Conservative thought IV: the great consequentialism debate

the Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

–John Henry Newman

Last August, on the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Edward Feser at What’s Wrong with the World posted a reflection on event, sarcastically wishing his readers a “Happy Consequentialism Day”.  Consequentialism, the doctrine that the ends can justify any means, is not only, he said, contrary to Christian morality; it can and has led to mass murder.  Over at View from the Right, Lawrence Auster was horrified and posted a response accusing the WWWTW crowd of embracing pacifist principles and putting legal abstractions before the common good.  Now, conservatives disagree with eachother all the time without it meaning anything for conservatism as such, but this was different.  In this case, both sides at least implicitly accused the other of abandoning a core conservative principle and becoming contaminated by some modern heresy.  An attitude toward consequentialism seems to be central to conservative thought, but there’s disagreement about what that attitude is.

The reactions of both sides becomes understandable if we look at the post-WWII history of conservatism and the very different experiences of its two main factions.  On the one hand, there are what I’ll call the “bioethics conservatives”, whose main interests have been fighting birth control, abortion, and euthanasia.  On the other hand, there are what I’ll call the “national conservatives”, whose main interests have been fighting mass immigration, Islam, and communism.  For the past half-century, the former have been defenders of absolute natural law, their enemies that of mitigating circumstance.  For national conservatives, the situation has been the reverse; every effort to defend the national community has been accused of violating some absolute moral right.

The bioethics conservative movement had its origins in the mid-20th-century theological battles in mainline Protestantism and, especially, the Catholic Church.  (See Catholicism and American Freedom by John McGreevy for an excellent treatment of the following history.)  Circa 1950, the Catholic Church, because of the situations she faced in her many hospitals and in the confessional, had developed the only extensive guide to medical ethical dilemmas, based on Thomist natural law theory.  This situation was, of course, resented by liberal Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner who rejected the idea of a natural law and despised the Catholic Church for its “legalism”.  In the mid sixties, Joseph Fletcher published Situation Ethics as an alternative to Catholic legalism.  “Situation ethics” is, in fact, nothing but Benthamite utilitarian with a pseudo-Christian gloss that identifies the principle of agape with pleasure maximization.  As moral philosophy, the thing was a joke, as secular philosophers had long since seen the inadequacy of utilitarianism.  Theologians, however, are generally not a bright bunch, and they often seem to jump on some secular idea just when everyone else has discarded it as junk.  Utilitarianism was a hit.  Pope Pius XII had denounced the theory in 1952, but it spread in Catholic circles all the same under names like “proportionalism” with advocates like Charles Curran, Bernhard Harring, and Daniel Maguire.  Soon Benthamism attained hegemonic status in both the Protestant and Catholic theological communities.

Against this embrace of Bentham, a reaction arose, primarily among a group of Catholics.  Most were laymen and philosophers rather than theologians by training, they were well aware of the weaknesses of Fletcher’s system, and being trained in a secular field made them less intimidated by “modern thought” than the average theologian.  Among the Catholic counter-reaction were Elizatheth Anscombe (a student of Wittgenstein who coined the word “consequentialism” as a term of abuse), value-ethics theorists like Dietrich von Hildebrand (a student of Husserl), and the “new” natural law theorists like John Finnis and Robert George.  Only two clerics distinguished themselves in defending traditional morality:  the Jesuit John Ford and the Polish bishop Karol Wojtyla.

In the following intra-Catholic disputes, the subject was almost always contraception or abortion.  Both sides appealed to philosophy rather than scripture or tradition (both because the former was the expertise of those on the orthodox side, and because the utilitarians rejected the authority of the latter anyway).  The utilitarians accused the conservatives of being heartless legalists–abortion and contraception (and masturbation and sodomy and euthanasia and…) make people happier, and isn’t that what matters?  The conservatives replied that evil acts can’t be justified by any consideration of consequences.  The conservatives insisted that physical acts can have objective meanings (a “language of the body”) that can be either good or evil.  The utilitarians dismissed this as “physicalism”.  The conservatives in turn accused the utilitarians of Cartesian “dualism”.  Thus, the bioethics conservatives’ attacks on consequentialism and mind-body dualism are not bizarre accretions.  Still less are they concessions to “modern thought”.  They are integrally connected to their critique of liberalism.  A parallel, although smaller, movement against consequentialist rule-breaking went on among Protestants as well, with Lydia McGrew at WWWtW standing out as a formidable defender of traditional moral absolutism.

