Be on the lookout for for the new The American Conservative (11/20) (not yet online). In addition to my article, The Gospel According to Bush, Austin Bramwell delivers a powerful indictment of National Review‘s post-9/11 foreign policy (or, rather, the lack of one) and neoconservative influence on the conservative movement, including this simple and accurate statement:
(National Review Online, which now far outshadows the magazine in influence, has become the world’s most prolific organ of neoconservative opinion.)
And again, a devastating line:
If Americans understood that soldiers were dying not to kill the bad guys but to prevent them from killing each other, Bush’s popularity would evaporate.
The piece is filled with simple but powerful insights such as these. But no one on the right will be happy with Mr. Bramwell’s diagnosis, for in it all conservatives are gravely ill of one error or another. No real respite for the dissident conservative, the traditionalist, the paleo or crunchy; according to Bramwell, we are all more or less complicit in different aspects of the farce of conservatism today. (I can’t quite go that far, but he often makes it difficult to disagree with his withering descriptions.) More than that, Bramwell likens “the movement” to an Orwellian dystopia. One can find points where his dismissal of all conservatives of every kind overreaches in some places, but 1984 serves as a shockingly good model for how much of the movement seems to work. Consider the Two Minute (or Five Day, depending on how you want count) Hate of Kerry or the long list of dissidents set upon by the jackals.
It will be of little avail, I suppose, to note that the bulk of Mr. Bramwell’s analysis rests on the claim that conservatism is an ideology, when any conservatism worthy of the name is non-ideological. It is an anti-ideology. Prescription and prudence, if they make what someone might call an ideology, make a very “thin” ideology indeed. Someone will presumably say that this, too, is an ideological claim, but it cannot be stressed enough that there are conservatives (perhaps not many, but they do exist) who never subscribed to the thing Mr. Bramwell describes as conservative ideology. But he is right that boundary maintenance and the perpetuation of the movement’s identity as “the conservative movement” are the movement’s priorities, not discernment or truth.
But what the movement’s Two Minute Hates accomplish is not to invent bogeymen, but to exaggerate their power and the threat they pose. “Judicial activists” are not something that we pretend exist for the sake simply of our own boundary maintenance, just as Byzantines did not completely invent the existence of Bogomils, but the content of their ideas and extent of the danger posed by such people are often wildly exaggerated (especially around election time). But even if it has become a stock phrase to bemoan the impact of “moral relativism,” and invoking such a thing has become a replacement for serious thought, it is not the case that such a thing does not to some degree exist. The greatest problem of conservatism is that it perceives real problems, but simply starts screaming, “There is a really BIG problem over here! It is gigantic! It’s going to wipe out life as we know it!” Then it retires to the parlour for an obscure discussion of who insulted whom during the 1992 presidential campaign over drinks and cigars .
Nonetheless, it is surely true of the movement, broadly speaking, that it does not generate important or interesting ideas anymore and is almost structured not to generate such ideas. It is structured to reproduce itself and confirm its own assumptions about its intellectual vitality and diversity, when neither is really in evidence in most places. If dissidents in the conservative resistance do indulge in the claim that the movement once had solid principles and now is tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine, even though what those “principles” were always remained the province of the leadership (with movement chiefs thus settling on the dubious combination of international anticommunist activism, untrammeled capitalism and vague perfunctory nods towards Christianity and the Constitution, which the other two had rendered completely moot), it is at least because they espouse those principles and insist on the hope, perhaps the myth, that something worthwhile remains of conservatism because there was once something true about it. But it seems to me that if the movement lacked real principles, there were principled conservatives–some of whom gave the movement far too much credit and some of whom who have since sobered up–who saw this at each stage and gave their warnings. In the year 1984 (appropriately enough), John Lukacs derided the “narrowly nationalist and broadly Californian view of the world” held by many conservatives–“narrow enough to be ignorant, broad enough to be flat.” He had many more things to say besides that, but the point is surely that the superficiality, triviality and mind-numbing uniformity of the movement has been clear to principled conservatives (or, as Prof. Lukacs prefers to call himself, reactionaries) and they have typically dropped out or gone (or been driven) into the proverbial wilderness to the degree that they have insisted on retaining principles that they can and do defend with reasoned argument, appeals to history and precedent and a desire to preserve what they have inherited from their ancestors.
