Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

It's Not Conservative to Seek A Gotterdammerung

There's a rather poor case for Trump masquerading as an intellectual one at the Claremont Review of Books under the title "The Flight 93 Election". The author's conceit is that for conservatives, the country is like the hijacked Flight 93 on September 11th:
2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

As he builds his case, it's clear that this isn't just another hysterical case of a conservative trying to talk himself into supporting Trump because Hillary is so bad (which, of course, she is -- the problem is that Trump himself is little better and comes with a side helping of destroying the conservative movement and party), no the author believes that American culture has reached a point of collapse such that incremental changes are an insult to its problems. There needs to be a massive showdown in which conservative cultural principles either win or go down in the flames of the country's complete cultural and social destruction, because if we don't have the showdown Right Now, he believes that the country is going to self destruct anyway. Thus the Flight 93 analogy.

Not only, he argues, are conservatives wrong to try to stick to an incremental approach, if they don't support "fundamental change" in the country's cultural direction they aren't really serious in opposing the liberal agenda anyway.

But let us back up. One of the paradoxes—there are so many—of conservative thought over the last decade at least is the unwillingness even to entertain the possibility that America and the West are on a trajectory toward something very bad. On the one hand, conservatives routinely present a litany of ills plaguing the body politic. Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything and, at the primary and secondary levels, can’t (or won’t) discipline disruptive punks, and at the higher levels saddles students with six figure debts for the privilege. And so on and drearily on. Like that portion of the mass where the priest asks for your private intentions, fill in any dismal fact about American decline that you want and I’ll stipulate it.

Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?

If conservatives are right about the importance of virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on in the individual; if they are right about sexual morality or what came to be termed “family values”; if they are right about the importance of education to inculcate good character and to teach the fundamentals that have defined knowledge in the West for millennia; if they are right about societal norms and public order; if they are right about the centrality of initiative, enterprise, industry, and thrift to a sound economy and a healthy society; if they are right about the soul-sapping effects of paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions; if they are right about the necessity of a strong defense and prudent statesmanship in the international sphere—if they are right about the importance of all this to national health and even survival, then they must believe—mustn’t they?—that we are headed off a cliff.

But it’s quite obvious that conservatives don’t believe any such thing, that they feel no such sense of urgency, of an immediate necessity to change course and avoid the cliff.
Whatever the reason for the contradiction, there can be no doubt that there is a contradiction. To simultaneously hold conservative cultural, economic, and political beliefs—to insist that our liberal-left present reality and future direction is incompatible with human nature and must undermine society—and yet also believe that things can go on more or less the way they are going, ideally but not necessarily with some conservative tinkering here and there, is logically impossible.

Let’s be very blunt here: if you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong. Wrong philosophically, wrong on human nature, wrong on the nature of politics, and wrong in its policy prescriptions. Because, first, few of those prescriptions are in force today. Second, of the ones that are, the left is busy undoing them, often with conservative assistance. And, third, the whole trend of the West is ever-leftward, ever further away from what we all understand as conservatism.

Set aside for a moment the fact that the author is never all that clear on what exactly Trump would do to achieve fundamental change. He doesn't say what Trump will change or how he will change it, other than being rude in the face of political correctness and seeking to exclude Hispanic immigrants, whom the author blasts as "Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty".

There's a far more fundamental problem to address here. The author claims that if conservatives don't support a radical change to bring the culture back into line, then they are admitting that conservatism is wrong. I would go the opposite direction and say that the author's claims make it clear that he is no kind of conservative. Think of the kind of problems that he's pointing to in the piece: the breakdown of marriage and the family, crime, the collapse of education -- not just through schools not doing a good job but through a loss of a sense of what it is that we even want to teach our children. Serious types of cultural breakdown. And yet he argues that these cannot be addressed gradually. Instead, we need a strong leader who will reverse these problems all at once.

