Skip to comments.All Against All (On the paleo- vs. neo-conservative debate)
Posted on 04/27/2003 12:31:21 PM PDT by quidnunc
The second major split within modern conservatism involves the Straussians in a rather different way. For over a decade, the clashes between Harry Jaffa and such partisans of the Confederate cause as Willmoore Kendall and M. E. Bradford have marked the forward lines of the North-South controversy. Jaffa has defended the hallowed ground of reason, equality (of natural rights), Abraham Lincoln, and the Union; Bradford has taken his stand on behalf of tradition, inequality, John C. Calhoun, and states' rights.
Recently, new armies have entered the field. The dispute between "paleo-conservatives" and "neo-conservatives" has generated not only smoke and noise but headlines, on account of Pastor Richard John Neuhaus's expulsion by the "paleo-con" Rockford Institute. Aside from that ungentlemanly action, the debate has centered around "global democracy," "secularism," immigration, and charges of envy and religious bigotry. These bitter disagreements occur in the context of two massive facts. One is that, in abstract terms, the paleo-cons and neo-cons agree on far more than they disagree on. Both sides agree that rationalism in politics leads quickly to Jacobinism; that universal truths of the sort expressed in the Declaration of Independence (or in twentieth-century liberalism: they tend to see the two as continuous) are ultimately destructive of authentic, historically rooted human communities; that history or experience is therefore a better guide than reason in political affairs.
Where paleo-cons and neo-cons disagree is over what is to be done. Strongly influenced by the Eastern Straussians (with whom they overlap), the neo-cons take a more or less Tocquevillian approach, reasoning that modern capitalist democracy is here to stay, that despite its anomie it has brought substantial benefits, that incremental improvement of our condition is possible and desirable. Their politics tends therefore to be utilitarian and meliorist but also strongly anti-utopian.
Both paleo- and neo-conservatives put a great deal of reliance on the idea of history (as their names, borrowed so to speak from the theory of evolution, attest). For the latter, it is liberal democracy's very success the fact that, however uninspiring it may be, it has outlasted its foes that proves its superiority; indeed, that makes it worthy and capable of propagation to the rest of the world. For the paleos, democracy's success, no matter how expansive, is hollow precisely because it cannot match the glories of traditional societies, especially that of the Old South. Thus the neo-con's cautious historicism shades over into a calculating utilitarianism, while the paleo-con's historicism rejects calculation in favor of a romantic appreciation of passion, the grandeur of the past, personal and national idiosyncrasy.
It is the peculiar nature of this dispute, the fact that the sides have so many premises in common, that helps to account for its second major characteristic: the allegations of nativism and anti-Semitism that color it. In the absence of a clear philosophical difference between the paleos and neos, the obvious ethnic and religious difference between them comes to the fore. That the neo-cons are mostly Jewish, and the paleo-cons emphatically not, is seized upon by both sides in weak moments as the secret explanation of the controversy. Of course, none of the policy questions that are being controverted here (immigration, "global democracy," etc.) can really be reduced to these terms. But the temptation to reduce them will be there so long as better arguments are not forthcoming.
This is particularly the case with the neo-conservatives, who have not responded as well as they should, I think, to the paleo-cons' criticisms. For the real issue is not whether there is room for Jews in a proper American conservatism, but whether, as the paleo-cons define it, there is room for America in conservatism. According to the traditional American understanding proclaimed in the Declaration, all men are created equal, and equally deserve to have their natural rights secured by a just government instituted and operating with the consent of the governed. The first purpose of conservatism would thus be to keep American government just, to make sure that it secures the common good and preserves the rights of its citizens. These rights, deriving from natural right, are based essentially on the citizens' humanity, and have no proper reference to their race, religion, ethnicity, class, or any other secondary or accidental characteristic.
This is not quite the America celebrated by the paleo-cons, who emphasize the regnant inequalities in American life as it has actually been lived. The older traditionalists like Willmoore Kendall were not at home with this America, either, but some of the new or second-generation traditionalists go even further in their rejection of all natural-right arguments. M. E. Bradford is perhaps the best known of these. Whereas most of the older traditionalists (e.g., Kendall, Russell Kirk) saw some harmony however tenuous between natural law and tradition or history, Bradford and his followers denounce any appeal to rational, transhistorical principles. To put the difference plainly: whereas Richard M. Weaver traced the decline of the West to William of Occam's attack on universals, Bradford blames our current degeneration on the prevalence of universals in politics and morals.
Other second-generation traditionalists take a different tack. Thomas Fleming, the editor of the Rockford Institute's Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, understands the natural law not as a law of right reason (as Aquinas did), but as a "law of nature" in the modern scientific nor deterministic sense: he uses sociobiology and anthropology to prove that gender and class differences are natural. Attempting to combine traditional natural law with some version of the philosophy of history, Claes Ryn and Paul Gottfried try in different ways to find a philosophical basis for the role of reason within the historical process.
