Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Rumors of demise

E.J. Dionne, Jr. asks whether--hopes that?--conservatism is finished. Not as an intellectual movement, mind you, but as a political force. Why? Conservatives can’t govern without moderates. Was it ever really any different?

Update: This paragraph is interesting:

Conservatism was always a delicate balancing act between small-government economic libertarians and social traditionalists who revered family, faith and old values. The two wings were often held together by a common enemy, modern liberalism certainly, but even more so by communism until the early 1990s, and now by what some conservatives call "Islamofascism."

Note, first, the omission of the "natural rights" alternative to Burkeanism and libertarianism. And note, second, his way of referring to "Islamofascism." What does he call al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and their sponsors? Does he not think that they pose a threat worth uniting against?

Discussions - 29 Comments

I honestly don’t know how seriously Dionne takes the threat of militant Islamicism. However, the mere fact that he puts the term "Islamofascism" in scare quotes doesn’t necessarily mean that he dismisses the notion that there is a serious threat. Comparing the Islamists with fascism might be an effective rhetorical device, but it’s hardly an accurate depiction of either one.

John: To attempt to distinguish...."Islamicism" = "I want to be free to be my full Muslim self within my culture and country." "Islamofacism" = "I want to be free to force YOU to be Muslim within your culture and country."
While we can’t *know* "how seriously Dionne takes the threat of militant Islamacism", we can guess with some authority, based on his track record: Not very damned much.

Joe:

OK, I can’t (won’t) resist. "What does {Dionne} call Al-Queda, Hezbollah and their sponsors?"
REPUBLICANS.

The problems I have with the term "islamofascism" have nothing to do with whether or not it is too harsh, or not harsh enough. It’s just that there are all sorts of differences between fascism and what we’re facing now. Are we to use the term "fascist" to describe anyone who wants to force people to behave in a certain way? Why not "Islamocommunism," or "Islamoenvironmentalism"?

What does he call al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and their sponsors?

"Those poor, unfortunate souls who don’t realize they’re morally superior to us."

"Does he not think that they pose a threat worth uniting against?"

"No. Bush is the real enemy."

First, I agree with Dr. Moser. My solution: call them what they call themselves. Islamic Jihadists. It works for me and doesn’t allow for all the confusion of the subtle differences between Islamists, Islamicists, Islamofascists, or even nihilists. (I wonder if all these labels are a phenomenon of the neoconservatives, whose deep understanding of philosophy leads them to apply such labels even when unpractical).

And by leaving out natural rights, as Mr. Knippenberg pointed out, Dionne didn’t mention the one thing that keeps the crazy amalgamation of the Right together. Even though Libertarians and the Religious Right may be on different teams on many issues, they’re still playing on the same court. The Left, though, isn’t even playing the same game anymore, having taken a que from the Germans many many years ago.

Its odd, too, that in the past few articles written about the Right (by the Left) there has been no mention of natural rights or Leo Strauss; the 1950s "awakening" is attributed to Kirk, Buckley, Hayek, etc. I assume it’s because the Left just doesn’t understand the connection. Of course, it could just be another piece of the Straussian Conspiracy puzzle...

Andrew: I don’t think the differences between "Islamicists, Islamofascists, and even nihilists" are all that subtle. In fact, I think my life and that of my family (and "my fellow Americans" and the entire liberal, democratic West) depends on being militantly clear about the differences. I’ll confess to missing the subtlety presented by "Islamists".
Appreciated, and agreed with, your other comments.

With all this talk of tribes of conservativism and the meaning of fascism, it seems a good time to interject a few things.

First, perhaps the reason that the "natural rights" school of thought is ignored is that it is an oxymoron. Nature grants opportunies (or not)...there are no rights except those we agree on and enforce. As for God, as the Architect of Nature I assume that its rules are his rules. ’nuff said.

Second, perhaps Straussians think of "natural rights" as one of those necessary "myths" that make society possible. I myself am a Burkean, and guarding the traditions of agreed-upon rights is more important that philosophizing about which are "natural" and which are not. Tradition, the habits of the people, their blood, their duty to the dead and yet unborn...this community defines what is right and wrong. There is nothing else, I’m afraid.

Third, after being smeared with the racist/fascist label in a past thread by two supposed Ashland "intellectuals," I considered leaving this blog for good. Then it occurred to me that the problem was that Ashland (and Claremont for that matter) must lack true conservatives -- if the Ashbrook Center is forced to substitute libertarians susceptible to PC pieties for sensible conservatives, then the blog’s name should be changed from "No Left Turns" to "Local Traffic Only" or "Slippery When Wet."