How do you address a problem such as the breakdown of marriage in the family during 4-8 years? Set aside the laughable idea that this could be accomplished by someone lauds adultery and trades in his wife for a new model every decade or two. That can't be accomplished by anyone. Culture does not turn on a dime. What happens, in this imagined future, to all the people who think that marriage is not important, that kids are only an option, or that having kids outside of marriage is a perfectly good idea? Do they all just suddenly change their minds? Are their experiences erased? Do they themselves vanish and get replaced by other people? How do the schools and universities get fixed? Do we simply hatch an entirely new set of teachers and professors out of pods and send the old ones back to the factory?

Conservatives do not promise to turn the culture on a dime because they are truthful, not because they are timid. Our culture does indeed have many and grave things wrong with it. (This makes it similar to cultures of many other times and places -- our problems are our own but our fallenness is universal.) But trying to correct those problems will be slow because it requires the conversion of hearts and minds, and the process of people learning to live another way. It took us a long time to get to where we are not, and creation is slower than destruction.

What this author proposes isn't conservatism, it's a right wing Great Leap Forward. Or perhaps is something all too familiar from recent history, the reactionary version of this:

I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth.

No, this author isn't not a leftist. The world that he imagines is different from the one Obama did eight years ago. But his idea that the world can be suddenly changed by the intervention of a strong leader is exactly the same. It's a belief which is profoundly un-conservative, and indeed that presumes that conservatism is wrong about human nature and human experience. It presumes that we can suddenly eliminate corruption and vice in some titanic win or lose struggle, a Gotterdammerung in which we risk all in order to win all. But if conservatism is right about how human nature and human culture works, this won't result in a new creation, just in destruction.


Bernard Brandt said...

Brendan, I would beg to differ with your assertion that the author of the article you have mentioned has the idea '...that the world can be suddenly changed by the intervention of a strong leader...'

Having read that article, I note that the author says, at the beginning of his article, the following:

"2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

"Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances."

This does not appear to be the words of one who wishes Trump to act as strongman. Rather, it appears to be the words of one who is warning of the alternative.

Knowing what I do about that alternative, I quite agree with the author.

Josiah Neeley said...

What's odd about Flight 93 as a metaphor is that those guys all died.

BenK said...

Conservatives, by your definition, are without eschatology. Perhaps you are right, but then, you may need to revisit some underlying assumptions.

As for the author, he boldly predicts disaster. He also basically claims it is inevitable. The question for Flight 93 was not about the fate of the plane; it was about what the plane would be used for should it continue to fly. If the author is claiming that the US will be weaponized against humanity, then the analogy is apt. Others can debate its accuracy.

Darwin said...


I don't think the author is necessarily wanting Trump to act as a strongman per se, but he does expend a great deal of time attacking nearly all conservatives writing and leading since 1988, and asserts that their emphasis on incremental change rather than "fundamental change" suggests they don't really believe in conservatism anyway. If his message is simply "Hillary Clinton is catastrophically bad", he could make that point without claiming that movement conservatism as its existed over the last thirty years is actually a false flag operation for liberalism -- a set of designated losers now being shed by the emboldened left.

It's that's he's so strongly against conservatism for not being big enough in its ambitions (combined with his metaphor of one last all or nothing battle) which leaves me to conclude that he thinks somehow Trump could lead a Gotterdammerung resulting in a cultural rebirth that no one else was bold enough to strive for.

Darwin said...


I'm not sure how what I wrote about conservatism suggests that conservatives have no eschatology. Could you expand on that a bit?

Paul Zummo said...

Aside from the strawmen-riddled argument that conservatives by and large don't see the problems with our culture, the false assumption that electing Donald Trump would in any way address these issues, that Hillary Clinton is per se worse than Trump or even Obama, that society will evaporate if the 2016 election doesn't go a certain way, the underlying assumption that only white Europeans contrinute to western civilization and can produce republican-minded citizens, and the pseudo-intellectualism that seeps through every word of the piece, Publius's article was quite good.

Darwin said...

the underlying assumption that only white Europeans contribute to western civilization and can produce republican-minded citizens

I meant to get into this as well, but I'd already ranted against it extensively on Facebook and it was getting late, but that was definitely one of the aspects of the piece which got me steamed.

