Friday, April 24, 2009

More on Spengler's move to First Things

My friend Hans from John Reilly's site has raised an issue with my original post concerning David P. Goldman's (AKA Spengler's) move to First Things. I have quoted his comments here, and my response follows below them.

Hans wrote:
Why call it "conservatism", then? If the word is to mean something, it is about conserving a status, or elements thereof that are seen as desirable, and for doing that, you need to know the status, its meaning, and what the alternatives are, and why they are worse. Otherwise, it's just fear of the unknown masked as a worldview. Knowledge and innocence aren't good bedfellows. Any meaningful conservatism is a position for adults, not for little children.

1. Concerning the question, "Why call it conservatism?"

Fair enough. We don't have to call it conservatism if you don't want to; it's only that this is what most regular self-identifying conservatives actually mean by the term. It's what they desire from the movement in the first place. If the emblem underneath which they rally has been drained of this simple content (and many would agree that it has), then they may well begin calling themselves something else. A new match-strike moniker has yet to be found, however.

2. Concerning the statement, "Any meaningful conservatism is a position for adults, not for little children."

But in that case it would die out with the adults, and would ultimately conserve nothing. I don't think Goldman would agree with you here, at least not with words; but his actions agree with you rather nicely, and that disaprity goes right to the heart of my criticism of him.

Goldman's major trope during his "Spengler" years was that culture is a sort of cross-generational social contract. Conservatism is not only something fit for little children, it is for the children and about the children. He was right about all this. The values that conservatives espouse are always ordered to the continuity of hearth and home, family and race. Children sense the intrinsic value of their cultural myths and are eager to see their strictures enforced. Furthermore, it is not quite correct to assert that conservatism is fundamentally about conserving a "status." The basic thrust of the Burkean position is that the living tradition ought not to be defiled. Things must change and grow, but they should do so on the basis of that which has already proved itself reliable, incorporating new possibilities into the body politic in a way that nourishes rather than poisons it. In these and other ways, conservatism is mainly a doctrine of applied common sense.

Goldman gave his intellectual assent to all this, but his knowledge never trickled down far enough to effect the mode of his living. Or of it did so, it was only in a purely outward and mechanical way: his perfunctory reversion to Judaism, for example. If you asked him how exactly his mature embrace of "tradition" has helped him or anyone else, I don't think he could provide you with an answer that would hold water. I doubt not that he really believes, of course - I would not accuse a man of sacrilege - but he believes that which he has justified for himself. There is something theatrical about a piety that says, "I recognize that cultures with a strong sense of the transcendent survive and endure; therefore, I will believe in God." It's like joining the victorious army after the battle has been won. A faith worth having is seldom acquired so painlessly.

Fr. Neuhaus is a different story. He was by all accounts brilliant and entirely devout. I've been poring over the Neuhaus archive in an effort to familiarize myself with the man, and I fully agree with that assesment. I find very little to disagree with in the plain text of his thought. It's just that I find his life wholly uninspiring. As badly as I feel speaking ill of such a one, I cannot shake off my frustration with someone who seemed to "know everything" but was content merely to write about it. Writing is not enough. It's said that as an informal advisor to President Bush, he was among the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. I don't doubt that he was, but the Bush era was not exactly a sterling success for Catholic principles, so the influence seems not to have yielded much fruit.

I have said it before, and I'll continue saying it for as long as I draw breath. What Goldman and Neuhaus are doing isn't really wrong, but it is an extravagence the efficacy of which is quite overrated. The faith doesn't need any more editors. It doesn't need comfortable moderns who also happen to be Catholic. It needs adherents in spirit and truth. It's enough already with "engaging the culture" - which probably could have been Fr. Neuhaus' personal motto. Engaging the culture has produced nothing but lukewarm Catholics. Principled disengagement from the culture is the only response today worthy of men. The sooner we recognize this the better.

The Asia Times Spengler moves to First Things

Asia Times pseudonymous columnist "Spengler" has self-identified as David P. Goldman. And he is First Things?