The long and the short of it is that this blog needs some serious cross-pollination. When a Burkean like myself is smeared for not singing "We Are the World," then there is something seriously wrong. These Straussians and what-have-yous are a bit too clubby (much like their lefty kindred at other universities), and the heavy troll traffic doesn’t really improve their conservativism (indeed, in the case of the two Johns, they have picked up some very bad trollish habits). I’m here...you need the counterweight.

Dain: Sed contra: There *IS* "something else, I’m afraid." And that *something* is the community "recognizing" what is right and wrong, independently of our "defining" it. Therein lies the (really big) rub.
For the record, I’m not an academic (my brother is). (Yeah, I know it shows that I’m not an academic. C’est la vie.) I’m a father and businessman who thinks these issues are vitally important. So please stay engaged. But I’m afraid your position is finally untenable for lovers of ordered liberty. I’m not even sure (help me out here, bro!) that Burke himself would be a Burkean of the Dain strain. Cheers.

Oh, I take from Burke the sensible stuff, but I don’t care a great deal for his metaphysics (or anyone’s, for that matter). As for absolute right and wrong, can you give me a universal principle that is truly universal (i.e., a principle that holds across all possible contexts)? I’m no radical relativist, mind you (the environment is the final arbiter of what is right and wrong...that’s the only standard we have), but the relativists do have a point.

As for your point about "recognizing" right and wrong independent of our agreement, that’s just not possible in any meaningful sense. If a community agrees on transcedental values, are they really transcendental or just contractual? And if they don’t agree on such values, there is only power and enforcement...such "rights" are never independent of our communities, and they are meaningless constructs without either power or consensus.

It’s nice to see you’re back Dain.

Dain: Among a number of possible "universal principles that are truly universal (i.e. a principle that holds across all possible contexts)", let me offer this from Terence Jeffrey’s 7/12/06 column: "....the most fundamental principle of medical ethics: that no human life should be exploited for the benefit of another."

Dain’s point about rights and community is intriguing. It reminds me of something a man once said though. Bear with me on the length Dain:

Observation shows us, first, that every city is a species of association, and, secondly, that all associations come into being for the sake of some good--for all men do all their acts with a view to acheiving something which is, in their view, a good...the end, or the final cause, is the best and self-sufficiency is both the end, and the best...Man, by nature, is a political animal...The city exists by nature prior to the individual and the family...The man who is isolated and has no need to share b/c he is already self-sufficient, is no part of the city, and must therefore be either a beast or a god.

I think the Strauss people talk about in the common way today is not Strauss (paul seaton, Knippenberg, and Lawler aside).

Dain, do you really believe that your good is the better good than your enemies b/c you are within the group of poeple created that good (for self-preservation)? Do you really think the drive for self-preservation is the only creator of all the myths man has accepted? What’s the deal with music in that scenario?

Also, here’s as much as we gave Burke (I know, Reflections on the Revolution in France came after the DoI):

Prudence shall dictate that governments long established shall not be undone for light and transient causes, but

Thanks, UC...I just hope some people will refrain from ad hominem attacks. I like right-leaning blogs because you can actually argue points that have moral implications without being tarred and feathered (most of the time). I’d hate to see NLT actually live up to its comparison with the Kosmonuts.

Fred...I’m simply a realist. Epistemology and ontology that are rooted in invisible forces just are non-straters. If there is natural law, then its the universality of human nature interacting with varying environments. And of course the environment is crucial...murder is typically wrong across cultures, but not if you kill someone from an out-group (we call that war). Qualification...always qualification.

Gary, if your univeral medical ethic is truly REAL, then I guess people who donate one of their kidneys to a relative are always wrong to do so? People who volunteer for drug trails are wrong to do so? In short, that’s not universal...it has qualifications depending on the situation.

These Straussians should join me and become Burkeans. Tradition, community, the little platoons of mankind...this strong path dependency defines decency and progress.

Welcome back, Dain.

Welcome back, dain. Aren’t you going to re-capitalize your name or something to indicate this post-exile era?

Thanks, Paul. Very much appreciate it.

Scanlon, how about "Dain the Kluxer" or "Herr Dain" or "Der Reichfuhrer Dain?" Any of those suit you? Capitalized or not, smeared or not, I’m the same guy.

