After I wrote my recent essay, Tortured Reasoning, I sent copies via email to several friends I thought might be interested in it. A vigorous and eventually testy debate ensued. No, not about torture; these are my friends, after all. Rather, it was about the term “conservative”, both its definition and whether someone who claims to adhere to Catholic social principles has any business describing himself as a conservative. Interestingly, I did not use the term in the essay, though I did speak of torture apologists on “the Right”, and I did cite a couple of examples, who identify themselves as conservatives. And Tom Storck used the term in his comments on the post. As none of the defenses of torture have come from anyone remotely on the political Left I don’t think Tom and I misspoke using conventional nomenclature, nor were we implying that all conservatives defend the use of torture. I said some time ago all I have to say on the subject in my essay of May 5, 2006, The Imitation of Christ: Why I am not a Conservative, so I just sat back and watched the fireworks.
On the one side were a handful of friends who identify themselves as conservatives, and on the other, a couple of friends who argue that “conservative” is not a fit label for a Catholic; that Catholics can have no home on the American political spectrum. The conservatives initially argued that the defenders of torture and militarism were not really conservatives, as they broke with the true faith, er, ideology, in so many ways. When pressed on the incompatibility of that ideology with Catholic social doctrine they seemed to shift: well, conservatism is not really definable, is more a matter of temperament. The holistic Catholics, for lack of a better term, pressed their point with true Thomistic doggedness and the defenders of conservatism became defensive and prickly.
As my sympathies in this quarrel are obvious, I probably did not describe it fairly in the minds of the conservatives. Sorry, I didn’t follow the arguments closely, though I did keep an eye on them.
I revisit this debate because the most recent issue of The American Conservative arrived the other day, and it has several articles that illustrate the rampant controversy over the Right Wing crackup and the problematic nature of the term “conservative” and its various definitions. TAC, a few issues back announced that it was going to cease publishing a print edition. Happily, reader response to this bad news has enabled them to restructure to a monthly from a biweekly. Thank God, for in spite of its title TAC is my favorite political magazine. It is really a lively and diverse hodgepodge of outlooks: paleo-cons, traditionalists, localists, anarchists, libertarians, as well as a number of writers who could hardly be categorized on the Right at all. What seems to be the common thread is a rejection of neoconservatism, militarism, and the Democratic and Republican mainstream.
The current issue has a number of articles illustrating the general confusion swirling around the term “conservative”. On the one end of the spectrum, Patrick Buchanan offers a pretty conventional “cultural warrior” strategy for a Republican comeback. Similar to this, W James Antle III, associate editor of The American Spectator, also sticks to a pretty normal rightish prescription for a GOP recovery of power. Less conventionally, David Bromwich argues more for the conservatism-as-mood viewpoint, with a distinct anti-war angle. And Rod Dreher wrings his hands over the cultural vulgarity of the Right, making his case for a sort of aesthetic traditionalism.
But surely the most original piece is Bill Kauffman’s Found Cause: Don’t call me a Conservative. Mr Kauffman, as I have noted before, is one of the most original and refreshing (and witty) voices on the American scene. This article is no exception; the sort of raucous, joyous, and unpredictable prose we have come to expect from the author. Unfortunately, whoever decided which articles from the current TAC would be available online skipped this one, clearly the finest in the issue.
Bill Kauffman says:
I do not say this better America would be a conservative America because for half a century “conservative” has been a synonym of-and a slave to-militarism, profligacy, the invasion of other nations, contempt for personal liberties, and an ignorance of and hostility toward provincial America that is Philip Rothian in its scope. The conservative movement, like the empire whose adjunct and cheer-leader it is, is a daisy chain of epicene dissemblers and vampiric chickenhawks who feast on the carrion of our Republic. The c-word is quite simply beyond reclamation.
Well said, and if he had stopped there I would have no qualm with him. But he goes on:
If we have to play Name That Tendency I’d opt for Little American, front-porch republican, localist, decentralist, libertarian, or to borrow Robert Frost’s term, Insubordinate American- anything but C!
There is one term in that otherwise fine list that stands out as unsuitable for the adherent of Catholic and distributist principles, and for many of the same reasons that “conservative” does.. I speak of “libertarian”. When both Ron Paul and Howard Stern are described as “libertarian” how could that term have any coherent meaning? And I need look no further than the back cover of this issue of The American Conservative to make my point.
There we find a full page ad for something called “Freedom Fest 2009”, to be held this summer:
Dear fellow libertarians, Unwind, relax and become un-reasonable for 3 glorious days. Join me and a thousand other free minds for the time of your life: Freedom Fest 2009. Just think 7-11 in Vegas. (Huh? Do any definitions of 7-11 make sense in this context?-DN) We have big plans: over a hundred of your favorite speakers… 9 great debates…lots of food and drink…beautiful people…and entertainment galore: Vegas shows and our very own gala Saturday night banquet.
Nathaniel Branden said it best, “I feel an electricity I haven’t felt in years.”
Why Las Vegas?
Conservatives (CPAC) meet in Washington DC but we hate Washington and all it stands for. Doug Casey calls it the Death Star. We prefer Las Vegas, the world’s most libertarian city.
Just allow that to settle in for a moment before I proceed. If Mr Dreher is seeking evidence of cultural barbarism on the Right he need look no further than the back cover of the journal in which his essay is printed.
I recognize only a few of the names that are mentioned in the ad, beginning with Nathaniel Branden, whom I did not realize was still kicking around. Mr Branden was the disciple and adulterous lover of Ayn Rand when that wicked woman was still alive (her name is invoked elsewhere in the Freedom Fest ad). He went on to a career in psychology, where he put the capital Self in self-help. Other names familiar to me include Charles Murray, Steve Forbes, Al Regnery, Bob Tyrrell, and unfortunately the Catholic writer Tom Woods. Ron Paul will also be making an appearance, to his discredit.
If I knew nothing else about libertarianism than this ad, it would be enough to keep me as far away as I could from that political sect. Any group which can cite Las Vegas, the very incarnation of what is most tawdry in the postmodern West, as a model city deserves to be laughed off the stage of public opinion. They ought to rename themselves “libertineists”, and are about as far from a sane vision of the common good as can be imagined.
Catholics can expect no earthly home, let alone a place at the political table. Our City on the Hill is not DC or Las Vegas or the USA, but the New Jerusalem. Our Kingdom is not that of the Democrats or the Republicans or the Libertarians, but of God. In saying this I am not counseling removal from this world or from political action, but if we lose our perspective, if we forget our true home, we will wander lost in the dark, making alliances with those who are ultimately our enemies.