The Challenge Confronting Conservatives, Pt. I

by Walter A. McDougall on July 18, 2011 · 4 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Politics & Power

crusade

This is part one of a two part series. Check back tomorrow for part two, “Sustaining a Republic of Hustlers”.

This piece was originally published by the National Humanities Institute in the journal Humanitas in 23:1&2. Please visit their website for related articles, subscription information, and more details about their organization.

At our 2009 annual meeting, the Scholars Council of the Library of Congress was exposed to some surreal juxtapositions. First, the Librarian James Billington described the cultural impact of the global financial meltdown. University and public libraries lost a third to a half of their endowments or budgets, forcing them to lay off staff, suspend acquisitions, and eliminate whole collections. The Library of Congress was in better shape since it serves at the pleasure of the only institution empowered to authorize the printing of money. But without budget increases the Library can no longer keep up with the flood of new data and media in the digital age. Hence we were asked: what materials would statesmen and scholars twenty-five years from now rue us for not having collected today?

Next, we were given a briefing on the Library’s latest triumph, the World Digital Library. This miraculous project offers on-line, virtual-reality, access to the greatest manuscripts and artifacts from every civilization and historical era. A thousand items were already posted—some of them rare books hundreds of pages long—and tens of thousands of items are already projected. So even as we live in an age when all the music ever recorded will soon fit on a single I-Pod, we will soon live in an age when every artifact from Hammurabi’s Laws to a 1906 film of Ellis Island can be downloaded on your Blackberry.

Imagine, therefore, how discordant our next impression seemed. When the council was asked what new missions the Library might perform, a British professor asked sternly why the Library could not do something to uplift America’s deplorable popular culture. Dr. Billington always speaks of the Library mission to “bring Athens to Rome,” but could it not use its resources and political ties to bring a bit of Rome to the barbarians?

Finally, even as we pondered the co-existence of a bankrupt American economy, a miraculous American technology, and a philistine American public, we were asked what issue we would raise if given access to members of Congress. I had an answer to that one. I would summon the committees responsible for foreign affairs and defense and insist they stage a Great Debate of the sort that occurred in the late 1940s. At that time the question was whether the Truman Doctrine, which rhetorically committed the U.S. to defend all countries on earth, was really in the national interest, and if so, how the government proposed to do it and pay for it. Today the question would be whether the pledge of recent administrations to eliminate terrorism and tyranny everywhere and democratize the Middle East is really in the national interest, and if so, how to do it and pay for it. In short, let’s get a grip on our pretentious rhetoric before it carries us over the cliff. Of course, Congressmen—by definition skilled hustlers in America’s free market of power—are themselves too dependent on pretense to expose it.

I enjoy those annual meetings, not least because we always get a VIP tour of some part of the Library of Congress: on this occasion the rare book room. But I left convinced we are living in what Arnold Toynbee called the Indian Summer stage of civilization.

The situation in which we find ourselves did not arise overnight. In 1999 the Philadelphia Society asked me to give the luncheon address before a presumably like-minded crowd. Since I had recently published Promised Land, Crusader State, they wanted me to discuss “The Crusader State in the 21st Century.” 9/11 still lay in the future, of course, so I puckishly likened the Clinton administration’s feckless humanitarian interventions to medieval crusades, and finished as follows:

To preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one, in which case you may inspire fanaticism and black-and-white judgments, and so lose the ability to keep the violence proportional and channeled toward realistic ends. Preaching crusades can also risk the opposite outcome. Like the football coach whose pep talks wear thin, a President who turns every cause into a holy one, every enemy into a Hitler, and every conflict into a genocide, may soon find his audience sinking, exhausted and disbelieving, into the very cynicism he hopes to surmount.

