic party is the one who can take us into the future? The Republican party is dominated by apocalyptic types, including the straightforwardly mad religious ones who expect Jesus to come back any minute now, and the neoconservative ones whose theory of government is to keep launching wars of aggression and break the treasury until government is completely non-functional?

Kids will require, among other things, education, healthcare, a functioning climate, a decent economy. They would be better off in a world with less war and a world in which Americans are not seen as lawless advocates of military force and torture. Can anyone with kids and a functioning brain support the Republican party?

There's this quaint notion of conservatism as somehow involving realism, caution, prudence, and attunement to moral values. Those sound like very nice things, but they are entirely absent from the governing provided by actual conservatives.

For a nice analysis of what conservatism really is, I recommend this paper by Phil Agre, What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?.


John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Forget "conservatism," please. It has been Godless and thus irrelevant. As Stonewall Jackson's Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

"[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth."

Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

John Lofton, Editor,
Recovering Republican

mnuez said...

Though I agree with the gist of your article, I have to say that I really enjoyed hearing O'Rourke on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" a couple of weeks back. Among a community of people who nauseatingly speak of Obama as of virgin born, his irreverent comments on the subject were refreshingly welcome.

As for the comment that precedes mine here, I'm a fan of the Dabney piece that you quote here but, though he was certainly one whom we'd consider "religious", I'm really not sure that you aren't doing a disservice to his jeremiad by placing it in the context that you place it. His piece against women's suffrage was rather sober-minded and made no mention of any slobbering with deities. In any case, I wish your form of "Conservatism" success, as I believe that in practice (though hardly in dogma) it's better attuned to the facts of human biology than is mainstream american liberalism.


mtraven said...

Jesus Haploid Christ, mnuez, are you serious? You want a Dominionist theocracy? It's "better attuned to the facts of human biology?" How is that, exactly?

mnuez said...


I'm a fan of religious communities, religious sentiments and the inter-person nobility that it often inspires. I similarly dislike the rulership of the elites that has wrenched the culture of our civilization away from it's common-sense, biologically-attuned, mores into endlessly shrill demands for allowing an invasion of foreigners over our borders, the sacrificing of female sexual naivete and the complete and utter "acceptance" of the nonsensical belief that a full ten percent of all males are born with no natural sexual or romantic desire for girls as well as with natural strong sexual and romantic desires for men, etc.

Traditional ways of believing and living are rather uniform throughout the world (and please don't go Margaret Mead on me here, as colorful variations are but a red herring to the truth of the general uniformity) which would appear to say something about the strength of the memes that they represent.

Of course I'm not in favor of Dominionism (or any other term for semi-theocracy) but I believe that a person could oppose gay marriage, rampant abortion, faultless divorces, immigration, gun control and the like - all within an atheistic context because (to some degree at least) THEY JUST MAKE SENSE...Biologically.

Anyhow, it's the middle of the night here and I'm sure I misrepresented my view but I'll cross my fingers and hope you understand what I mean to say in any case.



mnuez said...

the nonsensical belief that a full ten percent of all males are born with no natural sexual or romantic desire for girls as well as with natural strong sexual and romantic desires for men, etc.

Just to be clear: It's the claim that both of those conditions exist simultaneously (and irrelevant of any subsequent environment) in a large percentage of the populace that I find to be so laughably unlikely (though of course, like all things, possible). Any formulation of homosexuality that does not include all of the details delineated in that sentence would appear to me to be altogether plausible - but those less radical formulations aren't what our civilization's opinion-setters and moralizers claim regarding homosexuality at all.

mtraven said...

I'm a fan of religious communities, religious sentiments and the inter-person nobility that it often inspires.

What does that mean? Religious communities run the gamut from the Shakers to Jim Jones. Religious sentiments span a similar range. Which of those are you a fan of?

On the uniformity or otherwise of mankind, see this other recent post.

I don't understand what homosexuality has to do with anything. If there's a natural level, 10% or otherwise, people left to their own devices will follow their natures. All religion and society can do is to try to prevent that.

I also do not understand how opposing gun control, or any of the other positions you state, could "make sense biologically" or not. If the state was FORCING people into gay marriages, that would not make sense biologically. But if some people find themselves biologically homosexual, then prohibiting gay marriage does not make sense biologically.

