This is an open letter to Andrew Sullivan:
Sometimes, when a man is consistently correct in his moral thinking, he is forced to change his language. Some words will no longer do. Believe, me, I admire the stance you’ve taken; I’d go so far as to say that I agree with ninety percent of what you say on your blog. You’ve held a merciless mirror to this administration, and it can’t have been boundless fun: you’ve predictably lost a few friends in the process. No, I have no argument with the essence of what you do. My complaint is that you continue to cloak yourself in disreputable adjectives.
Andrew, you’re not “conservative”. Or rather, that word no longer describes anything you remotely want to associate yourself with.
Full disclosure: I once called myself a conservative. My change of language (but not of heart) was in response to rancid harpies like Ann Coulter and lying ideologues of the Limbaugh flavor — any foul club with that title wasn’t going to include me as a member.
I once drew a fanciful distinction between “conservative” (a word I associated with the British Tory tradition) and “right-wing” (more appropriate to American bigotry). Which led me to perhaps the stupidest argument I’ve ever made (and there have been many): many years ago, I tried to convince David Frum that he was “conservative,” but not “right-wing.” The dialogue ended with David laughing, “Doug, I’m very right-wing.”
What he meant (and he was correct) is: “Doug, you’re a fool.”
(And yes, since I enjoy fool’s errands, I’m now engaged in a similar — if not precisely analogous — effort to persuade. That’s okay: I once spent an entire drunken night in a Newfoundland bar trying to persuade a US Marine to vote for John Kerry, war hero. I’m fairly sure he ended up pulling the lever for the empty flight suit, poor bastard. I hope he’s still alive. I liked him.)
David is right-wing. He is also — since the word is synonymous, in America — conservative. You, Andrew, are neither. What you are, in fact, is what the loathsome Christopher Hitchens is dying to be: the heir to George Orwell. It’s crucial to remember that Orwell was not, finally, an ideologue of any stripe — he famously came to reject all “smelly orthodoxies.” He was, fundamentally, a truth-teller. And it may seem tautological, but to tell the truth requires two distinct steps, both in the correct direction: you must first identify the truth, and then have the courage to announce it.
(Hitchens has the courage, but not the intellect: Orwell, when he abandoned his benighted leftism, immediately came to devastatingly lucid moral conclusions; whereas Hitchens’ drunken path away from Trotsky has put him into bed with such wondrous buffoons as David Irving and George Bush. Where Orwell identified Stalin as the enemy, Hitchens finally determined that the real Satan was… Cat Stevens.)
As the heir to Orwell, your duty is not to any one party or position — quite the opposite. Your duty is tolanguage. Orwell (although he consistently rejected Toryism), stopped using revolutionary rhetoric when he recognized the enormity of Stalinism. The first generation of neocons, likewise, stopped calling each other “comrade” — and had a long run on the decent side of history, until they sold their souls to George Walker Bush.
I know that you’re celebrating the publication of a new book, Andrew — and that the word “conservative” appears in the title — but it’s no longer your word. It’s not a question of whether you still own it — you don’t — it’s a question of whether you finally have the will todisown it.
I know how hard this is. It’s a matter of radical public redefinition. Imagine, if you will, a gay man coming out of the closet.
It means leaving behind more than a few friends (although, as I mentioned before, they already seem to have left you). I understand how you wanted to love the movement — I did — but let’s face it, American conservatism has been a piebald mongrel from the start.
The libertarian stream has a particularly vulgar intellectual pedigree: as many have pointed out, trace New World libertarianism back far enough and you’ll always find, standing ignorantly at the wellspring, Ayn Rand. A proud and talentless semi-intellect, whose sole claim to perspicuity was recognizing the evils of collectivism. The objectivist recipe for the atomic self should have been, from the start, anathema to any serious conservative agenda.
The Straussian stream (which we’ve both lilly-dipped in, at one point or another), is infinitely less vulgar; after seeing what that way of thinking has accomplished for this administration, however, it deserves no claim on your soul. The last few years in Washington have been, in fact, an almost scientific test of the Straussian thesis, and the results are not impressive.
Bush, unknowingly, was utterly faithful to Leo Strauss, whose work is the modern statement of a certain radical moral stance: hypocrisy reinterpreted as virtu. I am not being even slightly sarcastic here. The Straussian hermeneutic claims this as its greatest insight — the necessity of the lie. (Second greatest would be the necessity of cruelty: if you think Allan Bloom would have abhorred waterboarding, then we’ll have to sit down some day and discuss some of his lectures on Machiavelli.)
Libertarianism has never really had much legitimate claim to the word “conservative,” but Strauss owns that word. And from Strauss, via hypocrisy, you get the theocons. The word “conservative”, as it is understood today, means this: trumpeting God and family, even if you secretly believe in neither. Doing whatever it takesto prevent the evils of pacifism and collectivism from polluting society — lie, cheat, war and waterboard. The ends will justify even the most sordid means.
Strauss has been soundly refuted by Bush: even if you swallow the means (and I don’t), the ends are a disaster.
