Friday, December 06, 2002 :::
BRITISH CONSERVATIVE Roger Scruton writes an essay in the Wall Street Journal on American conservatism, entitled "A Question of Temperament". Dr Scruton argues that "[a]t the heart of every conservative endeavor is the effort to conserve a historically given community", conservatism in that view is the attempt to conserve "us", the given community. The conservative, then, "is the one who looks for the good in the institutions, customs and habits that he has inherited. He is the one who seeks to defend and perpetuate an instinctive sense of loyalty, and who is therefore suspicious of experiments and innovations that put loyalty at risk." Scruton's short essay is a good read, but I cannot agree with his central thesis. What it lacks is a transcendent concept of the good. A conservative on the continent who follows Scruton's advice will end up a supporter of the welfare state and other progressive causes. If conservatism is to be a coherent concept, it must rid itself of the historicism implict in Scruton's strand of conservatism. Conservatism is perhaps an odd term -- on the surface, it appears synonymous with an aversion to change per se. Countless commentators have happily congratulated themselves for refuting conservatism by pointing out the incoherence of such a position. It is time for conservatism to recognize that it seeks to conserve a specific set of ideas. Although those have emerged from a specific series of historical events, there is no inherent claim in conservatism favoring the past, or disliking change. The conservative "adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried" is best understood as a modest claim about the usefulness of reflection on the history of the West, and a warning, specifically, against attempts to radically reorganize society on the basis of blue-prints without reference to human nature. History is merely the unfolding of humans interacting with one another. One can deduce the nature of man from history, but a thing cannot be good merely because it is old. Locked in conflict with Islam (is not Osama a conservative on Scruton's interpretation?), the West more than ever needs to know what it stands for, what it is that must be conserved. The human good, not the human past, must be the lodestar for conservatives.
Tuesday, December 03, 2002 :::
THE DEBATE AMONG STRAUSSIANS on the meaning and value of the U.S. Consitution is introduced well by Thomas G. West's essay on the fundamental disagreements, from a shared starting point, between Harry V. Jaffa and Harvey C. Mansfield.
Monday, December 02, 2002 :::
HOT FLASH. Or rather, Flash: Hot -- The Supreme Court will review two cases on affirmative action in higher education this term. Both cases, which have been widely discussed in the last year, deal with admissions policies at The University of Michigan, one at the law school, the other for the undergraduate college. This is the first time since the 1978 Bakke decision, which invalidated racial quotas but appeared to permit preferential admissions for racial minorities in the service of educational diversity. We say appears because no one really knows what the decision means, not least of all because Justice Powell's tie-breaking decision represented only his own view -- not those of either side of the evenly divided court. Needless to say, universities have turned the confusion to their ideological advantage by intepreting the decision as permitting the broadest possible definitions of "diversity" and the means acceptable to achieve it, often pulling up just short of outright discrimination against whites and Asians. It's too soon to tell what the amicus briefs will look like, but the battle is sure to be fierce. In the meantime, don't be surprised if you see clips of white man promising "massive resistance" from a school house door. Only this time it will be Lee Bollinger, not Orval Faubus.
ALTHOUGH WE DISAGREE with his philosophical program, this page mourns the death of John Rawls (see Arts and Letters Daily for a digest of obituaries). A learned and decent man, Professor Rawls spent his long career developing serious arguments to justify the liberal welfare-state; a welcome contrast to the shrill demands of tenured radicals since the 1960s. And unlike the works of, say, a Marcuse (whose hostility to liberty went so far as to countenance the suppression of "counter-revolutionary" speech), his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, remains required reading for students of contemporary political theory -- even for conservatives.
But it seems absurd to claim, as many of this week's obituaries have done, that Rawls was the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century. His intellectual contribution, while extremely popular (5000 citations and counting), remains slight compared the ouevres of Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, or even John Dewey, to say nothing of philosophers whose work was not primarily political, such as Heidegger. Because his thought remained staunchly within the Anglo-American analytic tradition, Rawls avoided dealing with the really serious challenge to liberal democracy, and indeed to the possibility of philosophy as the quest for truth: the various forms of historicism developed in the 19th century, most notably by Marx and Nietzsche. As Allan Bloom observed in an essay on the subject (collected in the volume for which this blog is named), "The problems [Rawls] addresses are those of civil liberties in nations that are already free, and of the distribution of wealth in those that are already prosperous. . .One finds no reflection on how Rawls is able to break out of the bonds of the historical or cultural determinism he appears to accept , and no reflection on how philosophy is possible within such limits or what it means to be a philosopher."
Rawls was not, as Bloom uncharitably suggests, ignorant of the history of political philosophy. Rather, he was the last great hope of a school of intellectuals who believed that they could make political philosophy more scientific -- and therefore more successful -- by substituting the methods of economics and formal logic for the tortuous inquiry into the occluded nature of man that preoccupied philosophers in the past. They could resolve the intractable contradictions of social life only by reducing men to the requirments of their method -- a disembodied rationality with desires but no eros. Rawls did philosophy a service by attempting -- as his colleagues refused to do -- to grapple with political things using the tools at his disposal. As we recognize the bankruptcy of his thought, Rawls makes us aware of the urgency of a return to the study of the truly great thinkers who never ventured to suggest they had solved the problems they confronted.
THE INTERNET is letting light into the darkest corners of academia. As we know, sin only thrives in darkness, so that's good news: Stanley Kurtz writes about the new site NoIndoctrination.org, which has been covered more extensively by Erin Connor.