Dubya Immanentizes the Eschaton

Gene Callahan consults Eric Voegelin for insight into the Bush administration and its ideological supporters:

Since the Gnostic is, like the Blues Brothers, “on a mission from God,” like Jake and Elwood he is not constrained by the moral rules that apply to the non-elect. Voegelin says, “Types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane because of the real effects which they have will be considered moral in the dream world because they intended an entirely different effect.” The ongoing train wreck that Iraqi society has become was the predictable and often predicted result of the US-British invasion of the country. But the promoters of the disaster accept no guilt for their role in bringing about the present, horrible situation, because in their dream world they intended a quite different outcome. “No one,” they protest, “could have foreseen the actual course of events,” while ignoring the fact that many people did foresee it, at least in its broad outlines.

Today, at last, the force of reality is beginning to compel them to acknowledge that their grand adventure in Iraq has gone terribly astray. But many neocons are still not willing to concede that therefore launching the war was a mistake. A popular dodge is to ask their critics, “So, you’d prefer it if Hussein was still in power, still oppressing the Iraqi people?”

Well, if I could have magically ended Hussein’s tyranny in a way that wouldn’t have made life even worse for those I sought to help, I would have done so. Unfortunately, as the past three years demonstrate, it was quite possible to depose him in a way that makes the average Iraqi nostalgic for “the good old days” of Saddam’s reign of despicable but limited violence. Traditional western morality rejects the notion that an actor’s “good intentions” alone are enough to absolve him from blame for the consequences of his actions, insisting that he also has an obligation to prudently consider the probable effects of the options he is contemplating. But in the Gnostic dream world, it is morally irrelevant if the “beneficiaries” of your assistance wind up significantly and predictably in worse shape than they would have been had you simply left them alone. What matters is that in your dream everything was scheduled to come out fine, and you are righteous solely based on your admirable intentions.

Read on.

I’m Voegelin-deficient, by the way, having read none of his major works.  I oughta remedy that in the next year or so.

American Monarchist

Good profile (from a few years back) of the historian Lee Congdon in the James Madison University Magazine. Congdon meanwhile profiles George Kennan in the forthcoming issue of The American Conservative — he has a book on Kennan on the way, too.

Here’s Congdon’s unabashedly intelletualist defense of baseball:

“Baseball is a far more interesting game than, say, football and basketball, which are merely mass spectacles — games for the unthinking masses who simply look for circuses,” he says. “So many things happen on the diamond, and it takes time to learn to look for them. Moreover, baseball is the most historical of games. Part of the pleasure it gives derives from knowing its history,” he adds.

TAC Seeks Assistant Editor

The American Conservative is in the market for an assistant editor. Must be broadly sympathetic to the magazine’s positions and conversant with the world of ideas. Excellent literary and journalist skills are essential.

If that sounds like you, send an email to our executive editor, Kara Hopkins, at kara@amconmag.com. Include your resume and us know what your salary needs are. (Keep in mind that journalism is, of course, not a very lucrative profession.)

Kauffman Week Has Ended

over at 2Blowhards, with some of the best stuff saved for last. Like this:

2B: Can you tell me some good things about the following words, with which many people have bad associations: Anarchy. Reactionary. Isolationism.
Anarchy is the absence of government coercion. It implies nothing about one’s religious or social views; indeed, the most convincing anarchists have been Christians: Dorothy Day, Tolstoy. I prefer to let people, working voluntarily and in small groups with their neighbors, tend to their own affairs, without the state and its credentialed experts bossing ’em around.

I call myself a front-porch anarchist (when I’m not calling myself a Jeffersonian, a localist, a decentralist, a small-town populist, an Upstate regionalist). I’ll also happily answer to reactionary radical. That is, I cherish the old principles of ’76. Liberty. Rural life. Peace. Small-scale community. The flag of the coiled rattlesnake.

An isolationist is simply one who wishes the U.S. government to refrain from military involvement abroad. I never could figure out why this is an epithet. Why are isolationists, who oppose killing foreigners, considered xenophobes, while those who favor killing foreigners are humanitarians?

Black Mischief

The Times runs an excerpt of Tom Bower’s tabloid take on the life of Conrad Black. There’s pathos:

“Do you think you can get a group of people together if the need arises,” he asked one billionaire, “and get me some funds secured against my property?” “How much do you want from everyone, Conrad?” asked the businessman.

“About $1m each,” said Black.

There was a pause. “You’re my best friend,” continued Black. “Surely you can lend me $1m?”

“Well, Conrad,” said the man, “what’s my private telephone number?”

“I don’t know,” replied Black. “Why?”

“Well, if I were your best friend, you’d have it.”

Inveterate pessimist that I am, I sympathize with the dying George Black’s words to Conrad:

“Life is hell,” he told his son as they awaited the doctor. “Most people are bastards, and everything is bullshit.”

Wilsonianism, Then and Now

The fatal flaw of Wilsonianism, with its endemic and epidemic political righteousness, its insistence upon trying all governments and other institutions by the hopeless criteria of Fourteen Points or Four Freedoms, or some equally Jacobinist nonsense, is that it can only erode, weaken, or destroy existing structures. It cannot, by its nature, build new ones–not durable ones, at least; only pseudo-structures like the League of Nations (which would have been no better had Wilson had his way with Henry Cabot Lodge) or the United Nations. The real work of building or rebuilding is invariably left to those who detest freedom and who do not shrink from the uses of force, repression, persecution, and terror. Could one find a better illustration of that right now than either Cambodia or South Vietnam?

That’s Robert Nisbet, from a 1975 Commentary symposium, “America Now: A Failure of Nerve?

