Features of conservative history I: the magazine movement

When studying the history of conservative movements over the past two centuries, one is struck by the central place occupied by political journals.  Imagine trying to write a history of the Right without mentioning Action Francaise, National Review, The Salisbury Review, The Public Interest, or First Things.  There would be nothing left.  True, figures like William Buckley, Irving Kristol, and Richard Neuhaus wrote books too, but it’s the magazines they founded that is the true source of their influence.  Magazine formations are often the pivot points of conservative history.  The Cold War American Right coalesced around National Review.  The neoconservative movement grew around The Public Interest and Commentary.  The paleoconservative reaction organized around The American Conservative and Chronicles.  The religious conservative movement is centered on First Things.

What’s strange is that I don’t sense this sort of journal-centeredness on the Left.  The Left has a number of excellent journals, such as The New Republic and The Gaurdian, but they’re not central to the history of liberalism or Marxism.  Marx, Mill, Marcuse, etc. are remembered for their books.  I can think of no conservative equivalent to the excitement generated on the Left by the publication of A Theory of Justice.  Truthfully, there haven’t been many conservative books published in the past century that would deserve much excitement–Voegelin’s New Science of Politics would be the main contender.  Lenin and FDR are remembered for their deeds.  M. L. King Jr. is remembered for his oratory.  The Right, by contrast, has little to show in the way of public effectiveness or capturing the public imagination.

A successful movement needs three layers.  At the highest layer, there are the intellectuals who rigorously expound the movement’s ideology, defend it, and address any possible internal contradictions.  At the lowest level, there’s public mobilization, which needs to be organized around simplistic ideas and demonization of the enemy.  This requires an army of hack artists, sloganeers, and activists to energize the base and demoralize the opposition.  Between these two levels is the level of political journalism, which by operating at an intellectually middle level can serve as an intermediary connecting the high and low levels.  Historically liberalism has excelled at all three levels.  It completely controls academia, and so it has no lack of intellectual guides and sympathetic experts in every field.  At the lowest level, its success has been exceptional.  Just think of all the famous mindless liberal slogans that have become part of the culture:  “Make love, not war!”, “My body, my choice!”,  “Bush lied, people died!”, “Love makes a family!”, “You can’t give hugs with nuclear arms!”  The Right has produced nothing like this.  Then there’s the trashy popular culture, the whole idiot-chorus made up of works like The Da Vinci Code, American Beauty, Dances With Wolves, and The Mists of Avalon.  Where is the conservative hack-propaganda fiction?  (I realize it’s hard for any faction to produce truely great art, but we can’t even produce our own Da Vinci Code?)

The Left has outclassed us at both the top and the bottom.  In the middle, though, the Right has been competitive.  This, it would seem, is why magazines have been so important to the conservative movement.  Perhaps they’re the easiest thing to do competitively–easier than producing either rigorous philosophical arguments or mindless, crowd-controlling slogans.  Even this weblog fits into this middle category.  I’m sure it has no crowd-agitating capability, and it doesn’t aim for the level of rigor required in peer-reviewed journals.  I do have a day job, after all, and this is all I’m up to.  At some point in the future, though, the Right is going to have to branch out (i.e. up and down) if it wants to be successful.

Can one fight arsenic poisoning with the Spirit of Vatican II?

Suppose I walk into a cafe and order coffee.  The waiter asks if I’d like it with sugar, cream, or arsenic.  “Arsenic”, I reply.  The waiter goes off to prepare my drink.

A man sitting at an adjacent table overhears my order and walks over to talk to me.  He is polite, friendly, even charming.  “I completely respect your choice to order arsenic in your drink”, he says.  “I belong to a sect that believes that arsenic is a deadly poison that should never be ingested.  However, I certainly don’t hate people who behave in a contrary way, and I would never advocate using force to prevent people from eating or drinking whatever they want.  I have simply found poison-aversion to be the more ‘life-affirming’ choice.  I hope you don’t mind if I ‘share my joy’ with you.  My sect ‘imposes nothing; it only proposes’.  Allow me to ‘propose to you a better way’.  The world is full of tasty, non-poisonous drinks and sweeteners.  Some put milk and sugar in their coffee, which is delightful.  Some use these marvelous new sweeteners like Equal or Splenda.  I certainly don’t intend to scold you; I know my sect used to emphasize the negative effects of drinking poison, but I prefer to focus on the positive possibilities of non-poinsonous drinks.”

