Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Great Awokening: Can They Be Trusted?

  Update: Text a good deal more edited than it was when first posted. 

In the Forest of Illusion.

Newman, the sociologist and labor-left Substacker who's been influencing my own thinking an awful lot lately, posted a response to Brooks's big Atlantic article on his great awokening, or final departure from the conservative fold, around the same time I was writing my own

My post was mostly about Brooks's outline of the history of conservatism, in which Burkean "modesty" was invented decades before Burke was born, in reaction to the terrible religious wars in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, when they all decided to abjure fanaticism and have governments that did less, which would have come as a big surprise to intolerant Catholic Louis XIV and equally intolerant Protestants William and Mary, who all probably would have thought they were pretty conservative if anybody had been using the term at the time.

He's hiding, there, I believe, from the actual origins of conservatism, which were not in some kind of easygoing bothsidesism but in an absolute taking of sides, in favor mostly of royalty against more or less unwashed masses, from the English Roundheads of 1642 to the French radicals of 1789, and more generally any kind of democratizing tendency, and the philosophizing of conservatism, from Thomas Hobbes to Edmund Burke and down to the present, was always intended to rationalize keeping political power out of the hands of the lower orders and concentrated with the upper: political conservatism like Burke's to to persuade the lower orders, as much as possible, to refrain from taking power and leave it in the hands of their betters, who would not do anything extreme—to vote, in other words, against their own interests in favor of stability.

Brooks does a lot of hiding, in my opinion, in the essay, in the shelter of a No True Scotsman argument in which bad conservatives aren't really conservative. In his time in Brussels,

I became fascinated by a British statesman named Enoch Powell. If you were to design the perfect conservative, Powell would seem to be it—a classics scholar, veteran, poet, and man of faith, and the product of the finest Tory training grounds the U.K. had to offer. And yet in 1968, Powell had given his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech, which was blatant in its racism and shocking in its anti-immigrant message. How, I wondered, had conservatism, which was developed in response to sectarian war, produced a statesman who was trying to start one?
I realized that every worldview has the vices of its virtues. Conservatives are supposed to be epistemologically modest—but in real life, this modesty can turn into a brutish anti-intellectualism, a contempt for learning and expertise. Conservatives are supposed to prize local community—but this orientation can turn into narrow parochialism, can produce xenophobic and racist animosity toward immigrants, a tribal hostility toward outsiders, and a paranoid response when confronted with even a hint of diversity and pluralism. Conservatives are supposed to cherish moral formation—but this emphasis can turn into a rigid and self-righteous moralism, a tendency to see all social change as evidence of moral decline and social menace. Finally, conservatives are supposed to revere the past—but this reverence for what was can turn into an abject deference to whoever holds power. When I looked at conservatives in continental Europe, I generally didn’t like what I saw. And when I looked at people like Powell, I was appalled.

Where to begin with this? The winners of sectarian wars in the 17th century intended to win them,  not to make everybody nice and tolerant. These vices are all present long before Burke invents the virtues that correspond. Anti-intellectualism is Cavalier jocks against Puritan nerds; racist animosity is the attitude of Cavaliers to the Jews after Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell invited them to the Commonwealth. Powell's rage in 1969 was an amplification of the sainted Winston Churchill's anxieties in the 1950s:

Sir Winston Churchill expressed alarm about an influx of 'coloured people' in Fifties' Britain and looked for a chance to restore punishment by flogging, newly released cabinet papers from the national archive reveal.

On 3 February 1954, under the agenda item 'Coloured Workers', Churchill is quoted, with abbreviations, by Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook as saying: 'Problems wh. will arise if many coloured people settle here. Are we to saddle ourselves with colour problems in UK? Attracted by Welfare State. Public opinion in UK won't tolerate it once it gets beyond certain limits.'

Churchill's racism is pretty well known now, of course, at least if you're not a conservative, but this is the first time I've seen it connected to the Tory need to cultivate a bit of xenophobia in the population ("Ques. is wtr it is politically wise to allow public feeling to develop a little more before takg. action...")

Brooks, meanwhile, finds that conservatism in England and France and Belgium just isn't the right kind:

Fortunately, I didn’t have to live within the confines of blood-and-soil European conservatism; I had the American kind. Because conservatism is so rooted in the local manners and mores of each community, there is no such thing as international conservatism. Each society has its own customs and moral practices, and so each society has its own brand of conservatism.

American conservatism descends from Burkean conservatism, but is hopped up on steroids and adrenaline. Three features set our conservatism apart from the British and continental kinds. First, the American Revolution. 

Because nothing hops up a conservative movement like overthrowing the king of your continent and establishing a republic. That's like the most conservative thing you can do. Or, as Brooks puts it, "the tradition that American conservatism seeks to preserve is liberal", which is not that weird in the current conservative discourse, in which "classical liberalism" is a kind of conservatism (the Austrian or Chicago kind) as well as a kind of liberalism too (the English kind, from the mid-19th century, and "business-friendly" liberal parties like the current English LDP or German FDP). The Tory government of Lord North in Westminster was too progressive for the colonists, with its tax-and-spend extravagance, so the liberal colonists had to dump it, for conservative reasons.