Thus, when a bioethics conservative hears that one can’t make absolute moral prohibitions, sirens and red lights go off in his head, and he assumes he’s about to hear yet one more defense of immorality.  The experience of the national conservatives has been entirely different.  Auster is an excellent example of this latter group (although he is also reliable on sexual issues).  For years, View from the Right has distinguished itself in taking a principled stand for defending one’s own culture and civilization in its full particularity.  Stands like this set the national conservatives against groups like pacifists and immigration advocates.  The former reject any effort to defend ourselves from communist or Muslim powers as immoral.  The latter claim that migrants have an absolute right to move to the USA and overwhelm the native culture.  The most exasperating thing about these groups is that they have always been so obviously hypocritical.  The absolute demands of peace only fall on the United States, never the Soviet Union.  It’s very hard to keep from getting angry when one is being lectured to on the absolute impermissibility of violence by someone wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.  Neither can one help but notice that “diversity” only demands the suicide of white cultures.  The national conservatives can also claim a respectable philosophical pedigree, from Max Weber’s “ethic of responsibility”, to Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, to Eric Voegelin’s critique of political gnostics for ignoring the contingency of the political order–his social application of the distinction between essence and existence.

The VftR link provides an excellent example of the misunderstanding between the two branches of conservatives.  At one point, Auster gives the example of Pope John Paul II as someone who was obviously defective as a conservative, because of his writings on immigration.  But, to the bioethics conservatives, JPII was nearly an ideal pope; he was one of their own raised to the chair of Saint Peter, one who leant magisterial authority to their critiques of consequentialism and dualism.  However, L. Auster does have a point:  JPII’s writings on immigration-related subjects were dreadful, showing almost no concern for the health of host cultures.  The one redeeming feature of them was that His Holiness had obviously not given the matter much thought.

I personally speak as someone within what I’ve called the “bioethics” tradition, but who sees a lot of value in what I’ve called the “nationals”.  It’s a different situation than that of the libertarians, the neoconservatives, and the classical liberals.  These groups have nothing to teach us; it would be better if they would just disappear.  The “bioethicists” on the other hand, have done important work in articulating a nonliberal ethics.  This tradition is deep but not wide.  It focuses on a few issues, having little to say about economics or foreign policy (except to remind us what warfare doesn’t excuse).  This can lead to a too-quick acceptance of the democratic-capitalist order and “propositional nation” BS.  The “nationals” have a distinct set of strengths, but without a strong dose of moral absolutism, their defense of group loyalty can seem to slide into a defense of collective selfishness.

The two must be combined.  We must remember to see authoritative groups as collective affirmations of God’s moral order and defend them as such, in ways consistent with the nature of what we defend.  Consequentialism and cosmopolitanism are both errors.  This is why dialog and argument between these two groups of conservatives might be very fruitful.

David Hart on autumn, nature spirits, and the numinous

This is a lovely web article, proving once again that First Things is a first-class web magazine, and David Bentley Hart is its best writer.  The Orthodox theologian, on a walk with his son and his dog, helps his son see the mystery in nature.

The status of conservative thought III: paganism

This one took me by surprise.  Apparently, the idea has been festering in Europe for some time now that the Right should renounce Christianity and embrace paganism.  Alternative Right has brought the idea to America.  By paganism they generally mean not the faith behind the brilliant civilization of Greece and Rome.  The path from Plato and Virgil to Christ has been travelled too many times for this to seem a viable choice.  No, they mean the faith of the unlettered savages of the North who ravaged Europe after this civilization fell, until the Catholic Church restored order.  The linked article by Stephen McNallen actually does a very good job of making the religion of Odin and Thor sound attractive, although he makes not the slightest effort to make it sound true.  Indeed, McNallen’s apologetic for paganism actually prevents him from arguing that his beliefs are objectively true.  For him, the beauty of paganism is in its particularity, its being attached to, and part of the life of, one particular tribe.  A true pagan religion cannot be transplanted; it is not for all men.  Such a religion cannot contain objective truth claims, since these would be universally valid.  Having given up on truth, we must settle for authenticity, or claims thereof.

