Monday, January 26, 2009

Up From Conservatism

At The American Conservative, Reid Buckley writes that "America needs a better Right than the GOP can provide":
... I cry within myself, where is the inspiration? Where is the audacity? And I wonder often whether the young radical today reading conservative publications does not suffer from the tedium that suffocated me as a young man reading the liberal press.

Tell me quickly: what is new in conservative political thinking since 1955? Can you come up with a single tenet that rises fresh to the mind in treating vicissitudes that were undreamed of back when my brother founded National Review—the worldwide torrent of the Internet, bursting through ethnic, national, and ideological barriers, maybe reducing all philosophies of government to chauvinism; or the impact of economic globalization, which snatches some Third World peoples from penury but as suddenly dumps them back into it; or the acceptance of infanticide and euthanasia by a majority of the American people, upon whom, according to populist conservative creed—descending from Ronald Reagan, intoned from all platforms—we conservatives exhort ourselves to depend; or the religious and imperial irredentist menace of Islamic terrorism, which threatens a 100-year war of civilizations? What have conservatives to hurl at these urgent historic challenges other than the same bromides? For 40 years, smug, snide right-wingers have made merry mocking Greenpeace fanatics and ecological doomsayers without learning a blessed thing about the precariousness of the ecology and the effect of human action (not to speak of avarice) on it, as when we promiscuously exfoliate the rain forests or condemn yet one more green acre on the southeastern shore of New Jersey to the desolation of heedless urban development. We conservatives are so self-satisfied that we have incapacitated ourselves from peering beneath the antics of idiots and the wild exaggerations of scruffy environmentalist kooks to the gathering of real dangers that their hysterical rhetoric obscures. The climate is most probably changing, and the human impact on it should be studied.

When last did you hear a conservative spokesman deplore yet another six-lane highway, yet another fast-food alley, yet another graceless subdivision, yet another Super Wal-Mart or Lowe’s that sucks the life out of small village businesses, yet one more onslaught against neighborhood and nature that is masked under the name of progress? Unless it is a bridge in Alaska from nowhere to nowhere, you will not hear the deepest red-dyed congressman denounce the progressive uglification of our natural inheritance, as though beauty is of no concern. Have you flown recently from Newport News to Boston at 25,000 feet on a clear day and gazed down upon the horror of American civilization? What man hath wrought! What we have done to this beautiful land? Dear God, forgive us! But when last did you hear a conservative oppose a new mall because it is ugly, an affront to the eye, accustoming thousands of human beings to dehumanizing blows against the aesthetic sense until it is benumbed? The good, the true, and the beautiful are inseparably joined. One cannot damage one without doing harm to the others. Those who fail to comprehend this are morally in error on the dialectical front, though they may be personally virtuous.

I wonder—I am nagged by the doubt—has the disheartening failure of the conservative movement on the domestic front, dating from the second Reagan administration, been anywhere sufficiently acknowledged or analyzed by our great conservative institutions of scholarly learning? Has sodomy become the groovy kinkiness in our society? Is prayer ever to be restored to our schools? Are the unborn in America never to be safeguarded? And our infirm or derelict elderly—are they now to be at the mercy of the avariciousness of their heirs or the parsimony of the state? Will ever an amendment to the Constitution win through defining the Republic now and forever as Christian bred and born and deliberately affirmed at the founding, putting the quietus to secularists, who seek to desacralize society as well as life?

Recall heroic General Armistead pinning his hat on the tip of his sword and—thrusting the blade high, yelling to his brave men to follow—charging through the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, at once to fall mortally wounded. That’s been called the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Did the high-water mark of the 20th-century conservative movement of the United States take place back in December 1995/January 1996 when—in what might as well have been a railroad car’s tobacco-sodden men’s room, among the cuspidors—squat, puffy Newt Gingrich stonewalled smooth, sleazy Bill Clinton?

Judging from the political deportment of the Republican Congresses and the White House in domestic matters since that time, has anyone had the audacity, courage, and honesty to tell the bald truth—which is that the Republican Party has failed the cause to which my brother Bill and so many other brilliant souls—Frank Meyer, Jim Burnham, John Chamberlain, to mention just a few—gave unstintingly of their lives? Is any establishment conservative organ today declaring unequivocally that conservatives who have any respect at all for the political philosophy they profess must forswear the Republican Party and on many major issues break ranks with government-trusting (and agnostic) neocons? Or is that fresh young mind this minute deciding that whatever the right wing says about anything is tired polemics from which candor and the imagination have long since leaked out?’

When I ponder the future of American culture, I wonder, first, whether in the future there will ever again be respect for truth in this Republic or whether we conservatives, like the vainglorious Greeks 2,500 years ago, are so tainted intellectually and corrupted philosophically that we have lost the capacity for critical thinking about ourselves, relying on euphemisms in place of truth.

On the political level, then, what will be the future of American civilization as far as we conservatives are concerned? Why, of knaves and charlatans on both sides of the aisle driving the Republic headlong into a metastatic colossus of a state in which the citizen has been reduced to a hapless serf; in which blunt, honest language has been euphemized out of existence; and in which a bland and servile acceptance of the inevitability of Big Brother is the received wisdom.

Where are our Friedrich Hayeks of The Road to Serfdom, our Eric Voegelins of The New Science of Politics, our Russell Kirks of The Conservative Mind? Where is our philosopher? Meantime, on the practical front, what can conservatives do? The very first thing is to dissociate from the Republican Party, which has become an albatross around the neck of integrity.

