Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Getting It Right And Wrong On Conservatism II

Yesterday I began a review of this essay by Philip Agre on political conservatism. I focused yesterday on what I saw as historical inaccuracies in Agre's discussion of aristocracy and political conservatism. Today I will be focusing on what I find to be intellectually dishonest descriptions of the relationship between political conservatism and questions of public integrity.

I should preface this by stating, again, that I am not a politically conservative (!!!) person. There are elements of traditional conservative thought that I think are important elements of honest social thought; I just do not draw the same conclusions from them as conservatives might. My argument here is not that liberalism or conservatism is "better". Rather, I find the entire piece to be intellectually flawed. Better defenses of political liberalism, and critiques of conservative thought, exist. I think this piece in particular fails to be a serious challenge of conservative thought not because it is weak, but because it misrepresents both liberalism and conservatism.

Today, we shall look at Agre's discussion of the following point:
To impose its order on society, conservatism must destroy civilization. In particular conservatism must destroy conscience, democracy, reason, and language.

That's a pretty hefty charge. Let's see what he has to say.
* The Destruction of Conscience

Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels.

Conservatism continually twists the language of conscience into its opposite. It has no choice: conservatism is unjust, and cannot survive except by pretending to be the opposite of what it is.

Conservative arguments are often arbitrary in nature. Consider, for example, the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Conservatism claims that the universe is ordered by absolutes. This would certainly make life easier if it was true. The difficulty is that the absolutes constantly conflict with one another. When the absolutes do not conflict, there is rarely any controversy. But when absolutes do conflict, conservatism is forced into sophistry. In the case of Elian Gonzalez, two absolutes conflicted: keeping families together and not making people return to tyrannies. In a democratic society, the decision would be made through rational debate. Conservatism, however, required picking one of the two absolutes arbitrarily (based perhaps on tactical politics in Florida) and simply accusing anyone who disagreed of flouting absolutes and thereby nihilistically denying the fundamental order of the universe. This happens every day. Arbitrariness replaces reason with authority. When arbitrariness becomes established in the culture, democracy decays and it becomes possible for aristocracies to dominate people's minds.

First of all, I can in no way understand the Republican reaction to the Elian Gonzalez story in terms of "political conservatism". The entire structure of the American response to communist Cuba is irrational, which is not necessarily a surprise, since much of politics is determined by emotive responses rather than a rational consideration of various alternatives. In this respect, liberalism is no different from conservative political thought.

I am also unclear as to how what Agre calls the conservative response to Elian Gonzalez was in some way a destruction of conscience. He is at least correct that, in that case, there was a clash between two values the United States hold as important (I would hesitate to use the term "absolute" because I don't believe in such things; this was a conflict between two social goods, nothing more and nothing less). On the one hand, it is good for refugees from totalitarian states who seek asylum in the US to have it granted (although our policy here is much more lenient in regards Cuban refugees than those from other countries). It is also good that families should not be separated, that children be raised by their parents. In this case, one half of a divorced couple fled Cuba with her child. She died, but the child lived. The remaining parent insisted his child be returned to him; he had not consented to his child being removed from the country in the first place.

"Conscience" has little to do with this scenario. Indeed, the Clinton Administration acted with remarkable restraint, mulling the varying demands of the competing social goods and concluding that the boy belonged with his father, whose parental rights had been usurped by his ex-wife anyway. It might have been nice for the boy to remain in the US, but the boy's father had determined that he wished to stay in Cuba. The competition between goods was decided by that single, salient fact.

After this particular example, I'm not sure what Agre's point was at all.

The next section is a doozy.
* The Destruction of Democracy

For thousands of years, conservatism was universally understood as being in opposition to democracy. Having lost much of its ability to attack democracy openly, conservatism has tried in recent years to redefine the word "democracy" while engaging in deception to make the substance of democracy unthinkable.

Conservative rhetors, for example, have been using the word "government" in a way that does not distinguish between legitimate democracy and totalitarianism.

Then there is the notion that politicians who offer health care reforms, for example, are claiming to be better people than the rest of us. This is a particularly toxic distortion. Offering reforms is a basic part of democracy, something that every citizen can do.

Even more toxic is the notion that those who criticize the president are claiming to be better people than he is. This is authoritarianism.

Some conservative rhetors have taken to literally demonizing the very notion of a democratic opposition. Rush Limbaugh has argued at length that Tom Daschle resembles Satan simply because he opposes George Bush's policies. Ever since then, Limbaugh has regularly identified Daschle as "el diablo". This is the emotional heart of conservatism: the notion that the conservative order is ordained by God and that anyone and anything that opposes the conservative order is infinitely evil.

Conservative political thought emerged coherently at the end of the 18th century. Not quite thousands of years. This entire section, while perhaps factually accurate (since no examples are given, and I'm not quite sure what he is talking about in any case; this is standard political hyperbole, not "authoritarianism"), is also nonsensical. As for "the emotional heart" of conservatism being the divine nature of it, that may be true in some cases (especially among Roman Catholic conservatives such as William Buckley), but not all. Somehow mentioning Rush Limbaugh's name here doesn't bolster Agre's argument at all.

We tread even further onto even thinner ice now.
* The Destruction of Reason

Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.

Again with the thousands of years? What is "rational thought" anyway? We are knee-to-hip deep in philosophical mire here, and there just aren't any ropes tossed our way to help us get out. Best to just close our eyes and wish ourselves to a happy place rather than try to make heads or tails of this. Except for this:
Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.

Bait and switch! Bait and switch! He moves from "democracy" to "economy", as if the terms were interchangeable. As if he had been speaking of "economy" rather than "democracy" all along. As for public relations, it emerged in the 1920's as a way to market goods, economically speaking.

Agre's head is so far up his ass right now, he can chew his food after he swallows. Venturing forward he actually manages to have his head emerge from his own mouth, a feat even M. C. Escher wouldn't attempt to draw:
* The Destruction of Language

Reason occurs mostly through the medium of language, and so the destruction of reason requires the destruction of language. An underlying notion of conservative politics is that words and phrases of language are like territory in warfare: owned and controlled by one side or the other. One of the central goals of conservatism, as for example with Newt Gingrich's lists of words, is to take control of every word and phrase in the English language.

Has Agre ever read Michele Foucault? Or Ludwig Wittgenstein? Richard Rorty, perhaps? Shoot, even Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Looking Glass has some good stuff on the philosophy of language. Suffice it to say, in the words of Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper, the abuse of language always goes hand in hand with the abuse of power, and this is neither new nor confined to political liberalism. It was liberals who invented all the bureaucratic lingo surrounding nuclear war that sounds innocuous but hides horror. It was liberals who attempted to spin the worsening Depression in 1938 by calling it "the Roosevelt Recession". Shoot, it was liberals who gave us the Cold War! If Agre actually thinks it has only ever been nefarious political conservatives working for thousands of years who have abused language, is there any reason to continue paying attention to him?

I suppose so. Tomorrow.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More