Monday, December 3, 2012

What Are Conservatives Conserving Today?

Henry Adams
A recent article in The Baffler, by historian Rick Perlstein, documents the strange parallel between recent American conservative rhetoric, and scare-based advertising. His often harrowing account of the ad barrages from right-wing mailing lists looks like a pantheon of recent reactionary bugbears. But strangely, Perlstein apparently misses the narrative that links these ads, and the implications that narrative has for American discourse.

The ads Perlstein cites share a myth of a world full of horrible monsters who will consume you if you fail to throw your trust behind some white-hatted hero. Perlstein describes exhortations against a murky medical “elite”; financial hustlers tutored by “pinko” college professors; and garage scientists whose discoveries shame funded universities. These stories pit a “just folks” hero against a shadowy illuminati determined to shackle human ingenuity to their nefarious goals.

Because the white-hatted hero makes his face visible, his leadership appears preferable to that of the shadowy illuminati. But because we have only the hero’s claim that the illuminati even exist, we wind up seeing that which we fear, and that which we trust, through the words of the same influence. In a way, we are accepting the Janus-faced claims of a single individual: I will make you fear, but then I will take away your fear.

American conservatism, once the bastion of altruistic public intellectuals like Henry Adams, TS Eliot, and Russell Kirk, has been hijacked by a for-profit, fear-based world view. Because we need a hero, we are left paralyzed in our own shoes; we can do nothing ourselves until the hero arrives. That makes the fear-based world a call to inaction, a desire to surrender all our power to the designated hero who will make all things better for us.

TS Eliot
We are called therefore to decide whose control we will accept. We are called to accept a position of both powerlessness and stasis, to become entirely passive in the face of the horrible monsters. While conservative demagogues have hitched their wagon to the rhetoric of “rugged individualism,” a vague but persuasive goal, since at least the John Birch era, the actual content of conservative thought has become dominated by individual stagnation.

Why anyone would find that acceptable, I don’t know. The American tradition has long embraced the call to action: the Revolutionary call to stand up against oppression, the Lincolnite call to resist injustice in our land, Roosevelt’s call to oppose fascism throughout the world. Our nation has historically acted with boldness, yet a subset of the current discourse encourages trembling fear-based paralysis.

I reject that. We must act, both individually and together, because the needs become more pressing as our world becomes more complex. Accepting individual and collective responsibility for our own lives lets us, us, resist the enemy without relying on a white-hatted hero. But more important, our resistance lets us put a face on our enemy. We see that person, because one shadowed individual or cabal cannot withstand the scrutiny of the massed population.

Certainly, many people will find this call to action uncomfortable. It does not let us rest on our accomplishments, count our money, or sleep in the same bed every night. When we resist powerful enemies, we must remain ever vigilant, because the enemy—crooked bankers, foreign militants, or the “establishment”—is ever vigilant against us. I can see where a population, comfy in its accumulated stuff, would not want to take the risks involved.

But this call to action restores the people’s power, which first made America great. Standing against oppression does not mean squelching fear, as Perlstein’s advertisers offer, but embracing our fear. Like Churchill and Roosevelt, we must step off the secure path, into the unknown of Jeffersonian authority. I suggest that this is much more conservative, and much more American, than the milquetoast terror peddled on today’s organized right.

Russell Kirk
The secure life, under the mysterious bootheel, has seeming comforts that the peripatetic life of resistance does not offer. Sure, those comforts come at the cost of our essential humanity, but so what? It’s easier, and that’s what we think we want. But like the conservative intellectuals of days gone by, we know, if we look deep in our hearts, that accepting powerlessness and anarchy leads to diminished lives.

The narrative Perlstein uncovered opposes the very nature of a free and democratic society. It excuses us from responsibility for our own lives, and empowers demagogues who keep their eyes only on their own bottom lines. This is not conservative, and it’s certainly not American.

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