Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cladogenesis and The Eternal Sunshine of the Conservative Mind

Dance Me To The End Of Strauss

To understand what a mindless rabid, overwhelming, pandimensional clusterfuck Conservatism has become, it is not enough to simply critique the make and model of the vehicle they happened to be driving when they drove this country off the cliff.  It is equally important to understand the road they were traveling, and all the warning signs they had to blow past to get to the cliff in the first place.

For example, at this point pretty much everyone knows that, once upon a time, True Conservative Andrew Sullivan was an even more fanatical Iraq War cheerleader than Don Rumsfeld.  Mr. Sullivan -- who evangelizes the prudence, caution and skepticism of his hero Micheal Oakeshott -- hurled himself headlong into full "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Invading Iraq" mode and, like virtually every other Conservative talking head at that time, used his media platform to slash and slander Liberals like me.  Called us dupes.  Fifth columnists.  You name it.

And then brutal Reality interceded, incinerating all the gauzy nonsense and bile-soaked bombast Conservatves had used to fence their terrible ideas off from criticism and exposing all the armchair Shuck and Awe warriors for frauds and poltroons and lunatics and profiteers they had always been.

Which is the moment that Modern Conservatism reached a genuinely cladogenic moment where the fitful equilibrium of the already-delusional Right was violently punctuated, splitting most of the into roughly two, distinct but related species.  As I wrote back in 2008 ("The Dolt-Stoss ™ ") both halves of Conservatism still reflexively hate Dirty Hippies, both still lies easily and often about their past and both still believe their "clade" of Conservatism -- the only True Conservatism -- failed because of an act of monstrous betrayal.

True Conservative Alpha:  The Denialists.  The past never happened.  They were never wrong.  Fox News never lies.  These are the Wolfowitzes and Kristols.  This is your Crazy Uncle Liberty.  This is the electoral backbone of the GOP whose grand plans only failed because they were stabbed in the back by nefarious Liberals, their RINO stooges and the media they secretly control.  These are the ones who, as I wrote in 2008, "...turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out.”  (2 Maccabees. 12:42) These are the ones who threw themselves en masse into the Fabulous, Tea-Baggulous Bush-Off Machine the minute it rolled into town.

True Conservative Beta:  The Both Siders.  There may have been some misjudgment in their past, but  Teh Liberals were just as bad!  Why quibble about whether or not they were wrong because Both Sides!  Fox News may be bad, but so is MSNBC!  This is virtually everyone else on the Right, from David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan to Joe Scarborough and David Gregory.  (I would include links to my own writing here, but since I have done +2,000 posts on this subject in the last decade, I wouldn't know where to begin.)

Of course there is still a lot of ideological bed-hopping between these two emergent species.  They hate each other, borrow from each other, make temporary alliances of mutual convenience with each other.  One day, David Frum is writing like a Liberal blogger, the next he straps on his Neocon armor to go forth and do battle with The Dirty Hippie brigade.  One day David Brooks is extolling the virtues of humility, prudence and self-reflection, and the next he is shamelessly slathering a tanker-truck full of White-Out all over American Conservative history to make it turn out the way he wants it to turn out.

Which brings us back to Andrew Sullivan, who was an early adopter of Beta True Conservatism.  It has led him to walk back his earlier ebullience about the Iraq War and the Bush Administration (which has been a good thing) and wander around the cultural landscape, pointing at every shiny, pretty object that catches his attention and yelling "Claim!" in the name of his True Conservatism like a Hunter from The Walking Dead (which has been an embarrassing and hilarious thing):

Because while I'm always down for a good, Neocon ass-kicking, that act alone is merely a cursory crash site investigation, and not nearly sufficient to explain the warped, intellectual path down which True Conservatism has raced in order to reach the cliff from which it defenestration itself.  For a tiny example of what I am talking about, I refer you to the evolving utility of the works of Conservative philosopher Leo Strauss -- the modern architect of the "Noble Lie" on which so much of True Conservatism depends -- as seen in the writings of Andrew Sullivan.

