Posts Tagged ‘Burke’

During college, I took the dominance of feminism somewhat for granted.  It was very much part of the landscape both on campus and beyond.  What I have since come to appreciate is the way that conservatives capitulated to it.  I distinctly recall a class on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in the early 90s.  The professor–the estimable Ed Rosenheim, WWII veteran and all around great guy–asked specifically what Burke meant when he spoke of a “manly, moral, and regulated liberty.”  My classmates and I referenced Aristotle’s discussion of the natures of animals, men, and gods.  There was the familiar distinction of liberty and license.  After all this, the professor was somewhat amused; what good boys we all were.  (I think the class consisted entirely of men, in fact.)  None considered that “manly” might be distinguished from “womanly.”  And that “womanly” might be pejorative, as in hysterical, emotional, and weak.



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One notable aspect of the defense of the Ground Zero Mosque is the claim that defending the rights of these Muslims it is part and parcel of living in accord with our traditions of property rights, free speech, and religious freedom.  But this is, frankly, the theory of America.  Yes, these are important and hoary legal rights.  But they were instituted by our Founders and still valued for practical reasons:  we value our own right to worship, we do not want our neighbors policing our worship, we do not want to contribute to the worship of others, with which we may disagree, and we do not want the kinds of violent contests over religion that have characterized much of European history.  In our past, and even now, there were practical limits on the range of expression of speech or religious freedom owing to our common heritage.  Likewise, and with similar practicality, we value democratic institutions because we believe it limits government excess, allows our interests to be filtered through the political process, and prevents the concentration of power in a king or oligarchy.  But, we also knew until recently among whom we were living, voting, and choosing representatives and presidents.  These were not third world rabble on the whole.  We were not going to face violent reactions in either politics or religion if the outcome–conversion or a lost election–were not a desired one.  Once again, experience rendered the theory a practical and beneficient one.

But for liberals–whether neoconservative or “out of the closet” left-liberals–the procedures are often valued without regard for their practical outcome.  And among left liberals in particular, negative practical outcomes are embraced in the name of theories because these outcomes undermine traditional power structures, habits, and people.  Such rhetorical appeals use our honor and contempt for hypocricy as the very means by which our collective happiness will be undermined.  Thus, free speech for Muslims is championed while draconian prosecutions for “hate speech” among our peers in Europe and Canada are greeted with indifference.  Democracy that yields a ban on gay marriage is struck down by the courts, even as it is championed in Iraq to accomplish Sharia or in South Africa to expropriate property from farmers.

If I may paraphrase something I wrote earlier on Bush’s policies on Iraq:  he acted on the assumption that we’re winning in Iraq by turning Iraq into a democracy, but he was mistaken insofar as he believeed “democracy” is a substantive policy outcome and not an interim procedure that could lead to any number of substantive results both for us and the Iraqis.

Procedural schemes in government are justified to the extent they lead to some long-run practical benefit. Procedures and rights are inventions to achieve practical and final ends like safety, commerce, and order. In both foreign and domestic policies, there should be no purely idealistic procedures, if they would likely lead to some abhorrent practical outcome, such as a society’s destruction.

With Bush and his inner circle, the supporters of a deontological and idealistic foreign policy deluded themselves into thinking that they’re the good ones and that their opponents simply lack sufficient commitment to the cause, instead of recognizing that they’re thoroughly ideological in outlook and merely hoping that a positive outcome will result from the unknown nature of Iraqi public opinion as expressed through elections. This was dangerous and irresponsible, considering the stakes.

Similarly, blind supporters of free speech and religious freedom for Muslims in America do not recognize that the lack of commitment to free speech and religious freedom among this subgroup renders that expansion of freedom short-sighted, unwise, and self-destructive in the long-run, or, at the very least, carries some countervailing risks.  What good is “religious freedom” that results in subordination to Sharia in the name of a suicidal consistency and unwillingness to look beyond theory to practice and outcomes?

As Burke stated in reference to another self-destructive experiment in consistency, “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection; but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. Men have a right that these wants should be provided for by this wisdom.”  Indeed.  While rights and legalities are of high importance, they are not of supreme importance.  They are means to an end, and if they clearly do not serve that end because of some changed circumstance, they must be modified, amended, or in some other way adjusted to deal with reality.

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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.

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