One of my Lenten disciplines this year was to re-read the works of George Orwell. His description of the political debasement of the English language was chilling in light of the linguistic gymnastics of our present leaders. But what struck me most was that his empire of Oceania ruled by Big Brother in 1984 represented the pure Crusader State. Oceania is always at war, but for no specific reason, and against enemies that are constantly shifting, but always depicted as utterly evil. The wars are low-level affairs fought on distant fronts, but just enough terrorist strikes occur in London itself to stoke the fury and fear of the home front. Nor can the war ever be won, for the permanent Crusade is what justifies Big Brother’s rule.

When must the United States act, when must it lead—and when not? There is no simple answer, especially when our strategic and moral calculus is complicated by lack of trust in a President’s motives. . . . As C. S. Lewis wrote, “Lilies that fester smell far worse then weeds. The higher the pretensions of our rulers, the more meddlesome and impertinent their rule is likely to be and the more the thing in whose name they rule will be defiled.” That is why American crusaders may someday lament, with the 13th century poet Rinaldo d’Aquino: “Alas, pilgrim cross, why have you thus destroyed me?”1

The talk received a standing ovation from most of the audience, but on the way out I was almost mugged by Straussian neoconservatives who (we later learned) were already plotting a crusade in Iraq, as well as some Catholics offended by my critique of the medieval crusades! I left confused and dismayed by the evident crack-up of the conservative coalition, and have never returned to the Philadelphia Society. The moral of the story is never take an audience for granted unless the organization’s leaders have followed the example of William F. Buckley, Jr., when he began his career by founding a conservative club for Yale undergraduates. Just seven prospective members showed up, but Buckley, undeterred, made it his first priority to purge the ranks. His challenge in the late 1940s was to define a politically and culturally potent brand of American conservatism. Having come full circle, conservatives face the same challenge today, but in much worse circumstances. After World War II—a true unipolar moment if there ever was one—U.S. military, economic, and ideological power were at their peak, and almost all citizens believed in an American heritage worth conserving. In today’s faux unipolar moment, American power is spent, its future already mortgaged out two generations, and citizens may be excused for demanding change rather than conservation. Moreover, I would contend that much of what has passed for conservatism over my lifetime has been a masquerade or else an unwitting enabler for public and private pretense and prodigality that have almost reached fatal proportions. Back in the 1960s Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen would drawl, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking real money.” Today we read Charles Morris on The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown: Easy Money, High Rollers, and the Great Credit Crash (Perseus, 2008), Joseph Stiglitz on The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the War in Iraq (Norton, 2008), Andrew Bacevich on The Limits of Power, which foresees the suicide of American Exceptionalism, and Niall Ferguson on The Ascent of Money, which foresees another Great Depression during which “there will be blood.” If in fact our Republic of Hustlers has degenerated in our time into a monstrous Ponzi scheme, then what is it that conservatives would want to conserve? If in fact today’s festering lilies sprang from bad seeds planted far back in American history, then what is it that conservatives would want to restore? If in fact the prudential, immediate goal of conservatives is simply to defend what remains of our heritage and forestall a slide into anarchy, then what is it conservatives can do, paradoxically, to sustain the very Republic of Hustlers they damn?

I don’t even know which of those questions is the apt one, much less what its answer may be. I’m not even sure anymore whether I qualify as conservative. I did learn, however, while preparing this article, that extensive psychological surveys reveal that self-defined conservatives are happier people than self-defined liberals. Conservatives are also more generous and humorous, have healthier marriages and even have better sex. Another thing I have learned is how strange it can be to meditate on one’s own intellectual history. To re-read stuff you wrote long ago and remember the mentors, milieus, and issues that influenced you over the stages of life, is like conducting an archeological dig into the ruins of selves that no longer exist but are the unmistakable ancestors of your present self.

My parents were Eisenhower Republicans: white bread, Middle West, middle class, non-ideological, and thoroughly secular. Indeed, I now realize my first experience of American pretense were the saccharine Methodist church services we attended on Christmas or Easter because the grandparents were visiting. I grew up apolitical and remained so as late as 1968 when I graduated from Amherst College and joined the Army. Two years later I returned from Vietnam holding flag-waving militarists and flag-burning hippies in equal contempt. I remember being the only person I knew who thought Gerald Fold vs. Jimmy Carter was an excellent choice because both seemed to me refreshingly decent and moderate. Then I completed my Ph.D. and—in retrospect, incredibly—was hired by the history department at U.C. Berkeley.

