Friday, November 12, 2004

From the Mail: Conservative Disadvantage?

Jason Pratt provides some interesting commentary on an excerpt from yesterday’s post, The Conservative Disadvantage:

BV wrote: We conservatives are at a certain disadvantage vis-a-vis our leftist brethren. We don't seek the meaning of our lives in the political sphere but in the private arena: in hobbies, sports, our jobs and professions, in ourselves, our families, friends, neighborhoods, communities, clubs and churches; in local road races and chess tournaments and tractor pulls; in the particular pleasures of the quotidian round in all of their scandalous particularity.

Above all, we conservatives do not seek any transcendent meaning in the political sphere. We either deny that there is such a thing, or we seek it in religion, or in philosophy, or in meditation, or in such sorry substitutes as occultism.

I think at this point, it would be a good idea for you to take a break from the political philosophizing; for you are (perhaps inadvertently) making universal claims which should be refutable by a certain amount of experience. Possibly this is a disadvantage of going into a semi-eremitic life; and a good warning to me not to ever do this (though I have leanings that direction myself.)

My own best beloved and the near total majority of her circle of friends are political and religious 'liberals'. But while they can get as het-up about politics and elections as some conservatives of my acquaintance, it would be raving nonsense to say they seek the meaning of their lives in the political sphere. They seek the meaning of their lives in the same places "we conservatives" do: "in hobbies, sports, our jobs and professions, in ourselves, our families, friends, neighborhoods, communities, clubs and churches; in local road races and chess tournaments and tractor pulls; in the particular pleasures of the quotidian round in all of their scandalous particularity."

BV: Jason, you are ignoring the exact wording of a post written by someone who is very particular about words. ‘Liberal’ never occurs in my post; I used ‘leftist.’ If you read enough of my posts, you will see that I distinguish liberals from leftists, although I may not be entirely consistent in observing the distinction. Specifying the difference is not easy, but it may help if I say that Alan Colmes of Hannity and Colmes is a liberal, while Amy Goodman of Democracy Now is a leftist. Some sort of liberal/leftist distinction has been around for quite some time, from the days of the Old Left, through those of the New Left, and on to the present.

So I don’t see how the examples you cite refute my thesis. Furthermore, to determine whether they tell against my thesis I would have know exactly in what sense your wife’s friends are liberals. After all, there is a sense in which I am liberal too: I prize toleration (arguably the touchstone of classical liberalism) and free inquiry, and I count as real gains some of the achievements typically claimed by liberals, especially those in the area of civil rights.


Many of us who today call ourselves conservatives do so to distance ourselves from what we take to be the left-ward drift of liberals and the Democrat party. I was a Democrat for most of my life, and indeed first voted for a Republican for president thirteen DAYS ago. (I would have voted for Bush in 2000 had I not been ‘disenfranchised’ (as a contemporary liberal might say) by my moving to a new county and failing to observe the registration deadline.) I voted for Perot twice, and before that for Dukakis (!) In 1988, Mondale (!) in 1984, Carter in 1980, and McGovern in 1972.


You may recall that the original neoconservatives, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, were liberals who adopted that moniker to dissociate themselves from the Left-ward drift of their erstwhile liberal pals.

There is a lot of evidence for my thesis. Perhaps tomorrow I will upload some supporting materials.


I cannot see why an eremitic existence disqualifies one from understanding political realities. I should think that it puts one in an uncommonly good position to evaluate the passing scene. Of course, my eremia (desert) includes internet access and a satellite dish. If my days were spent incommunicado, then you might be right.

It is also right, proper and conducive to my flourishing that I keep an eye on the activists, lest their misguided activism interfere with my contemplativity and Bradleyan reclusivity.

Granted, I would say they tend somewhat dangerously to over-seek the meaning of their lives in their selves, even when doing what would otherwise be considered religious activities. And they can be somewhat more scandalous in their particular pleasures than I think is honorable. But even these are not absolutes of their behaviors; they are quite capable of appreciating something simply because it _is_ what it is, not (primarily) because it defines _them_ to appreciate it (though sadly they have that tendency, too.)

Indeed, they would point to such appreciation of what _is_, as the mark of liberality. I think they _sometimes_ do this in ways which are dangerously naive (or outright self-centered); but in principle I'm willing to agree with them on this. I also understand that this is the basis of their political concerns and actions; consequently where I disagree with them politically tends to be either where their appreciation of what _is_, is dangerously naive (which I am not immune from myself), outright selfish (ditto), or in fact _doesn't_ protect them as much as I believe and desire they _should_ be protected.

BV: I detect some equivocation here. To say that the capacity to appreciate something simply because it is is a mark of liberality is to bring in a sense of ‘liberal’ not relevant to ‘liberal’ in the political sense. Indeed, I would associate this capacity for appreciation with the sort of contemplative mind one is more likely to find among conservatives. As we move to the Left, we find more and more activists and fewer and fewer contemplative types. Can you imagine a hard leftist who was a pure (or relatively pure) contemplative? You will recall Karl Marx’ 11th Thesis on Feuerbach: Die Philosophen haben die Welt verschieden interpretiert; aber es kommt darauf an, sie zu veraendern! "The philosophers have variously interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it!"

The hard leftist (as a type) cannot leave anything alone, or accept anything as it is, let alone be grateful for the superabundant gift of existence in the present moment – for the simple reason that what is is crap, and the good is something to be achieved. Thus whenever something positive is pointed out to them, they dismiss it. Tell a leftist like Naomi Wolf (who appeared on The O'ReillyFactor a while back) that overthrowing the Taliban was good because it led to the emancipation of Afghani women and free elections, and she will simply discount these accomplishments as meaningless in view of what leftists take to be REALLY going on, namely, the brutal expansion of American power and hegemony, the securing of a possible oil pipeline route, etc. The accomplishments are mere CAMOUFLAGE. Thus what is is not what it is, but something else, something sinister.

For that matter, if they're seeking anything, it's in _immanence_ instead of _transcendence_ (except perhaps as a feeling for them to experience), which includes "in religion, or in philosophy, or in meditation, or in such sorry substitutes as occultism." I expect this includes politics, too; which would explain the rise of certain 'silly' sayings as "The government
is us".