30.6.09

NOTES FROM ONE UNNATURALLY BORN:

I became a conservative slowly (that is to say, conservatively) in the period after 9/11. It was a natural move at the time: the sort of activist foreign policy I favor had its home on the right, and the intellectual life it offered seemed markedly superior. The left, as I was experiencing it at the time, had a hermetic quality: one identified with some particular variant of their philosophy (multiculturalism, feminist theory, race theory, etc--these things endure in popular intellectual culture long after they are out of fashion in academia). Conservatives were the sort of people who wrote about the things they loved--literature, movies, poetry--with an evident love of them. They worked as critics and had things they didn't like, but for the most part were jaunty and affirmative.

Both of these things have changed: the conservative reaction to any active foreign policy puts the liberal response to shame. Skepticism is the mood of this paticular time, but nowhere worse than with the people who muddled through the arguments--or never bothered to understand them--or think the vehemence of their rejection now will somehow propitiate for their perceive failures then.

The intellectual side of things is more difficult. Much of the cultural writing I enjoyed was, in fact, of that kind, but one begins to notice after awhile that its scope is incredibly narrow. The names involved have a way of repeating: Waugh, Wodehouse, Chesterton, Eliot above all, and Orwell to demonstrate some catholicity in taste. Leaving aside that they are all drawn from the same intellectual milieu, it gets a bit boring to hear them invoked time and again. To find that Eliot is still a vital center of intellectual life is exciting when one is first discovering Eliot; to find, as I did later, that he's a fetish or a measure for all things (as he has a tendency to become) lessens one's enthusiasm--or at least mine.

Which leads me, finally, to the big blog fight going on between the Postmodern Conservatives and the Front Porch Republic-ers. I am, like Alan Jacobs, tired of debates about modernity and its meanings--but especially these debates. The Pomocons are at least occasionally funny: "it takes a medieval village" is as good a line as I've heard. The problem, though, is that both sides are reactionary: the FPR response to modernity, whatever that may be, is that it is fundamentally a corruption and so we must turn back to before; the pomocon response is that modernty, whatever it may be, is fundamentally a corruption and so we must move beyond it as quickly as possible. The latter is politics as deracination; the former is slightly insane (a conservative, of all people, should be wary of the idea that one can escape or easily replace one's history).

But really, what bothers me more than anything else is the way modern philosophy, especially Locke, is discussed. One might be left with the impression that social planners have used the Second Treatise as a handbook in their ceaseless campaign to undermine traditional marriage, among other ills. Political theorists often complain about the habit of philosophers to quickly go from a text to a "position:" i.e. the move from "Locke" to a "Lockean" conception, which, though they vary only by two letters, are tremendously different things. They complain because it's poor intellectual history to assume that anyone who takes up a thinker has understood the nuances of their thought (or, goodness, read the text); almost everyone in the debate assumes Locke is Nozick's Locke, or one very similar; this is not unlike assuming that Plato is Popper's Plato--an interesting contribution in its own right, but a bad reading of the underlying text.

So this is a plea I launch into the blogosphere, certain to be ignored, but nevertheless requesting two things: when debating about the thought of some important, canonical political theorist, it would be immensely helpful to see the text--or at least have it cited--which is the source of the commentary being given. Second, someone has to be willing to play contrarian pretty consistently--just to keep things honest.

3 comments:

Amos Johannes Hunt said...

I'm with you on the pomocon/fpr debate. It's tiresome, however spruced up with "high snark" it tries to be.

rosebriar said...

I'm sure I didn't understand enough of what you said to comment on it, but that wanting to cite the text bit sounds an awful lot like lawyer-speak to me. ;-)

M said...

Well, crap. I have been way off. When I saw stuff about Locke on people's blogs, I just assumed they were talking about "Lost". No wonder I didn't get it :-)