Second, while Burkean conservatism puts a lot of emphasis on stable communities, America, as a nation of immigrants and pioneers, has always emphasized freedom, social mobility, the Horatio Alger myth

because if one thing is conservative, why shouldn't its opposite be just as conservative? And

Finally, American conservatives have been more unabashedly devoted to capitalism—and to entrepreneurialism and to business generally—than conservatives almost anywhere else. Perpetual dynamism and creative destruction are big parts of the American tradition that conservatism defends.

We're more Austrian than the Austrians because that's our American tradition. In fact, everything is conservative, and maybe that's the problem!

In those days I assumed that this vibrant, forward-looking conservatism was the future, and that the Enoch Powells of the world were the receding roar of a sick reaction. I was wrong. And I confess that I’ve come to wonder if the tension between “America” and “conservatism” is just too great. Maybe it’s impossible to hold together a movement that is both backward-looking and forward-looking, both in love with stability and addicted to change

But apparently behind this marvelous universal conservatism was a conservatism that dared not speak its name:

I wish I could say that what Trump represents has nothing to do with conservatism, rightly understood. But as we saw with Enoch Powell, a pessimistic shadow conservatism has always lurked in the darkness, haunting the more optimistic, confident one. The message this shadow conservatism conveys is the one that Trump successfully embraced in 2016: Evil outsiders are coming to get us. But in at least one way, Trumpism is truly anti-conservative. Both Burkean conservatism and Lockean liberalism were trying to find ways to gentle the human condition, to help society settle differences without resort to authoritarianism and violence. Trumpism is pre-Enlightenment.

Conservatism's evil twin, which slipped in, as it were, at a moment when conservatism happened not to be paying full attention, at least in old Mr. Buckley's house:

My beloved mentor, William F. Buckley Jr., made an ass of himself in his 1965 Cambridge debate against James Baldwin. By the time I worked at National Review, 20 years later, explicit racism was not evident in the office, but racial issues were generally overlooked and the GOP’s flirtation with racist dog whistles was casually tolerated. When you ignore a cancer, it tends to metastasize.

No racists there, though Mr. Buckley was foolish that one time. Just a lack of caution as to the insidious character of racism, which could come in and invade you at any moment without your even noticing it had happened. It's at that point, you see, where you can't unsee the bait-and-switch maneuver that Brooks is playing. When it was Enoch Powell, you could say it was "European", and when it was WFB you could say it was "casually tolerated", hence not real at all, but there came a moment when you couldn't ignore it any more (where were those dog whistles coming from, in the first place?). 

Conservatism makes sense only when it is trying to preserve social conditions that are basically healthy. America’s racial arrangements are fundamentally unjust. To be conservative on racial matters is a moral crime.

Et in Arcadia ego! Even in the promised land, even in the City on a Hill, conservatism has a fatal flaw. And Brooks, cafeteria Catholic as he really is, balks at that single item of injustice. I don't know, I'd like to see him entertain the possibility that there might be something wrong with the perspective as a whole, as opposed to this one errant bit, since all the other varieties have fatal flaws of their own as well. I just don't see where we should take any portion of this worldview seriously.

Newman, speaking for the defense, asks us to focus on one particular moment where Brooks had it right, fresh out of college, when he was a reporter-in-training in Chicago's famous reporters' boot camp, the City News Bureau, and found himself visiting housing projects like the infamous Cabrini-Green, where he had a conservative insight:

Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, which had been built with the best of intentions but had become nightmares. The urban planners who designed those projects thought they could improve lives by replacing ramshackle old neighborhoods with a series of neatly ordered high-rises.

But, as the sociologist Richard Sennett, who lived in part of the Cabrini-Green complex as a child, noted, the planners never really consulted the residents themselves. They disrespected the residents by turning them into unseen, passive spectators of their own lives. By the time I encountered the projects they were national symbols of urban decay.

Newman comments:

As his quoting of Richard Sennett emphasizes, there are many on the left who reject the results of urban planning as a particular failure of technocratic politics in postwar America - and hardly representative of the ideal of many on the left.

But Brooks doesn't have an ideal that works better. What Brooks learned in 1984 and never gave up, is that the correct political response to a situation in which poor people can't find adequate housing is not to build it for them but to lecture them for leading such idle and immoral lives. In a very compassionate voice, if you're Brooks. The one thing conservatism never does is to consult the opinions of the residents themselves. This is a thought that can only arise from a failure to practice the opposite of conservatism, which is democracy. Traditional Burkean conservatives would never ask the residents either; they saw their responsibility as consulting with the squire and his lady, and the vicar. The mistake of the engineers planning Cabrini-Green wasn't that they were too left-wing, it was that they were too conservative themselves, assuming that they knew better than the members of the community they were supposed to be serving. And not just the Black men but also the Black women, and the Asians, and the trans persons, and everyone in general.

We can learn from that, but not by adopting any kind of conservative principles. What we need in such a case is to become more committed to democracy, and less "of the right". If that's what Brooks wants to do, he's welcome, but he can leave his "Burkean modesty" at the door.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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