Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Conservative culture?

Rick Perlstein is right about a few things and wrong about many others. He’s right that what unites conservatives is for the most part a common aversion to liberalism, but then he professes to see some contradictions in "conservatism," as if the same people worship, so to speak, at two mutually contradictory altars.

My account of this would begin a little differently: most people are at least somewhat confused, including many conservatives. Consistency, if it’s going to be found anywhere, will be found in the best and most thoughtful proponents of a position, who are (for the most part) aware that that among their practical political allies are perhaps many with whom they have substantial disagreements. They’re sober and prudent enough to recognize that at least some of those disagreements may have to be papered over in order to win elections. Of course, they don’t always judge short-term political victory as the only end, and may sacrifice it if the cost is too high. This is not confusion or self-contradiction; it’s how one acts prudently on the basis of principle in politics.

So yes, what unites (many) conservatives at the moment, is the prospect of a liberal victory in 2006 or 2008. That some (mostly social conservatives) wouldn’t want their daughters dressing or behaving like Ann Coulter isn’t surprising. That others cheer her on also isn’t surprising. I don’t even think it’s necessarily hypocritical or confused to take both stances (though I’m no fan of Coulter). Anyone who thinks that the shocking can’t be in the service of the conservative has never read (or understood) Aristophanes.

Perlstein’s last point--that conservatives revel in their marginalization despite their political successes--has something to it, but less that he thinks. If liberals didn’t so often feel and express their smug superiority, especially from the commanding heights of many of our culture-making and influencing institutions, conservatives wouldn’t have a beef and wouldn’t enjoy, when they do, tweaking liberals’ noses.

Discussions - 24 Comments

smug superiority???? how so? How are liberal elites any more smug than conservative elites?

One problem with the Perlstein piece is that he doesn’t take the time to distinguish between what perhaps ought to be called the political culture or politico-cultural identity of self-identified conservatives, and cultural currents that are in various ways conservative. You may have noticed that young women are wearing skirts again this year. The 90s-update-of-the-70s-slut-look has receded a bit. If it is a trend that continues, an argument can be it is a conservative one. Garrison Keillor’s Praire Home Companion is a conservative cultural venue, I would argue, but politically tilts leftward. Perlstein has a beef with U2’s "Gloria" being on the Natl Rev list of conservative rock songs, but in the context of 1981 post-punk rock, the song was certainly a conservative cultural gesture from a band whose politics would be, for a while, at least, stridently liberal. And thus his essay (part of a very weak TNR theme issue on conservative culture) confuses the fact that most political junkies have shallow cultural tastes, whether left or right, with Conservative Culture per se. And isn’t it also the case that self-identified progressives just love to moan about how marginalized they are? And always have? I concede that the "rebel-identities" of conservatives and liberals are not quite the same, and my tastes being decidely blue-state, I continue to think the progressive types have always been better able to aestheticize their politico-cultural identities than conservatives have been. That is, it generally seems more natural and less forced.

The reason I want to distance conservative politico-cultural identity from Conservative Culture is that the latter is so much more important. And the key artistic explorations are not Conservative per se, but ones in search of a healthy way, "revivalist" or not, out of the cultural cul-de-sac that the 20th-century’s avant-garde and primitivist impulses have brought us to. To simplify, three arenas. One--there must be a basic soundness to culture considered as society’s mores, so that, as we hope we’ve seen, the rate of the out-of-wedlock births plateaus and does not continually increase. That is one example of the underlying sanity in our "culture," very broadly considered, resisting chaos and trying let older standards re-emerge, or, re-formulate. Two--there must be successes in conservative politics, lest liberal elites, esp. judges and media, make a broader re-establishment of cultural sanity too tenuous. And third, there is the artistic cultural sphere I spoke about. Perlstein doesn’t see that the way (really, only a segment of) self-identified political conservatives purchase piss-off-liberals things like Those Shirts has almost nothing to do with what a real cultural renewal might look like, which in my "third arena" could only be a complex movement in which real artists, most with conflicted or perhaps apolitical allegiances, like U2 or Keillor, would be the leaders.

