Sunday, May 31, 2009

Barbarians At The Gates - Or Not

Hilzoy points to an interesting little piece of opining by Rod Dreher, published in the American Conservative a couple weeks back, discussing the angst over the conservative soul and the possibility that, in pursuing "barbarism" the Right became barbarians themselves.

Dreher's work, while not nearly soul-searching enough, is certainly a good starting point for anyone on the Right who wonders why Conservatists no longer hold the high ground.
The barbarians of the Roman era wandered and marauded aimlessly. We accepted rootlessness as the modern condition. We defended our unrestrained consumer appetites by spiting those who would counsel limits as freedom’s enemies. Despisers of communism, we worshiped capitalism, na├»ve to its revolutionary power to dissolve bonds we ought to have cherished and things we ought to have conserved. Though we like to think of ourselves as apostles of excellence preaching against the depredations of Hollywood trash and academia’s political correctness, we have reduced ourselves to sneering at the concept of elitism and celebrating ignorance and vulgarity as signs of authenticity.

We cast aside the sense of temperamental modesty, of restraint and of fidelity to honorable traditions that have been conservatism’s philosophical patrimony, and exchanged it for a pot of ideological message.

The language Dreher uses, however, is vague and nebulous to the point that it can be used to defend virtually any "change" in Conservative thinking.
The political catastrophe the Republicans are living through, and the far more consequential cultural catastrophe we’re all enduring, obviously call for fresh political and economic thinking. But even more, they call for a renewal of our moral and spiritual vision.

This sort of general statement is what gave the Moral Majority, Christian Coalition and others with very narrow agendas, and very little in the way of fresh thought beyond their tactical planning, the impetus for their various efforts. Restating these generalisations is no great leap forward; the difficulty - the Devil, if you will - is in the details of how the generalisations are enacted.

Conservatism, defined in the absolute, is more or less a valuation of what is over what might be. It centers on: preservation of what is good in society; respect for tradition and historical legacy; the resistance to change for change's sake; and a certain skepticism toward policy, both public and private, to achieve a given objective. The GOP has stepped very far away from these principles. It no longer values what is unless what is is profitable. It sees nothing in society it finds valuable beyond ever-harder work, the unborn, and the continued health of Wall Street. The traditions it values are trimmed down to Church, self-defense, global power projection coupled with domestic isolationism, and the Puritans' obsession with repression of sex. Tradition has taken a back seat to the excesses of the entrepreneur and the adventurism of the conquistador. And the skepticism that marked earlier conservative thought has been turned into a biased political tool used to dismiss any suggestion the opposition might make; the party's own agenda is greeted with wide-eyed optimism, and any suggestion that there might be flaws in the programme is immediately shouted down.

The modern Conservatist would like the public to forget all that. Conservatism by their statements is eternal and unchanging. What we see now has always been. They would like us to forget that Conservatism once denied women the vote, denied slaves freedom, denied successive waves of immigrants the benefits of entry into a society that they themselves enjoyed as immigrants in their time, etc etc. The school of thought has evolved over time, embracing concepts once considered racically liberal. This is a virtue: had conservatism not evolved the world would not have known the myriad advances that brought us to a modern post-industrial democratic society.

Dreher is right to quote Claes Ryn in dissecting the response of the pundit to the cultural theorist:
I was behaving like the kind of conservative Claes G. Ryn once condemned in a TAC essay, disdaining poets and artists as “flaky” because they are unconcerned with politics and economics. Ryn criticized the failure of contemporary conservatives to grasp that
Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.

Ryn goes on:
What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.

Again, the nebulous nature of the guidance allows for almost anything from retellings of the Chronicles of Narnia right through a Riefenstahl film festival.

This is an interesting piece, particularly as it comes as one of a wave of articles that question what has happened to US Conservatism and where Conservatives ought to be headed. Most of the others I have read in this vein have covered the essentially anti-intellectual bent the Conservatists and the GOP have adopted over recent years: it does not appear that Dreher has reached that conclusion yet, though he does have an idea of why it would be so.

It is also clear that, while others such as Nate Silver and Richard Posner have lamented how the Conservatist machinery has shut out anyone but movement conservatist ideologues without delving into the cause, Dreher has a glimpse of why this is so. It takes a movement conservatist mindset to value safety over liberty, personal wealth over civic responsibility, imperial projection over common-sense conservation, and the fiction of the theological bases of the United States over the more sound strength through diversity recognised and celebrated by the Founding Fathers. Only movement conservatist thought could value the economic system over the family they tout as the moral salvation of the nation, or the "ignorance and vulgarity" Dreher denounces over the depth possible from an informed conservatism.

One thing, though, that none of these writers has addressed is the mindset driving the movement. Conservatism, in its purest iteration, is a skeptical, bordering on pessimistic, philosophy: it needs to have the benefit of change proven to it in clear terms before it will consider adopting the new in favor of the old, recognizable and functional. Movement Conservatist thought married all the reaction of classical conservatism with the Panglossian veneer of the "faith based society." All would be rosy, it claimed, and everyone would be happy, if only we didn't do anything those godless liberal demons asked. It opposed on principle anything outside its own tenets and held out a "feel-good" perspective of a nation saved from those "barbarians" Dreher mentions. The naivete involved in this approach is staggering: instead of holding to the old because it was proven effective with known consequences, movement conservatists did so out of doctrine and the promise of a bright sunny future if this were done. In the zeal of the movement, these people forgot that as much ill can be done by adherents to Conservatist doctrine as by followers of any other mindset, and in their willingness to believe in this bright, sunny illusion they actually enabled the likes of Lay, Skilling, Koslowski, Keating and the whole host of others who used Conservatist philosophy for their own self-aggrandisement and counted on the happy imagery the movement used to sell the philosophy to hide their intentions and misdeeds.

The 'blogosphere says much about the Bush maladministration in terms of the outright failures of conservatist policy. However, without the likes of the executives who gamed the philosophy, Bush would never have been able to achieve so much - either in policy-making or in the economic trainwreck that followed. And without the rose-tinted glow the movement conservatists used to light the new breed of right-wing thought, the movers in those worlds would never have been able to do as much damage as they did, nor fool the following as well as it is now known they were able. Without the image of the perfect nation, and the absolute demonisation of the opposition in the terms of those out to destroy every last shred of goodness and decency in the country, movement conservatism would never have been able to achieve as much as it has; conversely, without those illusions, those taking advantage of the movement would never have been able to do so much damage without being stopped. The willingness of the movement to believe its leadership and the fantasy they spun blinded one and all to the real activities behind the scenes. Those actions are being laid bare now, and gradually the thinking segment of the conservative school is waking up to that reality.

Silver, Posner, and their like look around themselves like someone rousing from a dream, seeing an unfamiliar, hostile landscape, and wondering where the calming, pastoral scene s/he remembers has gone. Dreher, for his part, sees the damage done and recognises the work of his own hand in part of the destruction. But none of them seem to have realised yet that the scene they all seem to remember was a projection of the movement, and that it never really existed in the first place outside movement propaganda.

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