The constant agitprop of Berkeley radicals was designed to raise people’s consciousness. And it did: it turned me into a conservative. So did the hostility of a powerful faction in the department that wanted me fired because they opposed diplomatic history on principle. My position was known as the death seat. Then my first wife left me. It was in that slough of despond, from 1978 to ’81, that I experienced my adult conversion that turned me into that rarest of birds: a born-again Episcopalian who, because he actually believed the creed, attended an orthodox Anglican parish and devoured the works of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, and the Oxford Movement. Over those same years I became politically self-aware and was a vocal member of the tiny minority in Berkeley that cheered Ronald Reagan’s landslide. Finally, over those same years I researched the space book that eventually won me tenure and a Pulitzer Prize. The book was not tendentious, but was certainly influenced by new faith and politics. I contrasted the prudent humility, economy, and limited-government ethic of the Eisenhower administration with the technocratic arrogance, pay-any-price profligacy, and prestige-mongering of the Kennedy administration. It was then that I stumbled on a little-known book by Daniel Boorstin,2 which argued that authentic experiences in American life were being replaced, one by one, by canned images: what we would call “virtual reality.” It was also then that I first suspected that Americans were prone to idolatry, for instance in their worship of technology and the technological fix, which struck me as merely a democratic version of the Soviet command economy and R&D. I later realized that big-government engineering was not even well suited to space exploration after NASA decayed into a venal, mediocre bureaucracy. But I realized at once that Kennedy, Johnson, and their Best and Brightest had succumbed to hubris when they tried to “engineer” urban renewal, wars on poverty, and not least the winning of hearts and minds and guerilla wars in the Third World. The Pulitzer committee must have mistaken my book to be a leftist critique of the military-industrial complex, but one of my erstwhile colleagues at the Air and Space Museum cried, “McDougall won the Pulitzer? But it’s a conservative book!”

I kept a pretty low profile in the 1980s—that’s just my personality. But I did relish being a Berkeley conservative. I wrote op-eds, contributed to National Review, co-edited a book on Reagan’s Grenada invasion with Paul Seabury, and was recommended by Seabury to the editors at Commentary for whom I wrote articles and book reviews over a span of time that survived the end of the Cold War and lingered into the mid-1990s. By then I had accepted an endowed chair at Penn, said a long good-bye to California and the Pacific Rim in the book Let the Sea Make a Noise: A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur, and begun teaching U.S. diplomatic history as well as European. That in turn inspired Promised Land, Crusader State: An American Encounter with the World Since 1776, which appeared in 1997 and accomplished the next refinement of what I still deemed my conservatism. Teaching, and then summarizing in print, the whole sweep of U.S. foreign relations obliged me to pay serious attention to the first 125 years of American history. During that long period, the nation, while never isolationist, pursued a coherent grand strategy inspired by Washington’s Farewell Address, John Quincy Adams’s Monroe Doctrine, and Manifest Destiny expansion, while eschewing a large standing military and crusades to export American values and institutions. I understood why all that gave way to global assertiveness in the twentieth century, but I rued Wilsonianism. To be sure, I granted that Wilson’s ideals could serve as benign propaganda for a hard-headed strategy like containment and deterrence. But liberal internationalism and its corollary, nation-building and the export of democracy, struck me as self-righteous, self-defeating pretense. Indeed, a colleague at the Foreign Policy Research Institute recently reminded me that I had written in Promised Land: “No international bureaucracy, much less a single nation, however powerful and idealistic, can substitute itself for the healthy nationalism of an alien people. Almost everyone agrees, for instance, that Saddam Hussein is bad for his country. But can Americans be better Iraqis than Iraqis themselves, or presume to tell the Chinese how to be better Chinese? If we try, we can only be poorer Americans.”3

That was back in the 1990s, remember, when others, too, called for the United States to become a normal nation again after the Cold War, or decried Clinton’s notion of foreign policy as social work, or insisted Superpowers don’t do windows. I was hardly out of the mainstream.