What do I think?  While I may find this stranger’s company agreeable, I obviously don’t believe him.  If he really thought that what I was ordering would kill me, surely he wouldn’t be so calm and positive.  Surely the appropriate reaction would be something more like, “Good God, man, don’t you know that stuff will kill you!  I can’t let you do it!”  Not only would he not foreswear using force to stop me, he would consider it his duty to prevent me killing myself by any means at his disposal.  Whether it’s true or not that my drink is poisoned, I know that the person who’s telling me so doesn’t really believe it.

For at least half a century, Christians of all denominations have been given a similar strategy.  Only focus on the positive.  Don’t talk about hellfire.  Don’t express disapproval for other people’s choices.  The thing is, a person who does this is going to seem like the fellow in my story above.  A crucial part of the Christian message is that we must all repent and accept Christ, or else we’re going to burn in Hell for all eternity.  I know that’s not the whole message, but it’s a rather important detail, don’t you think?  Now suppose someone really believed this, and they saw themselves surrounded by people in danger of eternal torment.  How would we expect such a person to act?  It seems to me that he would act more like one of those crazy street preachers than like our nonjudgemental clergy.  The funny-looking guy passing out pamphlets on college campuses is behaving more logically given his stated beliefs.  But that sort of thing doesn’t work, you say.  Nobody ever gets converted that way.  That’s true.  Then again, the “everybody goes to heaven” priest isn’t winning any converts either.  Neither method works.  We need to think of something better.  Whatever that turns out to be, though, I’m sure that no evangelization method can be effective unless one can seriously think that the ones spreading the Good (and Bad) News really believe their own message.

More America=freedom stupidity

In my recent essay on the place of American conservatism, I mentioned one wrong answer to the question, “What is it that American conservatives are trying to conserve?”  That wrong answer is freedom, i.e. the goal of conservatism in America is to preserve liberalism, because that’s all there is to American common life.  As I argued, it can’t really be true that a nation’s order is built on an anarchical principle, and it’s antithetical to the nature of conservatism to play the enemy of authority.  I claimed that this intellectual blunder is common on the mainstream Right.  Now, as if to prove my point, National Review has published a long article by Richard Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru embracing this very position.  You should read it to see just how bad it is.  It’s quite disheartening to see the most famous magazine of the American conservative movement boast about the lack of hierarchy in American society.  Then there’s this particularly ghastly bit:

Amer­icans took inherited English liberties, extended them, and made them into a creed open to all.  Exact renderings of the creed differ, but the basic outlines are clear enough. The late Seymour Martin Lipset defined it as liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics. The creed combines with other aspects of the American character — especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force — to form the core of American exceptionalism.

So it seems that being an American means holding a “creed” consisting in a particularly anarchical form of liberalism.  The “creed” is open to all, so there would seem to be no place for loyalty to a particular people or place.  The “creed” also displaces the place of an established real religion in the public order (something about which the writers are especially pleased).  Only the most liberal aspects of America are to be conserved by these conservatives.  They explicitly ridicule the Federalist defense of natural aristocracy and the Jeffersonian defense of rootedness to place.

The brunt of the article is a criticism of President Obama for failing to embrace a moronic idea they call “American exceptionalism”.  What this idea means is not precisely spelled out, but it seems to have something to do with America being better than other countries because our taxes are lower.

Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.”

The authors are horrified by this, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me.  It seems that the President has taken “exceptionalism” to mean something like “loyalty and patriotism”, which would make it unobjectionable; it would also make it something we would expect other peoples to feel for their homelands.  Surprisingly, it’s the extreme leftist President who’s implicitly defending the principle of particular loyalties against two self-professed “conservatives”.