The real issue here is not whether particular paleo-cons are nativist or anti-Semitic, much less whether particular neo-cons are hypersensitive. Everyone involved in this debate agrees that anti-Semitism is wrong. It is a doctrine without defenders. But this consensus cannot endure if its grounds are allowed to be undermined. Paleo-cons as well as neo-cons have an interest in keeping this consensus and the conservative movement itself intact. The problem is that such vices as anti-Semitism and nativism are a constant temptation whenever virtue goes unexplained and unchampioned. When reason, equality, and natural rights (including the right of religious freedom) are contemned in the name of a monolithic and unrestrained "tradition," the ground for evil has been prepared.
As I say, the neo-conservatives in particular have not been very successful at articulating the larger questions at stake, partly because they have been unwilling to undertake the positive defense of American principles that is required. They need to say in broad daylight why nativism and anti-Semitism errors with which they charge the paleo-conservative movement are un-American, hence also unconservative. Such a declaration would invite a reconsideration of some of the principles they have shared half-heartedly with the paleo-cons. After all, the neo-cons have always stopped short of the paleo-cons' and the Old Right's open break with Lincoln and his interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Yet only Jaffa and the Western Straussians have vigorously contested this attack on Lincoln and the role of equality in the American political tradition. The neo-cons, like the Eastern Straussians with whom they have so much in common, have been content to keep their discontents private, and to hope for the best. But the logic of the debate carries it more and more clearly in the direction of the classic North-South struggle within conservatism. And the border states must eventually choose sides.
(Excerpt) Read more at claremont.org ...
For the past ten years, the liveliest and most interesting debate within conservatism has raged between two camps of Straussians the so-called "Western Straussians," clustering around Harry V. Jaffa and the scholars associated with the Claremont Institute, and the "Eastern Straussians," among whose leading figures are Walter Berns, Allan Bloom, and Thomas Pangle (although the distinction is more a state of mind than of geography there are "Western Straussians" in the East and vice versa). In books, scholarly essays, letters, columns, and not least in the pages of National Review, the two sides have clashed occasionally with angry words and personal vituperation over the nature of political philosophy, the character of America, and the status of revealed religion. The majority of Straussians, to be sure, have remained either in the middle or on the sidelines of disputes, watching them with a mixture of fascination and regret. But however sharp the personal exchanges may have been, the issues involved are of supreme importance for the future of American conservatism.
Perhaps most profoundly, the disagreement concerns the meaning of political philosophy, the central theme of Strauss's writings. Is political philosophy, as the "Easterners" maintain, a politic presentation of philosophy, basically a way of shielding philosophers' radical questioning from the disapproval of the many, of society? Or is political philosophy meant also and emphatically to offer philosophical guidance for political life? The point at issue is the meaning of the famous "Socratic turn" in philosophy, which boils down to the question of the status of morality. Does the philosopher dwell in a world beyond good and evil, or is morality a good in itself that he too must respect?
Taking morality seriously involves taking patriotism seriously, and so it is not surprising that the most obvious disagreement between the two Straussian camps concerns America. Now, the Straussians have helped to effect, over the past thirty years, a remarkable revival of scholarship on America, particularly on American political thought. Martin Diamond, Harry Jaffa, and Herbert Storing, to name the most prominent, showed that it was both necessary and proper to try to understand the Founders, Abraham Lincoln, and other American statesmen as they have understood themselves; that the condescending revisionism of Charles A. Beard, Carl Becker, Richard Hofstadter, and other historians would not stand critical scrutiny. Out of this common rejection of Marxist and progressive history, however, has emerged a significant split between the Straussians over what the Founders intended the American way of life to be.
The Eastern Straussians see America as fundamentally "modern," by which they mean that America stands for the renunciation equally of the wisdom of classical political philosophy and of Biblical revelation. Walter Berns, Thomas Pangle, and others assert that America is fundamentally Hobbesian. In other words, America was conceived in hedonism, atheism, and materialism, and dedicated to the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation. However glorious the Founding may have been, the nation organized on this founding principle had sooner or later to abandon all glory in favor of a descent into the life of self-interestedness. As George Will, profoundly influenced by this line of analysis, puts it, America was "ill-founded," doomed to moral and political decay by the logic of its own principles.
In contrast, the Western Straussians see America as broadly continuous with the classical and Biblical traditions. Indeed, in some respects they see it as perfecting those traditions, giving due public regard for the first time in history to the "laws of nature and of nature's God" i.e., both to the moral common ground and to the moral and theoretical disagreements between the great defining principles of the West: Reason and Revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.
