Conservatives and Burke: While

June 26, 2003


Conservatives and Burke:

While procrastinating I was surfing Glen Reynold's Instapundit, who I like even when I disagree with him, and followed one of his links to the National Review Online. I read but a few words and closed the page. Why? Because from the tone, which was highly contentious, and from the other things I have read on the NRO and the current version of the National Review, I realized that I was working from the basic assumption that nothing on that web page would be reliable. It was a political rant about Vermont politics, and censorship, and I just did not believe a word of it - even before I read it. The National Review, like many other political sites, is closer to talk radio than it is to a 20th-century newspaper. It has become more ideological since I last read it regularly in the 1980s, and that in turn was more partisan than it was when the magazine was first founded in the 1950s. I feel a little like Indie Rock Pete from Diesel Sweeties when I say that.

Talk radio, like many 19th-century newspapers, is expressly ideological. The function is not to inform but to convince. Advocacy journalism has absolutely no hesitation about spinning facts, leaving information out, giving an intentionally misleading presentation, and so skewing our understanding by selectively limiting and spinning what it presents. Even when I agree with the advocate, this bothers me. In the case of the NR, or George Will, it bothers me so much that I just tune them out. I like to think of myself as a critical moderate, over the last few years I have become more left-leaning while the national Republican Party has become more aggressive and more radical.

I won't call them conservative, because they are no longer conservative. For me, Conservative is an essentially Burkean position. It focuses on the tie between the generations that came before, the generation alive today, and the generation not yet born. It focuses on preserving order, and liberty, and life across generations and across time. Conservativism resists change. It can be good or bad, you can be conservative and emphasize human needs and human caring, or you can be conservative and emphasize the maintenance of ancient privileges. It is easy to use an appeal to the time-honored customs of the past as a way to privilege and continue present inequalities.

Radicals, then, try to change past precedents. Like Jefferson or Paine, they emphasize that the earth belongs to the living. For TJ, this meant that every generation must decide its own political arrangements and decide what its fundamental laws should be. For Paine this meant that we should not let the dead hand of past privilege limit what people today want to do.

In the modern context, oddly enough, the environmental movement is more Burkean, and more conservative, than the Bush administration. Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he tried to preserve some portions of the national heritage for future generations; If we look at the world, its resources and its options, as something that we hold in trust and that, as good stewards, we must care for and then pass on to the next generation, then we make very different decisions. The earth may belong to the living, but the living do not have the right to take it all for themselves and leave nothing for the future.

In the case of the environment, the current debates on everything from global warming to trace pollutants look very different when we change the question from "we must be clean now" against "we need jobs now" to "what is the best balance of development and preservation to make sure that we have both people and environment for the future." In more partisan terms, it means that the recent spate of Bush tax cuts are a situation where th present generation is having its cake, and taking that cake from the future.

How did I get to this from the National Review? Ah yes. There is a remarkably short-sighted and presentist approach to many of the current right-wing folks. They want to get their tax cut now, and (perhaps intentionally) cripple the future tax system. They want to win this debate, right here and right now, and do not seem to care about future arguments. In the process, as advocates spin the truth and abuse their evidence, they begin to chip away at our faith in the debating process. Lying might win you one argument, but repeated lies destroy our trust in all speakers. I find that I do not believe the National Review, even when they are right. I do not trust and do not believe John Ashcroft, in part because I just plain do not like the policies he proposes. I do not trust George W. Bush: His rhetoric and his policies are fundamentally disconnected.

I need to do real work, more on this later. Note to self, talk about Ashcroft, and the WMD dilemma - they were once there, we have no records of where they went, yet the Bush administration claimed more specificity than it had while making the case for war. They won their case, but lost credibility because they over-stated their argument. It is like what Tanenbaum calls "stupid cop tricks." Delete this paragraph after write more.

Posted by Red Ted at June 26, 2003 11:42 AM | TrackBack