Crazy Little Thing Called Conservatism

August 1, 2007

What is a conservative? What is conservatism? These are important and interesting questions. Unfortunately, the writings of conservatives are the last place one should look for answers.

Actually, that’s not completely true. One can learn a lot about conservatism by reading the foundational texts of its guiding lights. The trouble is, the things one learns don’t connect with the things that conservatives claim to value and fight for. We often hear that conservatism is characterized by “belief in a transcendent moral order,” but watching the ongoing weasel circus that is the Bush administration, we see no moral principle at work beyond that of unswerving loyalty to a degraded, hypocritical president.

That line about “transcendent moral order” was written by Russell Kirk. Back in the 1980s, when National Review was still dominated by William F. Buckley and it was possible — assuming one was willing to sift and pick through the wordage like a Forty-Niner panning for gold in a California stream — to find worthwhile opinions in a magazine that has since become a tar pit for movement conservatives, hardly a month seemed to go by without coming across wheezing praise for the writings of Russell Kirk.

So I went and found me a copy of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and spent entirely too many weeks picking through a bleak orchard of withered and rotten fruit. What was most repellent about Kirk’s book? Was it his description of Confederate murderer and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest as “magnificent”? Was it his grumping about those pesky anti-slavery agitators in the Northeast? Was it his theocratic nuttiness, his insistence that church and state must always be kept entwined in order to keep the masses in line? Was it his writing, a near-perfect balance of pomposity and vacuity? Whatever it was, by the time Kirk’s book landed at the bottom of my wastebasket, I had concluded that I had been panning for pyrite — that Kirk’s constant references to the puniness of human reason were not so much an analysis as a confession.If you enjoy the spectacle of seeing an oversized gasbag converted into a Hindenberg-scale fireball, then go check out Alan Wolfe’s masterful essay on Russell Kirk in The New Republic. The article (a review of the new collection The Essential Russell Kirk) is loaded with gems. Noting that Kirk was fond of writing ghost stories in his lighter moments, Wolfe uses this fact to light the way into the conservative penchant for fantasy — a penchant that, alas, continues to inform its economic and social attitudes:

Kirk’s decision to write both Gothic fiction and political philosophy tells you something about modern conservatism. For one thing, he was not alone; conservatives from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ayn Rand were also attracted to fantasy, and, in more recent times, two stalwarts of the Bush administration–Lynne Cheney and I. Lewis Libby — have written historical romances. (Should Newt Gingrich find himself in the White House, God forbid, we would have a fantasy-fiction writer as president.) Fantasy fiction gave Kirk the room to roam, to portray the world as an eternal struggle between good and evil in which the former’s cause is not lost so long as it is faithful to everything that makes it good. Magical places such as the Outer Hebrides convey some eternal truths about the human condition that have been lost in the rush to modernity. “There were fairies in the last generation,” Kirk wrote in a memoir of a trip to the Hebrides.

A world in which people read fairy tales and take them seriously is a better world than the one in which we live. “One has but to look at our half-ruined American cities, with their ghastly rates of murder and rape, to perceive that we moderns lack the moral imagination and the right reason required to maintain tolerable community,” Kirk wrote toward the end of his life. “Perhaps Tolkien’s blasted and servile land of Mordor may serve as a symbol of the human condition in the twenty-first century.” Kirk would no doubt be pleased to see children these days rushing out to see Lord of the Rings: “The fantastic and the fey, far from being unhealthy for small children, are precisely what a healthy child needs; under such stimulus, a child’s moral imagination quickens.” Searching for a good example, Kirk came up with Little Black Sambo.

Wolfe’s summation of Kirk can hardly be bettered:

George W. Bush once called himself a compassionate conservative. Russell Kirk is a contemptuous conservative. Kirk is contemptuous of people, or at least those whose very existence prevents gentlemen aristocrats from sitting in front of the fire reading Aristotle while their slaves, or their wives, prepared their dinner. He is contemptuous of ideas, or of those ideas with which he disagrees, and prefers caricaturing them to arguing with them. He is contemptuous of the world in which he lived, always exaggerating the bad and having nary a word to say about the good. He is contemptuous of the truth, mangling his facts and distorting the history of the country he claims to love. His is not the conservatism of the country club; Kirk is no northeastern aristocrat determined to protect the exclusivity of his turf. His is the conservatism of George Babbitt, not Irving Babbitt: provincial, resentful, bigoted. If you collected all the grumblings in a small-town drugstore by men convinced that somehow the world had passed them by, and then added a few literary and historical references, you would have The Essential Russell Kirk.

Wolfe’s essay stirred a flurry out outraged responses among paleoconservatives, who slapped on their powdered wigs and took to their computers in an attempt to put the ruffian in his place. Wolfe is quite capable of defending himself against the rain of goose quills.

What is “conservatism”? What is a “conservative”? I remain unconvinced that conservatism passes muster as a true political philosophy. When conservative “philosophers” like Russell Kirk warn that human reason is inherently limited and therefore we should be very, very cautious about doing anything to upset the social order — which, after all, was created by older and wiser heads than ours — I can’t help but notice that the philosopher is among those who benefit the most from that social order.