This quality of paganism would also seem to forclose the possibility of conversion.  After all, we don’t belong to this tribe, so what right do we have to worship its gods?  Here we come to the second aspect of the neopagan apologetic, the claim that the religion of Norse barbarism is still a living force in the West.  This position is set out in book form by James Russell in The Germanization of Medieval Christianity.  Christianity, it is said, was originally an ascetic/world-renouncing, pacific/effeminate faith incapable of sustaining a civilization.  Then the German pagans, source of all virtue and reason, remade the religion in their image, and the West was born.  The claims of this thesis to historical accuracy are taken apart by Thomas Fleming here  more ably than I could do.  I will only point out that the whole thing rests on ignorance of the Christian tradition, based on a few Gospel quotes stripped from their context and an ahistorical fantasy of the gentle Jesus fostered by liberal Protestantism.  The real Christians of 500AD had inherited the whole Old Testament tradition of political theology, and they had been ruling and defending the Roman Empire for two centuries.  The idea that Germans needed to teach Roman legionaries the meaning of valor is just silly.

The claim that paganism lives on among us rests on the existence of pagan “survivals”–Christian practices with pagan antecetents.  The trouble is, one can’t just point out that Christians and pagans share some practice–consecrated virgins, winter holidays, names of days, or whatever–and then take this to prove that paganism is still living in Christendom.  First, the “pagan” thing might really be just a human thing.  Nobody would say that Christians are carrying on pagan tradition by walking upright.  Given common human nature, seasons, and climate, one expects some commonalities.  Second, the “pagan” thing might be something with so little meaning that Christians didn’t bother to change it.  Calling one day of the week “Thursday” doesn’t make you a pagan; you have to actually believe that that day belongs to Thor.  In all these survivals, there is not one that reflects a living connection to a distinct, particular pagan belief.  The neo-pagans are, then, not working to bring a living tradition to full consciousness of itself; rather, they are building a new tradition our of their own fantasies.

Not surprisingly, when modern man abandons his real traditions and tries (whatever he tells himself he’s doing) to fashion a new one on his own, the results aren’t pretty.  Cut off from the living past, he has only his own poor resources, consisting mainly of liberal slogans from the surrounding society.  Surely, though, sturdy Norsemen can do better?  Let’s see what happens when they try.  The intellectual father of the neo-pagan Right is Alain de Benoist.  Alternative Right has reprinted one of his arguments for paganism here.  If you read it (and I promise the Christian reader that his faith will not be shaken), you’ll notice several things

  1. Benoist’s hatred is entirely directed at Judaism and Christianity.  This polytheistic light of the New Right isn’t too bothered by atheism or liberalism; his only criticism of them is that they are too connected to Christianity.
  2. Once again, we find absolutely no arguments for the existence of a plurality of gods, or for any other pagan belief.
  3. The entire case against Christianity and Judaism is that they are “intolerant”.  His main complain against Christianity is that it is anti-semitic.
  4. The entire argument for paganism is that it is tolerant.  It accepts the Other.  It doesn’t persecute.  It is open and accepting.

So, basically, paganism=liberalism.  Somewhere in limbo, Sophocles and Cicero are gagging.

Will the Right be able to confront liberalism in a more principled way if it rejects Christianity and its “universalistic”, “intolerant” claims?  The case of Benoist makes this seem unlikely.  In fact, neo-paganism is just one more way of surrendering to liberalism.  It means abandoning the fort of Christendom and joining the enemy while mumbling nonsense about “blood and soil” to keep from acknowledging one’s cowardice.

The Chronicle Review on Conservative Violence

I suppose conservatives must take what attention from academia we can get.  In an essay at the Chronicle of Higher Education (linked on Arts and Letters Daily today), Professor Corey Robin argues that conservatives love violence, that our bloodlust derives from core conservative principles, and that glorification of war has been a constant theme in conservative thought.  Before discussing this thesis, let me make some general positive comments about Robin’s article.  First, it does treat conservatism as a body of thought, rather than dismissing it immediately as irrational viciousness.  This is something we would like to encourage.  (True, he despises this body of thought and thinks that its main function is to justify irrational viciousness, but this is still an improvement.)  Second, he quotes two genuinely nonliberal authors, Burke and Schmitt, and alludes to de Maistre (whose Saint Petersburg Dialogues could have given him even better quotes).  What’s more, his excerpt from Burke is from his The Sublime and the Beautiful, not Reflections on the Revolution in France, so he’s making some effort to understand Burke’s overall philosophy, and not just his explicitly conservative arguments.  True, Robin mixes in some liberal authors, such as Francis Fukuyama, whose The End of History and the Last Man celebrates the triumph of democracy and capitalism and joyfully anticipates the final eradication of tradition, authority, and religion, and who Robin inexplicably mistakes for a conservative.  Let us grant that Professor Robin comes as close to studying the Right seriously as one finds in today’s academic environment.

