Archive for the ‘Conservatism’ Category

Andrew Sullivan is right that passion and skepticism are by no means at odds. The point of skepticism is not that we should vacate (we can’t anway) our passions and the irrationality that grounds, at least in part, our most examined beliefs. It’s that when it comes to setting priorities, we ought to be reflectively aware of this irrationality and elevate the concept of our fallibility above the others. That way we don’t reach the point where it is imperative that others either share our beliefs and values, or be killed, because their “evil” ideas threaten to out-propagate the ideas that keep our culture psychically alive.

The supporters of war are quick to turn the ideas of others into existential threats, quickly shifting back and forth between the ways in which supposed enemies are a threat to us, or their own people, or to abstractions such as “freedom” and “democracy”.

We know today that “terrorists” are not much of a threat to the United States, because they cannot strike with the force and frequency of a standing army. Even terrorists armed with a nuke are not a threat to the existence of the United States in the way, for instance, that Russia still is.

9/11 was more damaging to American pride than infrastructure, and the supporters of war do everything to conflate humiliation and threat. In the meantime, they do not take seriously the gravity of killing tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians for the sake of ideas and abstractions — it is enough that we call these deaths an “accident” or the “collateral” of our good intentions. They do not get the irony that spreading “freedom” on a practical level means a massive imposition of misery on an entire populace. Because Saddam was a bad man and bad for Iraq, removing him must inevitably be better Iraq, a patent non sequitur.

Andrew Sullivan is one of those who did not take the concept of war seriously, and did not apply his skepticism when it counted. And despite his change of heart, there are still hints hints that he equates the failure of the Utopian adventure in Iraq with a case of mismanagement. That is not a conservative stance. History has not been kind to such schemes. We ought to learn from it.

The “Iraq experiment” of which Sullivan’s reader speaks is a phrase of ignorant, Mengelian callousness: did we ask Iraqis if they thought liberation and “democracy” weres worth dying in large numbers? Did we hold a democratic referendum? And do we really think that war can be an act of grace? Did we think to evaluate or own cultural maladies, including the murderous recent history of the United States, against those of the Muslims above whom we assumed we were so culturally elevated that we thought we could help them cure their “extremism” and “social development” and “political attitudes” — with bombs? This is like Ghenghis Khan describing his rampages as a kind of finishing school for those who could benefit from his brand of refinement.

To some this response will seem reactionary, America-hating, and naively pacifist. Some might detect the tinge of smug radicalism — of disheveled simple-minded hippies who frequent war protests and can’t make the tough decisions required for the safety of their nation. We’re meant to believe that these critics are the tough guys who love America enough to accept the inevitability of killing: they can handle the idea of war. And where this willingness to kill would normally be a sign of psychopathology, in international affairs one finds an acceptable outlet, and in these circles it is a badge of honor, and realism, a grave consciousness of what is necessary in the world. (Notwithstanding the fact that the TV appearances of such toughs often consist of of everything from puerile, insecure belligerence to coldly delivered enticements to contractual mischief (Bill Kristol)).

They are not swayed by their emotions, by the pictures of dead children with newly disorganized bodies (plentiful from Iraq). That’s just war, the realists say, and there are higher ideals, not to mention the safety of the country at stake.

Safer after the initiation of the blood feud? Safer when waging wars rather than establishing security at home? Higher, more realistic ideals than the lives of innocents?

(“Er, when I said “spreading freedom”, did I forget to mention that you’ll find your arms and legs have been freed from your torso?”)


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An accurate and in some places devastating critique of Andrew Sullivan’s career of fickle naiveté:

What is baffling is why such an ardent disciple of Oakeshott came to sign himself up for the Bush program in the first place—a decision that Sullivan now says he finds “more than a little worrying.” For, from the moment of its declaration, the “war on terror” (“this crusade,” as Bush then defined it), by committing the United States to an indefinite future of hostilities against a shadowy and shape-shifting enemy, had all the hallmarks of one of Oakeshott’s most deluded Rationalist projects. Yet even as Osama bin Laden morphed into Saddam Hussein, and Paul Wolfowitz unrolled his great plan for the democratization of the Middle East by force of arms, Sullivan was a raucous cheerleader for the administration.

I have to admit Sullivan’s blog is now my favorite — perhaps because I like the prolonged mea culpa of someone who (in Raban’s words) “shilled” so long for the right. Perhaps because he’s just such a personable fellow, willing to tell you what’s on his mind and change it, a quintessential blogger. I can’t, on the other hand, get through Sullivan’s book, in which “conservatism” is defined arbitrarily as skepticism and fallibilism. According to Raban, this skepticism is really just a rationalization of fickle passions:

This may explain Sullivan’s painful about-face on the liberal-imperialist conquest of Iraq, but hardly excuses it. It is a self-serving conceit to claim, as he does, that in the days leading up to the invasion, all decent people (excluding the aforementioned nihilists and traitors) were in the same boat, equally misled by what later proved to be defective intelligence on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction

Montaigne’s remarks on the infinite depth of human fallibility were not meant as a license to embrace the one-day inspiration only to reject it as “the dumbest thing on earth” when it turns out badly.

Petty consistency is not a hobgoblin that troubles Andrew Sullivan’s mind, and he likes to chalk up his inconsistency to his conservatism, because it is a hallmark of the pragmatic conservative to know himself to be frequently mistaken.

Ouch on all counts. And Sullivan’s inconsistencies are the Republican party’s, according to Raban:

Yet in its exposure of the contra-dictions entailed in being Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Soul rather brilliantly exposes the contradictions of the Republican Party as it is today. If two randomly selected voters who supported Bush in 2000 and 2004 were to be sat in a room and asked to unpack the contents of their heads, each would likely be appalled by the entrenched beliefs of the other. The worldviews of the Christian fundamentalist, the project-driven neoconservative theorist, and the small-government free-marketeer are, as Sullivan shows, dramatically incompatible on both religious and philosophical grounds.

These things may have more in common than they seem to at first blush.

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