Where in the World Are We Going?

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Philadelphia
Society, April 2, 2006

Within the
so-called American conservative movement intellectual and political
confusion are today rampant. Hence the following attempt to sort
out what is what.

First of
all, a conservative is acutely aware of the flawed nature of man.
The capacity of human reason is limited. Our existence is ultimately
a great mystery. Conservatives recognize that for these reasons
we need the best of the human heritage to help guide us.

The Jacobin
suffers from no such humility. Who needs history when there are
universal principles that are also self-evident? It's all so clear.
Traditions are but historical accidents, props for old elites
that should be replaced by the enlightened and virtuous, people
like him. Leo Strauss and his disciples have taught us to disdain
"the ancestral" and heed only principles of reason.

Conservatives
and Jacobins differ profoundly on what ultimately commands our
loyalty. Conservatives stand in awe of a higher power. The ancient
Greeks spoke of it as the good, the true and the beautiful. Others
refer to it as the will of God. This higher reality is, in any
case, not some ideological blueprint. To feel obligated to look
for and to do the right thing is not the same as to know just
what it is in particular circumstances. The complexity and unpredictability
of life disincline the conservatives to sweeping, categorical
assertions.

The Jacobin
is a true believer. He has access to universal principles, you
see, and they demand "moral clarity." You are either
for his principles, which makes you virtuous, or you are against
them, which makes you evil. It's all so clear.

To have unquestioning
faith in one's own moral superiority is for Christians the cardinal
sin. Only a profoundly conceited person could think that for another
to oppose him is by definition morally perverse.

But the Jacobin
assumes a right to have his way. Behind his moralism hides a desire
to dominate. The hesitation or trepidation that may trouble men
of conscience do not deter him. The will to power silences all
doubt.

For the conservative,
the universal imperative that binds human beings does not announce
its purpose in simple, declaratory statements. How, then, does
one discern its demands? Sometimes only with difficulty. Only
through effort can the good or true or beautiful be discovered,
and they must be realized differently in different historical
circumstances. The same universal values have diverse manifestations.
Some of the concrete instantiations of universality take us by
surprise. Because there is no simple roadmap to good, human beings
need freedom and imagination to find it. Universality has nothing
to do with uniformity.

For the Jacobins,
ahistorical, ideological precepts define universality, and these
demand conformity. Comply with them, or else.

The conservative
is attracted to both universality and diversity, because the two
do, in a sense, need each other. He does not cherish diversity
for its own sake, for much of the diversity in the world offends
all higher values, but diversity of another type is how universality
comes alive in the infinite variety of individuals and circumstances.

Because universality
manifests itself variously, the conservative is no narrow-minded
nationalist. He is a cosmopolitan. This does not mean that he
is a free floater, at home everywhere and nowhere. That describes
the Jacobin ideologue. The conservative is a patriot, deeply rooted
in the best of his own heritage. It is because he is so attached
to what is most admirable in his own culture that he can understand
and appreciate corresponding achievements in other cultures. He
is able to find in different places variations on a common human
theme. The culturally distinctive contributions of other peoples
deepen and enrich his awareness of goodness, truth and beauty.

The Jacobin
is not interested in diversity, only in imposing his blueprint.
What history happens to have thrown up is just an obstacle to
what ought to be. Only what is "simply right" deserves
respect. It's all so obvious.

Conservatives
see in Jacobin principles a hair-raising obliviousness of life's
complexity. To implement such principles may devastate a society.
A society may be wholly unsuited or unprepared for changes demanded
of it. So what, say America's neo-Jacobins. We need moral clarity.
What was there before does not matter. "Democracy" must
take its place. One model fits all. To ensure a democratic world,
America must establish armed and uncontested world supremacy.

The will
to power is here bursting at the seams. What argument could be
better for placing enormous power in the hands of the neo-Jacobins
than a grandiose scheme for remaking the world. At lunch yesterday
we got to hear [from Max Boot] the pure, undiluted neo-Jacobin
message.

