The American Zoo: Liberals, Conservatives, Fundamentalists and Neocons
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Copyright © 2005, 2006 and 2007 by Jay B. Gaskill
THE AMERICAN POLITICAL ZOO FAILS TO UNITE!
AND THIS IS A SURPRISE?
TRUE FUNDAMENTALISTS UNITE!
As a “paleolib” (read old fashioned liberal), I share many of the “liberal” complaints about the reflexive “religious” mind. But I have even stronger complaints about the reflexive mind of the anti-religious left, especially as some of its adherents attack religion as both brain-dead and retrograde.
I grant that the use of religious rhetoric and images in politics, both benign (Martin Luther King) and less than benign, is a venerable tradition in US history. But the specter of a theocratic state (the boogyman of the secular left), has been confined to science fiction.
Robert Heinlein wrote a novelette about an ultra oppressive religious regime taking over in the US. It’s in a paperback called, “Revolt in 2100” and the story is “If This Goes On”.
Heinlein, a secular libertarian, was not hostile to all the so-called fundamentalist faiths. In his book, the Mormons – who were on the outs with the administration in the story - were among the resistance.
When I talk about the reflexive religious mind, I’m not singling out the so called “religious right” and not the evangelists – an often admirable group who constitute an entirely separate and sometimes overlapping sub set of the authentically religious. I’m really talking about the passionate parrots. These are the narrow minds who talk too much and think too little and who inhabit the theological fringes but all too often dominate the media. I refuse to give cede the title “fundamentalists” to these talking heads.
In my universe, the term fundamentalist is reserved to all thoughtful religious and non-religious people who reason from fundamental first principles. These principle-driven reasonable minds should hold the title because they are the authentic fundamentalists. The cramped minds and often fevered souls who have swapped memorization for thinking and who have taken out-of-context passages from poorly understood “scripture” for fundamental principles of life are the faux fundamentalists.
By contrast, authentic fundamentalists might locate a passage in Vedantic scripture, another in general literature, still another in Confucianism, another in the Torah and a similar passage in a Gospel text, and be able to identify the same essential ethical principle operating in all four.
This kind of approach is demonstrated in a brilliant summary of world ethical and religious traditions, the lectures of C. S Lewis in “The Abolition of Man”. I also highly recommend the just-released masterpiece by the San Francisco philosopher, Jacob Needleman, “Why Can’t We Be Good”. Dr. Needleman is one of those old fashioned philosophers who are equally comfortable quoting Socrates, St, Paul, and Hillel the Elder. His 2007 book demonstrates a language and approach that can guide both the secular and religious minded among us to rediscover conscience in ourselves.
This capacity to spot those significant underlying principles, the hidden “bones of the universe”, defines the authentic fundamentalists. They recognize the deep principles as the fundamentals, while seeing their expressions in various documents as only the derived versions. What about all those pesky, real-world application problems? “Rubber meets road” problems tend to be very messy; they almost always set up issues where reasonable minds can differ. Which is why these are issues that call for honest, careful dialogue, starting with agreed fundamental principles.
So I would have us rescue fundamentalism from the fundamentalists, and liberate ethical and policy discussions from rote appeals to secular and religious dogma.
For example, we are too often presented with a laundry list of so called “religious right” positions vs. “morally progressive” positions as if no thoughtful person could possibly agree with one of the other side. When I hear this, I’m often left with the feeling of being read a catechism - not one by an altar boy in the 19th century RC Church, but by an altar child of the unthinking anti-religious left or the literalist right.
Consider just these four issue sets:
· Stem cell research: Must we always be for it or against it?
· Human cloning: Can this never generate a problem? ‘
· Physician assisted suicide: Must we trust this model always? Never?
· In-vitro fertilization: Always and everywhere a good or a bad thing?
To any ethical realist concerned with achieving wise and ethical public policy, all four issues are ripe for a searching, intelligent dialogue, a discussion that is informed by both religious and secular ethical insights. All these issues present messy, real world application problems.
Yet reasonable minds, coming from entirely different political and theological perspectives, can actually have a two way conversation, talking in realistic, non lunatic terms about these four issues, agreeing and disagreeing. No one need lapse into an appeal to the infallible authority of Dogma or Fatwa. How refreshing would that be?