I'm afraid I can't approve of this development at all. Spengler was sometimes interesting to read, but he was never the sort of balanced thinker whose analysis I would feel comfortable taking to the bank. His metaphysics was materialistic, his historical outlook whiggish, his sociology crass, his foreign policy dubious, and his commitment to Israel fanatical. This is hardly the sort of person to be heading up a periodical "whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society." (link)

Whether or not this move injures the reputation of that magazine is not my concern. I am more disturbed by the tacit assumption that a man like Goldman somehow "belongs" in this guise, as if his were the views that the conservative and/or religiously-minded intelligentsia wants reflected back to them. Something rigid and ruthlessly urbane, some House of Usher-like morbidity, has crept into the minds of these self-styled guardians of culture. What exactly do they think they're guarding? The deteriorating remnants of bourgeois respectability? The lie of a necessary existence for them in the present, wrapped up in the lie of a happy past? Goldman mentions the friendship of George Weigel in his autobiographical piece. If he and the interminably monotone Mr. Weigel are the new voices of intellectual conservatism in this country, I can only say, in the words of Samuel Goldwyn, "Gentlemen, include me out!"

I have further reasons for mistrusting Goldman's bona fides. No one who has truly absorbed the soul of Western instrumental music could possibly settle into a career as an economist, basta finito; however, musically inclined sidemen like Alan Greenspan have been known to become great economy-wreckers, and I suspect something similar has happened in Goldman's case. We look in vain for any evidence that a swinging sense of melody has animated his public life. He lacks the gaiety, the rhythmic pulse and pound of the cavalry charge, retaining only the frozen syllogisms of game theory. He has probably read Godel Escher Bach. He probably agrees.

While we're on the subject, I'm not sure that a similar charge doesn't lay against the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. I'm not very familiar with the voluminous writings of Fr. Neuhaus; having been a Catholic for only a little over a year, I'm still picking up the threads of what passes for Catholic intellectual culture in this country, but what I've gleaned from him in summation (thanks in no small part to John Reilly's recent review) hasn't endeared him to me. Like Goldman, he seems to value the church primarily as a means of cultural preservation. The real religion playing before the inner eye of such men is the autonomous machinery of Whig history, not the heavenly city of St. Augustine.

Something entirely new is needed in conservatism, something that avoids both the curatorial neocon mandarins like Goldman and the First Things crew, and the snarky pharisaism and hypocrisy of Thomas Fleming & Co. over at Chronicles. There must be a truly innocent conservatism: unselfconsciously faithful, forgetful of self, eschewing all worldly compromises. Wall Street mavens, furrow-browed grumps, and "literary men" will have no inheritance therein. The future belongs only to those who come into the faith as little children, not to the worldly wise men who give the polite congé to God.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Sick Man of the West; Libertarianism as Ornament, Part II; Exasperations and Ideas

I’d like to begin by apologizing to my regular readers—both of them—for my recent neglect of my blog. About a week and a half ago my computer came down with a hijacker virus that worked its way deep into the registry, the remedying of which required a complete system rebuild. Consequently I have been unable to do any word processing or to post any new material. Furthermore, I was at the time cut off from my primary source of information concerning world events—the internet—as I steadfastly refuse to watch the cable news networks. Fortunately, my system is now squeaky clean and back to normal. I’d like to thank Mark Jenkins for his tech assistance. Readers in the Denver area suffering from computer malfunctions may contact him if they wish; but he is rather pricey, so caveat emptor.

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Here’s something interesting to ponder: I’ve noticed that both The Daily Reckoning, that highly libertarian-leaning contrarian economic newsletter, and Taki’s Magazine, a motley collection of far-right and libertarian viewpoints edited by Taki Theodoracopulos, have recently made serious revisions to their comments policies. Taki has disabled readers’ comments altogether, while the Daily Reckoning has ditched its phpBB-powered forum engine in favor of a much more heavily moderated comments section beneath each individual article.

Now, the reasons for these changes remain unknown to the present author, but speculation (my own) has it that it must have something to do with the behavior of people likely to visit these websites, and the nature of the comments left scatted…er, scattered, about them by same. The DR forum was a notoriously ill-mannered, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed free-for-all seemingly overran by police-state paranoiacs and 9-11 conspiracy theorists. Seldom did they speak about matters economical. Seldom did they speak rationally at all. Arguing with them was to no avail, as they preferred a style of verbal ruthlessness and a self-imposed hierarchy of prestige based on the number of postings attained by each member. In full keeping with the host magazine’s laissez-faire philosophy, the forum went unmoderated and evidently un-perused by anyone with a responsible stake in the reputation of the venture. The result was a predictable phalanx of worldliness—a sort of brothel of the intellect—whose component parts quickly closed ranks when challenged, lest any ray of truth should penetrate into their dark recesses.