I am wading into waters (Burke & Strauss) unfamiliar to me, but issues that I find intriguing, and have visited from a different perspective.

First, Dain, is there not a difference between an Absolutist stance and a Universalist one? In my field, anyway, we present absolutists as positing a Truth, with a capital T. To the absolutist, there is a "universal" truth that has been discovered (oddly enough) by the absolutists themselves, and all cultural variations are merely errors of varying degree.

But, to the universalist, as we understand it, there are universal priciples whose pursuits are cloaked in culturally different clothing. So, the value of life, and the greater value of lives with close kinship ties, the education of the young and the transmission of cultural values, incest taboos, acknowledgment of deities, etc. .... these may all look a bit different from one culture to the next, but they would qualify as universals.

Gary (comment 12). If you have to restrict that particular value to medical ethicists, doesn’t that take it out of the "universal" realm?

Fung: Medical ethics are limited neither in practice nor in reception to medical ethicists.
Dain: The key word is "exploited". I take that to mean that organ donation (such as the kidney my sister-in-law donated to my mother-in-law last year) is not exploitation when it’s voluntary. Same for those who volunteer to participate in drug trials. If coercion is present, it’s unethical. I still think the principle stands as universal.

A good book, as Paul well knows, that defends Gary’s universalism without running roughshod over Burke’s legitimate concerns about the indispensable attachments of particular human beings to family, country, and God is Pierre Manent, A WORLD BEYOND POLITICS? Its thesis, more or less, is that the Europeans are leading a global effort to understand human individuals simply as beings with rights, and so with the right to understand their political, religious, and familial duties as simply optional. Such an abstract and unrealistic self-understanding, of course, can’t help but undermine self-government and produce a birth dearth that, in principle, threatens the very future of the species or at least one’s own people. One piece of evidence of this individualism run amok is the global transfer of power from legislatures to relatively unaccountable judiciaries that attempt to transform the human world with a completely deracinated view of liberty detached from merely national constitutions, traditons, conventions, and even the truth about the social and embodied nature of man (and woman). From this view, the real dispute in America today is not between the foundationalists and the anti-foundationalists, but between those who believe that any understanding of rights has to be mediated by the truth (not completely noticed by Locke) about the social, political, and religious nature of human beings--including their need for tradition etc. and those who believe we can abstract the purely liberated individual from all such mediation. Gary’s point (which is, dain, also finally the Burkean point) is that the human experience of universal truth has to be through a particular body, a particular, family, one’s own friends, a particular country, and under God. In other words, the doctrine the legitimately brings together what the traditionalists and what the liberatarians know that is true is not Lockean natural rights but Thomism--and it’s not enough for us just to spin the Declaration to hide the difference between modern individualism and a real understanding of the whole human being. Manent allows us to see what’s really at stake in our opposition to judicial activism, which should be the issue that unites Republicans today.

Gary, are you suggesting that everyone should follow the ethic that you have offered as a universal (medical) ethic? Would you ask soldiers facing a deadly enemy to conform to this ethic? Would you ask the Governor of Texas to withhold all capital punishment for convicted murderers? Would you ask George Bush to insure against all future "collateral damage" before he continues his pursuit of freedom and democracy?

Fung, I think that’s one of the key differences between Dain’s view and the natural rights view. I and I assume Gary would argue that yes, giving medical aid to the enemy is good and is the right thing to do. However, as Dain has pointed out, as human beings we often have to act practically. I guess my best way of summing it up is that the best and most prudent men will have an education in a combination of things such as the Bible, ancient philosophy, and Machiavelli. The Bible lays down a Truth, the ancient philosophy allows a man to judge what he has been told is the Truth as well as compare it to what other men have been told, and the Machiavelli allows him to make unsavory but realistic decisions in order to preserve his right to sit around and contemplate such things.

Dain, I think the real problem with a pure Burke outlook is that human beings are so dynamic. What happens when tradition leaves no precedent? This is why natural rights and natural right are an important part of western politics. We say "these are our traditions, and they are good traditions because they are natural and good."

And I should add that the "because they’re natural and good" part is the key because when tradition does not provide a solution we have to look at what is it our tradition is preserving.

You folks have been busy! Where to start?

As for medical ethics, real life just doesn’t allow that kind of radical individual interpretation of "the good." The fact is we sacrifice some for the benefit of others all the time. According to your principle, ought Medicare to disallow bypass surgery in octogenarians? Essentially what we are saying is "Your life must be sacrificed for the general good...that money can be better spent on younger people." There are no universalist ethics...they just don’t exist.