Back in 2003, as the rhetoric of the Neocon's blood-drunk conquistador orgy was reaching a crescendo across the land, Strauss was a Great Man.  Period. And his keen and subtle work was being slandered by the paranoid and ignorant "academic Left" from {THE TRUTH ABOUT LEO STRAUSS)
The attempt of some who haven’t even read Strauss (let alone read him as carefully as he deserves) to smear his legacy and denigrate those who learned from him is a pathetic display of paranoia and ignorance. No wonder it goes down so well among some on the academic left. Paranoia and ignorance are their strong suits.
By 2006, as the wheels were clearly coming off of the Conservative Clown Car and Neocon rantings became ever louder and more unmoored from Reality, Strauss was suddenly the object of gross Both Sides!
I’m not the only one to be struck by the difference between what Leo Strauss actually wrote and what some have inferred from it – both on the paranoid left and the triumphalist right. 
 -- and Mr. Sullivan was not only deeply confused about how anyone could possibly have misinterpreted Strauss so terribly --
 I was taught by a "Straussian," have known many and read more, and I could never understand the idea how the great man could be reduced to some kind of secret guru to "neoconservatism".  There’s a section in my forthcoming book that makes this point about the inherent skepticism, mischief and seriousness of Strauss as a thinker – qualities that make him particularly ill-suited for being a secret mastermind to anything, let alone a total transformation of American conservatism into something like its opposite...
-- but also believed that Strauss wasn't just not one of the causes of Conservatism's problems, but was a big part of it's cure:
Last year, I sat down and read (or re-read) several of Strauss’s longer works and saw in him not a rival to my own inspiration, Michael Oakeshott, but a very different, yet somehow kindred, spirit. Between them, they represent a skeptical conservatism that certainly doesn’t amount to anything like a defense of what conservatism or neoconservatism has morphed into in the last decade or so. In fact, it’s my contention that Oakeshott and Strauss are the best guides to where current conservatism has gone deeply, horribly wrong.
By 2012, Mr. Sullivan was beginning to suspect that Strauss and Oakeshott may not have been (Spoiler!) boon metaphysical companions and brothers by another philosophical mother:
But the real trouble, I'd argue, is with Strauss's 1930s-driven lack of faith in modernity, his insistence that unimpeachable truths (not insights, eternal truths) about human nature could be gleaned by close reading of ancient texts by a few in the elite, and his followers' need to disguise their disdain for democracy and religion (making them insufferable cynics). It was hard to find a Straussian scholar who wasn't obsessed with domestic politics and who wasn't a neoconservative, itching for a new war for freedom somewhere (emphasis added):

America, alas, didn't have a Burke or an Oakeshott to craft its conservative philosophy. It ended up with the work of a German Jewish exile, whose political didacticism was as pronounced as his philosophical inscrutability. The failure of American conservatism to come up with more than fundamentalist religion and gloriously noble foreign interventionism as its core policies (along with making government insolvent by pretending that lowering taxes increases revenue) might be seen as a consequence of this strange admixture.
And by 2013, Mr. Sullivan was divvying up the same Conservative territory between Oakeshott and Strauss that he had been uniting under them just a few years earlier.,  Guess who got the verdant farmland and who got the buzzard-shit covered wasteland in that deal?  (emphasis added):
Reviewing Oakeshott on Rome and America by Gene Callahan, Kenneth B. McIntyre describes what keeps Oakeshott from accompanying fellow British philosophers into America’s intellectual canon:
[His] lack of influence among the movers and shakers of American political life should not be surprising,given Oakeshott’s insistence on the irrelevance of political philosophy to practical politics. As he once wrote, “reputable political behavior is not dependent upon sound or even coherent philosophy.” Such behavior is instead related to the concrete practical knowledge of an actual political tradition and what such a tradition intimates. Oakeshott was skeptical of philosophers who meddled in practical affairs, insisting that he was not concerned with establishing “a seminary for training political hedge-preachers in some dim orthodoxy.” Oakeshott was skeptical of philosophers who meddled in practical affairs, insisting that he was not concerned with establishing “a seminary for training political hedge-preachers in some dim orthodoxy.”
No, that was Leo Strauss’s metier. Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz are where you end up.
Which brings us to 2014, where we find Mr. Sullivan finally facing the terrible abyss where Strauss's principle of the Noble Lie inevitably led his acolytes, and where the term "Straussian" has become fully integrated into the scathing and 100%-indistinguishable-from-a-Dirty-Hippie vocabulary he now uses to describing the paranoid, ignorant Right:
I tend not to hold the somewhat conspiratorial view that followers of Leo Strauss, the guru of the neocon intelligentsia, actively believe in deceiving the American people in the pursuit of statecraft. Strauss argued that many critical texts in Western civilization were written with an esoteric teaching for the intelligent few, while presenting a less radical and palatable public doctrine for the masses. Hence the Straussian penchant for a noble lie – one that is good for the people to believe but which the elite knows is bullshit. Perhaps the classic example of this is the Straussian support for public religion, while the bulk of them are atheists. For them, religious faith is entirely instrumental – a way to lie your way to social order and cohesion.

