At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Neoconservative “Extremism”

posted by Jack Kerwick

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Republican Party establishment—I refer to both politicians as well as the punditry class constituting the so-called “new” or “alternative media”—is not conservative.  It is neoconservative. 

Although this is not something of which readers of this site need to be informed, it is a point worth repeating nonetheless.   

Few and far between are those neoconservatives who refer to themselves as such.  Usually, neoconservatives identify themselves as “conservative.”  But because the neoconservative’s is the face and voice of one of our two national political parties, his refusal to come to terms with his true identity means that in the popular American consciousness, the neoconservative ideology is confused with conservatism proper.  However, traditional or classical conservatism, the conservatism of which Edmund Burke is among the most notable and impassioned representatives, is not only distinct from neoconservatism; it is diametrically opposed to it.

Neoconservatism is but the most recent species of what most students of political philosophy now call “Enlightenment liberal Rationalism.”  That this is so is easily gotten from the causes that the neoconservative is disposed to support, especially the cause of “Global Democracy”—the enterprise of toppling regimes throughout the Middle East and beyond for the sake of establishing “democratic” governments in their wake. 

This project, it is crucial to recognize, presupposes faith in a considerably robust metaphysical scheme, a philosophical vision laden with assumptions regarding reason and morality that are even more controversial today than they were during the Enlightenment when they initially took wing. 

On this account, reason is a unitary phenomenon whose capacity to supply “solutions” to the world’s problems is potentially unlimited.  To realize this potential, to achieve infallibility, rational agents only have to strictly observe those relatively few fundamental principles of which reason consists.  As for what these principles are, rationalists have differed among themselves.  Descartes, for example, thought that as long as we didn’t grasp for that which we didn’t conceive “clearly and distinctly”—as long as the will didn’t attempt to trespass the limits that reason imposed upon it—we could never go wrong.  Others, like William Godwin, held that beliefs that were the fruits of prejudice, prescription, desire, custom, tradition, and, in short, any and every source that managed to escape the tribunal of the unencumbered Intellect, were species of irrationality to be stamped out.  But what all rationalists seemed to share in common is the conviction that there existed one and the same rational power for all, a single standard by which all peoples in all places and at all times could be judged.

It is this belief, many now recognize, that was enlisted in the service of the colonial and imperial enterprises upon which European peoples embarked during just that period when the conception of omnipotent Reason was at its zenith.  Blind to the culturally-specific character of what he took to be a universal understanding of Reason, European Man assumed that because most of the world’s inhabitants in places like Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas failed to satisfy his canons of rationality, they weren’t rational as such.  In spite of the frequency with which it is repeated, the notion that whites at this time viewed non-whites as non-persons is incorrect.  Rather, failing to see his own image in this socially and historically particular conception of reason that he identified with Reason itself, European or Western man regarded the non-white peoples of the world, not literally as non-persons, but as potential persons who could actualize all of the potentialities of which their circumstances permitted only if their wills were made subservient to his.

Sensibilities have changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, of course, but the neoconservative is located squarely within this imperialist tradition.  Not only does he endorse its metaphysical (rationalist) underpinnings; the neoconservative, like his ancestors, actually aspires to impose a peculiarly Western system of institutional arrangements upon foreign peoples who, as far as he must be concerned, lack either the will or the capability to govern themselves in a manner that is both morally and rationally defensible. 

Long ago the left embarked upon a campaign to depict all non-leftists—namely, conservatives and libertarians—as “kooks,” “racists,” “anti-Semites,” “xenophobes”—in short, extremists.  The neoconservative, always on the hunt for strategies by which to establish his own respectability or, what amounts to the same thing in this day and age, endear himself to the left, decided to reinforce this image of the traditional rightist.  This explains why he never spares an occasion to marginalize and denigrate those to his right (think of the treatment to which Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan are routinely subjected). 

Interestingly, however, real conservatives—those who derive inspiration from (among others) Burke—resolutely reject the grandiose philosophy underwriting the neoconservative’s ambitions for remaking theMiddle East(and the world?) in the image of his view of “Democracy.”  Not coincidentally, they just as emphatically reject his ambitions. 

