November 6, 2012

A Leap into Darkness: The Crisis of Modern Conservatism. ~ Thomas DeVito


When you hang around academic circles long enough, you begin to notice certain patterns.

For instance, I’ve picked up on the fact that while it’s more or less impossible to predict which intellectuals a liberal likes, the task couldn’t be easier with conservatives. It’s uncanny. And part of this is undoubtedly because liberals have a tendency to be as esoteric and eclectic as they think they can get away with— “I like Henri Lefebvre, but you’ve probably never heard of him” —it’s a game as much as anything, a hipsterism of the mind. On the other hand, conservatives are just dull in their professions of admiration. They might as well print an excel sheet on a vanilla wafer, throw some cucumber slices on it, and run down the list while listening to Mayonnaise Rock. Burke? Check. Oakeshott? Check. Hume? Check. Yawn.

Conservatives, of course, will tell you that their utter, stifling predictability is a virtue of their worldview. Deriving inspiration from a selected number of wise men provides a sturdier ground for social stability than nipping pieces here and yon from the big bearded and mentally unstable.

Their dullness isn’t the point though; I could probably live with that. The point is that these conversations reveal just how deluded conservatives have become. The conservatism they describe just isn’t reflected by the movement as it exists in the real world.

Indeed, modern conservatism is increasingly constructed around a universe of meaning that is exactly anathema to the traditional namesake. And this is where it gets interesting—if for no other reason than the fireworks of the cognitive dissonance are quite thrilling to observe (in much the same way that watching a forest fire rampaging toward one’s house is thrilling). Instead of Burke or Hume or Oakeshott, to say nothing of Tocqueville or Montaigne, contemporary conservatives are far more intellectually indebted to an amalgam 19th and 20th century existentialists than they would ever care to admit.

There is irony here, as well as tragedy. The irony lies in the fact that American conservatives have long derided existentialism as laying the philosophical foundations for the supposed corruptions of the 1960s. The tragedy is that they seem to have adopted the theories of existentialism’s most destructive advocates. There is little of the humanity of Camus or Kierkegaard, while there is all the bluster and cynicism of Nietzsche and Heidegger.

The foundational instincts undergirding almost all (politically relevant) conservatism can be traced to a darker variant of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. According the indefatigable Dane, authenticity and identity are derived from an almost divine moment of resolution, a moment of commitment where one finds oneself tied inexorably to a principle or activity. And after that plunge is taken, everything one does is judged in relation to it. As theologian Paul Tillich described it: resoluteness makes right what shall be right.

While Kierkegaard’s existentialism was highly personal (one’s commitments weren’t subject to group affirmation or derision; they were between oneself and one’s God), the current danger to America lies in its mirror image. Our conservatives have moved the locus of the concept from the realm of the individual, to the dynamics of the group. And inherent in this interpretation is an acceptance that one’s very identity as a self is predicated on accepting a limited selection of externally imposed ideas, which, once established, cannot be challenged without risking existential suicide and communal exile (which are much the same things in this Heideggerian reading).

One of the problems with this mode of thought is its complete capitulation to the harder edges of the rationalist tradition. Namely, it encourages us to abandon our critical and spiritual faculties in the name of the syllogism. To render the process explicit, identity boils down to the following formula: I am X because Y is true; if Y is not true, I am no longer X; I am X, so Y must be true (with Y here being the existential leap that gives form to X). The important thing is the universal retreat from uncertainty, and the fierce, rationally derived argumentation that follows from certain pre-rationally accepted premises.

For many people then, their basic self-understanding as a religious person, or as a member of a specific political coalition, has become logically dependent on accepting empirically unsound theories.

They choose to maintain the comfort of a too-narrowly defined identity rather than endure the turbulence of synthesizing less immanently important facts into their worldview.

This is the crisis of modern conservatism.

This dynamic is largely responsible for the endless series of purity tests put to our conservative politicians, as well as the unceasing accusations that the most minor of heresies constitute the dreaded sin of RINOism. It’s the cause of the monochrome speeches, and the endless parade of Republican congress critters declaring–with the fury of a thousand neglected sons—that they are the true conservative candidate in any (every) given race. It is the reason that few Republican politicians can accept the reality of climate change and evolution; it’s why they still give credence to Laffer and Norquist, and it’s why they casually dismiss the concerns of forty-seven percent of the population.

The situation is so exasperating because it’s all so very, very stupid. Few thinkers prior to the modern age would have found this type of syllogistic slavery desirable, necessary, or worthwhile. Indeed, philosopher Charles Taylor argues that at the core of this type of thought is the rejection of mystery as a central component of faith (and thus identity).[1]

Contrary to the views of contemporary conservatives, the logic undergirding faith cannot be socially and politically deterministic—at least not while being simultaneously humane. It is not hard to read Jesus’ message of universal love, for example, and conclude that one can be a Christian and believe in gay marriage. In the same vein, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was capable of reconciling the deeper truths of his religion with the empirical findings of modern science. In the end, the larger truths of religion need not make enemies with the self-evident truths of lived experience.

In the best of circumstances, a leap of faith is a coping mechanism meant to shore up human weaknesses in the face of an infinitely complex universe, and an inherently mysterious God. It’s a gesture that guides action and provides strength in the fight against the paralyzing power of doubt—but fighting doubt is not the same as vanquishing it. The human mind has always been too woefully under-equipped to win that battle.

Still, we struggle on, and we do make progress—however tentative. This acknowledgement lies at the very heart of Burke and Oakeshott and Tocqueville and Hume. When the hell did modern conservatives forget it? And for my own sanity, if they don’t plan on waking up soon, when will they stop paying lip service to a tradition they couldn’t be more alienated from?

[1] A Secular Age, 365

Thomas DeVito has a Master’s degree in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He has traveled to over 30 different countries and spent 2011 living and teaching in Panama. Thomas also writes at Mission.tv.



Editor: James Carpenter

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