Right now we see a certain number of high-profile conservatives arguing that George W. Bush is not a “true” conservative. Since most of them were lavishing praise on Bush until his poll numbers took a dive and the lies that led us into Iraq become impossible to ignore, and since Bush’s depredations were carried out with the eager cooperation of a loot-and-plunder minded GOP-dominated Congress, we are left once again with the questino: What is this crazy little thing called conservatism?

Rick Perlstein, in a famous 2005 speech at Princeton University, pondered this question. He, too, found the idea of “transcendent moral order” hard to square with the thuggish activities of Richard Nixon, who like George W. Bush was derided by once-adulatory conservatives once his administration fell into disgrace:

Nixon knew that if you had a dirty job to get down, you got people who answered to the description he made of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy: “good, healthy right-wing exuberants.” My question is: can conservatism exist without the Tom Charles Hustons?

Religious traditions suffused with a sense of millennial stakes often have subrosa discourses akin to what the Mormons call “lying for the Lord.” Pentectostal missiologist C. Peter Wagner, for example, has written, “We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means…. If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method.”

Lying for the Lord has its concombinants on the political right. Jerry Falwell has argued for the elimination of all public schools. Nothing wrong with making that argument. But in 1998, when confronted with a quote, he denied making it, and denied having anything to do with the book in which it appeared. It was from a book of transcriptions of his sermons.

This past year, I interviewed Richard Viguerie about conservatives and the presidential campaign. I showed him an infamous flier the Republican National Committee had willingly taken credit for, featuring a crossed-out Bible and the legend, “This will be Arkansas if you don’t vote.” “To do this,” Viguerie told me, “it reminds me of Bush the 41st, and not just him, but other non-conservative Republicans.”

Republicans are different from conservatives: that was one of the first lessons I learned when I started interviewing YAFers. I learned it making small talk with conservative publisher Jameson Campaigne, in Ottawa, Illinois, when I asked him if he golfed. He said something like: “Are you kidding? I’m a conservative, not a Republican.”

But back to Viguerie’s expression of same. With a couple of hours’ research I was able to find a mailer from an organization that was then one of his direct-mail clients that said “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood.”

Why not cut corners like this, if you believe you are defending the unchanging ground of our changing experience? This is what many Americans of good faith seem to be hearing conservatives telling them.

“Lying for the Lord”! Under Bush, that should replace “E Pluribus Unum” on the national seal. This administration, celebrated as the apotheosis of conservatism for most of its existence, has made lying so fundamental to its approach that if I hear Abu Gonzales say the sun rises in the east, I get up early the next morning to make sure. But for conservatives, it’s not lying because it’s for the greater good. Perlstein again:

I get the question all the time from smart liberal friends: what is conservatism, anyway? They’re baffled. “As far as I can tell, anything someone on the right does is, by definition, ethical. It’s not about the act, or even the motivation. It’s about who’s perpetrating it.” It has become the name for a movement that can scream from the rooftops that every Supreme Court nominee should have an expiditious up-or-down vote, then 15 seconds later demand tortuous proceduralism when that nominee is Harriet Miers. Flexibility is the first principle of politics.

I’m trying to make here an argument not about instances, but about a structure of thought. It is the structure of thought betrayed, I think, by Ahmed Chalabi, explaining his deliberate deception of U.S. intelligence: “We were heroes in error.”

Is Chalabi, or Jerry Falwell, a “principled conservative” or a “pragmatic conservative.” That’s a question I’d like to pose to you all. My head hurts just thinking about it.

This part of my talk, I imagine, is long after the point a constitutive operation of conservative intellectual work has clicked on in your minds: the part where you argue that malefactor A or B or C, or transgression X or Y or Z, is not “really” conservative. In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed. One guy will get up, at a conference like this, and say conservatism, in its proper conception, is 33 1/3 percent this, 33 1/3 percent that, 33 1/3 percent the other thing. Another rises to declaim that the proper admixture is 50-25-25.

It is, among other things, a strategy of psychological innocence. If the first guy turns out to be someone you would not care to be associated with, you have an easy, Platonic, out: with his crazy 33-33-33 formula–well, maybe he’s a Republican. Or a neocon, or a paleo. He’s certainly not a conservative. The structure holds whether it’s William Kristol calling out Pat Buchanan, or Pat Buchanan calling out William Kristol.

As the Internet’s smartest liberal blogger, Digby, puts it, tongue only partially in cheek: “‘Conservative’ is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives’ good graces. Until they aren’t. At which point they are liberals.”

Well, that’s a hell of a note! In the end, we need liberals to tell us about the true nature of conservatism.

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2 Responses to “Crazy Little Thing Called Conservatism”


  1. Steve, this is great. Drop me a line if you ever get through Chicago.

    And love the Hague joke on your book page. My wife’s family is old Jersey City.

  2. Ron Says:

    When one of the cornerstones of your political philosophy supports the idea of “Noble Lies” (Leo Strauss) you get carte blanche for this kind of thing.


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