But where I really must part company with Mr. Bramwell is when he says: “At most other times, however, ancestral attachments are dangerously subversive.” Subversive of what? Well, he will tell us.
The U.S. could not have survived had it not ruthlessly extirpated the ancestral loyalties of both natives and newcomers; Great Britain suffered endless civil wars before the great constitutional oak that Burke praised took root [and? I must admit I fail to see the point here-DL]; the West itself succeeded precisely because it cut short the reach of the extended family or clan [succeeded how? to do what? the state succeeded in weakening family structures and increasing its power–is that the “success of the West,” and if it is why do we want it?-DL].
I often see conservatives say things like this whenever they want to defend modernity or “the West” (as opposed to, say, Christendom) against critics (“behold, we have gotten rid of pious veneration of ancestral customs and we show enormous disrespect towards women–be like us!”), by holding up our present state of affairs and saying, “We could never have had all this had we not curtailed the reach of the extended family and rid people of their ancestral loyalties.” To which, it seems to me, the proper conservative answer is: And this makes me want to oppose these things why exactly? Those things may be desirable because of these effects. The reactionary response is still better: Who wants the present mess? This is all the more reason to bring back the extended family and cultivate ancestral loyalties! Arranged marriages for all!
Okay, maybe not arranged marriages for all (the king gets to choose his own bride, after all), but nowehere does Mr. Bramwell’s piece better reveal the schizophrenic tendency of American conservatives to praise the worst aspects of modernisation (the weakening of the extended family, and consequently the relatively increased dependence on artificial institutions, just as the breakdown of the nuclear family further helps to empower the state today) while deriding the natural attachments that seem to me to be the stuff of what a conservative ethic has tried to protect because such attachments can be taken to excess or can become socially dysfunctional. “Ancestral loyalties are the curse of uncivilized peoples, most especially in the hypermnesiac Middle East.” Of course, to already define ancestral loyalties as uncivilised is to close the debate before it even begins. One might as well do the same thing with religious piety: “Religious piety is the curse of uncivilised peoples, most especially in the fanatical Middle East.” Would you call that a compelling argument for thoroughgoing secularism, or a rather ridiculous attack? If Omar in Iraq marries his first cousin, the argument seems to run, we must flee anything that puts too much importance on the extended family. If the Shi’ites commemorate Shoura and remember the slights to the Imam Husayn, are we therefore obliged to forget our ancestors, heroes and martyrs or risk becoming Moqtada al-Sadr? To ask the question is to reveal the alternatives as false ones and the argument as uncharacteristically weak and sloppy for someone as insightful and wise as Mr. Bramwell.
Is it true that the United States had to “extirpate” the ancestral loyalties of the natives (and here I assume he means native-born Anglo-Americans) in order to survive? In an obvious sense, the War of Independence saw a significant old attachment to Britain severed and the loyalty of Loyalists was indeed suppressed brutally, but in what other sense does this really hold? Surely it was the central point of Kirk and Bradford on the Constitution that the patriots were defending their patrimony, their ancestral rights as Englishmen, and were therefore conservative revolutionaries. Now perhaps a compelling argument could be made that this is all wrong, but it will not do to dismiss an abiding view of the War of Independence with the flick of the wrist. But, more to the point, even if true, why would a conservative-minded person look on this with equanimity, as if that example demonstrated that such loyalties were undesirable? Which, in fact, takes a higher priority: the survival of a new confederation of republics, or loyalty to kith, kin and place? The answer smacks us across the face: obviously the latter takes greater priority. Put it in more immediate, tangible terms: to whom do you owe greater loyalty, your wife or the President? This is not a trick question, and there is only one right answer.
If Westerners have sacrificed those goods to acquire a highly centralised state and what is now a deracinating economic order, it will hardly answer the critic to say, “But if we make these loyalties the priority, we might have to give up our centralised states and creative destruction!” Yes, we might. Surely that is yet another reason to give these loyalties priority, and not an argument against them.