Reason, conservatives from at least the time of Burke have insisted, is inseparable from tradition.  That is to say, far from being the monolithic power that neoconservatives and other rationalists envision, rationality can and has been conceived in a multiplicity of ways.  And since each conception varies with cultural and historical circumstances—habits and customs—what this in turn means is that rationality is a thing local and concrete—not universal and abstract.    

Due to their tradition-centered understanding of reason and knowledge, conservatives—even during the height of the Enlightenment—have been, at the very least, reluctant to lend their support to enterprises designed to erode the traditions and customs of foreign peoples in order to coerce them into acquiescing in Western or Eurocentric ideals. 

But in spite of these enormous differences between neoconservatives and classical conservatives, two distinct but inseparable injustices persist.  First, neoconservatives are now known as “conservatives” and conservatives, if they are known at all, are known as the “extremists” that neoconservatives continue to characterize them as being.  Second, it is the conservative, not the neoconservative, who is known as the extremist.

Although I think name calling, even when the names are fashionable politically correct buzzwords, is not productive of civil and rational discourse, perhaps it is time for those on the traditional right to begin letting people know who the real extremists are.   

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

Mark Levin, Ron Paul, and Conservatism

posted by Jack Kerwick

Mark Levin is a talk radio show host who, like his colleague and friend Sean Hannity, prides himself on being a “Reagan conservative.”  From as far as I can determine, it is with justice that he describes himself as such.  The problem, however, is that a “Reagan conservative” isn’t a real conservative at all; for all practical purposes, “Reagan conservatism” is just another name for neoconservatism. 

This is an attack against neither Ronald Reagan, “Reagan conservatives,” nor neoconservatives.  That Reagan never succeeded in eliminating a single government program, much less an agency, and that federal spending increased exponentially under his watch are just a couple of the considerations that some have invoked to argue, quite persuasively, that Reagan was not a real conservative.  At the very least, if he was a conservative, his presidency didn’t prove to be all that successful as far as his conservatism was concerned. 

But Reagan aside, judging from the policy prescriptions endorsed by Levin and all self-avowed “Reagan conservatives,” the verdict that “Reagan conservatism” is evidently synonymous with neoconservatism is inescapable.  Levin, for example, expresses zero regrets for having lent his enthusiastic, unqualified support behind George W. Bush’s mission to transform the Middle East into a bastion of “democracy” via the Afghan and Iraq wars—a project that, few people can now seriously deny, was fatally flawed in both conception and design.  For that matter, Levin had been a virtually uncritical supporter of Bush’s agenda generally, an agenda that no one remotely familiar with conservatism could honestly characterize in those terms.

Why does all of this matter?  Well, Levin, you see, is not too terribly fond of Ron Paul, and he spares no occasion to dismiss the Texan congressman as a crank.  Recently, he reiterated his claim that Paul is neither “a real conservative” of any kind nor “the Father of the Tea Party.”  My objective here is to show that whether Levin’s remarks on Paul’s relationship to conservatism and the Tea Party are sound or not, given his commitment to precisely that vision of the world and concomitant style of governing against which traditional conservatives and Tea Partiers are now railing, he hasn’t the authority to pass these sorts of judgments. 

To put it more simply, Levin is the one who is not a real conservative.  And he certainly is not a Tea Partier.  If Levin was a real conservative or Tea Partier, he would have been outraged over the foreign and domestic policies of George W. Bush and his Republican-controlled congress. In the real world, though, Levin endorsed many of these policies.  If Levin was a real conservative, he would have long ago recognized the irresolvable conflict between simultaneously championing “limited government,” on the one hand and, on the other, an interminable “War on Terror,” for the latter theoretically justifies every conceivable instance of government intervention both here and abroad.

Ron Paul, though, has steadfastly opposed the very same governmental activism that Levin has always supported—and he did so before opposition to it became popular among Republicans.  Paul was a Tea Party of one before the Tea Party movement emerged. 

