April 29, 2005,
My dad watched a lot of the pope coverage partly because he’s been laid up with some health hassles, but mostly because he just loves that stuff. All of it. He insists the Catholic Church is the last institution that “really knows how to dress.” On the day Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the top job, my dad was pleased. He hadn’t been following all of the hullabaloo on the web and in print about the “hard-line pope” and how this Sith Lord with a pointy hat spells doom for the Enlightenment. Meanwhile I’d been trying to get up to speed on the theological and political issues, like every other member in the 24-hour commentariat. But my dad had the better handle on things. “I like him,” he told me by phone from his bed, “because we need at least a few rocks in the river.”
The phrase has stuck with me. His meaning was obvious. The pace of the great unraveling, begun a few centuries ago, only quickens. My dad, a Jew by conviction and temperament, sees this pope as someone willing to put his shoulder to the tide, and therefore he likes him.
Sullivan’s OpusI bring this up because I’ve just read Andrew Sullivan’s long essay on the state of conservatism. I think it’s worth reading on the merits though I don’t think you need to in order to read this column. I also think it’s a wonderful sign of one of conservatism’s greatest strengths: its capacity for internal debate. For all the lamenting out there about how conservatives cannot brook disagreement and dissent some of it found, alas, in Sullivan’s essay the simple fact is that conservatives like these debates. The proof is that we tend to have them just as often when they’re needed as when they’re not. Does no one recall the National Greatness boomlet a decade ago? Anyone who’s read NR and/or NRO from the start must acknowledge that conservatives can get pretty dorky about this sort of thing. But it is this dorkiness that gives the movement much of its élan vital. Liberalism or what we call liberalism today rejected the need to visit first principles when it adopted Pragmatism as its philosophy, and now that it needs them it can’t find them. Worse, very few liberals are even bothering to retrace their steps down the foggy path they traversed to see where they left them.
It was William James who defined Pragmatism as an orientation of “looking away from first things, principles, 'categories,' supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.” The similarities with Nietzsche were noticeable then, and they should be noticeable now.
Which gets us back to Sullivan’s opus. I’m not going to spend a lot of time dissecting Andrew’s essay. Ramesh Ponnuru has already split the trunk of its body in order to show the class the evidence of organ failure (the autopsy starts here and moves up). Sullivan’s basic argument is that conservatives and Republicans (groups he tends to blur a bit too much) are becoming too activist and faith-based rather than remaining skeptical and reason-based. The Conservatism of Faith “states conservative principles and, indeed, eternal insights into the human condition as a matter of truth. Because these conservatives believe that the individual is inseparable from her [sic] political community and civilization, there can be no government neutrality in promoting such truths. Either a government's laws affirm virtue or they affirm vice.” Meanwhile, the “conservatism of doubt asks how anyone can be sure that his view of what is moral or good is actually true.”
One non-trivial point that seems to have been left out of the commentary about Andrew’s argument and not mentioned explicitly in the argument itself is its debt to Michael Oakeshott. Sullivan is a disciple of Oakeshott and wrote his dissertation on him at Harvard. Hence it should come as no surprise that Sullivan’s division of conservatives into two camps Conservatives of Faith and Conservatives of Doubt tracks quite closely Oakeshott’s The Politics of Faith & the Politics of Skepticism. Why Andrew didn’t mention this explicitly I don’t know. But at minimum it’s interesting that he imposes on the conservative movement the divisions and burdens of nearly all modern political thought. This may be one reason for his significant silence. After all, if conservatism is merely reflecting the divisions within Western civilization generally then his argument loses a bit of its impact (and originality), since this isn’t a crisis of conservatism or Republicans per se but of American or Western politics generally.
Which is sort of where I’m coming from. If forced to choose between Sullivan’s two kinds of conservatives, I guess I’d be a conservative of doubt. As anyone who has read this column over the years knows, I stand firmly on the side of inactivism on the home front. “Don’t just do something! Stand there.”
But I reject being forced to make this choice because I think it is in significant respects bogus. Sullivan argues that conservatives of faith are devotees of dogma, revealed truth, and hidebound notions of immutable human nature, and that his conservatives have a better approach:
The defense of human freedom offered by conservatives of doubt, on the other hand, is founded on more accessible and less contentious arguments. Such conservatives can point to the Constitution itself as the basis of U.S. political life, and its Enlightenment concept of freedom as sturdy enough without extra-Constitutional theology. (The purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence’s right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The word "virtue" is not included in that phrase. Its omission is the single greatest innovation of the U.S. founding.) They can point to the astonishing success and durability of the U.S. experiment to buttress the notion that the Constitution is a much more stable defense of human equality than that inherent in any religion. The Constitution itself has far wider support among citizens than any theological argument. To put it another way: You don’t need an actual religion when you already have a workable civil version in place.