Lowry and Ponnuru seem totally oblivious to the fact that they’ve just repudiated all the fundamental principles of conservatism.  How can such confusion come about?  I never hear about liberals rejecting liberalism and embracing traditionalism, all without even realizing it.  It would seem that, intellectually speaking, the enemy has his house much more in order.

Against first class travel: the moralization of wealth

Large disparities of wealth have been a constant feature of civilized life; strong resentment to these disparities has not.  This is, I think, an important historical/sociological dilemma.  The story of the Athenian and Roman republics is largely the chronicle of battles between the upper and lower classes.  Class antagonism was also the dominant political issue in western Europe throughout the nineteenth century.  This is not always the case, however.  Class antagonism was not a dominant force in feudal Europe during the High Middle Ages.  Nor was it, prior to westernization, a significant issue in caste-organized India, the most stratified and hierarchical society one could imagine.  In both the Hindu and Muslim worlds, explicit class warfare was so rare that historians desperate to find it have been driven to interpret religious movements as hidden agents of class antagonism.  It’s as if the English proletariat had expressed its solidarity by converting to Methodism and not forming the Labour Party.  Why were the non-western working classes so docile before Marxism was exported to them?  Also, why do we hear so much about anti-clericalism in the Middle Ages and so little about anti-aristocratic sentiment?  After all, the nobles did much less good and caused far more grief to the third estate during these centuries.

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Ideology, natural law, and the violinist

Let’s return again to our question, “What is the fundamental difference between liberal morality on the one hand and conservative/Christian morality on the other?”  A famous example will be helpful.  Judith Thompson, in her Defense of Abortion, argues that abortion is morally acceptable even if one grants that the fetus is a rights-bearing human person.  She tries to establish this astounding claim by a series of thought experiments.  In the most famous

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. [If he is unplugged from you now, he will die; but] in nine months he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.

                         –(quote taken from the Wikipedia article)

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How can one be a conservative American?

This is a dilemma I’ve often seen posed on the internet, particularly at center-right sites.  The United States is a fundamentally liberal country.  It was founded by deist freemasons–in an act of rebellion against their legitimate monarch–deliberately for the purpose of creating a Lockean republic.  All our traditions are liberal.  Since the purpose of conservatives is to preserve tradition, in America, the job of conservatives is to preserve liberalism.  Thus traditionalism in an American context is shown to be logically impossible.

Needless to say, I disagree with this conclusion, but it does raise an interesting issue.  What exactly are American conservatives trying to conserve?  The standard right-liberal, Republican answer is that we’re trying to preserve freedom, which is a sort of American essence.  But is it true that freedom is all there is to the American nation?  Is there nothing more to our heritage than the right to do as we please, so long as we don’t get in each other’s way?  To a conservative, the answer is known a priori.  America is not constructed on a social contract based on nothing but individual rights because we are sure that no society could be thus constituted.  Americans pay lip service to freedom, but freedom is not, and cannot be, the principle that orgainizes our common life.  Nor is the proposition that “all men are created equal.”  No, the reality of American common life is not freedom, but authority.

People in other nations may be as free as we are, but an American is someone who is subject to a particular set of authorities.  The first of these is the government, whose sovereignty is divided into its federal, state, and city incarnations.  Americans use Lockean theories to justify their subjection to their State, but this is just sophistry.  Americans are morally bound to obey their federal, state, and local governments not because they have consented to it, even implicitly–for to withhold consent would be an immoral act–but because they recognize these authorities as legitimate.  This acknowledgment of legitimacy is what makes an American an American, and it is a primary goal of conservatives to establish this sense of legitimacy on its true basis.