As recently as 2008, many may recall the derision with which Ron Paul was met when he warned audiences and his colleagues about the impending economic crisis.  He was roundly ridiculed when he sounded the alarm over the ruinous practices of the Federal Reserve, and mocked just as loudly when he remarked—repeatedly—upon our inability to sustain the stratospheric costs in treasure and blood exacted by our “War on Terror.”

The political tides have turned in just three years, and this is indeed a good thing.  Yet in spite of the fact that time has vindicated Paul, and in spite of the fact that by every objective criteria—fund raising, poll results, influence with “independents” and “moderates”—Paul is a serious presidential candidate, his fellow Republicans and other “Reagan conservatives” like Levin haven’t so much as apologized for the unjust treatment to which they subjected him before circumstances proved that he was right and they were wrong. 

Far from admitting the error of their ways, they continue to treat Paul disrespectfully by suspending their negligence of his accomplishments just long enough to insult him.  Coverage of this year’s Ames Straw Poll is a classic instance of this tendency. 

Although Congresswoman Michelle Bachman just barely beat Paul for first place, and although Tim Pawlenty came in a distant third, there was scarcely a word mentioned on Fox News or in so-called “conservative” talk radio about Paul’s high showing—or about Paul at all. Bachman, in contrast, has been all of the talk and Pawlenty, who many of the same talking heads had just the previous week described as a “formidable” or “appealing” candidate, performed so poorly that he dropped out of the race altogether!  Even Rick Santorum, who finished in the Amespoll behind Pawlenty, received favorable mention by Chris Wallace the following day for his showing.

Mark Levin is no conservative.  He is a neoconservative.  Yet his judgment of Paul is not, for this, necessarily incorrect.  Philosophically speaking, Ron Paul is not a conservative; he is a libertarian.  What is interesting, though, is that Walter Williams—the black “conservative” economist who has been guest-hosting Rush Limbaugh’s radio show for years—is no less a libertarian than Paul. Not only do Williams and Paul subscribe to the same “first principles”—the “natural rights” philosophy of John Locke—Williams has referred to Paul as his “friend,” and he has stated on more than one occasion that if America’s Founding Fathers could visit our time, Ron Paul would be one of a tiny handful of politicians with whom they would be able to identify.    

This is interesting for Limbaugh, a good friend of Levin’s who is widely recognized as “the King” of “conservative” talk radio, not only is comfortable allowing the libertarian Williams to host his show; he mistakes this libertarian for a “conservative.”  But if Williams’ cause, regardless of its philosophical inspiration, is compatible with Limbaugh’s “conservative” cause, then, because Williams and Paul hold virtually identical views, Paul’s libertarian-inspired cause should be judged compatible with the cause of “limited government” to which neoconservative establishment Republicans like Levin and Limbaugh routinely pay lip service.   

Of course, this is all going to be lost upon Levin. This isn’t because he fails to grasp my logic; it is because he does not care to grasp it.  When Levin says of Paul that he is “no kind of conservative,” he is not drawing fine philosophical distinctions between Paul’s metaphysical suppositions and those of the average Republican candidate; what he is saying is that Paul doesn’t deserve to be a contender in this race, and possibly doesn’t deserve to be a Republican at all.

Yet if this is true, then Williams doesn’t deserve to host Limbaugh’s show or be affiliated with the GOP in any capacity.  And if this is correct, then Limbaugh doesn’t deserve his reputation as the premiere “conservative” talk radio host, for if he really was a conservative, then he would never think of allowing a faux conservative like Williams within miles of his “golden EIB microphone.”  But if Limbaugh is no conservative, then neither are those—like Levin—who consider themselves ideologically kindred spirits with El Rushbo.

Either by way of this line of reasoning or Levin’s own record of supporting Big Government Republicanism, it is obvious that Levin is wrong about Paul and, truth be told, wrong about his own identity as a conservative.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American 










Republican Party Blindness

posted by Jack Kerwick

Beginning in 2000, with the election to the presidency of George W. Bush, the Republican Party enjoyed control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.  Election Day, 2006, however, marked the beginning of the end of this era, and by November of 2008, voters had long since resolved to bring the Republicans’ reign to a decisive close. 