This is pretty abstruse stuff.
All I can say about the p[aleo-con philosophy is "That way lies madness!")
And a little stupid too. Paleo, Neo, pink, green.....Over all, it beats the vision of the (self) annointed.
To understand the Paleo case requires familiarity with Greek and Roman thought and the development of the European legal and religious tradition, and an historical imagination far beyond that associated with the standard version of history. (Called the "Whig version of history" by some Paleos, though the wit behind this description is lost on most.)
If you are of curious nature, interested in how things actually work, and seek the truth, the Paleo tradition has much to offer.
Moreover it is a ruling elite based on class, not ability.
This is anathma to American principles.
France is governed by a ruling elite, the European union is governed by a ruling elite; that should be enough said.
The proof is in the pudding: paleos seem to be more than a little too comfortable with the idea of fascist dictators such a Francisco Franco for my peace of mind.
And a little stupid too. Paleo, Neo, pink, green.....
That I won't deny. While there is a Hillary out there in the wings, the neo/paleo debate should be pretty much out of mind. Sort of like arguing about how to arrange the coffee table while a bulldozer is heading for your house.
Everyone needs to keep this in mind, especially as we get closer to election time! <p. Tia
Oh, my. Are you pulling my leg? You believe there is no ruling elite?Or if there is, it is not based on class? All of politics is about making "our" would be ruling elite replace the existing one, or about keeping "our" ruling elite in it's position. And of course "as a class".
"One man one vote" cannot survive. Either the left will disenfranchise us, or we disenfranchise them.
Moreover it is a ruling elite based on class, not ability.
I don't see that. First, all countries are governed by ruling elites. Secondly the neo-cons are very much an elite and aspire to rule as one. Thirdly, there's much emphasis among the paleos on decentralizing power and bringing it back to local levels. Finally, it's hard to know just who to take as representatives of either neo-conservatism or paleo-conservatism. Those who present themselves as ideological leaders, naturally want to run things.
I would hope that America would reject the self-appointed leaders of both groups. Too often the paleo intellectuals show themselves to be foolish and obnoxious, the neo intellectuals to be ambitious and power hungry. In the end, the paleos are wrong about the Declaration of Independence and human rights. But there is much to be said for the paleos criticism of the neo-faction. Arguing against basic freedoms -- if that's what the paleos are doing -- is wrong, but it's sometimes necessary and praiseworthy to point out how the rhetoric of freedom can be used to increase domination and control.
One thing that should be noted is the neocons using some of the more obnoxious paleo statements to attack those who disagree with themon specific policy questions. More here.
One sees echos of this in East Coast high society where 'old money' looks down on nouveau-riche arrivistes and denies them entry into their social circles.
Your sweeping claim has the same validity as "All Republicans are racist" and "All Conservatives are Nazis" and "You are a Fascist." In fact, Paleos are mostly interested in a return to Constitutional Government, with limited, enumerated, and explicit powers, and in how it can be kept that way, that is, to keep the genie of tyranny locked away forever. That this is quixotic goes without saying.
If you want to learn about politics and such read Cicero. Nothing has changed since then except technology.
Once a man was sentenced to immediate death by the King. The man told the King that if the King would spare him, the man would teach the King's favorite horse to sing. "Teach my horse to sing?" said the king. "Oh, yes. It will take only one year." said the man. The king agreed to the bargain.
The man sang to the King's horse every night. One night, one of the stablehands asked him if he really thought the horse would learn to sing. The man replied,"A year is a long time. I could die. The king could die. The horse could learn to sing."
Of course, putting all your eggs in such a basket is only prudent if the only other choice is immediate death.
You keep nattering on about philosopers and ancient Greek and Roman worldviews.
May I remind you that both societies were heavily dependent upon slavery for their functioning?
Look at Old Europe, the countries of which are prone to ordering their societies acording to the dictates of philosophers.
This tendency gave us just in the last 100 years fascism, Marxism/communism and most lately postmodernism which along with its handmaiden, multiculturalism insists there is no such thing as objective truth.
So while studying the ramblings philosophers may be useful for liberal-arts students, there is very little there applicable for modern statecraft.
A pox upon all philosophers.
With enormous risk of being uncharitable, your point of view reminds me of Henry Ford's "History is bunk." That reminds me of "Ignorance is bliss." If I were mean spirited it would remind me of "Freedom is Slavery."
What about it?
Jason Kauppinen wrote: Or would you prefer to have statesmen who make decisions based on having a soothsayer cut open a chicken and do an entrail reading?
This is a specious argument and you know it.
Allow me to bring it down to an even more basic level.
Which ancient philosophers do you take into account before you decide which car to buy or how to present a proposal to your boss?
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.