Unfortunately, the result is still quite disappointing.  The writings Robin discusses might have provided readers with their first exposure to the conservative understanding of society, but this opportunity is closed off by the perverse misreadings he applies.  The article’s core piece of evidence concerns Burke’s observation that fearfulness can be an element of the Sublime.  Robin then goes on to speculate that a central preoccupation of conservatism is make a political order that allows people to experience sublimity.  Although he presents no evidence for this, I think it is, in a sense, true.  Conservatives do wish to preserve social forms that give men the sense of participating in a sacred order, thus bringing God’s majesty “down to Earth” through authority and ritual.  This is not what Robin means, however.  He sees two ways that conservatives seek the Sublime.  The first is through hierarchy, which he sees as the overriding of the strong by the weak, giving conservatives the thrill of dominion.  This is indeed the way liberals understand authority and hierarchy–and why they oppose them.  It is not, however, the way conservatives understand these things, and one can’t understand the first thing about conservatives until one understands how we experience hierarchy.  For us, obedience to legitimate authority is an ennobling and not a degrading act.  In any event, Robin realizes that conservatives become bored once we’ve crushed the spirits of our serfs too thoroughly, so we turn to war–our other access to the Sublime.  Or rather, we send other people to war, since danger only maintains its sublimity from a distance.  So, according to Robin, conservatism is a campaign to enslave some of our fellow men while sending the rest off to die in pointless wars.

Needless to say, Burke never said anything about domination or war being a preferred path to spiritual awakening.  The whole argument is based on a profound misunderstanding of sublimity.  First, apprehension of the Sublime is an intentional state, not an emotional thrill or objectless feeling.  It presupposes a certain level of detatchment, an ability to let the object speak to us.  This is why it’s lost when the sublime object becomes an imminent threat.  A lion is an awesome animal, and part of its awe comes from its dangerous power, but you wouldn’t be registering this awe if a lion were actually chasing you.  Then you’d be occupied by more practical concerns.  Burke certainly never recommended sending other people off to die in war so that Tories can get a vicarious thrill.  Nor has any other conservative that I’m aware of.

As I said, the whole thing is quite a missed opportunity.  Robin was right to start with the idea of the Sublime.  A better path might have been from awe to the numinous to the holy.  Then he would have really penetrated the psyche of conservatives.

The quote from Carl Schmitt, his famous idea that the fundamental categories in politics are “friend” and “enemy”, he understands no better.  What is the clarity that Schmitt thought came with the friend/enemy distinction?  Robin assimilates it into his thesis that conservatives are looking for an emotional thrill of non-imminent danger.  However, for Schmitt, as for Burke, the goal was not emotional, but intellectual.  Recognizing the existence of the enemy meant recognizing that the body politic and the order it represents are vulnerable.  It is a call for someone (for Schmitt, a strong executive) to take responsibility for preserving this order.  Politics can never be reduced to following neutral procedures or enforcing “rights”, as he accused the parliamentary democrats and liberals of wishing to do.  Rather than blindly following rules, someone has to look out for the order itself.

Is there a distinctly conservative attitude toward war?  It’s not clear, since the relations between states has never been a central concern of conservative theory.  The latter has most often considered single communities and their traditions, with relations between communities being treated (when at all) as a complication.  More often it’s the conservative’s critic who brings up the issue of other peoples and their different ways.  So far from needing outsiders to kill, conservatism might actually be conceptually easier if there were only one nation.  Nevertheless, conservatives’ vision of internal order may logically spill over into a foreign policy.  Whether this is so is the question Professor Robin raises, and it is an interesting one.  His attempt to answer it was hindered not only by his own evident prejudice, but also by a lack of conservative intellectuals with whom he might have consulted.

Atheists, Mormons, religious literacy, and unpopularity

I was perplexed by the recent study that claimed to show that atheists have more religious knowledge than religious people.  This seems counterintuitive.  There is a good analysis of the results at The Truth Shall Set You Free, in which it is pointed out that the survey failed to control for a number of other potentially important variables.  Namely, atheists are much more likely to be highly educated and white.

