09 August 2010

A Conservative Denounces 'Crazy-Cons'

David Klinghoffer is a former literary editor for National Review, the flagship magazine of the modern entrepreneurial conservative movement. He's also an advocate for the theory of "Intelligent Design," and the latest professed conservative to denounce what he sees as degenerate, vulgar tendencies in the modern-day movement. In an op-ed originally written for the Los Angeles Times last week, and which appears in a local paper today, Klinghoffer argues that too many so-called conservatives are driven by partisanship or pure bigotry instead of the "transcendental" values that inspired him as a young man. Conservatism, he protests, has been captured and corrupted by "hucksters" on the radio and internet (he cites only Andrew Breitbart by name) who "make their money by stirring fears and resentments."

With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of "neocons" versus "paleocons." Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons.

Back in Klinghoffer's youth, in Reagan's 1980s, "Conservatism wasn't just a policy agenda, a set of partisan gripes or a football team seeking victory on the electoral field. Above all, it was a satisfying, sophisticated critique of modern, materialist culture, pointing a way out and up from liberalism." The key word in this description, negatively speaking, is "materialist." Klinghoffer argues implicitly that the "crazy-cons" have succumbed to some sort of materialism, though perhaps nothing more mundane than an emphasis on victory in the here-and-now. By comparison, he argues, the authentic conservative is inspired by transcendent values which, for Klinghoffer, are essentially religious in nature. He cites favorably the thinker Richard Weaver's idealization of a "metaphysical dream" of purposeful creation that, in Klinghoffer's own words, "allows for ultimate meaning in our existence." He does not detect the dream in the likes of Breitbart, apparently, or in those who spread his propaganda.

Klinghoffer can easily be accused of misrepresenting both today's self-appointed conservative spokesmen and his own idealized conservative past. The former may protest that he's mistaken a necessary shift in rhetorical emphasis for an abandonment of conservative fundamentals, and from my own perspective it's hard to see the radio conservatives and their online auxiliaries as a gang of secular humanists. Nor do I think that Klinghoffer is making that charge. It reads more as if he accuses them of treating religion jingoistically rather than spiritually, of "baiting Muslims" the same way they'd bait fans of the other baseball or football team.

Republicans have already criticized Klinghoffer for being a naive dupe in giving his diatribe to a liberal paper that allegedly lacks sympathy for any form of conservatism. Some of his critics on the right have noted that, even in Klinghoffer's idealized college days, liberals denounced his idealized conservative masters as exactly the sort of yahoos he identifies as "crazy-cons." There's truth to that charge: many liberals have always seen conservatives as rabid partisan haters, and not without justice in many cases. The difference between now and twenty years ago, as many observers have noted, is that Klinghoffer's intellectual idols of the Eighties have passed from the scene, and the radio/internet ranters show no obvious deference either to the idols' memory or to a new generation of conservative intellectuals. You can be a conservative now and not acknowledge a hierarchy of mind that would require you to get your marching orders from William F. Buckley, for instance. Such deference would go against the now-characteristic aversion to anyone telling Tea Partiers, for example, how to live. But acknowledgement of and deference to just such a hierarchy of knowledge or wisdom is what defines conservatism for many in the older generation. As popular conservatism finally takes a distinctive post-Cold War form, expressions of disillusion from writers like Klinghoffer are inevitable.

A fear of decline and degeneracy is natural to conservatives; they'd not see conservation as their mission if they didn't worry that what they valued was in constant peril. It's inevitable, then, for conservatives to see their own movement in constant peril of corruption. Paleocons, after all, have long denounced Reaganites and neocons of forgetting or ignoring wisdom and missing the point of the overall movement. Klinghoffer isn't the first conservative of Reaganite vintage to see signs of deviance and dumbing down in today's loudest conservatives, and he won't be the last. These contradictions within conservatism are inevitable also because people's idea of what must be conserved is bound to change over time. The only thing that holds conservatives together is a unifying fear of a "left" that still seems to threaten everything that any conservative believes in. In the absence of that perpetual threat in the form of the Democratic Party, the various tendencies within conservatism might each go their own way. But to the extent that they are all conservative, they are all driven by fear of change, and to the extent that they are "metaphysical," they must see the will of an enemy behind change. Conservatives may need an enemy in order to have a meaningful existence of their own, and they seem to need the two-party system because it alone can give them the enemy they need. As long as the American Bipolarchy exists, conservatives will hold up one end no matter how much they argue amongst themselves about it. They'll free themselves of that burden only when they stop worrying about what to conserve and begin to believe that they can build something better themselves.


Anonymous said...

And therein lies the rub. They fear and detest change, so they are incapable of building "better". Which is why they simply keep attempting to rehatch the same old schemes that fail again and again.

In evolutionary terms, conservatism is a dead-end road because it is not adaptable, but rather the antithesis of adaptable (whatever that is). When scientists speak of evolution as "survival of the fittest", the typical conservative thinks of "fittest" as "strongest" or "toughest". What is really meant, of course, is the ability of a species to adapt to a constantly changing environment. Species which cannot adapt eventually go extinct.

Samuel Wilson said...

The problem is that evolution only guarantees us fresh generations of conservatives. As each novelty becomes institutionalized as part of a new status quo, what the past conservatives feared as radical change the new conservatives will cling to at all costs. That's why the history of conservatism is largely incoherent. In the most general terms, conservatism is a habit of mind rather than a body of opinion, and I doubt that it'll ever be evolved out of us.