Friday, November 24, 2006

A Conservative Criticizes Today's Conservatism

There's nothing like hearing it from the horse's mouth. Austin W. Bramwell, former trustee of the very conservative National Review has an article in The American Conservative lamenting the demise of conservativism as it was practiced some years ago. Although I'm a liberal Democrat, I come from a conservative background and have been dumbfounded in recent years by how far conservatism has drifted from its main philosophies, particularly a core belief in raitonality by its business and intellectual leaders and a broad belief in fiscal responsibility. All that was thrown out the window by what Bramwell calls 'movement conservatism.'

Here's some excerpts from Bramwell's long article, most of which is a critique of The National Review and its flawed support of the 'war on terror,' but I want to highlight the parts having to do with today's conservatism in general:
... Notwithstanding conservatives’ belief that they, in contrast to their partisan opponents, have thought deeply about the challenges facing the United States, it is they who have become unserious.


...the steps in the causal logic whereby Iraqi democracy defeats anti-American terrorism are so numerous and doubtful that it becomes impossible to believe that Bush’s supporters have ever actually thought them through. Those who wonder what error befell the conservative movement since Bush took office are asking the wrong question. Since 9/11, the conservative movement has not made unsound or fallacious arguments for supporting Bush’s policies. Rather, it has made no arguments at all. T.S. Eliot once asked, “Are you alive or not? Is there nothing in your head?” The answer: “Nothing, again, nothing.”


First, like Ingsoc, conservatism has a hierarchical structure. Like Orwell’s “Inner Party,” those at the top of the movement have almost perfect freedom to decide what opinions count as official conservatism. The Iraq War furnishes a telling example. In the run-up to the invasion, leading conservatives announced that conservatism now meant spreading global democratic revolution. This forthright radicalism—this embrace of the sanative powers of violence—became quickly accepted as the ineluctable meaning of conservatism in foreign policy. Those who dissented risked ostracism and harsh rebuke. Had conservative leaders instead argued that global democratic revolution would not cure our woes but increase them, the rest of the movement would have accepted this position no less quickly. Millions of conservative epigones believe nothing less than what the movement’s established organs tell them to believe. Rarely does a man recognize, like Winston Smith, his own ideology as such.

Second, conservatism is concerned less with truth than with distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Conservatives identify themselves in part by repeating slogans (“we are at war!”) that, like “ignorance is strength,” are less important for what (if anything) they say than for what saying them says about the speaker. At the same time, to rise in the movement, one must develop a habitual obliviousness to truth, or what Orwell labeled “doublethinking.” Anyone who expresses too vociferously too many of the following opinions, for example, cannot expect to make a career in the movement: that the Soviet Union was not the threat that anti-communists made it out to be, that the current tax system discriminates in favor of the very wealthy, that the Bush administration was wrong about the Iraq invasion in nearly every respect, that the constitutional design itself prevents judges from deciding cases according to the original meaning of the Constitution, that global warming poses small but unacceptable risks, that everyone in the abortion debate—even the most ardent pro-lifers—inevitably engages in arbitrary line-drawing. Whether these opinions and others are correct or not matters little to the movement conservative, even if he knows next to nothing about the topic at hand. If you do not reject these opinions or at least keep quiet, you are not a movement conservative and will be treated accordingly.

Third, and closely related to doublethinking, the conservative movement engages in selective editing of history. When events have a tendency to disconfirm ideology, down the memory hole they go. Thus, conservatives do not recall their dire warnings about the Soviet Union during the Cold War or about the economy after the Bush I or Clinton tax increases. On the Iraq invasion, they will not remind you of their claims that Iraqis would welcome us as liberators, that the world would soon be applauding the Iraq invasion, or that events in Lebanon and the Ukraine heralded global democratic revolution. Nor will conservatives remind you of their predictions that the insurgency’s demise was imminent, that Saddam Hussein and then Zarqawi were the Big Men of the insurgency, or that the insurgency consisted largely of foreign jihadis. As in 1984, the ability to forget that any of these events ever occurred signals one’s loyalty to the movement. (Hence, the rise of hawkishness against Iran, not four years after the last effort to sell a war to an otherwise balky public.) To prove his loyalty to the emperor, everyone must compliment him on his new clothes. The most loyal believe that the emperor is wearing clothes to begin with.


... The most distinguishing feature of [today's] conservatism is its misleading name. Lexically, “conservatism” denotes caution, prudence, and resistance to change. Conservatism the ideology, however, has if anything tended towards recklessness. “Nuke ‘em!” has always been a popular conservative sentiment, never more so than today with respect to the Muslim world. ...


... Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to “see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched.” The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.

An unserious president is one who looks under his chair for the missing weapons of mass destruction. What's astonishing are the number of elected and appointed officials who have followed George W. Bush without question.

I strongly believe in the minimum of a two-party system. At the moment, one of our political parties, the more conservative one, has been AWOL for more than five years. Human beings are by nature flawed and no one is exempt no matter their philosophy or beliefs, but when too many of our flaws begin driving too many of our policies, we have a problem. It's going to take more than one election to repair the damage to our nation.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, thank you. I don't know if you saw this article/video of Saddam and his inner circle right before the war, but I found it fascinating...

11:21 AM  

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