GOP and Man at Yale

is the title of my article in the Nov. 6 issue of The American Conservative, which should be hitting bookstores and subscribers’ mailboxes within a week or so. An unfortunate production error caused the last two words of the piece to be clipped off, which is bound to lead to some confusion. It’s also on-line, in full, here.

The article takes a look at the decline of intellectual conservatism on campus and the disparity between the realism, even anti-militarism, of much of the conservative canon (Weaver, Kirk, Nisbet) and the bellicosity of the student Right. The latter is of concern to more than just students: the youth adjuncts of the conservative movement have a fairly impressive record of producing future leaders of the movement; there’s almost a cursus honorum — or several, really — leading from conservative student journalism to the magazines of the Beltway-NYC Right and from the College Republicans to the leading institutions of the right-wing lobbying and political circuit.

Dan Flynn, who has considerable experience with the campus Right from his time at Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and Accuracy in Academy, was a useful interviewee for the piece; his thoughts on it are up at his blog here. In particular, Dan reminded me that the Sharon Statement — the credo of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the premiere conservative youth group of the ’60s — emphasizes not America’s “national interests” but her “just interests.” For the full story on YAF, the place to turn is Gregory Schneider’s Cadres for Conservatism, from New York University Press.

A different take on the campus Right is on hand in the December Harper’s, which includes Wells Tower’s “The Kids Are Far Right,” a snarky report on the National Conservative Student Conference put on by Young America’s Foundation (YAF, but not to be confused with the other YAF). Cutting somewhat against the thrust of my article, Tower actually finds a good deal of criticism of Bush among campus conservatives, at least at this event:

Despite all the jaunty blood thirst for liberals and hippies, it’s interesting to note that none of the students utters words of praise for George W. Bush, or goes in for any cuticle-nibbling over the daily media forecasts of the drubbing the G.O.P. is supposed to suffer at the polls fourteen weeks from now. … Proud, self-declared Republicans, in fact, are curiously hard to come by among the students, nearly all of whom identify themselves as libertarians or simply as ‘conservatives,’ and who will later describe our president to me in the following terms: ’embarrassing,’ ‘stupid,’ arrogant,’ a halfway conservative,’ ‘a puppet of lobbyists and special interests,’ and ‘a liberal, basically.’

As I note in my article, though, what constitutes “libertarianism” for this generation wouldn’t exactly warm Murray Rothbard’s heart: Tower’s article says relatively little about the young Right and war and foreign policy, but what it does say tends to confirm the impression I got of a very nationalistic, big-military student conservatism.

Tower’s piece does devote several paragraphs to the conference’s panel on books, however. Here’s a sampling:

By day five of the conference, lecture fatigue is rampant, and attendance at the Friday afternoon discussion, “Great Books to Read in College,” is at an awkward low. … Marjory Ross [president of Regnery Publishing] recommends the usual syllabus: Goldwater, Kirk, Buckley, Ayn Rand. At the mention of Rand, a current of ardor passes through the boallroom, and someone gives a low, deferential whistle. She then ventures onto a frailer limb, making the claim that it is occasionally worthwhile to read books that are not explicitly conservative: for example, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. “I know, I know,” she says sheepishly, as though half expecting the fruit to start flying.

… Elizabeth Kantor [managing editor of the Conservative Book Club] , when she gets up to speak, is also bent on promoting bookst hat, on the face of it, are not conservative at all. She likes the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, T.S. Eliot. When arguing the superiority of Western civlization, you’re at a disadvantage, she says, if your readerly horizons end at Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter. What’s so pleasureable about reading the greats is not only that they’re rich with human truths but also that they can be mined for object lessons in conservative values, or dismantled into rhetorical brickbats that make for good hurling in culture-war skirmishes. Beowulf, for example, instructs us that “war … is a noble pursuit,” Kantor says. Dickens’s Hard Times, in Kantor’s reading, is a valuable critique of the “dehumanizing effects of the modern science-based education.”

Polemical uses of classic literature aren’t unique to the Right, of course. The trouble is, the sense arises from Tower’s piece that these recommendations may be falling on deaf ears. Moreover, what’s needed is not only to read good books (“conservative” or not) but to reflect on them. John Lukacs likes to cite Jacob Burckhardt’s advice to historians, bisogna saper leggere; one must not just read but “know how to read.” The source of the intellectual shabbiness of the much of the Right lies in the inability of so many latter-day conservatives to do more than move their eyes across the page. That, I hasten to add, isn’t a failure for which I’d blame the youth: the rot begins with the institutions of conservatism, the magazines and think-tanks that are given over almost wholly to politics and policy. Even if a young conservative today reads Richard Weaver, he’s likely to be told by some political operative that the lesson he should draw from the man’s work is that “policy ideas have consequences.”

I think Young America’s Foundation is actually making moves in the right direction with its new series of “Freedom Philosopher Seminars” devoted to Hayek, Kirk, Friedman, and Frank Meyer; in my TAC article I cite a recent New York Times story about the effect the Kirk seminar had on students. These seminars probably won’t lead students to saper leggere, but they’re a start. And I’m confident Dan Flynn did a world of good when he was with Accuracy in Academia by promoting short but sound books like Nock’s Our Enemy, the State and Kirk’s Politics of Prudence to students while at the same time organizing provocative panels that effectively deconstructed conservative orthodoxy: famously, he once had a panel at an AIA summer school (I was there) featuring Jim Bovard, Sam Francis, Jonah Goldberg, and Lori Cole. How does that deconstruct conservatism and why is that a good thing? Well, it shows that conservatism is not a monolithic, unified whole, it has competing and contradictory strains of thought. That’s bad for the unity needed in politics, but it’s good for teaching students saper leggere. It’s an antidote to the mental homogenization of movement-think.