He then writes a bit later:
[Conservatives of doubt] understand that significant critiques of human reason Nietzsche, anyone? have rendered the philosophical quest for self-evident truth even more precarious in the modern world.
And herein lies the problem. Sullivan believes that faith in tradition i.e., the “durability of the of the U.S. experiment” is enough to sustain a healthy democracy. No further metaphysics is necessary. But as Joseph Knippenberg also notes, this really doesn’t work. The U.S. Constitution was founded in a climate rich with larger philosophical and metaphysical assumptions assumptions that, if held today, Sullivan would probably dismiss as assumptions of “faith.” Sullivan seems to think that an argument from tradition alone can withstand the assault from post-Nietzschean modernism. This strikes me as nonsense. Since before Charles Beard, the forces of self-professed modernism have been trying to demystify, deracinate, deconstruct and, at times, destroy the authority of the Constitution. The charge that the Constitution was nothing but a self-serving writ for wealthy white men was born of precisely the sort of anti-foundationalism Sullivan cheers. I remember getting into a bit of spat with a college professor of mine because she objected to my capitalization of “Founding Fathers” in a paper I wrote. “Why glorify them? Why deify them?” she asked.
There are lots of good answers to this question, but the most pertinent one is that if we don’t capitalize them we make it just that much easier to disregard the wisdom of the Founders entirely. A society that doesn’t dogmatically defend the good is that much more open to embracing the bad. The Founders could write the Constitution they did in part because they took a certain amount of metaphysical dogma for granted. Without a richer metaphysic, it’s not at all clear that faith in the Constitution can withstand the acid of pervasive skepticism. We already have a “living” Constitution precisely because generations of intellectuals and activists have found the "dead" one insufficient to modern needs. Sullivan’s approach opens the door to such expediency and relativism even wider.
He surely knows that "that's the way we've always done it" arguments have less and less weight in our culture. In fact, he is at the head of the brigade defenestrating the ballast holding down the traditional interpretation of marriage. He claims to be a skeptic about government activism, but few close readers of his blog would be shocked if he danced a jig were the Supreme Court to impose legalized gay marriage across the land. Indeed, he seems to have very little use for even the Hayekian case for traditional marriage.
I don’t think everyone has to agree with a given faith. But I do think that we’re better off if everyone abides by the right faith’s central tenets. Belief in the sanctity of life seems like a darn good example. Even if the new Spartanism of Peter Singer constituted the better argument, for example, I’d still rather live in a society of unsophisticated people who dogmatically believe that leaving defective babies on a hillside is wrong than in an “enlightened” society that constantly revisits the issue given “new facts.”
Regardless, it seems to me that we have little evidence that a politics of doubt is sustainable in the long run without a politics of faith. Societies can run on fumes. They can mistake a temporary consensus as a permanent system of tolerance. But as anyone who reads about what’s happening in Holland understands, systems based solely on platitudes of tolerance can crash into chaos when its platitudes are revealed to have little philosophical superstructure. And we know what happens to democracies when faith vanishes and human will reigns supreme. Fascism was impossible without the Enlightenment. Fascism was impossible without democracy. Fascism was, indeed, the product of both. Various movements found that “alien” or “outdated” notions of liberal democracy no longer served the aspirations of the nation or the volk. Sullivan is about as dogmatically opposed to what fascism stands for as anybody out there, but by arguing for the smashing of all dogmas save the little sliver he likes, he gives oxygen to those who aren’t as selective as he in their hatred of tradition.
Both-And not Either-OrWhich brings us back to the real role of conservatism. Sullivan nods to the fact that his division between conservatism of faith and conservatism of doubt is a bit unnatural and that most conservatives don’t fit into these “ideal types.” That should tell him something vital. If the actual humans we call conservatives in America aren’t in fact one or the other, then in an important sense conservatism in America isn’t one or the other. It’s both-and, not either-or. As much as I like doctrines of immutable truth, in the political context a movement is only what it believes and does. I agree with Sullivan that Republicans are straying a bit too much from conservatism and that conservatives are letting it happen too much and I think he offers important insights and useful suggestions on this score. But republicans are politicians and politicians promise to do things. Conservatives are people who ultimately explain why many things shouldn’t be done. As Hayek noted, “conservatives” in America are defenders of liberty because we wish to conserve those institutions that keep us free. This emphatically included the rich tapestry of moral traditions, dogmas, and precepts that have sustained Western civilization.
In the world we live in today, to be an American conservative requires two complementary forms of argumentation: skepticism about the new and faith in the old. You must have both to be a conservative of any stripe. Which new things you’re skeptical about and which old things you revere distinguish the kind of conservative you are. I think, unlike many readers, that by this criteria alone Sullivan is a conservative.
All conservatives must put their shoulder to the river to protect what they hold dear from the rush of change. My chief complaint about Sullivan is that the little pocket of turf he wishes to keep dry is just too small and can’t be protected from the deluge without a much bigger dam.