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May 4, 2004

Sentences you don’t see on Electrolite every day. Check out this outstanding column by George Will.

No, I’m not just recommending it because Will is evidently beginning to notice that something’s going wrong with our efforts in Iraq. I’m also recommending it because Will is evidently beginning to notice that the fundamental moral and intellectual failure of this administration isn’t their failure to be liberals; rather, it’s their failure to understand and practice actual conservatism.

This administration cannot be trusted to govern if it cannot be counted on to think and, having thought, to have second thoughts. Thinking is not the reiteration of bromides about how “all people yearn to live in freedom” (McClellan). And about how it is “cultural condescension” to doubt that some cultures have the requisite aptitudes for democracy (Bush). And about how it is a “myth” that “our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture” because “ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit” (Tony Blair).

Speaking of culture, as neoconservative nation-builders would be well-advised to avoid doing, Pat Moynihan said: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Here we reach the real issue about Iraq, as distinct from unpleasant musings about who believes what about skin color.

The issue is the second half of Moynihan’s formulation—our ability to wield political power to produce the requisite cultural change in a place such as Iraq. Time was, this question would have separated conservatives from liberals. Nowadays it separates conservatives from neoconservatives.

Which is where Will gets it wrong. The question doesn’t “separate conservatives from neoconservatives,” because aside from a few well-meaning intellectuals and bloggers, there aren’t any real conservatives in modern American politics. From one end to the other, what modern “movement” conservatism actually offers is a bunch of variations on I’ve Got Mine and Might Makes Right. (With entertaining forays into It’s All Those Liberals’ Fault.) Actual conservative virtues like prudence, humility, and reluctance to tinker with long-established institutions, are barely in evidence. Instead, what you get is a lot of revolutionary fervor dedicated to forcing well-established social institutions to become much more overtly hard-assed; thus, a Presbyterian congregation is pressured to drop their organist of thirty years because he’s gay, or a school district is buffaloed into adopting “zero-tolerance” policies that lead to kids being expelled for giving someone an Advil. This isn’t “conservatism,” it’s an attempt at cultural revolution on a wide scale. It’s about as “conservative” as revolutionary Maoism, and not entirely dissimilar in its tactics and language.

The real fact of the matter is that in the absence of actual conservatives, it’s modern liberalism that has to act as the custodian of two valuable human outlooks—the reformist zeal of traditional liberalism, ready and willing to use the tools of politics to build a better world, and the careful modesty of conservatism, that knows that the flawed human institution you’ve got is often your bulwark against something much worse. This being the case, it’s no wonder national-level liberal politicians often sound wishy-washy. They’re having to be the only grownups in the room. You try it sometime. [01:00 PM]

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Comments on Sentences you don't see on Electrolite every day.:

Larry B ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 01:11 PM:

Patrick - the link to the Will piece is broken...

Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 01:21 PM:

Here's another link: WP.

Synchronicity. I was just finishing reading the editorial page of the Washington Post and thinking, "Holy Cow!" I actually agree (mostly) with something George Will has written!

Check the weather report for hell - I think it may be getting chilly....

Sean Bosker ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 03:17 PM:

Great post. I wish I could contribute something as astute as what you've written, but I'll have to settle for a 'me too.' You perfectly articulated my frustration with the misnomer of 'conservatism' in this country. They aren't for conserving anything, they're for changing it drastically. But you said that.

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 09:22 PM:

The neocons have also adopted one of the worst traits that used to be attributed to liberals: failing to take personal responsibility, and claiming that it's all somebody else's fault.

One of the main reasons I'm against Bush is his record. Under Clinton, we had eight years of relative peace and prosperity, under Bush we've been under attack and the economy has at best been faltering.

When I broach this subject with conservatives, I get an enormous amount of handwaving attempting to explain why we're (1) actually winning the war in Iraq (2) the economy is actually looking great and (3) it's all the liberals' fault, in particular Clinton.

Of course, liberals have gotten a bum rap on the personal responsibility thing: most of the liberals I know are quite willing to take responsibility for their own actions. They do, however, argue that sometimes other people's faults ought to be forgiven - that a teen-age criminal, for instance, might be better off being rehabilitated that warehoused in a prison. These qualities are known as "charity" and "foregiveness," they are highly thought of in Christianity and Judaism, which the neo-cons are usually so eager to practice.

bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: May 04, 2004, 09:40 PM:

Actual conservative virtues like prudence, humility, and reluctance to tinker with long-established institutions, are barely in evidence.


Patrick, thanks for saying that. I've become increasingly jaundiced, starting right after the last election, to the point that, as I saw "our" side (remember I was raised Republican) doint all the things that we had so long sneered at the other side for doing, with no signs of any recognition that this was in the least bit hypocritical, and coming to the conclusion that all along, "conservative ideals" had been a cover for the real principle, which was "We get to do what we want, without any interference, and we'll cry foul until we succeed in getting into power."

