Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Traditional Conservatism: The Emperor Wears No Clothes.

In the fairy tale "The Emperor's New Clothes" the emperor was actually naked,  but since his subjects knew that telling the truth would get them beheaded  they eagerly cheered those nonexistent new clothes.

David Brooks is like that emperor in his most recent column.  Even several liberals and progressives think he may have a point.  The guy's vest shimmers!

That's because he reintroduces "traditional conservatism" as something which sounds almost exactly like a nature-lover's egalitarian dream.  Just check out for yourself:

When I joined the staff of National Review as a lowly associate in 1984, the magazine, and the conservative movement itself, was a fusion of two different mentalities. 
On the one side, there were the economic conservatives. These were people that anybody following contemporary Republican politics would be familiar with. They spent a lot of time worrying about the way government intrudes upon economic liberty. They upheld freedom as their highest political value. They admired risk-takers. They worried that excessive government would create a sclerotic nation with a dependent populace. 
But there was another sort of conservative, who would be less familiar now. This was the traditional conservative, intellectual heir to Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter and Catholic social teaching. This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government. 
Because they were conservative, they tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.

I bolded the bit about the "harmonious ecosystem."  It could mean several different things, and that's the nifty little trick in Brooks' language.  Liberals might think he's saying this:

With that background in mind, when I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with. People need fully to understand, and act in such ways that indicate, that they are embedded in nature and dependent upon it—not just to obtain natural resources needed for human life, but also that their lives are made richer and protected by biodiversity and the smooth and efficient functioning of the many cycles of nature such as the water and nutrient cycles.

But he is not.  For this is how Brooks continues:

This kind of conservative cherishes custom, believing that the individual is foolish but the species is wise. It is usually best to be guided by precedent.

And of course he earlier stated that

They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God.

In other words, religion and social customs should rule.  Thus,  Saudi Arabia is a harmonious human ecosystem.  Indeed, any hierarchical system could qualify as harmonious in Brooks' view.

All this is quite sneaky.  Consider what his rules would mean for women's rights.  Religions usually give women fairly limited rights and traditional social customs do no better.  That's the kind of traditional conservatism David Brooks supports, my dears, because he thinks it could get the Latino population excited about the Republican Party.

It's the so-called social conservatism that Brooks models for us in his fashion show, except that there is no "there" there. 

And neither are these nonexistent new clothes really new.  Haven't we fought the so-called culture wars to an exhaustion?  Don't we still debate whether women's place should be in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and whether gays should have stayed in their closets?  From where I sit, this branch of Republicanism is well and alive and certainly quite familiar to all of us once we realize that Brooks is deceiving us with all his talk about "harmonious ecosystems" and the very odd idea that non-conservatives don't want people to work hard or to get educated or to not have children until they are ready for them.

That's three criticisms of the conservative emperor's new clothes, by the way: 

1.  Brooks uses misleading communitarian terms about something which might better be described as a Confucian view of the society as inherently ordered and ranked by religion and social norms.   There's a Straussian flavor to all this.*

2.  He chooses to omit any reference to the forced-birthers, anti-gays and anti-immigrant forces among today's Republicans.  They don't exist!  Instead, once there was a golden age of bigotry which we should return to.

3.  He creates straw-people which he then demolishes.  Liberals are not opposed to hard work or stable families or an educated populace and liberal policies do not result in large numbers of people not finishing school or getting divorced.   For example, Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the nation, despite being viewed as today's Sodom among the social conservatives (who do not exist, according to Brooks).
*The Wikipedia article on Strauss sounds to me a bit one-sided.  What I refer to here is the idea that religions are necessary to keep the masses (not the conservative leaders or thinkers) under control, whether one believes in them or not.