If we wanted to live a biologically natural life, we'd probably have to revert to living in hunter-gatherer bands of 100-200 individuals tops. No more cities or internet, that is not very natural.

In short, biology does indeed impose some constraints on how society can be structured, but the relationship of biology to human behavior and social structure is not simple and you can't make simpleminded pronouncements based on some cartoon version of biology.

Michael said...

The Agre paper is interesting but starts off with a couple of deeply flawed assertions or assumptions.

Agre begins with the definition: "Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy."

"Aristocracy" is a value-laden word, both in its original sense in Aristotle's "Politics," and also in its popular modern associations with coronets and coat-armour, stately homes and Edwardian shooting-parties. It is more neutral and realistic to rephrase Agre's proposition as:

"Conservatism is the domination of society by an élite."

But is it true?

The most influential American advocate of government by élite during the past century was not a conservative. He was Walter Lippmann, a founding editor of "The New Republic," and an informal advisor to several presidents, beginning with Woodrow Wilson. whom he assisted in drafting the "Fourteen Points." Lippmann held that the central democratic belief that the general public was competent to direct public affairs was a "false ideal." He believed that the "bewildered herd" of ordinary citizens needed to be ruled by a governing class of experts, academic specialists, and bureaucrats. This elite would frame the issues of the day in such a way as to 'manufacture consent' on the part of the common folk for the decision that they had determined was best for society, thus preserving the democratic form while circumventing its spirit.

Lippmannism (if we may call it that) has been the only politically viable position on the American left since the New Deal, which it was instrumental in bringing about. It is, in fact, the reality of American government today. Right-wing populism would not exist in American politics were it not for the predominant Lippmannism of the liberal Democratic party establishment. Sarah Palin is the embodiment of such right-wing populism, and we have witnessed the absolute horror with which her candidature was greeted by Lippmannites, not only in the Democratic party and the press, but in her own Republican party.

It is not so much the truth that "conservatism is the domination of society by aristocracy" as it is the case that no one (right or left) who is realistic about government disputes that society inevitably, necessarily, is dominated by its élite. One is not "for" or "against" the law of gravity - it is simply a fact of life. So also is élitism. The only question worth debating is, what ought to be the composition and character of the élite?

Agre goes on to observe:

"A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their position of privilege to their children, and many of the aspiring aristocrats of the United States are appointing their children to positions in government and in the archipelago of think tanks that promote conservative theories."

I'll set the 'archipelago of think tanks" to one side for the present, because however warm a sinecure a position in one may be, it is highly questionable what influence any of them really exerts on government.

Let us look, instead, at the 'aspiring aristocrats' for whom actual government is a family business. It is true that there are conservative/Republican political families, e.g. the Tafts and the Bushes, but they hardly seem as numerous as those on the liberal/Democrat side.

Looking just at a couple of states recently in the news, in Illinois we discover that the mayor of Chicago is Richard M. Daley (b. 1942), son of Mayor Richard J. Daley (1902-76). The embattled governor of Illinois got his start in politics by a less direct, but still time-honored variety of family connection: he married the boss's daughter, the boss in his case being an influential Chicago alderman. State attorney general Lisa Madigan is the daughter of the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, while state treasurer Dan Hynes is the son of a former Illinois senate president. All are Democrats. Indeed, one of the points on which President-elect Obama is unusual as an Illinois Democrat is that he didn't have any family connections in politics before entering it.

Turning now to New York, Hillary Clinton (who became a United States senator from that state in good part on the strength of her celebrity as a former First Lady) will vacate her senate seat to become Secretary of State. And who should be aspiring to fill the vacancy but two dynasts, Andrew Cuomo (son of former Gov. Mario Cuomo), and of course Caroline Kennedy, daughter of JFK. Needless to say, all of these persons are liberal Democrats.

The most exuberant flowering of left-wing aristocratic ambition is of course to be found in the Kennedy family, which has long held multiple seats in the U.S. Congress after the fashion of some eighteenth-century British ducal house with several sons and nephews representing its 'rotten boroughs' in Parliament. It was not for nothing that the JFK administration attracted the soubriquet "Camelot," with all its romantic and regal implications.

Republicans and conservatives have nothing comparable to offer. It may be, indeed, that the liberal élite has been clever in perceiving that mouthing egalitarian slogans allows them to cash in brazenly on familial political heritage without being accused of aristocratic presumption.