A Note to my readers: This and the following sketch are profiles of American political conservatism and political liberalism. The general conservatism that represents a preference of rational incrementalism and a deep respect for tradition, and the general liberalism that represents a generosity of spirit and a tendency to challenge arbitrary boundaries are both enduring and valuable features of the Human Condition.
We need them both.
THE FRACTURES IN CONSERVATISM
Conservatism has undergone a renaissance mostly because of the excesses of the left. The so called neo-conservatives are considered a threat by liberals precisely because, as a group, neo-cons are recovering lefties. This renaissance masks a growing problem for the right: As a coherent belief system, conservatism is in trouble.
The challenge of the 9-11 attacks and the consequent unity-in-the-ranks gave modern conservatism (always mutable) a unified shape. Absent that development, the movement was at risk of losing traction in the U.S. political culture. In the early months of the 911 crisis, almost all Americans felt united against a concerted terrorist assault specifically aimed at our vital institutions. In this context, “conservatives” became the entire group of like-thinking individuals united in opposition to the liberal/left forces that had stripped away our defenses.
Given the left’s role in our nation’s continuing cultural disintegration, and the pathological denial about the advance of Islamo-fascism in the world by many of its leaders, the far left might well have been discredited for good — at least on national security issues. Think about it: By now, we Americans might have created a new bipartisan national security consensus. Why didn’t that happen? Though the prospect of one’s own execution wonderfully concentrates the mind, the effect works for a very short time. The war for the survival of Western civilization as we once knew it is not like an action movie; the narrative arc is more like that of the cold war. The atavistic jihad against the West will be a very long struggle indeed. People tend to tire, and they revert to the comfortable. Denial is the real opiate of the people.
So the cracks in the conservative movement have begun to surface. [Yes, there are and were similar cracks within the left, but these have been temporarily masked by the sense of unity-in-opposition.] Revulsion at the excesses of the left no longer fully defines “conservative”.
Some of the fractures in the conservative movement flow from core principles, others from practical considerations.
Is conservatism just a coalition?
Is there a viable universal definition of conservatism?
Can the term conservative ever describe an international movement?
Here is my short list of the conflicts and overlapping sub-movements within this loosely defined conservative alliance:
(1)The religious vs. secular conservatives (the latter unconcerned about God in the pledge or the Decalogue in the public square);
(2)The “social” conservatives vs. the “socially tolerant” ones (generating issues like abortion vs. free choice and traditional marriage vs. “new paradigm”);
(3)The libertarian conservatives vs. the public order conservatives (this fuels the drug legalization conflict, among others); (4) The isolationists vs. interventionists (isolationists went silent when the Trade Towers fell, but returned as the “Why is Israel so important, anyway?” crowd);
(4)Between the nationalists and internationalists (of which the free trade vs. American protectionism is but one example).
Liberalism and all the left-ideologies seem to easily attract international allies. Even libertarians are doing it. But an American conservative does not connect with a French “conservative” or a British conservative in the same way an American of the left or the libertarian fringe connects to the counterpart European co-ideologist.
The call to return to American values (and the deeper traditions of the West) captures something that every thinking American readily grasps. But these themes make sense only to a small and sharply shrinking number of classically trained, traditionally minded Europeans.
Specifically American conservative issues (and the policy stances they imply) often don’t fit with the old world mindset. This is because — from a post-Royalist, class dominated European perspective — we (especially America’s historically aware conservatives) are inherently scary.
‘Why”, you ask? We Americans are still the world’s most radical cultural individualists.
THE FRACTURES IN THE LIBERAL MIND
Many of the contradictions and fractures within the American conservative moment are mirrored among American liberals.
The fractures-in-common include:
· The libertarian liberals vs. the public order liberals (drug legalization is a pivot issue here);
· The isolationists vs. interventionist liberals (but liberal interventionists tend to support much smaller and more politically correct interventions, like sending a rescue contingent to Haiti); and
· The nationalists vs. internationalists (free trade vs. protectionism is a sharp fracture among liberals and conservative alike).
The original animating principle of the liberal project is that government should devote its resources primarily to the improvement of the human condition, and its deep underlying egalitarian premise.
That premise is the key to the liberal mindset. Liberals are almost perfectly defined by the post-Marxist premise that the problems in the human condition stem primarily from inequities in the distribution of material wealth, a condition that is the result of the abuse of power and privilege of the wealthy.
