Monday, June 19, 2017

Mourning Conservatism: The Loss of the "Coarsening of Culture" Argument

Conservatism - at least, as it was understood during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s - is dead. This is not a new observation, but its passing has been largely ignored such that I think it worth at least a brief obituary.

Not all parts of conservatism, of course, have died. Ideologies don't die so much as evolve and change over time. But at some point that evolution proceeds so far from its ancestry that one could usefully talk of a "new species". In that regard, what passes for "conservative" today is fundamentally different from the conservatism of a few decades ago. The old species of conservative I used to know have mostly died out, at least on the public stage.

In particular there's one aspect of that older conservatism that I always found had some appeal. Conservatives used to be concerned about a problem they sometimes called the "coarsening of culture" - that is, the flouting of social norms and common values that, in their view, led us towards a less-civilized society.

Sometimes this argument took on somewhat shrill overtimes, like Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. (One can only imagine what Bork would make of Donald Trump.) But at its heart lies a fundamentally conservative, and sympathetic, idea: that the norms and cultural practices that bind us together in community should not be taken lightly. Sometimes these norms and practices are bad and need to be changed - much of the classic argument between liberals and conservatives (think Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke) was about how such change should be effected, and how quickly.

But many of the norms we take for granted are in fact good ones, and necessary to the functioning of a civil society. Among these are respect for the rule of law and respect for other individuals, including some level of tolerance of differences that inherently occur in all societies. At the root of all of this is the need to prevent diverse societies from devolving into anarchy, chaos, and violence - Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.

This is the sort of thing that conservatives used to worry about, comparatively more than liberals. Yet, except for a few pious words in the wake of last week's shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field, today's "conservatives" are by their actions apparently no longer interested in conserving the core civility that was once the hallmark of their brand.

A minor but telling case in point can be found in this story:
Threats For What She Didn't Say
Here is a classicist - a field once staunchly defended by conservatives as necessary for the promotion of "Western Civilization" - being attacked by avowed conservatives, in most un-civil ways. What concerns me about the story is not so much the reactions by white supremacist internet trolls, who are by and large keyboard cowards wrapped in their own dark fantasy worlds. We have come to understand that these are a byproduct of the information age, the empowerment of hate in the midst of change.

More troubling, from the standpoint of modern conservatism, is the eagerness with which seemingly respectable conservative publications like the National Review engage in bomb-throwing behavior that is decidedly un-conservative (at least, by previous standards). The National Review has ceased to be conservative in its behavior or its outlook, adopting instead a sort of hyperventilating tribalism in which anything that plays to a particular set of prejudices, or against another, should be framed so as to maximize its controversy. It's all about creating heat, not light.

I understand why this is: because heat sells, and light does not. A once-conservative publication is now perfectly happy to engage in reckless playing with fire, and will undoubtedly denounce anybody who tries to draw a connection between them and the internet trolls they are stoking. But in doing so they - like many others, on all sides of our ideological divides - have traded their soul for money.

Heat - that is, emotionally charged controversy - used to be seen as the byproduct of the process of producing light - that is, truth. Conservatives spent decades, even centuries, pointing out to liberal revolutionaries that the heat produced by attempts to produce light could often burn down the building we're all standing in. It was one of the best arguments conservatives ever had to hold the moral high ground.

Now, it appears that the modern conservative movement has become corrupted by the same thing they always accused liberals of: moral relativism. There is no point in trying to hold the moral high ground if there is, in fact, no more moral high ground. Everything is simply a power struggle, a clash between sides to produce winners and losers. Donald Trump is a product and symptom of this shift, which existed long before he came along.

Conservatives used to argue that there were fundamental moral principles of right and wrong on which we could all agree. Among these were the rule of law and the maintenance of social order against the forces of chaotic violence that hover just outside our gates, never very far away.

I miss those conservatives. I wonder what happened to them. Now that they're gone, I think they deserve at least a decent burial.

1 comment:

  1. When, do you think, this form of public conservativm disappeared? Or when were the big steps it took away from the limelight?
    . . . Was is Gingrich's revolution, or the ascent of the tea party? Why do you think so?