Gary’s point (which is, dain, also finally the Burkean point) is that the human experience of universal truth has to be through a particular body, a particular, family, one’s own friends, a particular country, and under God. Peter, I simply disagree. Burke’s point was NOT that ultimate truth exists, but rather that absolutist principles are of no use (which is why REASON, that bitch-goddess, leads to debacle). Burke saw society as a trial-and-error process whereby human nature struggles to adapt itself to a variety of conditions...some survive (which is why they should be maintained...they are tried and true) while others are winnowed out. He was a very sophisticated thinker, which is why Hayek embraced his logic. Path dependencies galore, and non-linearities to boot! Indeed, the field of cybernetics and robotics has proven this...give a robot a simple set of rules and BOOM, you get complex behaviors. According to Burke, human life (and ethics) are EMERGENT. Our reality is a combination of our natures and our environments, and this "marriage" cannot be anticipated. He did think, however, that "trial and error" was progressive -- today’s society is probably better than yesterday’s, given a relatively stable environment.

Andrew’s point about modernity and having no "tradition" to govern it is well-taken. I think I would say that "social change" has been greatly exaggerated. Human goals haven’t really changed, nor our basic natures. Technologies have changed our environments...indeed, the "culture war" is simply the Burkean struggle to adapt human nature to a new set of exigencies. Our job, as conservatives, is to make sure that social adaptations aren’t crazy (e.g., communism, "genderless" society, etc.). Burke never said you couldn’t try radical stuff...he just said they weren’t sustainable. Our job is to prevent the nasty "selection" process that winnows out stupid adaptations.

Nothing true? Nothing universal? Then nothing’s nasty. And nothing’s stupid. There’s only the will to power. Little platoons of mankind being run over by larger, or unconstrained-by-tradition, armies of barbarians. Even "nice ones" like the EU Commissars. The utterly sound reason why the relativist school of thought is ignored is because it is an oxymoron .....and a dangerous contradiction.

Gary, calm down. Of course there are "nasty" and "stupid" things that go on. I’m not suggesting that we withhold moral judgment...I’m suggesting that we realize that our morality comes from tradition and experience (not the Great Beyond). The real problem with the multicultural/relativism school is that everyone gets the right to be "who they are" EXCEPT the West...it’s a kind of perverse snobbery.

I would also say that a certain type of universality MAY be possible based on our understanding of human nature. For instance, trying to create a "classless society" may well be impossible, regardless of context, because it violates the way we are built as animals. Many sociobiologists (e.g., Arnhart) are slowly constructing what they see as an absolutist ethical system on a Darwinian foundation. Might work...let’s wait and see.

On Saturday morning, NPR had a very similar message coming from someone who claimed to be a long time conservative. (I didn’t get his name and a seach of their programing proved unsuccessful.)

Much of his message focused on his view that conservatives would just decide not to vote this year - resulting in victory by the Dims.

Since I belong to a local group of conservative business men, I certainly don’t see that happening at all. Yes, we are angry at many of the President’s domestic policy decisions, but we recognize he is vastly superior to the alternative.

Could it be the latest "talking points" from the Dims on the Left. If so, it would appear the purpose may be either wishful thinking or an attempt to rally their own base.

In either case, I can’t imagine any conservative paying a whole lot of attention to this silliness. Just because we all don’t happen to agree on certain tenets, doesn’t mean we are headed for political demise.

It seems to me only appropriate on this Declaration-friendly web site to note that the Declaration says, in stirring English, that "We hold these truths to be self-evident ...," etc. This is a statement of universals - theological, anthropological (i.e., having to do with human nature), and political (more narrowly understood)- which are "held" and declared in a particular language, by members of a particular political community, plugged into a particular civilization. So, we have a particular articulating itself in a particular language, rooted in a particular political and cultural history, but in a universal way (too). (Something similar, of course, is going on in The Federalist Papers, e.g., Jay in #2). The Declaration’s doctrine, of course, is a politically-or-practically focused anthropology and ethic, not a complete anthropology or morality. As Carey McWilliams and others (James Davison Hunter) have taught or reminded us, the rights-bearing individualism was connected with Biblical communitarianism as well. So, two sorts of ’individualism’ (Enlightenment and Protestant) and two sorts of ’community’ (USofA & the wonderfully stern Calvinist communities. Welcome to late-18th century America!

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