In a historical development rich with irony, most authentic American liberals are so well off financially that, in a prior era, they might have been labeled by their Marxist cousins as the dominant class, in an archaic phrase, as the “enemies of the people”. I suspect this is why, on a deep psychological level, modern liberals feel it necessary to demonize their conservative opponents, in order to create and maintain a distracting vision of the true “enemies of the people”.
In a second irony of history, contemporary liberals fear the neo-cons most of all because they have adopted the original animating principle of the liberal project.
Neo-cons can be defined as the political thinkers who accept that government should devote its resources primarily to the improvement of the human condition but reject all or part of the post-Marxist premise that humanity’s problems stem mostly from inequities in the distribution of material wealth, a condition that is the result of the abuse of power and privilege of the wealthy.
This is why the most significant fractures and contradictions with liberalism are within liberal mindset itself. Well before the publication of Ann Coulter’s latest book, “Godless: the Church of liberalism”), I had identified political liberalism as a “Secular Religion” (see http://www.jaygaskill.com/liberalismasreligion.htm ).
As I wrote in that 2004 piece:
“It is no coincidence that political liberals thickly populate some of the wealthiest and best educated coastal and urban communities in America. They are bound together, not only by a political religion, but by shared experiences. For the most part, they constitute social cohorts that enjoy six linked sets of shared assumptions and attitudes:
(1)A comfortable hedonism enjoyed by predominantly well educated post-religious middle class and upper class sub-populations;
(2)A “hip” social outlook that tends to mask or anesthetize moral qualms about the enjoyment of their position; effect this is a shared social milieu in which “style” and social “sophistication” operate to confer on their life styles a sort of gentile veneer of social virtue, one characterized by “tolerance”;
(3)Compartmentalized morality, especially in the arts, an attitude that holds that the arts are generally to be free of all traditional moral stances and constraints, except for a small sub-component (honored more by gesture than actually patronized) in which the condemnation of oppression and the celebration of the oppressed are featured elements;
(4)Non judgmental attitudes about “sins” of the educated and tolerant, overlooking drug abuse, “life-style” motivated abortions, serial divorces and a whole range sexual behavior typically condemned in less “sophisticated” cultures;
(5)The tendency to see morality as the avoidance of social criticism, resulting in a cinematic definition of the moral “stand”, where morality is understood primarily in terms of appearances;
(6)The notion that morality is properly and even sufficiently manifested by moral gestures. As a result, “correct” positions and stances trump all gritty engagement with the world, even at the expense of practical results.
How do we explain the fierce grip maintained by the religion of political liberalism over its adherents?
Liberalism’s tendency to elevate “correct” stances and gestures creates an extraordinary ability to shield the comfortable hedonist life styles of its main adherents from moral criticism. Thus the religion of liberalism represents a form of social détente and clever camouflage.
‘The religion of political liberalism has three principal canons:
A. Nationalization of charity. Humanitarian endeavors cannot be effectively performed, nor equitably supported unless they are done by government agencies. This has the virtue of insulating its adherents from real moral claims on their personal resources. In effect, the political-moral stance that begins with the phrase– “I support….(you can fill in the blanks with a liberal cause here)” becomes the equivalent of “I gave at the office.”
B. Social Marxism. This stance (going by various other names of course) dictates that a doctrine of (pretended) social equality substitutes for the now discredited ruthless redistribution of all wealth. This stance (which was really the ur-source of political correctness) allows its adherents to accomplish (or at least favor) the humiliation and social repression of those whom its shifting fashions might choose to label oppressors. This is a low cost approach to egalitarianism and protects those whose sophisticated hedonism would otherwise be criticized. The appropriately expressed politically correct bromides are the camouflage of “undeserved” well off.
C. Collective Expiation of guilt. Social survivor guilt, the inevitable result of a sense of “unearned” well being, is expiated by this religion’s ritual practices. These rituals, for the most part, consist of bumper stickers, public gestures, cocktail party banter, and occasional political activity in support of liberal causes.”
I suspect that the truths captured in this kind of analysis explain why Lenin and other authoritarian Marxists hated and distrusted liberals. History would have worked out differently– and undoubtedly for the better- if the liberals had equally hated and distrusted the Marxist-Leninists. My other suspicion is that contemporary liberals detest and fear the neocons (and attribute to them vast conspiratorial powers they do not possess) because they recognize in the neocons their own suppressed moral instincts.
