Also sprach David Gress …

He rather exaggerates the opposition between American and other conservatism:

“There can be no doubt that the promise of America is a promise of personal liberty, of freedom of contract, movement, and belief … If there is anything on which all European conservatives have always agreed, however, it is the value and importance of a strong state …”

American conservatives, like other conservatives, do believe in authority. They just believe authority should be limited and it should respect traditional informal ways of doing things and not interfere with them. It’s hard to see how a conservative could believe otherwise, since there’s nothing conservative about unlimited power that can do whatever it wants. In America that view leaves the scope of state authority quite limited, but it’s still a universal conservative view.

It’s worth noting that Burke invented European conservatism, and he was a Whig, so Gress’s statement about “all European conservatives … always” favoring a strong state isn’t right. He might have said that Continental conservatives have generally favored extensive discretionary government authority in line with Continental traditions, while Anglophone conservatives have generally favored a more restricted and legally-defined role for government in line with their own traditions. It’s true that American tradition includes an expansive individualistic element that undermines respect for tradition itself, and so any sort of conservatism. Continental tradition seems to include an element of arbitrary state power that does the same thing. Maybe conservatism is a matter of maintaining a difficult balance so that single-minded actors (“The Individual” or “The State”) don’t run amok and destroy valuable things that can’t be had just by willing them.

Gress also says:

“American conservatives, with the exception of Ayn Rand and her followers, are generally religious and indeed believe that religious faith is an essential element of a conservative outlook, this is not the case in European conservatism, which has a strong atheistic or even nihilistic component.”

He evidently means Nietzschean conservatives of the pre-WW II period, rather than Burke, Maistre or Bonald, or for that matter Kuehnelt-Leddihn, whom he mentions as an important South German conservative:

“Nietzsche destroyed the credibility of a conservatism based on the vision of a religious society as the guarantor of social, political, and cultural order … This … was not a theological but a sociological and political fact … The point … is that all credible conservatism after Nietzsche had to take him into account.”

For Gress “take into account” seems to mean “agree with”:

“Modernity is not a set of attitudes to be taken up or rejected according to political or cultural preference. It is a fact—an objective stage of Western civilization. That is why the greatest modern conservatives are those who faced the challenge of modernity and surpassed it, not those who, in the manner of American fundamentalists, pretend that it does not exist.”

So he apparently views modernity as a sociological phenomenon, which it is silly to criticize because it’s simply a fact, and also as somehow compulsory. My own view is that if you can understand it as a sociological phenomenon, and therefore see through it, it can’t be compulsory. The owl of Minerva flies at dusk. It’s not clear though what Gress means by “surpassed” apart from adopting an attitude of irony and fundamental nihilism. He doesn’t present any examples other than Thomas Mann and various quasi-fascists, and criticizes Americans like Stephen Tonsor for their inability to shake off moralism and failure to see that Nietzsche makes it utopian to think Christianity can serve as an ordering principle.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that such an attitude isn’t serious. Irony might make you feel smart but it doesn’t get you anywhere and nobody in fact lives by it. It’s not a position, it’s a way to avoid stating a position, so why present it as if it were basic to a political tendency one might care about? Pascal dealt better than anyone else I think with the relation between the disintegrating effects of modernity and the brute necessities of life, thought and action, and he had a nice prose style too. Why think Nietzsche surpassed him in describing what our situation in the world makes necessary for us and treat Nietzsche’s views—whatever they might be thought to be—as somehow authoritative?

3 thoughts on “Also sprach David Gress …”

  1. A few things jump out from
    A few things jump out from the page when reading Gress. First, he overstates the Enlightenment influence on the American Founding, and understates all other influences. I recommend that he read “The Roots of American Order” by Kirk to complete his education, or, if he is already aware of the true nature of our heritage, I recommend that he represent it accurately, rather than slanting his representation to make some point.

    Second, America has a unique Anglo-American heritage that is different from continental European heritage on many points. I tend to find the differences uniformly in our favor. (Care to form a new rightist political party in Belgium, anyone?) The confused, weak, and politically unsuccessful European conservatism he describes is not inspiring to me at all. Yet, there is an underlying tone of continental condescension in his piece. Every difference between America and the continent is presented as the sophisticated, ironic, all-knowing continentals contrasted with the naive and moralistic Americans. As a result, he strikes me as having little appreciation for either British or American culture as contrasted with continental culture.

    Third, I find the typing/scanning errors distracting, but there was one really entertaining one: Juan Donoso Cortes, Marquis of Valdegamas, is referred to as the Marquis of Videogames.

  2. Jim, I must strongly
    Jim, I must strongly disagree with your opinion on irony. I think many young anti-Christians live & thrive on it. Monty Python, whom I find hilarious, may well have done as much against Christianity* as Dickens did against capitalism. And irony is not apolitical—it is directed against authority, especially absolute authority. For a “consumer”, who lives & works in order to shop, buy, and own, irony against anything and everything sacred is enough to protect his materialism. And if he feels spiritually empty, he can hug a tree, or protest globalization, or something.

    [*Every sperm, is sacred … Hey mum, are you a virgin? -Never mind.- She IS!!!]

  3. I changed what I said a
    I changed what I said a little to reflect what I had in mind. The thought was that irony is not a position and it’s not the basis of any position. There’s always something that’s taken literally, so in the case of any political perspective why not talk about what that is and whether it makes sense? I agree that irony’s a good weapon against positions people generally have trouble taking seriously. That’s not the kind of irony Gress is talking about though.


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