Feb 6, 2009

Self-purging conservatives

What our politics has consistently demanded of its leaders, if they are to ascend to the status of disinterested statesmen, is not the assertion but rather the renunciation of ideology. And the only ideology one can meaningfully renounce is one's own.

-- Sam Tanenhaus

The inaugural act of contemporary American conservatism was a purging. William F. Buckley's first moves in founding the modern movement were meant to eliminate some fellow rightists, cleaning them out of conservatism and pushing them permanently to the fringe. He had, for example, Whittaker Chambers write a review attacking and effectively getting rid of Ayn Rand. Oddly, at the same time Chambers was helping found a movement with this review-as-purge, he was pointedly refusing to join the movement, as Sam Tanenhaus describes, for practical reasons and also ethical, anti-ideological reasons.

We see, then, at the very genesis of the movements' own myth of origins (and even ignoring the harsher versions attributing conservatism's paternity to Joe McCarthy, probably accurately) that the best impulses, the ones against inflexible ideology and unbending arrogance, were already entangled with the worst tactics -- purity tests, purges, perpetual divisiveness and permanent fear.

The history of American, post-war conservatism can be told as, I think, a history of purges and counter-purges. The movement has a history of trying to clean up the history by "writing out" red-baiters, segregationists and assorted other crazies, and also often attempts to protect itself from the consequences of current policies by saying they're apostate, having strayed from the true conservative ideal. There's also a continual culling and counter-culling, so that any conversation among conservatives and any attempted "self-examination" involves trying to get some group evicted from the movement.

The purging is almost so pervasive as to be definitive. It's more than just the normal struggle to name a movement and mark those lines. Conservatives have been as committed to purging as Stalinists and bulimics.

It is easy and wrong to see to collapse of conservatism and the failures of conservatism as due to the interlopers: The neo-cons or the evangelicals, the ex-Marxists or the RINOs or the talk-radio hosts. It's easy and wrong and really leads to a complete misassessment of everything, because the bad was entangled with the good from the beginning.

Tanenhaus' piece on the death of American conservatism may be the best I've read on the subject. It's good precisely because it finds the flaws of conservatism, the tensions and the viruses, existing at every point. Pure conservatism, or this idea of the political philosophy unsullied, doesn't exist, Tenenhaus talks about the mess of "good" and "bad" conservatism that was there in Russell Kirk's big book on conservatism, and he finds that same mess in Ronald Reagan and Buckley and Barry Goldwater and on down. The problem, as Tanenhaus has it, is always internal, though conservatism has always believed it needed to defend against some invasion or other.

The question that has been asked is how we went from point A to B. How did conservatism careen from Kirk, where where "conservative" meant anti-ideology and rule-by-doubt, to Sarah Palin, where ideology was purified to the point of prizing clownish certainty and dehabilitating denseness. How did conservatism go from the first issue of National Review, claiming the mission to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so," to the more recent issues, where the unquestioning continuation of "enhanced interrogation" is taken as a sine qua non test of true conservatism?

The temptation -- surrendered to seemingly everywhere -- is to find the interlopers, the false conservatives, hunt them down and eliminate them. The temptation is to find traitors and purge them. The temptation is to find a way to separate the good from the bad, even if, as in Andrew Sullivan's effort, the distinction is an admitted fiction, entirely theoretical and ahistorical.

Tanenhaus's piece is right precisely to the point it finds the strains of conservatism's sickness present from the very beginning. He's right to find it in every part of the history, all along, so even the original, pure opposition to ideology is wrapped up in the divisive drive to purge those who are too ideological. It's right to find not a fall, a descent from the pure eden of A to the putrid stupidity of B, but to find both the good and the bad as completely, complicatedly tangled. The question ought not to be how conservatism went from one sort of conservatism to another, but what is the relationship between the best and the worst? How are they connected and where is the line? It doesn't seem like conservatives will have even a hope sorting out what happened -- much less moving to reclaim the best of the tradition -- until the dividing line between the good and the bad is seen to run not between factions, but right through the very heart of the thing.

For a movement so obsessed with invasions and infiltrations, purity and purges, so firmly founded on inerrant accuracy and unflinching execution, I don't know that I have much hope for self-critical examination. I have yet to see a single conservative claim responsibility for what's wrong with the movement, making the Republicans sort of seem like the "part of other people's personal responsibility." A start, thought, might just be a mantra-like paraphrase of William Shakespeare: The fault, dear conservatives, is somewhere in true conservatism itself.