Perhaps this is one of those not-infrequent occasions on which it is prudent not to give Damon Linker any more attention than he absolutely requires, but his response to Prof. Bacevich’s articulation of his hopes for the future of conservatism seems to me to have even less going for it than Daniel and Patrick Deneen are willing to credit. What begins as a call for individual financial responsibility, cultural calls for “self-restraint and self-denial”, and an appropriately modest realism in international affairs becomes in Linker’s hands a deeply reactionary call for outright authoritarianism, a rejection of “nearly everything about modern America”, and a demand for “an almost total overthrow of the status quo in favor of an alternative reality”, “a culture in which fixed limits on human choice are set by absolute political, spiritual, and moral authorities”.
But of course this is nonsense, since nowhere in Bacevich’s essay does he call for limits on human choice to be “fixed”, nor does he insist that those limits need to be “set” by any authorities other than the choosing persons themselves. The task of conservatism, on Bacevich’s analysis, is fundamentally one of critique, a primarily apolitical (and admittedly quixotic) enterprise that encourages people to get their own lives in order, to recognize and live within the inescapable limits on what can and can’t count as responsible human behavior. Nowhere here do we find, to use what is perhaps the most ludicrous of Linker’s phrases, calls for the establishment of an “authoritarian culture”; rather, the hope is that it is precisely in the achievement of a culture of self-restraint that the culture of authoritarianism can be avoided. It is simply false, then, to say as Linker does that Bacevich finds no value in “consent and individual choice”: instead, the fundamental motivation behind Bacevich’s calls for personal responsibility is the conviction that only such responsibility can provide the sort of background conditions against which the powers of consent and choice can actually be exercised in the first place. Scan the text repeatedly and squint as you might; the authoritarianism of Bacevich is nowhere to be found.
Meanwhile, in what has become a frustratingly familiar trope, Linker embeds his criticism of Bacevich’s essay within a broader critique of a more widespread menace, a “paleoconservative sentiment that has growing numbers of champions online and may gather force over the coming years”. And so, having name-checked Burke and de Maistre (but why not MacIntyre and Wendell Berry?) and attempted to link paleoconservative “authoritarianism” and its demand for the “suicide of the critical intellect” with the phenomenon of sexual abuse among the Legionaries of Christ (no, really), Linker goes in for the kill:
… the scandal gives us a glimpse of what awaits those who would submit themselves to an authoritarian culture — namely, credulity, abuse, and humiliation. And it also serves as a useful reminder of why the modern, liberal order, which valorizes consent and individual choice, and which Bacevich appears not to value very much at all, arose in the first place. It arose because the wars, abuses of power, and corruption that permeated political and ecclesiastical institutions in the early modern period convinced philosophers and intellectuals that human beings would benefit enormously from presuming the worst about human motives. If men were angels, we could submit happily to their authority and enjoy the comforts that come from such submission. But men are never angels — least of all those who found and perpetuate institutions that treat those in positions of authority as if they were angels — and so we are left with doubt, skepticism, suspicion, authority limited by consent, and individual freedom of choice.
Let’s get this straight. A group of people who have, over the past eight years, been foremost among the very loudest critics of the wars, abuses of power, and corruption that were the centerpiece of the Bush Republicans’ reign have become in Linker’s hands apologists for authoritarianism, their vision marred by a willingness to treat leaders like angels and throw doubt, skepticism, suspicion, consent, and individual choice by the wayside. A group of people whose criticisms of the Bush regime centered more than anything else on its frighteningly illiberal character, who called for a rejection the empty promises and false comforts of the State and a turn instead to the limited, liberal order established by the founders, have now become the sort of submissive, uncritical, authority-worshipping folk who wish to abandon the Modern project and replace it instead with a society where everyone involved defers to authority by demanding the suppression of doubt. A group of people who spent the past eight years calling out their fellow conservatives for their disastrous credulity and the abuses that were enabled by their happy willingness to submit, standing athwart American hegemony and the expansion of federal authority shouting that we had to assume the worst about the motives and tendencies of human actors, are now victims of the temptation to treat our rulers like angels. And on and on it goes. I’ll leave it to the readers to pinpoint whose intellect it is that has just committed suicide.
At the risk of sounding “more radical than conservative”, it’s hard not to hope out loud for an alternative reality in which Damon Linker is willing to give his targets’ ideas the fair representation they deserve. Now that would be an almost total overthrow of the status quo I could believe in.