[Read the whole thing]

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At 1/26/2009 3:23 PM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I don't get it. Is he saying that instead of embracing Democrats' ideas of big government that Republicans instead should have embraced Democrats' ideas of environmentalism?

He wants new ideas for new challenges undreamed-of in 1955? How about the fight against abortion? Against euthanasia? Against gay marriage? How about the fight for the abolition of the income tax?

At 1/26/2009 3:37 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

There is much to appreciate about this screed, and also much to question - as Paul above states. If I have time, I will deal with it in more detail later.

I did want to address the party stuff, because I was thinking it over this past weekend. As much as it would be personally satisfying to divorce myself from the Republican party, the other options are not very appealing. Obviously the Democrats are not an option, so I'm left with either independence or a third party. The former is not practical. In real world America, being an independent prevents you from having any say within the party at all. At least you can help shape how the party functions by being a member of it.

Some might like the third party option, but aside from what I think is the undesirability of having a multiple party system, it creates the problem that eventually even the third, fourth, fifth, etc party is still going to wind up alienating some of its members. Even among the conservative members of St. Blog's, there are not insignificant differences of opinion on economic matters and even foreign policy. If Paul, Jay, myself, Darwin etc. all tried to form a party, we might agree on 90% of all the issues, but we'd still be out in the cold on several weighty matters. Eventually, we'd feel the same disenchantment with that party as we do with the GOP, though perhaps it wouldn't be as severe.

I think we need to work within the reality of the current two-party system and do everything we can to make it better. Then again, maybe that option is really the pie-in-the-sky one.

At 1/26/2009 3:45 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

One other quick observation. He bemoans the lack of any original conservative thinker in the modern age (other than the half-dozen or so he rattled off), but where are the great minds of the left? If lack of original and profound thinking is a problem, it sure as hell isn't an isolated problem on the right.

At 1/26/2009 3:52 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

There is much in the environmental agenda that conservatism SHOULD HAVE embraced (while questioning and rejecting much of the junk science and social engineering that tries to pass itself off as "environmentalism"). As Buckley notes:

The good, the true, and the beautiful are inseparably joined. One cannot damage one without doing harm to the others.

Before moving to Ohio, I lived in a county in central Virginia where the county party leadership in both the Democrat and Republican Parties opposed development on aesthetic, historic preservation, and quality of life grounds. The interest was in maintaining the rural nature of the county and not being subsumed into the residential/strip mall suburban sprawl that is beginning to stretch all the way from Richmond to Charlottesville.

I simply don't understand why conservatives object so strenuously about notions of conservation.

At 1/26/2009 4:09 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

I don't think the culture war was a challenge undreamed of in 1955. In fact, I believe the 50s is when we began to see the opening skirmishes. Nevertheless, while I'm as much a culture warrior as the next pro-life conservative, surely there MUST be something more to modern conservatism than merely fighting a rear-guard action on the culture front.

And conservatives have been bemoaning the income tax since its inception.

Mr. Buckley makes it clear that he is merely raising questions, and doesn't know the answers himself. Neither do I. But, like Buckley, I think we need to question and re-assess what it is conservatives believe in, what our objectives should be, and whether the tactics and strategies we've been following are effective and likely to yield our objectives.

Unfortunately, I think we have at least 8 years in the wilderness in which to come up with an answer.

At 1/26/2009 4:11 PM, Anonymous paul zummo said...

I simply don't understand why conservatives object so strenuously about notions of conservation.

Do they? This is part of the article that bothered me. Buckley kept issuing these bromides about how conservatives oppose sane ecological policies, but he seemed to be painting with a broad brush. Perhaps we can do a better job at emphasizing conservation, but he seemed to conflate reasoned opposition to the excesses of environmentalism with a complete disregard for the environment. I'm not convinced he adequately made his case.

At 1/26/2009 4:19 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

I've heard too many "conservatives" argue on "free market" grounds (especially as it relates to real estate development):

It's their property; they can do what they want with it. It's a free country.

Well, yes and no.

At 1/26/2009 4:28 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

Let me provide a real-world example. Texas is one of the most conservative and business-friendly states in the Union.

When we were visiting my family down there a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I marveled in disgust at how strip malls that were brand new 15 years ago when I moved away are sitting empty or near empty while brand new strip malls are developed a mile or less away.

Conservatives should oppose that sort of wasteful development scheme. But to do so is seen as "anti-business" or as infringing on property rights.

At 1/26/2009 5:53 PM, Blogger Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

Nevertheless, while I'm as much a culture warrior as the next pro-life conservative, surely there MUST be something more to modern conservatism than merely fighting a rear-guard action on the culture front.

Must there be? I suppose so. I see myself as focused on the thick of things in the culture war, both in terms of raising my own kids, and in making the arguments for what used to be called basic decency on my blog, and I admit that I usually view things through that lense. I recognize that not everyone else can or does (although I also think that some bloggers have an obligation to take up the fight, having worked so hard to help bring about the current dismal situation). I'm particularly sensitive to efforts by some in the GOP, including this author's nephew, to get the GOP to throw the pro-life cause overboard, and focus solely on fiscal policy.

As for your pro-life bona fides, Jay, there is no doubt.

At 1/26/2009 9:56 PM, Blogger John Lofton, Recovering Republican said...

Forget "conservatism," please. It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. 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

At 1/28/2009 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have never seen the Greeks described as corrupted intellectually and philosophically and unable to critically think. That must mean our own great thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, etc. were corrupt intellectually and philosophically since they practically Christianized Greek thought.

I honestly have never come across a more ridiculous assertion in my life.


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