THOSE DARNED NEO-CONS: IT'S ALL LEO’S FAULT!
General political observers seem both fascinated and confused by the term “neo-conservative” or “neo-con”, and are curious about the movers and shakers who make up this influential strain in American politics. Neocons are occasionally demonized as the puppets of the recovered Marxist intellectual Leo Strauss (1899-1973) who taught at the University of Chicago. This is overreaching on several levels, principally because the “neocon” perspective has independently emerged among a number of intellectuals who first flirted with Marxism then vehemently rejected it. Like many political scientists, Strauss taught theory, was critical of “relativism”, and believed the ideas matter.
On the latter point, we can all agree. Bad ideas drive bad decisions leading to bad outcomes.
Contemporary neocons share two overriding perspectives: A rejection of the Marxist left coupled with an insider’s understanding of Marxist’s arguments, political stratagems and deceptions.
Like the term “political correctness”, the label “neo-con” was pasted on by others. Unlike the PC crowd, the intellectuals and pundits who have been identified as neo-cons don’t seem to mind the brand at all.
Some points of clarification:
There really is no fully accepted definition of neo-con, no neo-con movement as such, no membership card, no secret handshake and no catechism.
My suggested working definition:
The term neo-conservative means newly emerged conservative. It loosely identifies those American political intellectuals who have rejected the main tenets of left wing politics (especially, Marxism in all its forms), having once been card carrying lefties themselves. It is primarily, but no longer exclusively, an intellectual movement. It represents, along with libertarianism, one of several significant threads in the conservative intellectual resurgence that has begun to reshape American politics since the mid 1980’s.
I haven’t particularly discussed the neo-cons in my writing until now, although several of their number (Norman Podoretz and Fr. John Neuhaus, among them) have certainly influenced my thinking.
There are “liberal” neo-cons as well, thinkers like the New Republic’s Martin Peretz who have retained much of their earlier liberal positions on a range of issues. See MP’s Lieberman piece in the Wall Street Journal archived at: http://www.jaygaskill.com/Peretzanddemocraticfuture.htm
For my own part, I still count myself a political independent (nominally a “Truman Democrat”) for whom the current war between atavistic jihadists and modern, liberal civilization is the overriding concern of our time.
A NEO-CON OVERVIEW:
SOME ACTIVE NEO-CON FIGURES
Norman Podhoretz (“grandfather” of the neo-cons)
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (the neo-con’s “Godfather”)
William Kristol (the “dutiful nephew”)
David Brooks (the “cherubic grandson”)
David Horowitz (the “angry uncle”)
Tammy Bruce (the “lesbian cousin”)
Fred Barnes (the “old friend”) http://www.weeklystandard.com/aboutus/bio_barnes.asp
Victor Davis Hanson (the “new friend”)
Those who attribute some kind of conspiratorial malevolence to the neocon group evidence the paranoid fantasy ideation that the screenwriters of horror movies like to exploit. The “neocon threat” belongs in the same category as
“THE ATTACK OF THE BLOOD-SUCKING TEDDY BEARS!
Coming soon to a theater near you”.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The most important divide in American politics is between the populists in both parties and in both main ideological movements dividing them from their respective elites. This was nowhere apparent in the dynamic of the recent immigration reform blowup.
The populists have the virtue and the curse of unenlightened common sense. Whatever they lack in “moral refinement”, you can be assured they haven’t forgotten the survival imperative or its popular corollary: “Make damn sure that your enemy loses before you do”.
History, at least in its unfolding political and economic narratives, represents the drama of the ongoing competition between different systems of social order.
Liberal democratic capitalism has defeated totalitarian Marxism. It is enjoying a new post victory dysfunctional phase: Bickering complacency in the face of a neo-Nazi attempt to exterminate it.
Will atavistic 12th century jihadists buying 21st century weaponry with petro-dollars? Will the actually succeed in making the West irrelevant?
This is one of those Darwinian moments in history. When the “Darwin Awards” are issued to “The most Spectacularly Failed Civilization of the 21st Century”, we can all hope that our detractors won’t be the ones cheering.