Similarly, Taki’s Magazine is a known hang-out for the seedier elements of the ideological spectrum. Least execrable among them are the Buchananite foreign policy conservatives, who actually have many important points to make; but coming close on their heels is the bizarre neo-racism of Steve Sailor, and the ramblings of disenfranchised pseudo-Catholic (I will not say sedevacantist) writers who affect a Franco-like braggadocio in an effort to rise above the realms of perpetual dorkdom to which fate has apparently confined them. Taki himself is always principally concerned to write about his jet-setting lifestyle and various sexual exploits, to what end I’m not sure I understand. Much of the content of the site seemed artificial, off-color, and neurotic; the comments section was a gallery of strange specimens rendered in wax, applauding the deliberate inversion of common sense with the all the vicarious ferocity of the jilted.

This is worth mentioning in order to illustrate that the ideas expressed in such places are incapable of realization in the actual world, and that the followings they attract are composed of the very people least able to survive without the very social order which they never miss an opportunity to attack. How is it, for instance, that the anarchists and conspiracy theorists on the DR forum could have missed the implication that any government capable of planning and executing the 9-11 attacks in the manner they envision—deeply insinuating itself into local law enforcement, air traffic control, world financial markets, information streams, and the mass media—could also easily see what was being written on the forum, and could surely silence the self-styled Paul Reveres with ruthless efficiency? Do they think they are too important to be terminated? Too close to the truth, perhaps? Would their sudden disappearance bring forth a wave of skepticism and revolution? Surely not! Their very existence is sustained by America’s tradition of constitutionally limited government and our respect for the freedom of speech: a respect so deeply engrained that we suffer our government to be maligned with insane accusations rather than trespass the rights of the accuser.

Taki’s immoderate lifestyle, too, is equally sustained by those who do not practice it. An invisible honeycomb woven of the personal and professional integrity of others forms the scaffolding that supports his life of dissipation; and to all his pretenses to “aristocratic” values, courtly love, licensed womanizing and what not, I can only say this: While many noble men have been imperfect spouses, it belongs to the essence of nobility to at least desire, at some point in time, to be loyal to one’s consort and one’s word, to undertake the hard challenges of standing ground and not giving up. Every good thing that there is—whether it be a person, a family, a piece of property, an enterprise, or a nation—exists only because somebody purchased it with the sacrifice of their life’s blood. We were all born helpless, and somebody cared for us. Every true marriage, every attempt to start a business, every deep claim of ownership laid against a person or against the earth’s resourcefulness, has something impossible about it. It is a pure metaphysical reality that must struggle to incarnate amidst a world of chaos and accidents. To undertake this struggle and to face it with all one’s might is the very heart of honor. It is care, and care alone, that makes the world. What has Taki ever cared about?

* * *

Since I have been back online, I have learned that North Korea has launched its ballistic missile, and that President Barack Obama has embarrassed us in high fashion at the G20 summit. The overall behavior of the president and his administration are so horrifying that they quite escape my capacity for intelligent commentary. I am often left sputtering in wordless exasperation; but there comes a point in time when I must do my part, however small, to add to the spate of voices weighing against our present circumstances, and to do so with fearlessness and prophetic urgency. Therefore, I must not abjure the posting of political commentary, which should begin to appear on this site on a semi-regular basis. Also, readers who have been patiently awaiting my review of G. K. Chesterton’s Manalive will not be disappointed. My recent tech issues have temporarily interrupted my ability to work, but the piece is already half-written, and I ought to have it posted at least before the next meeting of The Denver Chesterton Society on April 20th. I will list below some of the other projects and ideas I’m working on for this space, and readers are also welcome to commission their own.

1) A serial commentary on some of the basics of the Catholic faith, including the Ten Commandments, the Virtues, and the Mysteries of the Rosary.

2) An essay relating the meaning of hypocrisy to the definition of mortal sin.

3) A review of the Vatican II documents, beginning with Dei Verbum.

4) A post on some of the metaphysical traits present in the writings of Oswald Spengler.

5) Reviews and/or expositions of the writings of Monsignor Romano Guardini, including The Lord and The End of the Modern World.

6) An essay on “the noble nature” and its need for a modern resurgence.

7) An introductory—we might say exploratory—piece on practical ethics and the necessity of becoming better pagans so that we may become better Christians.

Of course, I’ll be struck by new ideas every day. Some of these posts may not appear, and wholly others may take their place, but this much is certain: as these issues are near and dear to my heart, everything I meant to express in the enumerated posts above will end up being said anyway, perhaps fragmentarily and under other titles. Again, if anyone has a question they would like to see treated, or would care to see an exposition of some particular aspect of faith or philosophy, please let me know. I like work.