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Conservatism: death and resurrection

So what does it mean that actual conservatism—conservatism that accepts the natural, historical and transcendent as substantive realities and so is distinguishable from the attempt to convert the whole world into a sort of rationalized industrial process—doesn’t exist in American public discussion? (I take it that paleo or traditionalist conservatism is not really part of the great conversation today.)

It might mean that modernity is a done deal: God, nature and man as once conceived and independent of our desires have been permanently abolished, so there’s nothing to which actual conservatism can relate. The future belongs to individual sensation and impulse on the one hand and universal formal systems on the other, so the only question is what mixture of systems and technologies—transnational bureaucracy, world markets, information technology, psychoactive drugs, therapy and re-education, genetic manipulation—will mediate between desire and satisfaction most efficiently, reliably and equally.

Some people, myself included, consider such an outlook lunacy. Modernists retort the charge and say that those who reject their position are irrational bigots and fundamentalists. The question, then, is what is truth and what is fantasy. Is reason far more perfect now than previously? Does the morality of today infinitely surpass pre-60s morality? Have we really awakened to the reality of things while men at other times and places were asleep and dreaming? And above all, does authoritative consensus define truth, or can success—the success of many aspects of modernity, for example—lead to madness?

It seems to me it has in this case, and that the modern age, supposedly so rational, has in fact cut itself off from reason. There are basic problems with the attempt to reduce all things to our measure and control them for our purposes. Is the world really that manageable, or does the collective determination to make it so just mean we ignore and lie about everything that transcends or otherwise escapes us? And even assuming we can control everything for our purposes, who is the “we” that will form the purposes and do the controlling when we control the things that make us what we are, like sex, culture, and basic social relations and understandings of the world? Does the modern project of multiplying power as such, without reference to goods that precede and transcend choice, even make sense?

Modernity continually perfects itself by paring down what is considered real, and when it has perfected itself sufficiently it stops working because it abolishes reality altogether. Having abolished God, it proceeds to abolish man—theoretically, in the form of settled conceptions of human nature, and then practically, through politics and now through medical technology that has abandoned the Hippocratic injunction not to destroy life. Advanced thinkers have given up on truth, and the most modern societies have stopped reproducing. What future can they offer?

Conservatism is recognition of the inadequacies of modernity. The end of conservatism in public discourse is therefore a sign of modernity’s madness and approaching self-destruction through lack of self-knowledge. Since conservatives always knew modernity would end in madness, the end of conservatism is its vindication, hidden in plain view. Or so it seems to me, but each must form his own judgment on a proposition so opposed to accepted reality.



The sorry tale of one Wilbert Rideau (Will-bear Ree-doe) might be a prime example of the nonexistence of truth operating in the American world, if we assume Louisiana is as much a part of America as any other state. This past weekend in Louisiana, an out-of-town jury found a man (one Rideau) guilty of mere manslaughter 44 years and four trials after he attempted to execute three people but was successful in executing only one because he stabbed her after his gun only wounded her while she mistakenly begged for her life instead of playing dead as the other two did. This occurred at a remote location long after his armed robbery.

This was his fourth trial after three murder convictions were overturned. His acquittal was based on manslaughter; the maximum sentence in 1961 was 21 years, and so he was freed over the weekend to a cheering audience and a dismissive media.

The defense attorneys played the despicable and somehow ethical and hideous Johnny Cochran defense: if you are black, a first degree murder conviction is racism where there is a high-profile prosecution by white people against a black person accused of murdering multiple white people where there might have been a tad degree of racial discrimination pre-existing in the minds of those involved in the conviction. This stupid defense is based on the fallacy that white people in America convict black people of horrible crimes because they are black rather than because of the evidence.

Maybe truth, like heaven and the mathematical limit, is an ever-elusive logical conclusion that one can strive to know but can never know on earth. Perhaps truth is the Catholic faith. One Rideau would never be acquitted under Catholic doctrine; he would be required to serve time in purgatory where only God is the deciding official, unless he had received a just sentence on earth, which he did not. One Rideau has been pedaling his supposedly journalistic abilities for over 20 years in an attempt to be set free; that alone is evidence he is a lowlife. Is this verdict a result of Catholicism or Protestantism?

