Thursday, October 26, 2006

My critique of "The Conservative Soul"

Andrew Sullivan invited readers of his book "The Conservative Soul" to write their own critiques of it. After reading the book and mulling over it for some time, here is what I came up with.

Think of "The Conservative Soul" as a repackaging of Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy for a twenty-first century mainstream audience. Like Objectivism, "The Conservative Soul" divides humanity into the rational and irrational, here called conservatives and fundamentalists. Like Objectivism, "The Conservative Soul" rests such policy prescriptions as it ventures to make essentially on the basis of keeping the rational conservatives in charge of the government at all times. And just as practically no person ever born or ever likely to be born is an Objectivist in the Randian sense -- Objectivism conceeds that only as many as two true Objectivists have ever lived -- the book's author admits that even he has succumbed to the temptation of a fundamentalist thought on occasion.

Of course, like Ayn Rand and her insistance that people could only be truely rational if they were chain-smoking cigarettes like Howard Roark, "The Conservative Soul" has it own unconscious inconsistencies. A nice example is its observation that government tax increases are uniformly a bad thing (my boldface):

Domestically a conservative will seek to ensure that the freedoms enshrined in a written or unwritten constitution are protected. That is his first task. If a government starts to attack individual liberty, invade personal privacy, increase his taxes, or burden him with regulations, a conservative will resist.
Resisting tax increases is thus a conservative imperative, except, of course, when President Bush is doing the resisting, in which case not resisting tax increases is a conservative imperative (my boldface):

It soon became apparent that [President Bush's] tax cuts were simply a matter of faith, unrelated to any empirical context or consistent rationale.
"The Conservative Soul" also exhibits the same willful ignorance of opposing points of view and historical events that in Objectivism made anyone with a vaguely liberal political bent akin to being a "Stalinist". For example, truely conservative doctrines about the law -- doctrines believed in by actual lawyers -- are treated as Orwellian abuses of language, such as the author's implication that judicial activism is just some kind of homophobic Right-wing smear phrase:
Judges -- many liberal, some conservative -- were described as "activists" or "extremists" if they applied their state constitution's guarentees of equal protection to gay couples.
Long standing historical trends such as geographical voting patterns are also attributed to nefarious short-term machinations, such as when the author implies that the Red State/Blue State divide was actually created by Republicans in the 1990s:
In a much milder fashion, the appropriation of religious groups for the political base of the modern Republican Party immediately and progressively divided the United States into "blue" and "red" states, between "Godless" and "God-fearing" regions.
But mere tinkering with the electoral game is child's play compared to an accusation of pure monarchism against President Bush:
[The President's legal Advisor John] Yoo works at one of the most prestigious think tanks in the United States: the American Enterprise Institute. He is absolutely sincere in believing that the executive branch can override any domestic law, any international treaty, and any moral boundary if necessary to protect national security. In a war on terror that stretches decades into the future, the new conservatism allows for a president with no checks at all on his own power as commander in chief.
Left unsaid is the fact that the presumption that military necessity works in exactly this way has been the default view of the president's role as commander in chief since the founding. The key to the equation is military necessity. Literally nobody to the political right of Michael Moore thinks that the President is ready to take over American society and rule as a dictator from the White House to defend the United States against the Third World terror threat. What people do think is that a sufficiently dire threat to the United States -- a Dalek invasion of Earth bent on mass extermination perhaps -- would be necessary for any extreme measures by the President to be justified on the basis of military necessity. As conservatives are fond of saying, the Constitution does not oblige a nation to commit suicide when faced with total annihilation.

That there is no check on the President's power as commander in chief is also totally false. The whole point of the Constitution is checks and balances on every branch of government, after all. But this is a false argument for another reason. Every nation ever made may be confronted by a person with the ruthless to acquire power and to exercise it without restraint; every nation is vulnerable to the possibility of a powerful individual that cannot be held in check by the combined efforts of others. The ultimate check on power is the ability of some humans to collectively enforce restrictions on the use of power by other humans, and until the United States consists of only one person and lots and lots of computers, this check on power will be in place.

As this critique suggests, you would be correct in inferring that "The Conservative Soul" portrays the current President Bush and other fundamentalists with the same level of respect and fairness that "Atlas Shrugged" gives to its moochers and looters. The exception is that, perhaps out of an extraordinary exercise of doubt, the author quite suprisingly admits that his entire analysis of the contemporary fundamentalism's drive for monarchical power in America is absolutely wrong:

Evangelical and Catholic fundamentalists have largely engaged in America in completely legitimate and democratic activity: voting, organizing, campaigning, broadcasting, persuading. Even where they disagree with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, they do not question that Constitution's legitimacy (although a few have indeed walked to the bring of declaring the United States an illegitimate "regime" because of the court's rulings). They constantly use religious language to defend their political positions -- but so did Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. The political methods of the new fundamentalists are overwhelmingly democratic ones.
Even the arch-fundamentalist George W. Bush is conceeded to be somehwat closer to your average vote-mongering politician than a monarch-in-waiting:

The narrow election of George W Bush in 2000 -- an electoral victory that nonetheless left him with considerably fewer votes than his opponent -- was the moment the new fundamentalists had long been waiting for. In the primaries, John McCain's surprising surge in New Hampshire forced Bush to an even closer alliance with the religious right than he might otherwise have preferred.
Obviously those democratically legimate, Constitution-respecting fundamentalists had committed something similar to the crime of "aligning fundamentalist churches and populations with a single political party" instead of happily rendering themselves politically impotent by supporting two rivals equally.

In the political sphere, once we subtract out all of the author's contradictions, misrepresentations, and amazingly devastating concessions, we are left with nothing more a set of the author's personal moral choices -- private, consensual, adult sex good; government torture bad -- along with a set of recipies for deciding who is sufficiently agreable with the author to merit the rewarding "conservative" mark of approval.


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