Rant: The Banality of Conservatism

I certainly don’t want to go “look how smart I am,” because if the latter is said people might actually start looking and I might get in trouble. But this passage from Joseph Epstein’s obituary of Irving Kristol leaped out at me:

At the same time, he liked to play with ideas. I remember a Chinese dinner with him at which he tried out the idea that Modernism in the arts was the devil’s work. He meant the actual capital-D Devil. Was he serious? I’m not certain even now, but the discussion, in which Irving argued that Modernist art undermined tradition and as such human confidence in institutions, was provocative in the best sense, causing a true believer (that would be me) to defend Modernism by arguing that the best of it was based precisely on tradition.

Dear readers, that’s not playing with ideas unless one is 14 years old and trying to be an intellectual in high school. And not just any high school – this is the kind of debate homeschooled kids who’ve never left the house otherwise and have encountered “modernism” in art history textbooks have (a few of you will know that I am not exaggerating one bit here). In fact, what’s stunning is how dull, trite, and ultimately cliched such a debate is, and yet Epstein has somehow remembered this as if it is the most significant experience in the world.

Garry Wills’ remembrance of Bill Buckley is another case in point; I’m no fan of Wills, not one bit: I think he’s a strange liberal with some Southern apologist tendencies (Paul Rahe’s review of “Lincoln at Gettysburg” does a very good job of showing his biases). But much of the article strikes me as probably being true. Conservatives don’t care to learn, by and large: they want to win the argument, and part of this has to do with the essential nature of conservatism. Conservatism has an “answer” for everything already – it doesn’t matter what it is, or what it could be, someone’s already written something or there’s some body of thought telling you why it’s bad and not as good as some other thing. In this respect, many of the liberals I find utterly mindless defenders of the status quo are very conservative: they’ve never had an independent thought in their lives, they already know what’s good and what’s bad. Congrats – you have your reward.

I think I’m going to ramp up criticism of the right-wing in this country in the coming weeks. I’m not sure yet, because I don’t want to get involved in a lot of petty debates. But it’s clear to me that my views are not represented the way they should be: I’m pro-life, want lower taxes, want much less regulation so people in this country can actually go into business for themselves, want a very strong and competently run foreign policy that does not cry every time military force is used,  want free trade, want school vouchers, want comprehensive reform at the University level (we may not need affirmative action for conservatives, but it really is a disgrace I teach more in my blog than I was taught in undergrad – far more). Now I have a tremendous respect for the Republican Party, despite its problems, and I think a lot of bloggers who are attacking that party don’t realize how hard it is to govern, not in the least.

However, I don’t see why wanting the things listed above should tie me in with groups that are openly racist and secessionist (bloggers far more than Republicans are responsible for this, but Republicans are increasingly listening to bloggers, partly because of the experience with DailyKos and the Left). I don’t see why in order to criticize those groups, I would have to ally with liberals who would in some cases make fun of me or call me a bigot for being pro-life, as if abortion was obviously a good.

And at another level, I just refuse to be defined intellectually by people who don’t go out and look for the interesting things others have to say; again, there are quite a few who only want to hear their own voices, and apply the notion of the Devil to anything foreign. I think a large part of my work as a political scientist is making sure other voices are heard and understood, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder how that task is different from that of any given citizen, anywhere.


  1. Well, it’s been fun reading your posts, but since you seem to have cast your lot w/ Charles Johnson-style ‘conservatives’ (that is: making broad, sweeping, generalizations with nary a hint of supporting evidence and basing your beliefs on innuendo and emotion as well as guilt-by-association), this is where I get off the bus–good luck!

  2. @ ECM: PLEASE GO. Go as far away as you can.

    In case anyone is interested in what ECM is talking about:


    Roughly speaking: a large part of the Right online, when not openly advocating revolution or secession or bring guns to tea parties, isn’t exactly shy about racism and giving material support to fringe groups that are prone to violence.

    This has to stop, and I thank you for not reading or visiting any longer.

  3. @ ECM: Yeah, and the civil war had nothing to do with slavery, right?