It’s these sort of unspoken, unchosen, compulsary “givens” that American conservatives try to identify and defend.  So, for example, another taken-for-granted fact is citizenship:  some people are Americans, and other people aren’t.  A foreigner can only become an American if the state chooses to grant him citizenship.  Americans vocally espouse the principle of treating all people equally, but our unwritten constitution endorses the principle of particular loyalty.  Another given is the judiciary.  America’s laws don’t just reflect the will of the current legislature, but reflect a legal tradition developed over centuries.  Through precedent, this tradition is another legitimate authority to Americans.  A final accepted authority is that of parents over their children.  This is so taken for granted that we never mention it in discussing America’s constitution.  Yet, when a child runs away from home, the police will forcibly return the child to his parents, and nobody asks how to reconcile this with our creed of “freedom” and “equality”.  Wisdom makes us hypocrites, because if we were to take freedom and equality seriously–as the liberals wish us to do–it would destroy our society.

The Founders were liberals who hated tradition and piety, but since their deaths, the natural instict of a people to revere its founders has siezed upon them and created the memory of the Founding Fathers.  From this word “Father”, one can see that the attitude assumed by the population is one of piety.  Piety is an important part of any community, and so the conservative endorses these sentiments, but his reasons are subtle and far different from those given publicly.  The public reason for revering the Founders is that they fought tyranny and established freedom and equality.  These are not reasons that will recommend themselves to conservatives; nor are they the real reason the populace reveres the Founders.  A true believer in freedom and equality despises piety; at most he may agree with some of the Founders’ beliefs and approve some of their actions.  No, a conservative knows that piety is ultimately a religious sentiment.  We feel awe for our parents and ancestors because they are the source of our being, the channel through which we were created.  Every act of creation confronts us with the mystery of being; creation is where God touches the universe, and those beings that God uses as his instraments of creation become icons of Him.  What the Founders succeeded in doing was to establish a legitimate authority.  In doing so, they created a principle of order in the minds of their subjects.  Symbolically, they repeated God’s act of ordering the universe in the first chapter of Genesis.  Americans feel awe for the Founding because the moment that the nation was created and ordered is for us an iconic event.  One notices that the act that receives the most reverence in the minds of Americans is not some practical decision the Founders made or some brilliant idea they had, but a purely ritual event they performed.  I refer to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, an event painted and eulogized countless times.  These freethinkers certainly didn’t see themselves as ritualistic men, but to found a nation, they performed a ritual.  Writing names on a piece of paper is something that has purely symbolic effect, but it’s that symbolic effect that was the most important thing for American piety.

One can now see the ambivalence we conservatives have toward the Founders.  Seeing them as men, from the standpoint of objective history, they were traitors who deserved to be hanged.  Their ideas about the origin of government were ridiculous; their encomia to freedom were reckless.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a practical anarchist who endorsed permanent periodic revolutions.  If anyone were to take his ideas seriously, he would be a threat to the social order.  But people don’t take his ideas seriously.  Nor do they take Jefferson the man seriously.  In the minds of the public, the man has been replaced by the symbol, the object of patriotic piety.  Jefferson has been “digested” by the social order.  No doubt he would have regarded this as a fate worse than death.  To the conservative, however, this is all to the best.

What about the rhetoric that Americans use to justify their devotion to the Founding–all that crap about “throwing off the dead hand of tradition”, “creating the world anew”, of being a nation “concieved in liberty”, “founded on the proposition that all men are equal”, etc?  We don’t take it that seriously.  We know that ordinary Americans lack a vocabulary to express the piety they feel, so they borrow the language of liberalism to justify it.  Our ultimate goal is to give them a fuller vocabulary, so that they can express their devotion to their patria without the unnecessary ideological baggage.  In the meantime, we must be very careful in critiquing these false ideas so that we don’t harm the true sentiments hiding beneath them.


I was happy to find that a reference to this blog has been made on The Thinking Housewife here.  Mrs. Wood is one of the smartest traditionalists writing today, so I’m glad she found something worthwhile here.  The link has also been a boon to this site, which got over 500 hits for two days–a record for this obscure corner of the web.   (Thank you, Laura Wood!)  If you’re one of those new readers, welcome!