Jack said...

I don't think anyone should want to be a conservative. Conservatism is a complete and utter failure, as it has conserved absolutely nothing. When conservatives see barbarians marching through the streets their instinct is not to behead them, but to cringe and ask them to be a little more polite if possible. So-called conservatives have meekly watched our streets being taken over by slut pride and gay pride. The liberal of today is the conservative of tomorrow, because a conservative's only principle is what was right a generation ago.

Conservatives see nothing wrong with mass immigration which ultimately destroys the native populace, their race, language, and culture; they are only too happy to confess how virtuously tolerant they are and how much they love diversity. In the sense conservatives are traitors to their own people.

The man you quote is absolutely right. The US, and western countries in general, need a "fundamental" change. What that really means is repealing all the bad laws written in the last half-century that undermine marriage and the family - especially outlawing abortion and pornography - and an inquisition into government, universities, and media to purge all the corrupt members. Even if this would require a more or less "fascist" government, it would be justified. Trump is probably not the man capable for it, but he's a step in the right direction which is good enough at this point.

Stop disliking Trump just because you find his personality repulsive. I don't like him either. He's crude and arrogant. So what? I don't think polite manners are the most important thing today. Barbarians usually despise sodomy; only a polite and civilised people like our own can see why it is virtuous.

Darwin said...

John Collinson,

You say a great many things, many of which I honestly wonder if you mean. For instance, you say, "When conservatives see barbarians marching through the streets their instinct is not to behead them, but to cringe and ask them to be a little more polite if possible. So-called conservatives have meekly watched our streets being taken over by slut pride and gay pride."

Now, I suppose that if these are not two totally unconnected thoughts which just happen to have been placed next to each other in an admittedly disjointed paragraph, you seem almost to be suggesting that conservatives have meekly watched "slut pride" and "gay pride" parades in the streets when what they should have done is behead the participants. We might agree that both types of parades represent moral problems, but I certainly do not believe that beheading is the one-size-fits-all response to morally reprehensible actions, and I hope you do not believe that either. (If you do, I understand that ISIS is accepting membership applications just in time for its last stand.)

Perhaps, however, you mean this only metaphorically. You want to imply that conservatives have not been forceful enough in the face of the sexualization of the culture and the assault on the family. Here, I'd simply have to disagree. Religious conservatives have done plenty of howling against these evils. The problem is not that we did not resist them, but that we lost, in great part due to the mushy middle of our culture (those who are neither religious nor conservatives) being won over to the idea that gay marriage and sexual libertinism represent important areas of "freedom" and "equality". We have no intention of giving up, however, and because the current point in American culture is so very far out on the pendulum swing in the direction of libertinism, I have a fair amount of confidence that we'll eventually see a return to some kind of sanity on this point (only to see sin and insanity break out in other areas.)

You're right that a conservatism without any moral compass, a desire to conserve the past with no regard for what is actually right or wrong, would be pointless, always seeking to preserve the mistakes of the past as well as its good elements. But this is why it's important for a conservative temperament to be wedded to a source of truth: Christianity.

Why should we not seek, as you advocate, to rush directly to an 'ideal' world via some huge, immediate change such as the strong arm of a "more or less fascist government"?

I think, again, the answer can be found in the mixture of a conservative temperament and the truths of the Church.

The conservative temperament tells us that attempts at sudden, radical political change often backfire or produce bad side effects. That is why conservatives take "don't immanentize the eschaton" as a guiding phrase.

The Church shows us that salvation cannot come from the state or some other outside force, but must rather come from conversion of the heart. While the institutions of our state should reflect the good, trying to use a semi-dictatorship to force moral change will have the opposite of the effect desired. Trying to use a semi-fascist state to stamp out false beliefs about sexuality and marriage would not result in everyone holding true beliefs, but would instead cause people to associate the truths of the Church with fascism and to reject it entirely.

Anonymous said...