All Jacobins
warn of the Enemy with a capital "E." The Enemy is the
embodiment of evil, a force with which no compromise is possible.
For the American neo-Jacobins the Enemy is Terrorism with a capital
"T." Though the only superpower, America must be in
a permanent state of emergency, be armed to the teeth and relentlessly
pursue the Enemy.

One current
assumption about conservatives is nothing less than weird: that
they are hawks, always looking for prey and always bullying. Conservatives
are in reality normally doves, looking for ways to settle conflicts
peacefully. They view war differently from neo-Jacobin desk-warriors.
The suffering and destruction of war are frightful realities involving
actual human beings. War is the very last resort.

Conservatives
harbor no illusions about the international arena. Bad people
behave badly. So conservatives want to be prepared to handle threats
to their own society and civilization or to international peace.
But their normal way of interacting with other peoples is to try
to defuse conflict and to pursue a common human ground. This is
the cosmopolitan way.

In domestic
affairs, American conservatives have always feared unlimited power,
partly because of their belief in original sin. Fallen creatures
must be restrained by law. Government must be limited and decentralized,
hence the separation of powers and federalism. The sprit of constitutionalism
forms the core of the American political tradition. Unchecked
power is an invitation to tyranny. The framers even wanted the
U.S. Congress, which was to be the preeminent body of the national
government, to have divided powers. Needless to say they disdained
democracy.

Jacobins
see no need for restraints on virtuous power. Today American neo-Jacobins
are promoting presidential ascendancy and great leeway for the
executive. Old restraints and liberties must yield to the needs
of the virtuous national security state.

Neo-Jacobins
undermine American constitutionalism by radically redefining its
meaning. They have little loyalty towards the culturally distinctive,
historically evolved America. This country, neo-Jacobins assert,
represents a sharp break with the past. They love to speak
of the "Founding," because that term suggests that America
does not have historical origins but emerged afresh from enlightened
minds. Harry Jaffa and others insist that to celebrate America
is to celebrate radical innovation and revolution.

Conservatives
cherish local autonomy and strong communities. As far as possible
people should be able to shape their own lives, partly because
the good life has to be lived differently in different circumstances.
Jacobins resist anything that might interfere with ideological
homogeneity. Individual and local autonomy could, they think,
so easily get out of hand.

It should
be obvious that, due in large part to barely masked neo-Jacobinism,
American conservatism has in the last few decades been turned
virtually inside out. In 1952 many conservatives regarded Dwight
D. Eisenhower as too "liberal" because he was not willing
to dismantle the New Deal. He would only prune it. Today, in all
but rhetoric, people calling themselves conservatives accept a
vastly larger and more intrusive central government. Under the
current allegedly conservative president alone the federal government
has expanded by 25%. Yet representatives of the so-called conservative
movement proceed as if nothing had happened and absurdly celebrate
"triumphs of conservatism."

Only a major
intellectual or moral flaw in American conservatism could have
made so many susceptible to the neo-Jacobin bug. Many who caught
it were myopically preoccupied with practical politics and Republican
partisanship. They lacked historical perspective and philosophical
discernment. Others dimly recognized what was happening but went
along to reap financial rewards and advance careers. They concealed
almost from themselves that they became hired guns advocating
the positions expected of them. Both groups made alliances that
will prove compromising. Historians will wonder how so many could
have been so easily swayed and manipulated.

Today
the utopianism, recklessness, cynicism and sheer incompetence
of the neo-Jacobins are becoming obvious. Many of their fellow-travelers
are trying to save what remains of their reputations by jumping
ship. Intellectually challenged supernationalists just raise their
voices and call critics unpatriotic. As for the neo-Jacobins themselves,
they are blameless. It is those who implemented their policies
who should be blamed. They didn't do it right.

The neo-Jacobin
virus should have been flushed out long ago.

April
4, 2006

Claes
G. Ryn [send him mail] is
professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, chairman
of the National Humanities Institute, and author, most recently,
of America
the Virtuous
.

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