And laughing at all us poor saps who were on their side while they weren't on our side, and how they'd used the rhetoric of "duty honor country" to get us to line up after them.

So for you to say that makes me feel a little bit better about the first two decades of my political life. (Tho' it also makes me think again that some categories don't seem to have much real meaning these days, esp. given that they're having to define as "neocons" and "paleocons" kind of like those "radical feminists" vs the "good" feminists that are okay with our Archbishop...)

Gar Lipow ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 01:00 AM:

>because aside from a few well-meaning intellectuals and bloggers, there arenít any real conservatives in modern American politics.

Wrong, Aside from a few well-meaning intellectuals and bloggers, there aren't any real liberals in modern American Politics. Politics have moved so far to the right that Conservatives are called "liberals" . Radical reactionaries are called "conservatives". Actual liberals are called left-wing extremists". Actual leftists are treated as aliens from other planets.

===
email is actually garlpublic follwed by the at sign then comcast and then dot followeb by the extension net.

Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 03:16 AM:

as I saw "our" side (remember I was raised Republican) doint all the things that we had so long sneered at the other side for doing, with no signs of any recognition that this was in the least bit hypocritical

Bellatrys: this is not a trait peculiar to the Republicans you're discussing. It's something I've observed as being inherent in human nature. It is entirely possible that becoming a gown-up adult human being involves being able to recognize this in oneself when it happens. Just my opinion of course, but I've given the matter a lot of thought.

MKK

bryan ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 05:45 AM:

'Check the weather report for hell - I think it may be getting chilly....'
that's because we're living in the ninth circle.

bellatrys ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 06:01 AM:

Bellatrys: this is not a trait peculiar to the Republicans you're discussing. It's something I've observed as being inherent in human nature. It is entirely possible that becoming a gown-up adult human being involves being able to recognize this in oneself when it happens. Just my opinion of course, but I've given the matter a lot of thought.

MKK

Urgh...what you're saying is, that most of the legally-adult population is mentally at the level of the toddlers I used to take care of?

"He took my truck!"

"But it's *his* toy."

"But I want it! Not fair!"

--Only they have more words and are better at using them. This isn't a reassuring thought.

Zizka ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 10:27 AM:

I think that Will, like a lot of the so-called rational conservatives, will end up voting for Bush and probably publicly endorsing him. Just like McCain, who's the biggest pussy in the world despite his military record and "straight talk" PR. Apparently he'll limit himself to trying to keep the Bush campaign he's part of from smearing Kerry the way the Bush people smeared him (McCain -- that's the mentally-ill Vietnam vet with the drug-addicted wife and the illegitimate black child, remember?)

Time will tell, but I think that whatever true conservatives there are are pretty much under the control of the movement conservatives. There's actually a place in the Democratic Party for them (Leiberman area), but they're not really interested.

I keep vacillating between the idea that the rational conservatives will save us (i.e., save the U.S., not the liberals) and the idea that they'll refuse to (while piously protesting that they really don't like Bush much.) Today I'm on the glum side.

John Kessel ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 11:54 AM:

Bravo, Patrick. I am so glad to hear this said so eloquently. What a world it has become when most of the people of conservative sensibility are liberals.

Jeremy Osner ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 11:58 AM:

I liked how Will managed to work in his little dig at the Democrats -- "But if any Americans want to be governed by politicians who short-circuit complex discussions by recklessly imputing racism to those who differ with them, such Americans do not usually turn to the Republican choice in our two-party system." Such an ungainly construction he has to haul out when he could just have said, "This administration is actually guilty of the various transgressions I have been attributing to the Democrats for the past few decades."

sean bosker ::: (view all by) ::: May 05, 2004, 06:38 PM:

I was thinking more on this weird rejiggering of conservatism. Since conservatives now spout on about liberating oppressed people and accuse liberals of coddling dictators, I've taken to calling them "Bleeding heart conservatives," or should that be 'bleating heart conservatives?"

for my real email address, put sbosker in place of the first flojin.

Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2004, 09:48 AM:

Well, George Will's column this week has him back in typical form: "Donald Rumsfeld is clearly shattered by the corruption he tardily comprehended. Testifying to Congress last week, he seemed saturated with a sadness that bespeaks his deep decency and his horror at the vast injury done to the nation by elements of the department he administers."

I thought his focus on the existence of the photographs rather than on the torture they depicted and his hair-splitting "I'm not a lawyer... but I believe it is abuse" language clearly bespoke something other than "deep decency."

Mitch Wagner ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2004, 06:09 PM:

Jill Smith: I thought his focus on the existence of the photographs rather than on the torture they depicted and his hair-splitting "I'm not a lawyer... but I believe it is abuse" language clearly bespoke something other than "deep decency."

I thought there was a creepy echo of Clinton's hair-splitting over the meaning of the words "is" and "sex."

Of course, Clinton was being prosecuted for something trivial, whereas Rumsfeld is attempting to escape responsibility from grave failure of national trust.

I noticed ABC World News Tonght used the word "torture" last night. First time I've noticed.