Monday, March 23, 2009

Action and Reaction

Commentators who've been trying to lead conservatism back to First Principles fail to understand that conservatism is incapable of wandering away from them:

In itself, conservatism is tranquil. In relation to the ever-changing human condition, conservatism is always adapting. Conservatism is “formless” like water: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains the same. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the “negation of ideology” in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its vitality. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the “stillness between two waves of the sea” in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves — the waves are not the water acting, but being acted upon; stillness is the default state of conservatism.
What some people call adaptation, others would call morally hollow opportunism, but never mind about that. What's amusing about this argument is that far from negating ideology, only ideology can begin to make it comprehensible.

Let's run through the basic concepts here. First, and simplest: Neither water nor conservativism "always remains the same," unless you view the ability to change states, and to become contaminated, as essential qualities. In which case, water remains water whether it's fresh or salt or frozen or full of aniline dye, and conservatism remains conservatism whether its guiding star is T.S. Eliot or Russell Kirk or Sarah Palin. That is, it retains "the spirit of conservatism," which ye shall know by its formlessness, and its ability to adapt to all circumstances and to survive its own negation...almost as if it were nothing more than a certain orientation of ego towards power.

Next, we need to think about what this spirit of conservatism is like, in itself, when it's "left alone." Left alone how, you ask? Well, you know...unperturbed by conflicting social values, and the clamor of nations, and the mandrake shrieks of the persecuted homosexual, and so forth. We seem to be talking about a God's-eye view of conservatism, to which bigotry is as essential and impersonal a force as gravity, and atomic bonding is a microcosm of the Free Market. (As above, so below!)

Having developed a rough idea of how an essentialist abstraction behaves in the natural habitat of an imaginary world, I'm sure we all feel edified. But now, it's time to come down to earth:
Conservatism is both like water and the stillness between the waves....
So conservatism is like water and water that's relatively still? Or maybe it's like water and that essential stillness for which water at rest is an apt metaphor, save for the minor detail that the essential nature of water is such that there is no stillness between waves?

Absolutely, in a certain limited but ontically inexorable sense. But in a stricter sense, not entirely, in relative terms, as of yet, if you follow me. Or as Marcus Aurelius puts it, here's a bunny with a pancake on its head.

The important thing to understand is that water doesn't act, but is acted upon. In just the same way, it wasn't political calculation, but a curvature in space-time that pulled conservatism to the bedside of Terri Schiavo, obliged it to leer onanistically into America's bedrooms, and compelled it to form highly stable rings around Rush Limbaugh. Like water, it simply reacts; it can no more choose or reflect upon the things that agitate it than the big lake they call Gitchigoomee could've avoided sinking the Edmund Fitzgerald when the gales of November came early.

And that's the whole point. In practical terms, all this pseudo-civilized twaddle about Little Gidding, and all this Zen-for-Dummies meditation on "stillness," boils down to the notion that conservatism only raped you because you asked for it by dressing like a slut. What makes conservatism "the negation of ideology" is precisely that it dares to take the ultimate ideological step of conflating itself with God and nature: leave it alone, and it will restrict itself to regulating your existence; defy it, and it'll have its revenge. Either way, the victim gets what he or she deserves.

Which reminds me, inevitably, of a quote from Adorno: "If the lion had a consciousness, his rage at the antelope he wants to eat would be ideology."

(Illustration by R. Avotin, 1970, via Dark Roasted Blend.)


Jazzbumpa said...

My guess is that the lion would chew the bunny, but eschew the pancake.

At any rate, my take away is - thou shalt neither drink with conservatives, nor water the whiskey. The former makes drunkenness all the more desirable*, while the latter, quite annoyingly, delays its onset.

* Perhaps even necessary. And it's dangerous. Most of them are angry, even when they're sober.

noel said...

An excellent, thought provoking post, as usual.
But what of the conservative as realist/ liberal as idealist dichotomy? Conservatives claim that everything they are for is for the greater good. They convince a lot of otherwise decent people to fear the (straw man) liberal idealist who has misguided values that will get us all killed/ sent to hell/ commiefied/ etc. I think that is the "principle" we will see pushed.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I really, really like "Little Gidding" but I just don't see how this interpretation works.

Phila said...

But what of the conservative as realist/ liberal as idealist dichotomy?

You could make the case that it's included in this little theory. Conservatives = the implacable forces of nature, while liberals = the foolish idealists who try to interfere with the natural order. That viewpoint links a lot of seemingly disparate stances, from being anti-gay to denying climate change. I've occasionally called conservatives "anti-environmental," which implies that they're alienated from nature. But now that I think about it, the problem may be that they identify with it too strongly.

Phila said...

I really, really like "Little Gidding" but I just don't see how this interpretation works.

Here's the thought process, as I see it.

1. Eliot was conservative, in some ways, which means that his art can be taken seriously.

2. Eliot once said something about the ocean.

3. Therefore, Eliot can safely be cited to prop up the author's harebrained metaphor, and provide the impression that there's some sort of organic intellectual process happening, as opposed to an opportunistic, superficial analogy.

The assumption behind all of it, IMO, is that art is worthwhile to the extent that it can be used to acquire or justify power. So in this case, all that really matters is the image of conservatism as a force of God/Nature; Eliot is simply there to make the comparison seem intelligent / intimidating. (I once accused Jonah Goldberg of being an ideological bowerbird, but I think it's equally applicable to most of these people.)