And the means have long featured, prominently, a deliberate employment of what Orwell in 1984 termed “Two Minutes Hate.” Leo Strauss (via the Nazi jurist, Carl Schmitt), recognized the importance of having an Enemy, always. Constant threat from a well-defined “other” is the only way to unify a polity. And so you have the Republican bogeymen, trotted out and burned in effigy — with breathtaking hypocrisy — whenever fealty to the administration develops cracks: the dread atheist (Strauss was of course an atheist) and the dread homosexual (Bloom was gay).
This is final, irrevocable, and central to the definition of the word “conservative” in the wake of George and his advisors: in a conservative world, you, Andrew, are the Enemy. And even if your book sells a million copies — I hope it does — you won’t alter the lexicographical truth one iota. Actually, you won’t find this particular definition in the dictionary; you’ll have to turn to, well, reality: as the later Wittgenstein taught, “the meaning of a word is its use in a language.”
Even before you took on this administration, the unpleasant truth is that Republicans — this generation of Republicans — defined you as the Enemy. It’s not that, as a gay man, they disagreed with you, or disliked you: theyhated you, with loud and useful passion. And that hatred is no longer separable, practically or theoretically, from the word “conservative.”
Words are not wholly ours to define in the public sphere. The editors of Marxism Today, after years of trying to square that name with increasingly Thatcherite beliefs, finally realized that “Marxism” means what it means. Some historians are trying to quasi-rescue the word “fascism” from conflation with Hitlerism: they argue that the movement founded in Italy may be repulsive, but it’s nowhere near as evil as its Austrian counterpart. Frankly, these academics don’t have a hope: nuanced or not, “fascism” is wedded to Hitlerism in the English language.
And “conservatism,” no matter how you dress it up, is dining on barbecue with George Bush.
It won’t be easy to embrace redefinition. Although, as I say — given your admirable crusade to deliver mis-defined men from the closet — you’re in a unique position to wrestle with the complex psychology of the matter.
The first step is to recognize that your fellow Enemies — as defined by Bush, freerepublic.com, and Strauss — are not really so vile. Nobody’s asking you to become a leftist — in fact, were you to choose to do so, I don’t know where on this side of the Atlantic you’d turn. Certainly not to Daily Kos, where I’ve never seen a single post in favor of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky or Mao — where I haven’t even encountered arguments for socialism (unless you disingenuously conflate the New Deal with revolutionary collectivism — a favorite trick of the right). Kos himself, in fact — the demon leftist, the benighted moonbat pacifist — is, oddly enough, an Army veteran, and a prime mover behind James Webb’s campaign in Virginia.
Ah, Webb. Those who call themselves “conservatives” (and who currently lament having sold their souls and good names to a big-spending, tariff-loving, combat-dodging plutocrat) are drooling with envy at the Democrats’ latest faithful conscript: a Reaganite, a (benign) neo-Confederate, an actual warrior. And Webb would not have stood a chance, had he not been relentlessly championed, from the start, by one Markos Moulitsas.
No, you won’t find much support at Daily Kos for John McCain (a man I admired hugely up until a couple of weeks ago); but you’re much much more likely to find praise for James Webb than you are for Sacco, Vanzetti, or Kropotkin. (True, Moulitsas probably thinks more highly of the late Archbishop Romero than you do, but that’s not quite the same thing as advocating gulags.)
So. “Conservative.” I’m not entirely sure what I’m suggesting you embrace, linguistically, once you’ve burnt that wart from your profile. I’ve danced with the world “liberal” for a while, but let’s face it: it’s an almost meaningless term these days. I’m hardly the first to point out the various ironies: that “neoliberalism” is what Europeans call “neoconservatism,” that “liberal” is what freepers call Stalinists. I’m wary of the word, for this reason, although it reeks far less than “conservative,” and in fact can be defined to mean all of the things that used to be respectable about conservatism.
Obviously we can’t embrace a “third way.” In their Orwellian simplification of political terms, the right has managed to damage this term beyond repair: thanks to their rigorous contempt, it means something like “self-loathing closet fellow-traveler.”
I wish I could be happy with “The Radical Center.” A solid construct, with Aristotelian nuances. Unfortunately, those agitating for a political party under that name are viciously anti-immigrant.
Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the geometric metaphor entirely. The insistence upon a linear graph — left, center, right — has become nothing more than stubborn faith in a Euclidian absurdity. (Just as an “axis” cannot have three endpoints, unless you’re cross-eyed.)
There are those who believe in torture, and those who do not. Those who promote a unitary executive, paceSchmitt, and those who do not. Those who are willing to cover for hypocrites, thugs, and profiteers… and those who are not. The rest of it — from government spending to abortion to affirmative action — is negotiable. Tyranny is not.
The place you want to stand — the place where you dostand — is that place of negotiation. (It’s hard to escape from topographical metaphors.) It’s not a bad place to be: where red Tories and blue Democrats can establish common ground with various congenial allies — classical liberals, actual Christians, self-critical modernists. You’ll meet some accomplished people there (Bob Dylan recently expressed his admiration for Barry Goldwater!) I’d go so far as to say that this is the domain now occupied — as defined at the voting booth — by mainstream America.
You’ve given a voice to this group for some time now: all I’m saying is that it’s time to recognize your constituency, and give it a name. The word you finally choose is your call — I give up — but I’m sure you can find us something that doesn’t start with a “c.”