Check back tomorrow for the second half of the article!

Walter A. McDougall is the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and Chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of America and the West.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar JonF July 18, 2011 at 5:47 am

Today’s “conservatives” aren’t. They are bitter reactionaries who want to burn down the house. I’d trust an honest Marxist sooner.
The type of conservatism you espouse has been gone for a while now– and yes, that’s bad, bad thing.

avatar David July 18, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I thought honest Marxists wanted to burn the house down as well.

Being a conservative is something you do, not something you believe. It isn’t an ideology (as the existence of this website seems to irregularly, but often, make obvious), but a way of living.

You can always be conservative, but conservativism will always fail when you attempt to institutionalize it because you become divorced from its character.

After following FPR for some time it occurs to me that I am done with the vein attempt to define conservativism, or even to promote conservative thought in the public sphere, no one is interested. What I want is to know how other conservatives go about being conservative and the object lessons gained from conservative reflection on today’s civic life (such as it is, or isn’t).

avatar Barry A. McCain July 19, 2011 at 10:07 am

Being a conservative is something you do, not something you believe. It isn’t an ideology [...], but a way of living.

I really like that line, Mr. Sabin. Forgive me in advance, because I’m going to steal it and use it again.

In answer to your question, I “go about being conservative” by compulsively obsessing–sometimes to the point of “disorder”–over the many, many small details and decisions in my life. I’m quick to think but oftentimes slow to react. As the poet Frost said, before I take down I fence, I ask why it was put up.

avatar D.W. Sabin July 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Not my line Mr. McCain , It’s Davids and its a good one, speaking to the “mind yer own bidness” strain of Conservatism which has been Shaghaied by the rather righteous brigades of Cultural Conservatism.

The nation is at its best when it is far less resentful than it now is. Resentments of class, of circumstance, of ethnicity, of location of such a ridiculous thing as ones own looks ….these are the things our National Five Card Monte Artists mine with alacrity. This is a messy country with a difficult history and it is far better off for it.

Our normality was once laissez faire chastened by a notion that there really were prudent standards of conduct in a polyglot nation. The new normal is fear and fear’s steady helpmate resentment. “Sore winners” was the title of a book on the latest Bush Administration. The phrase seems to describe the fundamental malaise quite well. But it is unsporting to Dubya to use his record as the leitmotif because it is not. Our dysfunction is several decades in the making and George happened to alight upon some of the more interesting waters. Silly me, I think he is likely decent man, overtaken by events but this does not relieve him of his responsibility to protect and defend the Constitution. His record is not good in this regard. His successor seems to be compounding the insult.

The rewards of being a professed “conservative” in the righteously presumptuous “liberal” byways of Berkeley would seem to verge upon salacious. It is entirely too easy, regardless of the patronizing affronts. Liberal society stands before us both exhilarating and filled with contemptuous rebuke. Irony fills the day. Being told to be open minded by someone who tattoos themselves between lip-staplings ….obviously engaged full time in the iron-clad constraints of tribalism, well, it only serves to make me want to push them aside with a hearty smile and good wishes in order to find the steady stream of American innovation which paleo conservatism so richly adorns. What worries me is that there are an increasing number of Americans who either do not care or actually think an exclusively conservative…as in culturally conservative….aka resentful America…. is the halcyon goal.

People whose lives center upon injury by others are uniquely primed for resentment, they are constantly supplied with the fruits of their efforts.

Conservatism, to find a needed second breath must become a bit more charitable and less prone to utopian reveries. Man has fallen, it is a sad fate but to be sure, one of our most endearing……and prodigiously fertile. Had we not fallen, this self-government game would not be nearly so full of proverbial briar patches.

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