As for "Wondering" thinking liberal elites are no more smug than conservative ones, perhaps we should listen to a real voice of conservative artistic culture, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s. In his novel Novmember, 1916, we find this on page 59: “Just as the Coriolis effect is constant over the whole of this earth’s surface, and the flow of rivers is deflected in such a way that it is always the right bank that is eroded and crumbles, while the floodwater goes leftward, so do all the forms of democratic liberalism on earth strike always to the right and caress the left. Their sympathies always with the left, their heads bob busily as they listen to leftist arguments—but they feel disgraced if they take a step to or listen to a word from the right.” Isn’t that so? Or at least, wasn’t that so ’till sometime in the 80s or 90s? Isn’t it still so for those trying to make in artistic circles? And doesn’t it explain some of the right’s touchiness about marginalization, and the liberal elite’s tendency to be smug? Did I mention that a certain publishing house refrained from translating Solzhenitsyn’s follow-up novels to November, 1916? Gets a little hard to have a conservative culture that will meet with TNR’s approval when many, many things in the corridors of cultural power are in fact stacked that way.

A clarification on Solzhenitsyn. The Red Wheel books, which brilliantly straddle the line between historical novel and political history, are Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus. August 1914 and November 1916 are the only ones that have been published in English. There are at least two, and perhaps three (I forget) more books that have come out in Russian. If I recall correctly these have come out in French, too, and probably other languages. No plans for English translations of these by any publishing house. Solzhenitsyn of course shook the world with his Gulag Archipelago in the 70s and sold a lot of books for his American/British publishers. But since the early 80s at least, there has been something of a campaign, particularly in literary circles, to paint him as a reactionary Russian nationalist and an anti-Semite. Dan Mahoney shows in his fine Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Ascent from Ideologythat these charges are utterly, utterly false. Others have also shown so. But, the point is, in the circles that count, his star has fallen, and there is every reason to think that it has done so fundamentally because of the two c-words, Christian and conservative. Result is, perhaps his greatest work will remain, it seems for a generation or two, less than half-published in English. A strange and shameful situation.

If I have sparked anyone’s interest in the two books, I plead with you not to prejudge them by their fat 800-1000 page sizes. They are great reads by any standard.

Carl, your comments are much appreciated and I agree with them.

You have also gotten me interested in reading Solzhenitsyn again. The left knows an enemy when it sees one, and the right doesn’t always know a friend when it sees one. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s near-disappearance is undoubtedly due to arrogant "liberal" kultur kommissars, but some is probably owing to conservatives, perhaps due to fear of name-calling from the left, pay more attention to writers of far less importance.

Carl,
The only daunting thing about facing the number of pages in a book by Solzhenitsyn is, I find, letting one have the quantity of time for true enjoyment. His writing makes the reading a sustained pleasure.


Lenin in Zurich is a shorter, and therefore, maybe more accessible novel of the historical novel/political history form you cite. A Day in the Life.... is also quite short and accessible to the young mind, especially that of young men, I have found. He also has short stories that are very good. What am I thinking here? I am suggesting that including Solzhenitsyn in high school reading lists is an idea past due. Using him in college courses on his era would be useful as well, in the case of Ivan, to make clear what a truly horrible regime was in power. Sections of Cancer Ward would also be useful as he explains Soviet society through that novel. His short stories and I am thinking of something called We Always Know Best (or something like it that is not on my shelf for reference and I think I loaned it to a kid and will never see it again.) would also be useful and perhaps lead the reader to desire to read the longer and even better novels.


I’ll presume you know best, and that Solzhenitsyn is out of favor for ideological or culturally polemical reasons. But, I ask, could it not also be the typical cycle of interest for such things? We are not much interested in the Russians right now, but when such interest comes around again, Solzhenitsyn will be someone very useful to read, indeed.


I would also suggest A Day in the Life.... to anyone on this blog who is worrying about possibility of horrific conditions in the prison at Guantanamo. Do read it as a point of comparison.

Wow, after "wondering," this thread exemplifies some of your themes, Carl: people talking positively about Solzhenitsyn! I suppose I should add: ISI Books will soon publish a several hundred pages anthrology, A Solzenitsyn Reader. It’s edited by Dan Mahoney and Ed Ericson; it will be the best selection available in any language. And ... to throw a bit of a curve ball: David Remnick over at the New Yorker (a longtime Solz. fan) is publishing a couple of pieces by the Great Man in the forthcoming issue. It should be on the newstands this Wednesday. One more note: Solzhenitsyn himself is a pretty major cultural presence in Russia these days.