    Here’s a question for Ashok, though: I understand the danger of believing that there is already an “answer” for everything, but are there not ideas that can migrate throughout time without diminution, without becoming obsolete? I always thought that conservatism was the recognition that judgment might reside outside of the individual, that acknowledging others was what was important – especially in the current political clime.

    And couldn’t this just be bad eulogizing? Surely Kristol isn’t to be remembered mostly for what he had to say about modern art – although the person delivering that eulogy might reflect some larger pathology within conservatism, so I give you credit for that.

    BTW – I got that e-mail, and I will work on it soon.

  4. @ thag – Well-said.

    I would caution against using a definition of conservatism that gives us a monopoly on ideas, i.e. “there are ideas that migrate throughout time without diminution.” Strictly speaking, that what would show up in Socratic thought as the “beings,” more than likely (Pangle says the investigation of “what is” can yield some answers more appropriate for particular times).

    No one has a monopoly on wisdom, and we’re talking about political conservatism here – this is something far more practical, far more immediate. In fact, I’m thinking the general tenor of my remarks is: let’s just not define conservatism. It’s an appeal to tradition, with an emphasis on changing slowly if need be – that’s more a description of what conservatives do, not quite definitive of what they are.

    In terms of judgment residing outside oneself, I mean for all the complaints I have about liberals, it’s because of liberals I have citizenship and can vote. Conservatism is always going to have a “reactionary” tendency; if I try to define it as appreciation/preservation of the good, I’ve confused piety with philosophy, which some Socratic disciples did (notably: Hermogenes in Xenophon’s Apology and Symposium, to some degree Crito. Oh yeah, there isn’t a translation I recommend). I realize I emphasize the darker side of philosophy often, but I think it definitely gets a serious claim to the most radical notion of the good (i.e. there is no form of the good, inasmuch as the good is why one is evaluating “forms”/”beings” in the first place) one that piety can’t claim, because piety has to be obedient to some sort of convention when all is said and done. And let’s not get into the ability of piety to tell us what each separate being is, one from another.

    Epstein’s a really good writer – he has some very sharp comments in a number of things he’s written. I’m picking on him because if I start going through National Review, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, Commentary, First Things, Crisis and the rest of them, I mean, I think at this point it’s safe to say people are here because they’re hungry for knowledge, not just more media, and I kinda am ticked off that some places like those are countenancing the more radical elements of the Right currently.

  5. Kudos, Ashok. I guess I haven’t been paying much attention to media for the past couple months, but when I was working at the bank and that was all I could do to pass time it was really starting to heat up.

    I was at a point where I thought ‘expanding the base’ was a terrible idea for the Republican party, but now I’m starting to wonder just what the base is.

  6. @ sean – cf. Aristotle, Ethics 1094a28 – 1094b12.

    I’m not really responding to you, you’re an obvious troll. But more respectable people may have questions about the nature of political science, and an actual interest in its origins.

  7. Ashok, What you are saying you want is what people in the town halls are saying they want as well. They are called brownshirts and mobs and worse.

    People are getting tired….

    Expressing an opinion can be daunting for some! People are constantly on my FB page posing as a conservative only to turn and write perverse things …so for time to time i have to Jab back and stick something on my page that lets them know up front “I will not tollerate your BS”

    I do, I feel better, and then I go back to my discussions in a civil manner.

    It is going to happen…I do not fight it any longer after coming face to face with Cloward -Piven strategists, and race baiters on the ground in the hospitals…no less!

    Never tell em again that subversion cannot happen.

    I sill love ya cause I know your heart is in the right place….and you want what we want…you will get into some ugly discussions to make your point…

    Me I just do not and will not engage a left wing nut….impossible to discuss anything…so I delete them from my life!
    .-= Tamara´s last blog ..Our own congress is the threat to our ecomomy! =-.

  8. My husband and I have been talking along these lines over the last few weeks. It’s so frustrating to see people who before seemed reasonable and sane acting so completely not- attaching themselves to this ridiculousness (I’m referring to the idea of stagnation for its own sake and suddenly this overt racism and (I’m trying to find a better description than “fear mongering”, LOL) mass paranoia). It’s very disheartening. It makes me sad. I think I’ll go cry…

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