I have to confess, I’ve found Andrew Sullivan quite unbearable for some time. He is an emotional basket case. His opinions, overwrought. He switches from position to position without apology and without acknowledging the strident, uncompromising, and directly opposed stances he took earlier. This is nowhere more evident than in his embrace of the nation building project in Iraq, only to turn on it at the first sight of (predictable) trouble. But the area where he really bugs me is more subtle: his use of conservative philosophers to shore up his standard-issue liberal beliefs.
Sullivan is an educated man. He studied philosophy at Oxford and had a particular interest in Michael Oakeshott. I read Oakeshott rather carefully once upon a time. He is incredibly interesting. And his most important insights appear in his major essay, “Rationalism in Politics.” This essay diagnoses much of the folly of the modern age. His key insight has to do with the nature of political and philosophical knowledge. He observes that much that is “known” is not written down and cannot be written down. By this he means the subtype of knowledge embedded in the experience, folk wisdom, and traditions of everyday life. What he calls political rationalism is deliberately blind to the existence and importance of this kind of knowledge. He concludes that only a foolish, cocky, immature, and somewhat immoral man would proceed, as the liberal rationalist does, to tear all of this experiential knowledge down because it deviates from an untested and overly certain vision of the good concocted in the mind of the rationalist.
Oakeshott writes as follows in Rationalism in Politics:
The general character and disposition of the Rationalist are, I think., difficult to identify. At bottom he stands (he always stands) for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of reason’. His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual. His mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason’; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself. . . .
To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform.
Who does this remind one of?
Sullivan apparently wrote his dissertation on Oakeshott, while at Harvard. He clearly knows Oakeshott’s ouevre. However, he crystalizes this teaching for his readers into the insight that liberal change must merely be gradual. As in his use of Burke, for Sullivan it’s obvious that certain liberal ends–equality, gay marriage, devolution of religion in public life–need to be accomplished. All right thinking people think so. The conservatism he embraces, at most, relates to tactics; the end goals are unmistakably (and unquestionably) liberal, egalitarian, and contemptuous of “superstition” and “prejudice.”
Of course, this view of things did not always prevail. It was certainly not true for Oakeshott himself, who found much of liberalism troubling, not least because of its denigration of alternatives due to the rationalist blinders which are coincident with the whole of liberal thought. Indeed, Oakeshott was a little curmudgeonly, taking occasional digs at feminism and much else that is obviously correct to the rationalist, liberal and “educated man” of today. But Sullivan abstracts from his writing only that we must move slowly.
Let’s be clear: Sullivan imagines himself the arbiter of conservatism and finds others wanting, but this is chiefly because he misreads and misstates conservatism’s philosophers, especially Burke and Oakeshott. Consider Sullivan’s latest:
Following Oakeshott, I have long believed that the liberal and the conservative strands in Anglo-American political tradition and discourse are complementary. Oakeshott sketched these two ways of seeing the world – enterprise association (collectivism at worst, patriotism at best) and civil association (selfishness at worst, individualism at best) – and believed the genius of modern European politics and the Anglo-American tradition lay in using each resource as befits changing circumstances. There are moments in a country’s history when collective action is required; ditto when a resurgence of individualism is necessary. The question is judging when, a matter of prudential judgment that true statesmen or women alone can discern.
That’s why I see no contradiction between backing Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s and Obama today.
It’s true that in politics balancing interests and proper timing are appropriate concerns. Oscillation between town and country, strong and weak government, democracy and elitism, and the like are natural features of all healthy self-government. These oscillations were true, for example, in the age of Tories and Whigs, neither of which was identifiably liberal. These differences were also true of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Jacksonians and American Whigs, and other strains of early American thought. Yet all these different strains–Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, etc.–only find a home on the right. The liberal tradition is entirely new and entirely hostile to large swaths of the earlier American traditions.
Sullivan chooses not to recognize how different liberalism is from other political views, in particular in its uncompromising approach to advancing its ends, its denigration of other modes of politics, its high regard for itself, and in its contempt for all that is traditional and inherited. In other words, in spite of all of his Oakeshott research, Andrew Sullivan denies and misstates the main theme and the most important insight of Oakeshott.
Indeed, if nothing else, we can agree that the grandeur, triumphalism, self-confidence, and quasi-religious fervor that surrounded Obama’s campaign and the ambitiousness of his policies are very un-Burkean, regardless of whether one thinks he is a “necessary man.” Obama’s approach is just short of revolutionary, with little regard for how things have been done before or the increasingly distressed cries of resistance from the common people. He is the visionary politician, imposing a social justice vision on a society hidebound by outdated ideals from a bygone era. Sullivan is impressed, and he is impressed because he thinks this is exactly what America needs right now.
Oakeshott knew, as all real conservatives know, that the teachings and insights of liberalism were not “obviously true” for many men for many generations. And he also knew that even true ideas must show some decent respect for the habits and values of the people upon whom they would be imposed. As for the substance of liberalism and its supposed connection now to our common life: much of it would not be considered true by anyone at all, but for the massive propaganda campaign undertaken over the last two or three generations in our media, universities, and public schools. This has been a campaign designed to stamp out all that does not fit the liberal program, whether it is race prejudice, prejudice in favor of traditional marriage, preference for one’s own and aversion to change, skepticism of pseudo-scientific plans and political utopianism, and all the rest. The widespread consensus favoring such liberal views among elites–and their widespread rejection by those who have not had a certain kind of education–suggests that the liberal program is false, fragile, artificial, or, at the very least, not obviously true.
Now, change of a certain kind is natural. Circumstances change, and institutions rightly change to accommodate these. Even justice itself can often be advanced from some former blind spot, as it has been in different times and places by once insensitive rulers. But this kind of change, which happens everywhere, is far different from what Sullivan wants with regard to gay marriage or national healthcare For Sullivan and other liberals, it’s obvious that the old regime is only rooted in prejudice and thus definitely wrong on that basis alone. What he sees as likes are being treated unalike, and this will not do. It all must fit! The possibility that some damage may happen to society from tinkering with age-old customs of marriage or undoing a working, but mish-mashed, health system is far from his mind.
For Sullivan, it is obvious that the historical direction of change is a liberal one. He believes himself a conservative solely because he wants to take it slow. And by slow, he means what everyone else would call blindingly fast: after a sustained propaganda campaign of ten years or so by everyone from Oprah to MTV and Harvard Law School, he and his peers have concluded that the time is right for undoing 10,000 years of exclusively heterosexual marriage.
What Sullivan cannot see is the way rationalism skews this and every other debate through vilification of opponents, rejection of whole classes of evidence, and unquestioned assumptions about the “natural” direction of society. While views have been changing, gay marriage in particular has not been much of a debate. The opponents of this change have been mocked and rejected and silenced by every institution of liberal authority in our society. And when advocates of traditional marriage have nonetheless succeeded at the ballot box, entire masses of people–more than half the state of liberal-minded California for example–are castigated by the liberal intelligentsia as haters.
What Sullivan wants with regard to health care, gay marriage, and Obama is hardly conservative, and the writings of Oakeshott to which he appeals (but does not often quote for the benefit of his readers) make this plain. Since Sullivan undoubtedly knows what Oakeshott really wrote and really thought, this reduction of his philosophy to an anodyne counsel of “taking it easy” makes Sullivan a propagandist, a con artist of the worst type.