I would like to focus on a different angle.  Namely, why is it that this result clashes so strongly with my experience.  Reading and listening to atheists, I am always struck by how little they understand religion.  I certainly don’t blame average atheists for this–why should they take the time to study something they don’t believe in?  But it’s not just them.  Even the atheists who write books attacking religion make a great number of amateur mistakes about it.  For example, atheists attacks on the cosmological argument are nearly always aimed at a gross caricature of this argument.  Edward Feser has related his frustration on this point several times (see here, here, here).  And it’s not even “new atheist” loudmouths he’s dealing with, but professional philosophers.  Atheists are even worse when they turn from metaphysics to descriptions of religious experience.  I have never seen them describe the latter in terms of anything other than mindless fear or wish fulfillment fantasy.  Of course, fear and desire do take part in religious experience, but they take part in much else besides.  The distinctive elements of a confrontation with the Sacred are entirely absent from the atheist’s accounts.  All this shows how, even in the natural order, faith is needed for understanding.  When an atheist encounters an aspect of a religion he doesn’t immediately and effortlessly understand, he assumes that it’s nonsense and drops the matter.  After all, he’s quite sure that the whole affair is nonsense in any case.  Only someone who hasn’t already dismissed a religion will bother to appreciate its subtleties.  When we compare religion’s defenders to its attackers–David Bentley Hart to Christopher Hitchens, for example–there is no comparison whatsoever in breadth of knowledge or depth of appreciation for the issues involved.

Of course, even though Christopher Hitchens is an ignoramous, he would probably have scored well on the Pew survey, so I suppose that’s one thing wrong with it.  Still, the level of discourse on the pro-religion side is so much higher than on the anti-religion side, that there is still something to be explained.  Why should knowledge and understanding be strongly anti-correlated?

I think the main difference is that, in America, atheism reflects an actual belief, while Christianity is a sort of social default.  The latter thus includes everyone in the country who’s never given religion a thought.  Atheists, on the other hand, at least take religions seriously enough to take a real position on whether they are true.  I expect that a survey comparing serious Christians to atheists, correcting for education levels, would give very different results from the Pew survey.

The issue of seriousness also, I think, explains another fact:  the public’s general discomfort with atheists.  Atheists are not popular.  “Spiritual but not religious” people, on the other hand, are popular, even though they reject every tenet of Christianity that the atheists reject.  Why is this?  I think it’s because everyone realizes that being “spiritual but not religious” is just playing out a lifestyle choice, like choosing a brand of blue jeans; it doesn’t involve adherence to any actual beliefs about the Deity.  The only belief needed to be “spiritual” is in the wonderfulness of one’s own spirit, which must be so much more sublime than those of all those boorish “dogmatists”.  Atheism is actually the less arrogant position.  It is a belief about something other than oneself.  And yet I am quite sure that America will have a “spiritual” president before it has an atheist president.

The atheist takes religious doctrines to be actual statements about the world.  This sins against America’s true religion, that is, the religion of politeness.  To the average American, the archetypal moderate, religious statements are just things that people say to make life nicer.  He assures a grieving family that Grandma is in heaven, not because he believes it or expects those he says it to to believe it, but because it’s a nice thing to say, and it makes people happier to hear nice things.  He asks for God’s blessing at public ceremonies, not because he expects a response, but because it adds solemnity to the atmosphere nicely.  He attributes all his beliefs and prejudices to God, not because he really thinks that God hates tariffs, the line-item veto, or whatever, but to say in a grand-sounding way that he really hates it.  To such a person, confronting someone about whether they really, literally believe what they’re saying is a serious faux pas, akin to giving a child a brutally honest evaluation of his artwork.

Of course, it’s not just atheists who fall afoul of the religion of politeness; it’s also any religious believer who gives indications of seriously believing the things that come out of his mouth.  It wasn’t just atheists who scored high on the Pew test.  Mormons also did very well, and no religious group in America is more unpopular than the Latter Day Saints.  You’ll remember that Romney being a Mormon was a big deal.  Why is this?  Some would say that people are repulsed by the “weirdness” of Mormon beliefs, but how many Americans have ever even heard any of these beliefs?  No, the one thing that everyone knows about Mormons–and it’s the only thing that matters–is that they’re serious.  They actually believe “that stuff”.  When they say “God bless you”, they’re actually asking an omnipotent Being to do something, and that freaks people out.  “These guys are nuts!  We’ve gotta keep them far from power,” thinks “moderate” America.

Catholics used to be a despised group, because Catholics, you know, actually believed “that stuff”.  Then came Vatican II, when we gave society at large that wink and nudge that means “we’re not serious”.  Now, instead of anti-Catholicism, in America we have anti-clericalism, because the public still can’t shake the suspicion that the Catholic clergy, at least, are serious.  Would that it were true!  As “Justin” says, based on the Pew results

 Ouch! Roman Catholic religious education –> EPIC FAIL

Actually, I think that, being (I think) a non-Catholic, he is being overly generous.  A more accurate equation would be

Roman Catholic religious education = nonexistent

How long, oh Lord, must this Springtime of Vatican II last?