The chief reason they might be undesirable to a confederation is that they might cause the fragmentation of that confederation, and would guarantee the weakness of a central state. I don’t think any Antifederalists would be crying over that one. Neither do their heirs–which is what some of us consider ourselves to be. I remain absolutely unconvinced on this point that there is something misguided about attachment to “ancestral loyalties.” Without these, there are scant few other loyalties worth having.
Mr. Bramwell is surely engaged in his own kind of boundary maintenance when he fires off two warnings shots to these particularists:
Most ominously, praise of local attachments now comes in the guise of multiculturalism, perhaps the most insidious threat to a just order today. Not for nothing did communitarianism become a left-wing vogue.
Yes, obviously if we place higher priority on family, kin, church and place than we do on other things we are sliding irrevocably into the maw of multiculturalist claptrap. Right. Note the reliance on the crutch of the left-wing bogey of communitarianism (no, not that!) and the scary mention of insidious multiculturalism (multiculturalism is insidious, but it is strange to hear of it from someone who is about to tell us how we all cook up bogeymen to ridicule phantasmagorical enemies). It takes one back to the crunchy con wars: “You can’t believe that! It’s just like leftism! How do I know? Because I just said it was like leftism!” It simply makes no sense to warn us that we should be wary of all localism because it can be turned into a justification, as it has started to be in David Cameron’s Britain, for implementing local-level shari’a. Obviously we can appreciate the importance of loyalty to your place and your home as depicted in The Napoleon of Notting Hill without concluding that we must yield to the demands of the rabid cleric who preaches jihad in the East End. Surely we can discern the difference and weigh the virtues of different kinds of localism and local attachments, and we would weigh them against claims of justice and what we believe to be the truth about human nature and society. The choice is not between Brave New World or Kafiristan, and if it were the choice I think the Kafiris might have the better of the argument.
But in any case we tend to find multiculturalism itself obnoxious not because it fronts for diverse cultures (which it does only superficially), which hardly trouble me in and of themselves, but because it is a clear example of Western self-loathing and a lack of confidence in our capacity to have local and regional diversity of customs and cultures without collapsing into a a heap caused by the complete abandonment of all standards and all Western norms. Decentralism does not equal moral, social or cultural chaos; only in the absence of real, living, local communities have we seen people fall back on their more elemental identities to the detriment of national cohesion because there are no communities to which such people might even theoretically adhere themselves. What option does Mr. Bramwell leave us then? A homogenous, superficial monoculture to which all pay lip service? If we must not have multiculturalism (and I agree here) and we must not have local varieties of our own culture, we are left with having a national or supranational uniformity in which there will be very little recognisable as culture.
This invocation of multiculturalism in response to calls for localism is rather like the sometimes tiresome refrains that appeals to “the common good” are code for state regulation or collectivism–what else could it possibly mean, right? It is likewise a failure of imagination to assume that all particularist appeals are the same or that by affirming the one we must enable the insidious Other. It is as if to say that you cannot talk about community without forever legitimising people who talk about setting up utopian communes, when you are doing nothing of the kind. In correctly defining and defending a thing, you exclude, delimit and reject the false or distorted notions of it. Affirming Orthodoxy, for instance, entails the rejection of heresy. If I say, “God,” I do not mean Robespierre’s Supreme Being, Bush’s “God of universal freedom” or Shiva, and by my explanation of what I mean by saying, “God,” I necessarily rule all of these others other as being something other than God Himself. Pale reflections, mockeries or travesties, perhaps, but not God. Multiculturalism is a mockery of real organic cultural diversity; it is the fraudulent show of cultural diversity, no better than a buffet line filled with different kinds of ethnic food, designed only to dissolve what little cultural consensus actually remains while doing little or nothing to defend or approve the various cultures under Tolerance’s protective shield.
However, do not let my criticisms dissuade you from reading Mr. Bramwell’s piece. It is an important and challenging article that every conservative ought to read, if he is interested in something other than bashing the other side with cheap rhetorical clubs and defining who is part of the club to the exclusion of all the actually important questions. In spite of my strong objections to one part of it, I heartily recommend it to you all as first-rate work and thought-provoking analysis.