CXIV – The Decline and Fall of Conservatism

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

Through
pride we are ever deceiving ourselves. But deep down below
the surface of the average conscience a still, small voice
says to us "something is out of tune."

~ Carl Jung

There
are few experiences more unpleasant to endure than the irrational
rants of fear-ridden people. This is particularly annoying
when the anger arises not out of an immediate physical danger,
but from a perceived offense to an abstraction with which
they identify. The curse "may you live in interesting
times" reflects how easily our judgments — and actions
– can be rendered perilously foolish by turbulence in
our world.

We live
in interesting times, whose stormy inconstancy may prove to
be both a harbinger of, and catalyst for, creative change.
But change is accompanied by uncertainty, particularly regarding
the forms and practices from the past whose continuing usefulness
might be called into question by innovation. For example,
having attached ourselves to institutions – not out of
clear thought but out of habit – what will be our response
to transformations that may render such agencies obsolete?
This, I believe, is the condition now before us. Like such
periods as the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial
Revolution — each of which brought into question the prevailing
systems and beliefs — our "interesting times" may
prove to be quite beneficial, if only we confront their dynamics
with intelligence.

I have
written of these current processes of change that manifest
themselves, in part, in decentralizing social systems and
behavior. But many fear such changes, mainly because they
have so fervently identified themselves with institutional
systems that are now called into question. Having attached
themselves to such abstractions out of unexplored habit, such
people begin to experience a sense of personal-identity death:
"if my sense of being is inextricably tied to the nation-state,
who will I become if that institution should become extinct?"

If a
person lives a centered life — in which his or her beliefs
and behavior are not in contradiction, but reflect integrity
— a fundamental change in one's life may be inconvenient or
even unpleasant, but it need not be destructive of one's sense
of self. If, in the words of Viktor Frankl, a person retains
the inner capacity "to choose one's attitude in any given
set of circumstances," the opportunities for survival
are greatly enhanced.

But upon
what basis does one make such a choice? If one's life has
been dominated by external forces that defined reality for
such a person, how does such a mind overcome its own conditioning?
This raises, anew, Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle":
the mind that is being observed is the same mind that is doing
the observing! Furthermore, if one's sense of being and reality
have been defined by an institutional order whose authority
is now in retreat, if not collapse, upon what source does
that mind draw for its wholeness?

Men and
women whose philosophical and empirical understanding arises
from within themselves, have fewer difficulties adjusting
to changes occurring around them. Principles developed internally,
through constant introspection and skepticism, are more readily
adaptable to new situations, technologies, or social problems.
They provide the inner basis of support for sound thinking.
Such inner-directed people need not await the decrees of an
institutional "ethics committee" to judge the proper
course of their conduct. For example, if respect for the inviolability
of privately-owned property is a principle one embraces, whether
the product of a new technology satisfies this standard can
be determined through careful reasoning.

An example
of what can occur when one's actions are not informed by inner-developed
transcendent principles can be observed in modern "conservative"
politics. There was a time when conservative thought was actually
characterized by . . . thought! Such classic thinkers
as John Locke, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert
Spencer — to name just a few — rekindled discussions, in the
years following World War II, about individual liberty and
the state. A new group of conservative thinkers — including
Leonard Read, Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, and Ayn Rand —
arose to drag political and social philosophy out of its Marxist/socialist
quagmire. (I shall always remember a 1962 CBS Reports television
debate in which Kirk and Rand went after one another in the
kind of spirited discourse one rarely sees anymore.) Such
men and women had their disagreements, but there was a shared
understanding that individual liberty, private ownership of
property, the marketplace, and a continuing distrust of state
power, were essential to a free and productive society. These
values were fervently embraced, and not simply used as slogans
to be stuck into meaningless political platforms and then
contradicted as soon as the next session of congress convened.

Thoughtful
conservatives understood that it was the voluntary cooperation
of individuals — not the regulatory and punitive arm of the
state — that held a society together. I was never comfortable
with Edmund Burke's definition of "society" as "a
partnership not only between those who are living, but between
those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are
to be born." Nonetheless, his proposition — which goes
to the essence of conservative thought — is an idea that energized
intelligent thought and discussion in my college days.

Conservatism
lost its principled bearings, I believe, when it substituted
anti-communism for individual liberty during the Cold War
years. To be a "conservative" suddenly meant to
be staunchly anti-communist, a position also taken by Adolf
Hitler; and ought to have foreshadowed the future of a political
philosophy – originally rooted in anti-totalitarian premises
– that was to become twisted into its antithesis.

The Cold
War defined conservatism for nearly half a century, and when
the Soviet Union collapsed, conservatives were left without
a raison d'tre. Their very existence, as a political movement,
ceased to be. They had accumulated weapons and powers — along
with an army of defense contractors eager to keep the game
going — but no "enemy." Conservatives — and, I should
add, so-called "liberals" — were like a man with
a leash, desperately in search of a dog. If centralized power
was necessary to resist a foe that later disappeared, what
could justify the retention of such power?

The events
of 9/11 — whoever the responsible parties might have been
— satisfied the state's need for an enemy that would rationalize
the continuing accumulation of power over Americans. Being
in power, conservatives had no interest in the pursuit of
inner-directed principles that might serve as an anchor to
the ship-of-state. In the struggle between individual liberty
and state power, conservatives used to embrace a presumption
for liberty. For most modern conservatives, liberty is simply
a hindrance to an all-reaching police-state. Those who insist
upon protecting liberty get labeled "traitors" or
"America-haters." To conservatives and liberals
alike, power has become its own purpose.