While watching the Iowa Republican presidential primary debate, one could be forgiven for thinking that none of this had happened.  With the sole exception of Ron Paul, there wasn’t a single other candidate on the stage who so much as signaled regret over, much less repudiate (as Paul did), the very Republican Party agenda with which Americans became thoroughly disenchanted three years ago—an agenda to which, judging from the candidates’ utterances, Republicans remain committed today.

To put it in terms of our contemporary political vernacular, President Bush’s “Compassionate Conservatism” is apparently alive and well in the Republican Party of 20011.  The foreign policy component of this agenda especially continues to elicit virtually unanimous, and not infrequently, impassioned, support from the establishment—whether in its Washington or “conservative” media guises. 

The exchange between former Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Paul was particularly instructive in this regard. 

Santorum expressed unmitigated pride in having endorsed the Iraq War—a seemingly intractable conflict undertaken for reasons that are as dubious as its objectives have been elusive.  It was this issue more so than any other that explains the angst that the nation developed toward the GOP.  Yet considering that neither the other candidates—except, of course, for Ron Paul—nor anyone else who originally supported this scandalous waste of life and treasure sought to correct Santorum, it is more reasonable than not to suppose that his pride over this eight year war is also theirs. 

In addition to this, Santorum gave expression to precisely the sort of hysteria over the prospect of a nuclear armed Iranthat informed our entry into Iraq.  That is, he not so subtly indicated a readiness to involve Americain but another military adventure in the Middle East.  From the silence of his competitors—again, excepting Ron Paul—and the “conservative” media’s verdict that Santorum “schooled” Paul on the need for America to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, we can only infer that, its protestations to the contrary aside, the GOP has emphatically not amended its ways.

Then, just two days following the debate, Rick Perry formally entered the presidential race.

Leaving aside for the moment Perry’s record, there are a few simple considerations in connection to his candidacy that reinforce the impression conveyed by the Santorums of the Republican Party that the latter hasn’t learned a damned thing from its misfortunes. 

First, like President Bush, Perry has served as the governor ofTexas.  This alone suffices to send chills up the spines of untold numbers of people for whom “Bush” remains a four letter word in more ways than one.  Even if this is where the comparisons between Bush and Perry ended, considering the extent to which Bush fatigue continues to inform perceptions of the Republican Party, they are enough to damage Perry’s candidacy.

Second, Perry is not just another Texas governor; it was by way of first serving as the lieutenant-governor of Bush that he became governor.  In other words, Perry had a very close working relationship with the forty-third president.

Third, Perry was recruited and groomed by the same GOP fixer that justly became known as “the architect” of Bush’s presidency. 

Fourth, Perry once referred to Bush as his “philosophical soul mate.”  This is particularly telling.  As far as I have been able to determine, Perry has never revoked this judgment. Presumably, what this means is that Perry and Bush share the same vision of the world—and, thus, the same vision of politics.  And what this in turn evidently suggests is that while Perry has implicitly criticized the former president for his self-identification as a “compassionate conservative,” he is disposed to govern similarly to the manner in which his predecessor governed—i.e. as a “compassionate conservative.”  That is, he is not likely to govern as any kind of conservative at all.

To this last point, the objection may be raised that inasmuch as he has presided over the creation of 40% of all of the private sector jobs in America, Perry has been a remarkably successful—and conservative—governor.  This line invites more than one possible reply. Yet for now, we need note only that Bush was a very successful and reasonably conservative governor as well.  After all, when the latter declared his commitment to a more “humble” foreign policy and “across-the-board” tax cuts during his first campaign for the White House, there was at least nothing obvious in his gubernatorial record that would have forced us to call his sincerity into question.