In the case of the Iraq war, several untruths were told. Among them: there is no sectarianism in Iraq; it will cost next to nothing; it will be over in months; there are WMDs everywhere; Saddam and al Qaeda are joined at the hip. It’s hard to tell which of these untruths were sincerely believed by men like Wolfowitz and Kristol, longtime Straussians both, and which were a function of them not knowing anything about the country that was to be their text-book case of “creating reality”. But when a disgraced architect of that war goes on television to argue that the public needs to be told now that ISIS is al Qaeda, even though he knows that they are separate organizations with separate ambitions, I tend to withdraw whatever benefit of the doubt I give these men with the blood of hundreds of thousands on their hands.

This is a rare moment in which a Straussian actually comes out and says: yes, we’re deliberately lying by conflating all sorts of different things in the Middle East – the Sunni-Shia divide; the hostility between ISIS and al Qaeda – in order to concoct a simple and terrifying message to the American people that will enable us to get into another war in order to advance our goals in the Middle East. Yes, we know this is a lie – just as our insinuation that Saddam and al Qaeda were in cahoots before 2003 was also a lie. But it’s a noble one, and that’s all that counts...
As I said, these two, main branches of post-Dubya Conservatism -- Denialists and Both Siders -- may contend mightily with each other, but they're really very much products of the same DNA and whelping box. 

Both lean heavily on Imaginary Dirty Hippies to justify what they say and do.  

Both have very sketchy relationships to those parts of American history that makes their academic theorizin' look stupid.

Both claim they were betraaaayed!

And -- most hilariously -- while neither Denialists nor Both Siders feel any compunction about telling as many "Nobles Lies" as necessary to get them though the night, both Denialists and Both Siders are also adamant that the other guy can't be a True Conservatives
'cause he doesn't smoke
The same brand of lie as me...

And finally, I suppose this is as good a place as any to belatedly ease into my June fundraiser, so if you are inclined to support work like this, here you go!




n1ck said...

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Even when it requires you to lie and get people killed.



-Islamic Terrorists

Cliff said...

Christ on a pogo stick, Sully...
America, alas, didn't have a Burke or an Oakeshott to craft its conservative philosophy. It ended up with the work of a German Jewish exile

"America didn't end up with the insufferable fat white bore that it deserved. Instead it got a dirty foreigner who got his dirty foreign opinions all over my beautiful conservatism."

The failure of American conservatism to come up with more than fundamentalist religion and gloriously noble foreign interventionism as its core policies...might be seen as a consequence of this strange admixture.

Does Sully get surprised when he goes to Las Vegas and sees all the casinos?
"Who could possibly have ruined this midsized desert city with legalized gambling?" he might ask himself, as he plops down in front of the blackjack table.

Bisham said...


Caldistic divergence, talking my language. Essentially never seen in the world of modern science (much to the delight of creationists, with the possible exception of bacteria or Malawi cichlids), but Drifty has discovered an anthropic version and presented it before our eyes. Fkin awesome post.