The inner,
reflective life that once made conservatives interesting people,
has given way to the outward, reactive anger of the brute.
If you doubt this, listen to the content of what any of the
modern conservatives have to offer. Does any of it challenge
your thinking, or inform your mind in any productive way?
Typical of this reactive mindset is Fox Snooze's Bill O'Reilly,
who recently dismissed the thoughtful British MP, George Galloway,
as "an idiot." After Ken Livingstone, the mayor
of London, blamed Western governmental interference in the
Middle East for the recent subway bombings in his city, O'Reilly
also called the mayor "an idiot." When a British
journalist asked Tony Blair if the subway bombings reflected
badly on his government's policies, O'Reilly's response was
that "this reporter should have been slapped." O'Reilly
went on to ask, rhetorically, whether any American journalist
would have asked such a question of George Bush. The answer,
sadly, is "no," for like conservatives generally,
most American journalists also suffer from the collapse of
the inner voices to which Carl Jung refers!

O'Reilly's
Fox Snooze colleague, John Gibson, recently demonstrated his
commitment to the frenzied moral confusion of modern conservatism.
After a man — later acknowledged to have had no connection
with terrorism – was tackled, held to the ground, and
then shot five times in the head by London police, Gibson
applauded the British government for being so "ruthless."
"I love the way the Brits have 10 million cameras sticking
up the nose of every citizen," he went on, adding that
"five in the noggin is fine." He did admit that
there would be "hell to pay" if the dead man had
nothing to do with terrorism, but that price will not be paid
in terms of the violation of any moral principles enlightening
Mr. Gibson's judgments.

The moral
and intellectual bankruptcy of modern conservatism is to be
found throughout the media. The appeal is increasingly to
the reptilian hulks who are drawn to rhetoric that appeases
their unfocused sense of anger. To speak of introspection
– upon which a responsible, centered life depends — is
to invite the charge of "appeasement" or "sympathy"
for terrorists. That conservatives' enthusiasm for the Iraq
war is not the least dampened by the platform of lies and
deceptions upon which it was based, ought to be a significant
enough indictment of their character. But many go on to make
light of Americans' systematic torture of Iraqi citizens (do
you remember Rush Limbaugh analogizing the Abu Ghraib scandal
to a fraternity prank?). Even the video-taped shooting, by
a Marine, of a helpless, wounded Iraqi, was defended by many
conservatives.

Over
the years, my articles have elicited both support and constructive
criticism from a wide range of viewpoints. But from current
conservatives I receive little more than angry name-calling,
threats, factual ignorance, and assorted forms of irrationality.
I even get e-mails from people who call themselves Christians,
even as they support war!

As I
read and listen to the conservative rampage against the very
values that once defined their position, I am reminded of
my young adult years, when those of us who held individualist
views had to work, ever so hard, to confront collectivist
doctrines. The Marxist/socialist camp was wrong on just about
every issue, but they offered a challenge to the mind that
had to be met. I find no inner substance to modern conservatism
that requires careful examination. Their oratory remains at
the level of adolescent taunting, or what one might hear at
a labor union beer-party. Like sharks lurking offshore, most
conservatives are a deadly force to be avoided, not intellects
with which to reason.

The extent
of the conservative metamorphosis can be measured by the unbridgeable
chasm separating two men named Karl. The first was a late
and dear friend of mine, Karl Hess, who advised and wrote
speeches for one of the last of the traditional conservatives,
Barry Goldwater. His words "extremism in the defense
of liberty is no vice" and "moderation in the pursuit
of justice is no virtue" stand in vivid contrast to the
mindset of the other man, Karl Rove, a Machiavellian who advises
George W. Bush. The distance separating these two men also
measures how far modern conservatism has moved from a more
principled center.

If there
is any encouragement to be found in America's current madness,
it is this: a healthy system can tolerate reactive, mindless
rage for only a short period of time before plunging into
an entropic freefall. We may be a society presently dominated
by fools, but our civilization is too commercially and technologically
sophisticated to long endure relationships based upon slapping
people around, or putting "five in the noggin."
The unfocused rage and preoccupation with collective violence
that unites modern conservatives provides the route back to
the "stone age" to which they like to speak of sending
others, but to which they lead only themselves and their neighbors.

Like
drunken teenagers who have stolen an expensive Rolls-Royce
and taken it on a wild joy-ride, conservatives will likely
find themselves failing to negotiate a sharp curve in the
road and crash into a tree. The extent of the damage done
to the car may depend upon what we do to limit their access
to that which we value. The playwright, Arthur Miller, expressed
our dilemma in these words:

"Few
of us can easily surrender our belief that society must somehow
make sense. The thought that the state has lost its mind and
is punishing so many people is intolerable. And so the evidence
has to be internally denied."

But people
who lack a moral, psychological, and intellectual center do
not have to concern themselves with internal denial. For such
people — particularly modern conservatives — the evidence
of our societal madness is not a vice to be denied,
but a virtue to be openly celebrated.

Next
Chapter
                               Table
of Contents

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare
  • LRC Blog

  • Podcasts