"anthology"

Kate, your point about the cycle of interest is right. The daunting size of the full-length August 1914 and November 1916 when they came out in the we-can-now-ignore-Russia-90s presumably made for poor sales, and that was probably used as an excuse not to commission another translation. For those interested, buy the Willetts translations--used bookstores contain many copies of the 70s Glenny version of the first book, but it is missing a third or more of the material, most of it the juicy history of the could-have-been preventer of the Tsarist collapse/communist take-over, Pyotr Stolypin. Also note that Lenin in Zurich is extracted from its proper place in November 1916, so you don’t need to buy both, and the second is the way to go. Its one-thousand pages will help you to develop stronger muscles. I should also mention that readers who like accounts of battles will find August 1914particularly exciting.

Carl, Thanks for all the Solzhenitsyn stuff. He’s no Ann Coulter, but he’s pretty interesting still. Argiments for Solzhenitsyn’s current irrelevance: 1. The lie of communism etc. is dead, and so he is preaching to the coverted. 2. His famous Harvard comments about the American decline in courage etc. were surely exaggerations, and we were tough enough, it turns out, to see the evil empire fall. Arguments for his perennial relevance: 1. He was a philosophical atheist as a young man who discovered that Christian anthropology was true as a result of his dissident/Gulag experiences. He has achieved an admirable depth that eluded even Heidegger and Strauss. 2. His criticism of contemporary America as extremely death haunted--with the "howl" of existentialism present just below the surface of our pragmatic chatter--is rather unique and on the money.

Here’s a link to perhaps the main Solzhenitsyn man, Dan Mahoney. Traducing Solzhenitsyn Or at least my attempt to link the Aug/Sept 2004 issue of First Things.

Whoa, Joe, I got it to work! Welcome to 2001, Carl. Now if only I can get a cell-phone.

Go slow, Carl; change, adapt, habituate, enjoy. Then consider the next step ... slowly.

Paul, Carl might have something with this cell phone idea. Think about it!

Carl,
I also thank you for the Solzhenitsyn information. The books will probably fall to my "hope to read it in the near future" bookshelf as I am otherwise ocularly occupied for the next few weeks. But it is lovely to know what look for in the way of translations.

Peter,

apropos to your two "sed contra" points concerning the contemporary relevance of the Great Man: "The Communist systems collapsed under the weight of their own fallacious economic dogmatism. Commentators have nevertheless ignored all too readily the role played by the Communists’ contempt for human rights and their subordination of morals to the demands of the system and the promise of a future. The greatest catastrophe encountered by such systems was not economic. It was the starvation of souls and the destruction of the moral conscience.
The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the Communist economy has been recognized, its moral and religious fallacy has not been addressed." Pope Benedict XVI, "Europe and Its Discontents" (First Things, January 2006). "The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world ... ." Strong statement of Communism-and-its critics’ enduring relevance, from another great man.

And you know, of course, that Francois Furet, in his Passing of An Illusion make the striking (and plausible) point that something like communist ideology lurks within, is a conceptual or ideological possibility, of the democratic horizon of free and equal human beings living together freely in society. Ideology will continue to haunt us modern democratic men and women. And given what you’re working on these days, you probably are very sensitive to ideological claims to bring about "the future" which entail violating human dignity and morality’s eternal limits.

As for your point #2, do you remember the disspirited Clinton-80s? Bob Kraynak wasn’t so terribly wrong about how we felt about ourselves and America then. There was widespread worry about cultural nihilism.

BTW: I read a 1991 piece by Remi Brague the other day (it was in First Things, about Europe, Christ, and Christian Culture); at one point he was talking about the religious sources of forgiveness, which is an essential political quality; Solzhenitsyn, of course, had been making that point for years (not to denegrate Brague!). That’s another Solzhenitsyn-is-relevant point, I believe.

You’re right, of course, that he’s deeper than Heidegger and that Straussians should be challenged by him, and could learn a lot about the human soul from him.

To all of you psyched about reading Solzhenitsyn, but don’t have tons of time these days: read his Nobel Prize lecture. It’s beautiful, and it’s probably the most "autobiographical" or "self-revelatory" piece by Solzhenitsyn.

I read that lecture, and remember as it as beautiful. Is there an easy place to find it these days?

Kate, at nobelprize.org . Peter, you will note that while Paul marshals Kraynak, Furet, Brague, and even the Pope against you, your point about the PHONE remains totally unaddressed! Maybe he thinks its one of those "ideological claims to bring about ’the future’ which entail violating human dignity and morality’s eternal limits."

