The American Conservative, 3 November 2008

The cover of this issue features caricatures of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, advertising 18 short pieces by various contributors explaining how they reacted to the presence of that pair as candidates for US president.  Of those 18, 4 expressed support for Obama, 3 for McCain, 2 for Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, 2 for Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, 1 each for non-candidates Ward Connerly and Ron Paul, and the remaining 5 backed no one

John Schwenkler reports from the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Headed by old-time New Left leader Kirkpatrick Sale, the Middlebury Institute gives equal footing to far left groups like the Second Vermont Republic and far right groups like the League of the South, much to the dismay of bien-pensant liberals.  Sale and company argue that “the so-called American Revolution… was a war of secession, not a revolt” and that separatism has a long history in American history, a history reaching far beyond the late unpleasantness between the states.  Schwenkler quotes Emory University philosopher Donald Livingston, a scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment who has apparently turned in recent years to Aristotle’s Politics and its emphasis on the proper scale of human communities.  Aristotle might have argued that the United States is simply too big to do any good.  Aristotle followed Plato in his belief that there was an appropriate size for a human society, that too small a group would be doomed to perpetual poverty while too large a group would lack any real bond of community.  This focus on the need for human communities to be built on a human scale has been one of the recurring themes in political theory ever since.  Because Livingston has spoken harsh words against Abraham Lincoln and the centralization of power in Washington that followed the Civil War, he has occasionally been smeared as a racist. 

Austin Bramwell argues that conservatives would be better off if there were no conservative political movement.  One may be tempted to add that in this they are like everyone else.  Bramwell’s claim is that what conservative intellectuals have to offer is something of value to independent minded individuals, but useless as a battle cry for partisans.  As examples of the kind of conservative intellectuals he has in mind, Bramwell offers Joseph Schumpeter, Jane Jacobs, Tom Wolfe, Jacques Barzun, Noam Chomsky, E. O Wilson, and Steven Pinker.  Bramwell classifies Schumpeter as conservative for precisely the reason so many on the right are uncomfortable with him today, his support for a “semi-feudal, mixed constitution” that would act to temper capitalism.  Jacobs self-identification as a leftist does not trouble Bramwell; her focus on the need for society to be constituted on a human scale and her opposition to centralized planning put her in his camp.  Chomsky, Wilson, and Pinker make the list because of the defenses each has offered for the idea that human behavior has biological bases that social planning cannot overwrite.  Indeed, Bramwell turns Chomsky’s ceaseless denunciations of US foreign policy into a conservative credential by pointing out that “Chomsky describes his politics as an attack on social engineering as he perceives it.” 

Howard Anglin reviews Marilynn Robinson’s novel Home, declaring that “Without artists like Robinson, without books like Home and the institutions they celebrate, our civilization cannot last long… If Marilynn Robinson is a liberal, then America needs more liberals.”  Considering that the review opens by quoting Robinson’s 2004 statement that “I am myself a liberal,” this last sentence would seem rather odd in a magazine called The American Conservative.  The rest of the quote (from her 2004 essay “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion” ) shows that she is about as conservative as Noam Chomsky and Kirkpatrick Sale:

I am myself a liberal.  By that I mean I believe that society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that large-mindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished.  I am not ideological.

Anglin could have quoted the rest of that paragraph and the two that follow:

By that I mean I believe opportunities of every kind should be seized upon to advance the well-being of people, especially in assuring them decent wages, free time, privacy, education, and health care, concerns essential to their full enfranchisement.

I am very critical of liberalism, not in principle, but as a movement. This distinction seems never to be made, and it is not at all subtle. As a principle, liberalism is essential to the sanity and humanity of this civilization. As a movement, it is virtually defunct. Those who have espoused it have failed it, in a way and to a degree that has allowed the very word to become a term of opprobrium, for reasons that are never specified. Some authoritative consensus turned against it, and, obedient to that consensus, its allies have abandoned the cause, if not gone over to the other side, into the embrace of illiberalism. The oddness as well as the potency of this phenomenon is certainly to be seen in the capitulation of the Democratic party in Congress to a president whose mandate to govern was so weak as to be nonexistent. These solons were not so much cowed by being out of power as they were by being out of style. Perhaps so honorable a thing as courage should not be named in such a context, even to describe its own absence. 

In all fairness, the capitulation of liberalism to illiberalism (a word I use advisedly–there is nothing conservative about this new politics) did occur along the whole broad progressive front, not just in Congress. All across the nation liberalism went out like flared pants. Suddenly people were avoiding that word, trying to find a new name for their political convictions, and failing, in part because they were not quite so sure what their convictions were, or if they ought to deal in politics at all. Best leave it to the cynics and the bullies. After all, Jefferson owned slaves.

Robinson’s distinction between the principle and the movement takes us back to Bramwell’s idea that conservatives would be more valuable without a conservative movement; her suggestion that even the intellectual heirs of a slaveholder like Jefferson may have something to say that could be of interest to all of us takes us back to Kirkpatrick Sale’s willingness to consort with the League of the South; her critique of the opposition to the (outgoing, thank God) administration in Washington goes back to the concerns the contributors expressed in the special section on the 2008 election.

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  1. cymast

     /  November 12, 2008

    Plato’s and Aristole’s political scale makes sense to me. I’ve long thought the USA is simply too big. Utah needs to stay in Utah. Would Proposition 8 have passed if California was a separate country?

  2. acilius

     /  November 12, 2008

    It makes sense to me, too.

    I don’t know what would have happened if California were a separate country. Quite a few things would be different if that were the case, I don’t know if there would have been such a thing as Proposition 8 in that case.

  3. cymast

     /  November 13, 2008

    I’ve been reading a lot about the “whys” of Proposition 8 passing. There is so much misinformation out there on the definition of marriage, civil union, civil right, and homosexuality. I think the vast majority of the “YES” voters are misinformed and/or willfully ignorant. I also think it’s likely a substantial number are closet homosexuals. How do you appeal to voters who have been indoctrinated or brainwashed by their cults? Yet another reason I am, at the very least, suspicious of organized religion and believe humanism to be pollyannaish.

  4. acilius

     /  November 13, 2008

    Apparently there was also a higher black turnout than usual due to Mr O’s presence at the top of the ticket, and the black vote went heavily for Prop 8.

  5. cymast

     /  November 13, 2008

    Yes, the black vote is a hot issue on this. On one side there’s “blacks should know better than to vote for discrimination,” and on the other side there’s “blaming blacks is racist.” Figures.

  6. acilius

     /  November 13, 2008

    It certainly is a sensitive topic. Perhaps equally awkward, the Hispanic vote is also interesting. In 2000, 65% of California’s Hispanics voted for an identical measure, while only about half of that same population voted for Prop 8 this year. No idea why that is. Have California’s Hispanics really moved that much on the issue in these years, did this year’s higher turnout mean a different demographic among Hispanic Californians who turned out to vote, or have Hispanic Californians become less likely to vote yes on referenda in general? Or is there some other explanation?

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