In truth, though, Santorum and Perry aren’t really the issue here.  The issue is that Republicans still refuse to grasp both the extent to which the country persists in distrusting them as well as why it distrusts them.  I single out the two Ricks only because they are the most recent figures to epitomize this party-wide obliviousness.  

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

Rick Perry: Another Four Years of George W. Bush

posted by Jack Kerwick

This past weekend, as the victors of the Ames Straw Poll were being determined inIowa,Texasgovernor Rick Perry declared his candidacy for the presidency.  The talking heads of “conservative” talk radio and elsewhere were giddy with excitement.  For more than one reason, I, for one, do not share their enthusiasm.

Already, comparisons between Perry and former President George W. Bush are being drawn in venues that are friendly to both our national parties.  Admittedly, some commentators have noted the differences between the two, but these are largely stylistic and tangential.  Their likenesses, though, are too obvious to be glossed over: both claim to be “conservative”; both are Texans; and both have served as governors of the lone star state. 

These similarities alone are sufficient to engender no inconsiderable degree of concern in numerous voters.  George W. Bush’s approval rating was abysmal when he left office, and it hasn’t risen appreciably since.  The prospect of but another governor from Texasin the White House simply is not palatable to millions and millions of Americans.  That this apparently doesn’t register with establishment Republicans goes to show how thoroughly blinded they are by ideology.  It also signals that for all of their protestations to the contrary, these Republicans really haven’t learned the lessons that they claimed to have learned from the electoral defeats they suffered in 2006 and 2008.

In politics, imagery not infrequently trumps substance.  If ever proof was needed for this proposition, Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is it.  And the very image of anotherTexasgovernor as a Republican president doesn’t promise to go any distance in helping Americans overcome the weariness over Bush from which, in varying degrees, they continue to suffer. 

Fiscal conservatives and libertarian-minded folks have always known that if there were any differences at all between Bush’s governance as president and that of any given leftist, they were negligible.  In other words, they have known that Bush is not “the conservative” who he claimed to be.  And with no thanks to his cheerleaders in the so-called “alternative” or “conservative” media, more traditional-minded conservatives are, thankfully, beginning to realize this.

Bush contributed to the further expansion of the federal government via Middle Eastern wars; a prescription drug benefit that served to strengthen Medicaid; No Child Left Behind, a program that, far from weakening the influence of the Department of Education over the states, consolidated its power; Faith-based Initiatives which rendered private religious and charitable organizations subservient to the federal government; his Home Owner Society that required the federal government to bring pressure to bear upon private-sector lending institutions to make sub-prime loans to unqualified applicants; and a whole lot more.

Perry has repudiated none of this agenda.

Yet in addition to all of this, Bush also made several attempts to grant a de facto amnesty to the millions of illegal immigrants residing within our country.  Thankfully, such efforts proved unsuccessful.

This is relevant, though, because Perry gives no indications of being very much different from his predecessor on this issue. TexasbordersMexicoand has for decades had all manner of problems with illegal immigration.  Yet Perry has steadfastly refused to so much as lend support to the construction of a border fence, much less adopt the sorts of sensible measures in response to those problems to whichArizonahas had to resort.  NumbersUSA has given Perry a D- on immigration related matters.

There is another consideration that should cool the enthusiasm that has greeted Perry’s announcement on Saturday. 

Perry didn’t become a Republican until 1989.  He was actually part of Al Gore’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination just the year before. Shortly after Gore lost to Dukakis, Karl Rove recruited Perry. 

This in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that Perry isn’t a conservative now, but that he spent his formative years, including much of his adult life, ingesting and defending the ideas of the Democratic Party and only became a Republican after GOP fixer Karl Rove came knocking at his door suggests that his “conservatism,” like that of Bush’s, isn’t authentic.  That is, it suggests that, at the very least, it is more reasonable than not for voters to suspect that Perry will govern as president similarly to the manner in which Bush governed.

Charity and humility combine to caution us against rendering unduly harsh verdicts upon Perry this prematurely.  But wisdom counsels us to avoid another four years of George W. Bush.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

originally published at The New American

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