Of course, there’s a lot to Paul’s answers to my provocative Solhenitsyn-is-irrelevant points, which of course weren’t really my own. They’re very debatable, and Paul’s done a great job starting anyone interested off. For the connection between the evil empire’s ideology and our own, someone might want to read the chapter "Communism Today" in my STUCK WITH VIRTUE--which is about the relationship between the Marxian and libertarian views of the indefinite perfectibility of designer man. It would, I hope, tick enough of you libertarians off enough to direct some expletives that should be deleted toward me. I have agree with Carl, though, that Paul needs to face up to the world-historical significance of the cellphone.

I had forgotten about "Communism Today": one of the best titles ever from someone who’s great with titles: postmodernism rightly understood; stuck with virtue; etc.
I see my luddism (ludditeism?) is bringing out your (plural) progressive sides. Isn’t there some middle ground we can find? Call me.

If anyone’s still tuning into this thread besides Peter and Paul, (perhaps Kate’s still there) I feel duty-bound to remove the burden(?) of self-promotion from Peter Lawler, and say that the chapter he mentions from his book really is great, very thought provoking. Libertarian readers will probably benefit even more from another chapter in the book, "Libertarian Fantasy v. Statist Reality" which convincingly predicts that while designer bio-tech eugenics will be initially welcomed in a libertarian spirit, they will come to be mandated in a socialistic one. Stuck w/ Virtue also contains an insightful analysis of the "exurbs" and David Brooks. We josh around with him here on NLT, but in all seriousness, Dr. Lawler is one of most profound thinkers writing today. That, and not my friendship with him, is why I feel duty bound. Paul feels the same way, I’m sure.

In all seriousness, ditto.

Yes, I am still here, and now with another goodly bit of required reading.


In all seriousness, thank you.

"It would, I hope, tick enough of you libertarians off enough to direct some expletives that should be deleted toward me."

If they should be deleted then why should they be directed?

So I take it that Dr. Lawler disagrees with the Transhumanists. This is the only group that really believes in the "indefinite perfectability of designer man". I would also note that transhumanists are not necessarily libertarian...some are socialist...the transhumanist culture doesn’t really have an ideology...its just a bunch of tech nerds, some of whom are probably christian. If transhumanists have an ethical foundation it is probably Utilitarian. The transhumanist looks at something and asks how can I make an improvement? He may or may not assume that man is indefinitely perfectable...he just may assume that given certain developments and improvement may be possible in the way current procedures are done. Transhumanist may not like the effects of an atom bomb...but they may think Nuclear power is a good thing...the same would go with nano-technology...everything has a price. Mainly Transhumanist are a group of science and science fiction loving tinkering dreamers/optimists. The frankenstein theme that science can go wrong is not new...So go ahead and convict the Transhumanists of exuberant optimism...he will no doubt get the last laugh if ever he is unthawed...say in the next 200 years....but if he isn’t unthawed...well then he would have been dead anyways. Even the transhumanists don’t have a true belief (faith and all) in the "infinite perfectability of designer man"...for them the situation is akin to pascal’s wager... A I figure out a way to live better/forever...or B I do nothing and que sera sera, life is a bitch, you marry one, you die. Option B may well result from choosing Option A...in fact it is highly likely because experience teaches us that all who are born die eventually. But the transhumanist doesn’t see why he might not at least try to improve something.

If the key element in Libertarianism is individual responsibility, or the belief that one can do something to change fate(or the accepted course of things)...then the transhumanist seems to be intrisically libertarian.

Ronald Bailey, Lee Silver, and various writers for REASON aren’t TRANSHUMANISTS but are certainly designer/indefinite perfectibility men. The transhumanists really believe that the human mind can exist detached from a human body--that the mind itself could be the source of rational will. They would, as a libertarian blogger said, replace soul with mind, ignoring what should be the obvious fact that the human soul is neither mind nor body or even a mixture of the two but a third thing altogether. I think transhumanists err because they’re sci-fi nerds who are profoundly dissatisfied with the bodies they’ve been given. They’re engaged in completely incoherent acts of revenge against life as it is actually experienced. That’s not to say that scientific progress is a bad thing or that I wouldn’t like to live a long, long time. But what’s a few or a few hundred more years in the light of eternity?

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