Has everyone fallen asleep at the wheel? Where are your comments? An open-ended discussion about truth begs for comment.

This is the big question, isn’t it? Whither goes modernity?

Of course, the postmodernists have already pronounced the death of modernity and openly mock it and its pretensions. They are much braver and brasher than the button-downed conservatives, who try to find a comfortable place to park themselves within the briar patch.

Modernity is living on its accumulated capital. Perhaps it can generate sufficient income to finance its dysfunctions into the foreseeable future (I doubt it).

The more modernity glorifies the wants and desires of individuals, the more unhappiness and dysfunction will be the result, and the more demands (violent and otherwise) will be made for redress for the inevitable disappointments.

Personally, I’m stunned at the rate of degeneration within western societies. Some call it the “great experiment.” If it is an experiment, the results are in and they aren’t good. Should the degeneration continue at its current rate, the social fabric will not only tear it will be forgotten. Once that social memory is gone, what shall replace it, other than coercion?

My impression is that what’s called postmodernism is really a sort of supermodernism. There’s the same dislike of transcendent authority, just a broader understanding of what authorities are to be rejected as transcendent. The political effect is the same, only more so: tradition and common sense get debunked, so all decisions end up having to be made by certified experts who claim what they’re doing does not constitute the exercise of power.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Postmodernism not only dislikes transcendence, it explicity rejects it. Its ontology (“Language creates reality”) excludes transcendence from the outset. To a postmodernist, “transcendence” is just one more social construction (posited to support existing power structures).

As for the participation of experts, my impression is that a principled postmodernist has to reject them as well. They, after all, deal in rational categories, which are inherently suspect, and subscribe to the various Enlightenment metanarratives which have been debunked. I’m reminded of Foucalt’s analysis of medical treatment for the mentally ill, and his claim that the medicalization of the issue created a sanitized and legitmated power structure to control dissenters and outsiders. By extension, all professional “experts” are merely tools of the existing power structures.

My understanding of postmodernism is that, rather than resort to experts, they rely on a radical democratic approach: all is subject to a vote, and those voting may rely on any inputs they wish, including cultural prejudice, folk knowledge, and pure emotivism. Thus, the philosoper of science Paul Feyerband recommends that competing scientific theories be put to a vote (of the people). It is, in the end, rule by the mob.

I agree that postmodernists, in the final analysis, are unprincipled, in that they deify certain categories and endow them with a certain transcendence: categories such as “justice” or “equality.” Within the postmodern ontology, I can see no principled reason why these categories should enjoy precedence over other categories such as “oppression” or “discrimination.” A postmodernist makes these distinctions on faith (or emotivism), not principle.

I don’t think that many pomos favor majority rule. It’s a kind of superdemocracy, in which the majority can’t rule either because that would oppress somebody. Everybody has to rule equally but there can’t be any concrete system for carrying that out because any established conrete system would be oppressive. The practical consequence is that the experts rule. Their advantage is that while all arguments are in theory equally debunkable it’s much harder for a non-expert to debunk what an expert says in any concrete and specific way, so the expert’s word is the last left standing and carries the day.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I’ve observed that some postmodernists, such as Jameson or Negri, adopt a reflexive Marxism at the political level, which suggests rule by a centralized bureaucracy (the experts).

I’ve seen other postmodernists who adopt a sort of cultural hegemony; the culture rules, whatever that is. So, if tea leaves are believed to cure measles, so be it, and it is oppressive to inoculate infants in that culture. Under this model, the cultural shamans rule.

Beyond that, I’m not sure postmodernists have any developed views of political science or theory, other than some vague eschatological references to “Justice,” as if postmodern justice will usher in the Millennium. It all seems pretty juvenile to me.

This all points to the nihilism at the heart of postmodernism. It is devoted to deconstruction, debunking, and unmasking. It has little if anything to offer as an alternative.

Personally, I sense tyranny within postmodernism. It is a deeply irrational dogma. In fact, it celebrates irrationalism as the only true “authenticity.” It also excuses any power, subversion, or coercion that undermines existing societal arrangements, which are dismissed as bourgeois, patriarchal, or authoritarian. Censorship, ad hominem, cultishness, and intimidation are characteristic of its practitioners.