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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The freak show ideology of big government conservatism

My friend Paul wrote me a while ago to recommend that I visit Right Reason. He said that it was a site aiming at becoming a sort of rightwing version of Common Timber. So I visited the site, but was shocked to find that I knew some of the writers. In fact, I had T.A.-ed for one in the long ago.

My acquaintance entailed strong and negative extra-ideological opinions. However, I do believe the writers there that I know are highly intelligent. All the more reason to find the site rather shocking. If you compare an average week of posting on Right Reason with, say, an issue of National Review from 1966, you will find a catastrophic lowering of the intellectual level. In the age of big government conservatism, the freak show faction, which has always played a large role in practical conservative politics, has taken over the brain. Gangrene has set in.

What happened? American conservatism in 1966 was embedded in a struggle with world wide communism – as it saw it – and that struggle gae the movement and its thinkers an aura of some nobility, gave its scope some grandeur, even if you suspected that much of the struggle was delusive. There were reasons to be Manichean, in 1966. Besides which, European and American intellectuals who had been forged in the leftist culture of the thirties and forties and then converted, by way of anti-communism, to some version of Burkean conservatism, infused the movement with an intellectual vigor and scrupulousness that made the National Review, in its heyday, one of the great American journals.

This is all, apparently, gone. In its place, the writers at Right Reason spend their time tirelessly debating such questions as: is analytic philosophy conservative? or high culture? Or Stilton Cheese…

A real conservative would recognize this style for what it is – the kind of factionalism that, from the conservative point of view, inevitably marks the decline of a culture when, as Burke said, the ‘theorists’ gain power. The condemnation of factions runs from Swift to Burke to Disraeli as a constant in conservative thinking; it is a constant derived from the central theme and the central problem of modern conservatism.

The central theme, in conservative thought, is order. And the central problem is progress.

That there is progress in human affairs conservatives do not deny. Rather, they specify its temporal limits. Progress is what happens on a secondary cultural level – the level, for instance, of science, or of opulence. The conservative, having firmly in mind the difference between the real of human nature and the realm of social processes, is always looking for ways to subordinate progress in society – or, rather, limit it to its proper sphere. This is the reason that the ‘classic’ is of peculiar importance for the conservative. The classic takes the immediate struggles which mark the sphere of social process – the sphere in which progress has its mythical justifications – and endows it with that perspective (regardless of the artist’s particular technique) that hints at a higher order which no social process can overturn.

But at Right Reason, such conservatism is dross. This is a conservatism uniquely dedicated to having no standards at all, on the principle that my opinion is as good as your opinion. This is why the posts on “high culture’ are particularly without merit – odd, on a site that includes, as a writer, Roger Kimball.

Perhaps it is appropriate that today’s conservatives are busy erecting a large tombstone over yesterday’s conservatives – in fact, destroying themselves from within. The theology of the visceral, preached by evangelicals, is the dead opposite of conservative – the kind of emotional orgy that has haunted the conservative imagination throughout its history. The embrace of the revivalist meeting is the end of real conservatism, period. Only its zombie like corpse remains.

This doesn’t mean conservatism is really dead – it is simply dead at the top. Right Reason is the perfect blog for the era of big government conservatives: it is bold, brassy, and speaks in talk radio vulgate for the vulgar. Like Emerson (who was, at one time, a litmus test for old line conservatives – the instinctive dislike of Emerson was a sort of party badge of American conservatism), LI believes conservatism is as perennial as the temperament that gives rise to it. The way ideological space has been divvied out during the Bush years, however, it is obvious that the conservative temperament is and will be for the foreseeable future more at home on the left than on the right.

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