Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dare to be Stupid

Conservatives, perhaps sensing that they don't have much else to fall back on, are rolling out an impassioned defense of stupidity (h/t Alicublog). This is a rather too easily mocked position, but I feel like mounting a feeble defense of it, if only to be contrarian.

I have, from time to time, uttered a few tentative comments in favor of Burkean conservatism, which is based on essentially the same idea. Without for a minute identifying myself with a conservativism, I can see some validity in the general argument. Consider that most people are pretty stupid, smart people aren't as smart as they think they are, most ideas will fail, and the best heuristic for success and survival is to keep doing whatever worked last week. That's the traditionalist conservative worldview in a nutshell. In William Buckley's phrase, they are "standing athwart history, yelling Stop". Burkean conservatism is explicitly distrustful of reasoning and abstraction, perferring to rely on established tradition -- which has the undeniable advantage of being known and knowable, whereas something based on a new idea is, by definition, untried.

The history of the 20th century gives some support for this way of thinking. There were altogether too many efforts to remake society and mankind along some imagined lines that did not take into account the actual fixed parameters of human nature. The Soviets were the most egregious but some of this thinking survives today (Steven Pinker's tells some of this story). Recently I was reading about the construction of Brasilia, based on Le Corbusier's high-modernist theories of how people should live -- this strikes me as an iconic example of how not to do things.

If designing social policy is exploring a design space, the modernists are those who think they can leap around in that space by means of reason, while the Burkeans are those who are so terrified of the unknown that they are going to cling to their little known patch of the landscape, no matter what. Of course, there are intermediate positions, such as supporting incremental rather than revolutionary change.

It is rather odd that the political factions seem to have precipitated out on the axis of generally "against change" and "for reason". It's maybe less odd that being against change is almost synonymous with being authoritarian. Conservatives crave stability, and the surest guarantee of stability is to strengthen the existing structures of authority. As people age they get more conservative, because they have greater stakes in the established order of things. The real axes of politics are the powerful vs. the powerless. Of course, in our demockracy things can't be that simple -- both major parties are, by definition, part of the powerful. Each party consists of a core of the powerful together with some mechanism for deriving necessary support from the powerless, some of whom bother to vote. The Democrats do this in fairly obvious ways, the Republicans by exploiting fundamentalism and the racial hate/fears of the white underclass. The job of the Democrats is to promise change (and not deliver), the job of the Republicans is to promise a return to an imagined Golden Age (and not deliver). Stupidity is rampant on both sides, but is more useful to the Republican strategy. The stupider you are, and the stupider you believe the world to be, the more you will gravitate towards fear rather than hope.

The problem with standing athwart history urging it to stop is that it won't. Even if we could stop politics in its tracks, science and technology and economics have been changing the material basis of society in ways that our hominid evolution could not have anticipated, and in ways that the traditional social structures the Burkeans favor (monarchy, apparently) never was designed to handle. These changes will only get more radical and more rapid with time. Nothing is going to stop this short of the utter and general collapse of civilization. So, stupidity and conservatism is not going to be much help feeling our way into the future.

[Addendum: OK, I can't resist highlighting this quote:
The intellectual conservative of our day excels in good arguments. His policy positions are reasoned and based on well-documented evidence.
Ahem. Any movement that can include Jonah Goldberg within the definition of "intellectual" has really got the stupidity thing locked up tight. ]

[Addendum 2: I glanced over this long article by the pro-stupidity guy, Lee Harris. Wow, is it...stupid. Ideas and rhetoric that were stale when Spiro Agnew floated them for Richard Nixon.
In the culture war of today, the representatives of one side have systematically set out to destroy the shining examples of middle America.

The intelligentsia have no idea of the consequences that would ensue if middle America lost its simple faith in God and its equally simple trust in its fellow men. Their plain virtues and homespun beliefs are the bedrock of decency and integrity in our nation and in the world. These are the people who give their sons and daughters to defend the good and to defeat the evil. If in their eyes this clear and simple distinction is blurred through the dissemination of moral relativism and an aesthetic of ethical frivolity, where else will human decency find such willing and able defenders?

Then there's this pathetic revelation (after a very long attempt to show that the very idea of gay marriage somehow has destroyed the cozy, simple, sturdy, values of middle America):
Even the most sophisticated of us have something to learn from the fundamentalism of middle America. For stripped of its quaint and antiquated ideological superstructure, there is a hard and solid kernel of wisdom embodied in the visceral code by which fundamentalists raise their children, and many of us, including many gay men like myself, are thankful to have been raised by parents who were so unshakably committed to the values of decency, and honesty, and integrity, and all those other homespun and corny principles.

It would take somebody with more perspective on teh gay than me to untangle the self-hating mess that is the author's thoughts. IOZ? ]

[Addendum 3: OK, I thought this Lee Harris was just some random conservative wanker, but his book is reviewed as the lead item in today's New York Times Book Review special section on Islam. Yow. Oh well, it fits in with their respectful treatment of Jonah Goldberg, hiring William Kristol, etc ad nauseum. As far as I can tell, the book argues that the Western devotion to Reason leaves us vulnerable to the more fanatical, unreasonable forces of Islam -- so we should become more like Islam. Only Christian fundamentalism can save us from Islamic fundamentalism. The counter-Enlightenment is in full swing folks. Thought will eat itself. ]


DiverCity said...

You know better than to include Jonah Goldberg or others of his ilk, including, but not limited to, Pod the Lesser, in the category of Burkean conservatives. I've seen way too much of your posting at MM's blog, or Tanstaafl's blog, or etc., which, though appropriately irreverant, is still well-reasoned. This is beneath you, good man.

mtraven said...

The present-day conservative movement is not really conservative, but that's a topic for a separate post. Goldberg is what passes for a prominent conservative intellectual these days (home base at the National Review, column in the LA Times, ridiculous book lovingly reviewed in the major media). There's nothing Burkean about him or his cohort, it's true, but the original article was about "intellectual conservatives" in general. Are there any actual Burkeans around today? There's no traditional social structureleft to preserve.

DiverCity said...

One can always hope. And all one has to do is wait. So, whilst I won't get to see it, perhaps my children's children will, as those of us who procreate, ahem, liberally, will ultimately triumph.

flenser said...

I appreciate that you made the effort, but that's a crude caricature of Burkean conservatism. Burkeans are not "those who are so terrified of the unknown that they are going to cling to their little known patch of the landscape, no matter what".

In fact Burke spoke highly of prudent and incremental change. He was no mere reactionary.

It is rather odd that the political factions seem to have precipitated out on the axis of generally "against change" and "for reason".

It might be odd, if in fact it were true.

the self-hating mess that is the author's thoughts

Is this a example of the left's superior intellectualism at work?