American 'Conservative Intellectual' an Oxymoron?
Austin Bramwell, former National Review director and trustee, lays the smackdown on contemporary American 'conservatism'. A lot of juicy tidbits in this article...I've probably cut and paste too much, the article is chock-full of goodness. Overall it's an excellent analysis, but Bramwell could have emphasized the fact that an intellectually vapid ideology serves US hegemonic/imperialist interests quite nicely in most circumstances- this is something that has arguably been cultivated by various conservative elites to serve their own interests. He does actually touch upon it in the article but he could have fleshed it out a bit more. Still a great article considering its coming from a former 'conservative' imperial lap dog.
Apologies for sounding a little too much like a Politburo member, but it sure is fitting rhetoric in our day and age. ;-)
In sum, NR [National Review] declared that we were "at war" when we were not, for reasons that it did not specify, against enemies that it could not define, and to achieve goals that war does not advance. "Defining Victory" dresses up as policy but inchoate thirst for vengeance against someone, anyone who hates us. How nations sink, by darling schemes oppressed / when vengeance listens to the fool's request! On Oct. 15, 2001, National Review had no position on post-9/11 foreign policy.
I once heard an NR senior editor, a man revered for his high-mindedness, begin his defense of the Iraq occupation by reminding the audience that on 9/11 "they" attacked "us". In his mind as in others', the invasion of Iraq has so inescapable a connection to 9/11 that only a traitor or fool would deny it.
Never mind the conflation of "Arab radicalism" presumably a reference to Bathism with bin Laden's Muslim jihadism (how would discrediting Saddam's ideology discourage bin Laden's?), the allusion to Hussein rewarding the families of Palestinian suicide bombers (how does terrorism in Israel threaten the United States?), or the assumption that foreign terrorists are driving the insurgency in Iraq (if Iraqis hate the relatively benign Americans, why would they turn over their country to a bunch of foreign wackos?). Let us observe only that the conservative movement's best argument for staying in Iraq is that jihadists "will be perceived" differently, for "it will be clear" that they are harming Muslims at large. In short, if all goes well, the occupation of Iraq might just produce a useful propaganda victory. War as propaganda: surely this is the thinking of clownish dictators rather than mature analysts.
Yet even if fully informed, Muslims may still not perceive Iraq as a "democracy". Scholars can't even agree on the meaning the word. Joseph Schumpeter, the most penetrating modern theorist of democracy, argued in essence that "democracy" is a misnomer, while economist Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel Prize for proving (on one interpretation) that it is literally impossible for a democratic process to satisfy all relevant normative criteria of legitimacy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people (what George Orwell in 1984 called the "proles", or the 85 percent of the world so uninterested in politics as to have no ideology whatsoever) have not even the most basic grasp of the concepts of democracy or legitimacy. Even if everything in Mesopotamia came up roses, therefore, Muslims may never see the Iraqi government as legitimate. To do so, they would need the minds of angels, not men.
In short, the steps in the causal logic whereby Iraqi democracy defeats anti-American terrorism are so numerous and doubtful that it becomes impossible to believe that Bush's supporters have ever actually thought them through. Those who wonder what error befell the conservative movement since Bush took office are asking the wrong question. Since 9/11, the conservative movement has not made unsound or fallacious arguments for supporting Bush's policies. Rather, it has made no arguments at all.
Some, for example, carry on the Cold War obsession with the so-called "crisis of the West." Convinced that history at some point took a wrong turn, they pore over ancient texts in search of some Hermetic insight into the fatal error. (Not surprisingly, this approach has little popular appeal, although it still commands respect among professional conservatives.) The notion of a crisis of the West, however, grossly overestimates the importance of ideas; indeed, it requires an unphilosophical and almost paranoid ability to treat ideologies (most conspicuously, liberalism) as living, breathing omnipresences to which intentions, tactics, strategies, feelings, disappointments, and conflicts can all be attributed. Believers in the crisis of the West rest almost their entire worldview on an elusive notion "modernity" borrowed from a half-formed science: sociology. Crisis-of-the-West conservatism, at one time a fruitful response to the calamities of the 20th century, has become more a posture than a genuine school of thought.
Another group pleads for the conservative movement to return to its alleged first principles. "If only people would still read Russell Kirk," one hears. But the movement never had any first principles to begin with. Although it boasts a carefully husbanded canon of supposedly foundational texts, the men who wrote them: Kirk, Strauss, Voegelin, Weaver, Chambers, Meyer were notorious eccentrics given to extravagant claims whose policy implications remain largely obscure. Russell Kirk, for example, even as he shrewdly positioned himself as the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement, had almost no political opinions whatsoever.
But "conservatism" has no mystical essence. Rather than a magisterium handed down from apostolic times, it is an ideology whose contours are largely arbitrary and accidental. By ideology, I mean precisely what Orwell depicted in 1984. I do not mean, of course, that conservatism is totalitarian. Taken as prophecy, 1984 has little merit. Taken as a description of the world we actually live in, however, it is indispensable. 1984 reveals not the horrors of the future but the quotidian realities of ideology in mass democracy. Conservatism exemplifies them all....First, like Ingsoc, conservatism has a hierarchical structure. Like Orwell's "Inner Party," those at the top of the movement have almost perfect freedom to decide what opinions count as official conservatism. The Iraq War furnishes a telling example...Second, conservatism is concerned less with truth than with distinguishing insiders from outsiders. Conservatives identify themselves in part by repeating slogans ("we are at war!") that, like "ignorance is strength," are less important for what (if anything) they say than for what saying them says about the speaker...Third, and closely related to doublethinking, the conservative movement engages in selective editing of history. When events have a tendency to disconfirm ideology, down the memory hole they go. Thus, conservatives do not recall their dire warnings about the Soviet Union during the Cold War or about the economy after the Bush I or Clinton tax increases....Fourth, conservatism is entertaining. Understanding the world, though rewarding, provides nothing like the pleasures of a "Two Minute Hate", a focused, ritualized denunciation of enemies.
Whatever its past accomplishments, the conservative movement no longer kindles any "ironic points of light." It has produced fewer outstanding books even as it has taken over more of the intellectual and political landscape. This trend will only continue. Worse, no reckoning will be made: they hope in vain who expect conservatives to take responsibility for the actual consequences of their actions. Conservatives have no use for the ethic of responsibility; they seek only to "see to it that the flame of pure intention is not quelched." The movement remains a fine place to make a career, but for wisdom one must look elsewhere.
Bramwell has previously described the vacuity of 'conservative thought' in somewhat more detail in this article from August 2005:
Defining Conservatism Down.
I suppose one could very make the argument that the lack of intellectual rigour in contemporary American 'conservatism' goes a long way in explaining the rise of authoritarian tendencies in US politics.