The status of conservative thought II: overcoming Founderolatry

In some ways, conservative thought in America has been advancing steadily for a century.  This is what we should expect.  When a community of scholars functions properly, knowledge is cummulative, and we should be able to build on the wisdom of our predecessors.

As American thought matures, the attention it gives to America’s Founding Fathers wanes.  Half a century ago, Russell Kirk made John Adams a key conservative hero (giving him a chapter in The Conservative Mind) and the Constitution a great conservative victory.  The Declaration of Independence was a propaganda document designed for French consumption, he assured us, and not something to be taken seriously.  Meanwhile, the Southern Agrarians were still straining to tease out conservative insights from Jefferson.  In contrast, in a 21st century book-length statement of conservative belief, Jim Kalb’s The Tyranny of Liberalism, reference to the Founders is limited to one quote from The Federalist Papers.  On the Right blogosphere, the only major site I can think of where harkening to the “wisdom of the Founders” is still a major theme is ISI’s First Principles.  Even those conservative bloggers who admire the Founders and approve of their rebellion show their respect by mentioning them little.

This is a positive development, because focusing on the beliefs of the Founding generation has always been a pointless exercise for those who want a more substantial vision of social order than eighteenth-century Whiggery.  Equally futile are arguments over which faction of this generation–Anti-Federalists, Federalists, or Republicans–represented our side.  None of them did.  They were all Lockeans; whatever conservatism they had was unexamined prejudice.  I suspect that, as American conservatives continue to become more clear-headed, our view of the Founders’ insurrection against their sovereign will grow dimmer as well.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that American conservatives are about to start agitating for the US to rejoin the British Empire.  They will still be loyal to the American order and its unwritten constitution.  They will still encourage piety towards our ancestors, including the Founders who are the partial–but only partial–authors of the American order.  With de Maistre, we regard God as the true author of nations and their constitutions, not necessarily in the sense that He works miracles for their establishment, but in the sense that all authorities rest on a vision of sacred order, something bigger than the conscious construction of any group of men.  As for the “wisdom of the Founders”, let us regard it as a pious exaggeration, or a noble lie at the very worst.  We will no more try to disabuse our countrymen of it than we would argue with a child who insists that his father is the best father in the world.  Both the child’s statement and the patriot’s are more likely expressions of love than statements of fact.  Let us put the Founders in a mental box, call it a shrine, and set it aside.

The status of conservative thought I: collapse of the mainstream

Let’s take stock of where we’re at, shall we, my fellow reactionaries?  Needless to say, real conservatism is farther from real power and real popularity than it has ever been.  How conservatism fares as an intellectual movement is an entirely independent question.  From this point of view, the news is mixed and not entirely bad.

As in the past, conservatism today is largely organized around journals, varying in quality from high (First Things) to very low (National Review).  A given conservative writer will often publish in more than one of these journals, but each maintains a distinct outlook, allowing it to become the locus of a distinct intellectual community.  The most significant, and most often commented upon, distinction is between mainstream and alternative factions on the Right.  The former are classical liberals loyal to the Republican Party.  The latter present more radical criticisms of American liberal society.  For most Americans, including most Republicans, the former group is the sole representative of the Right, and they are often not even aware that the latter group exists.

The most striking development of the past few decades is the collapse of intellectual seriousness in the mainstream camp.  They were always contaminated with liberalism, but they weren’t always the embarassments they are today.  There was a time when the Republican Party held serious positions and could defend them intelligently.  There was a time, believe it or not, when National Review and The Weekly Standard published interesting and intelligent articles.  Those days are over.

Good riddance, you might think.  Those people were always our enemies.  Perhaps if they would just get out of the way, America could have a real conservative alternative.  Maybe, but I doubt it.  Most people who become reactionaries don’t make the leap out of liberalism all at once.  Most of us went through a mainstream/Republican phase in which we had become critical of some liberal policies, but we had not yet seriously critiqued liberalism’s basic premises.  Mainstream publications help fortify us in our opposition to parts of liberalism.  As we matured intellectually, we began to see the inadequacy, the ultimate incoherence, of the mainstream position, and we were able to more further Right.  I fear that without the “gateway drug” of mainstream conservatism, very few people would be able to find their way out of liberalism.  The collapse of the mainstream should be a real worry to us.  The fact is that if I were an intelligent young man just beginning to question some aspects of liberalism, the publications and spokesmen on the mainstream would reassure me pretty quickly that conservatism is stupid and not worth considering.