Thursday, August 14, 2008

Is the Conservative Movement Worth Conserving?

Cross-posted from Takimag.

I resigned my membership in The Philadelphia Society, the prestigious fraternity of movement conservatives, a couple years ago, but as I continue to pay my wife’s dues, I still read the Society’s communications from time to time. 

Evidently, the topic of TPS’s upcoming national conference is “How to Transmit the Legacy of the Great Conservative Thinkers of the 20th Century”—a topic that not surprisingly begs the question of whether the “legacy of the great conservative thinkers” should be transmitted in the first place.  “We must teach the young,” the members of TPS seem be saying, “to have those same conversations that we so enjoyed thirty years ago, so that they can teach the next generation to do the same.” In this way, the world will never want for movement intellectuals who will hold forth on the dangers of “immanentizing the eschaton,” the problem of “fusionism,” how “ideas have consequences,” the differences between paleocons and neocons, &c &c. 

Institutions are not often known to question their own reasons for existing.  On the contrary, they have a strong tendency—exemplified in abundance by the institutions of the conservative movement, notwithstanding the ubiquitous talk these days of the supposed crisis of conservatism—to insist that their respective missions are needed Now More Than Ever. Nevertheless, as The Philadelphia Society is that institution in America that professes to sponsor the most freewheeling discussion of the conservative movement, allow me to suggest for the Society’s consideration the following Untimely Topics:

• Setting the Party Line: Who gets to decide what positions constitute “conservatism” and do those positions have any relationship to any principles that might be called “conservative”?

• The Failure of the Canon: To what extent would anyone read the authors of the movement conservative canon (Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer et al.) if a conservative movement did not exist to promote their works so relentlessly?

• Caricaturing Liberalism: Do the movement’s sundry critiques of “liberalism” (or “Liberalism” the brooding omnipresence) have anything to do with reality?

• The Vacuity of the Founding Principles: Do any of the principles allegedly embodied in the movement conservative canon impose any constraints at all on the movement conservative party line?

• The Sycophantic Personality: Is the tendency of movement conservatives to promote each other’s works excessive even by the standards of ordinary ideological loyalty?

• Beating Dead Horses: Why are movement conservative intellectuals so obsessed with refuting positions (e.g., that the United States is an inherently “liberal” regime) that nobody has actually believed in fifty years?

• Embracing Bad Ideas: Why has the conservative movement promoted so many unsound or dangerous policies, from rollback of communism to the Bush-era tax cuts?

• The Rewards of Conformity: Has the conservative movement’s system of internships, seminars, collegiate newspapers, and fellowships produced anything other than two generations of bland loyalists? Would three generations be enough?

• The Outsiders: Why is it that the greatest American conservatives—Joseph Schumpeter, Jacque Barzun, Jane Jacobs, Tom Wolfe—have had so little to do with the conservative movement?

• Squandering Talent: Did it ever make sense to divert conservative talent into movement-building activities, and thereby deprive mainstream, establishment institutions of conservatives? Is it possible that the conservative movement has moved the establishment consensus left?

• The Rise of the Trolls: What does it say about the conservative movement that its most famous personalities (Jonah Goldberg, et al.) are increasingly those who make careers out of finding new ways to infuriate their opponents?

• Ostracizing the Best Minds: Why is it that the leading organs of movement conservative opinion no longer publish America’s best conservative writers (Sailer, Bacevich, &c)?

• “Conservative Movement” as Oxymoron: Did conservatism ever really need a movement in the first place?

• The Spurious Crisis: If, as everyone says, the conservative movement is in crisis, why isn’t anyone calling for it to be dissolved?

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