Saturday, April 01, 2006

My Conversation w/ Andrew

Blogger Andrew Sullivan was kind enough to respond to one of my emails sent to him in response to a posting of his about the philosophical destruction of the conservative philophy under the Bush Administration. Here's Andrew's original post (hope he doesn't mind the reprint):

"The founders, in other words, were elitists. You bet they were. You can see the imprint throughout the constitution, which is a republican, rather than democratic, achievement. And they were often conservative elitists, trying to restrain the impulses of democratic majorities, especially when conjoined to religious appeals. Remember when conservatism was like that? Miss it? Me too."

You can read it here under the title Founders and Faith, in its context as a reply to one of his reader's emails.

Here's my email to Andrew about this:

You are exactly right. And you know who we have to blame for this? Why, it’s the success and complete institution of liberal, deconstructionist thinking throughout the ‘70’s and ‘80s.

Yes, it was those deconstructionists who attacked not only elites, but the ontological conception of a ‘privileged position,’ which is the idea that some people may have access to better, more complete information (and better culture) and thus their point of view ought to have more weight. Their zeal to dismantle the notion of “great books” and “great thought” as reflecting a stultifying, “white-male” and oppressive ideology was completely successful. Not only did it open up the way for African studies and gay identity (a few of the benefits, I concede), it also destroyed such ‘cultured’ institutions as objective TV news journalism, ‘high’ culture entertainment, and contemporary literature. Now instead we have Hannity and Colms, American Idol, and the personal blog.

The effect of this philosophical shift to dismantle any “elite” position has been so successful, that throughout the ‘90s and the naughts, the fundamentalist crowd have been adopting it as well, and quite successfully too. They attack these earlier liberals back as now being the “elites.” This why they talk about the “east-coast MSM elite” and the “liberal elites” in Hollywood and elsewhere. The strategy is to cast these former iconoclasts and now being the new Republican Guard. You see this strategy to adopt deconstructionist tactics being specifically adopted in the religious quarters, for example in the debate on Creationism (i.e., “Intelligent Design”). Their argument to “teach the controversy” is lifted verbatim from Gerald Graff, the deconstructionist English professor who used controversy as another method for “deconstructing” a privileged position. (Thankfully, the field of science remains pretty firmly reliant on the privileged position of objective research and empiricism.)

As a liberal who grew up immersed in this deconstructionist thinking of the ‘80s (and who now finds myself adopting classicist and formalist values that would seem in opposition to that), I have to admit that there is value in the deconstructionist enterprise but I believe these deconstructionists were totally blindsided by not thinking through their position – by not realizing that anything can become the new Republican Guard ripe for deconstruction, even Deconstruction. Their failure to find a philosophical justification for creating some kind of legitimate ontological “grounding” – some way to justify a privileged position – is their biggest failure and quite possibly the reason that both Liberalism and Republicanism is in the mess we see today. I, now (as are many former, “reconstructed” Deconstructionists), am a believer that such an ontological grounding is necessary for any positive work to happen – be it the literary work of creating a classic or the political work of creating a body politic and sense of shared citizenship. Yes, Andrew – your Christionists have become the new deconstructionist Relativists, willing to deconstruct empirical evidence (Darwinism, WMDs, in global climate change) and elite knowledge (budget analysis from the OMB) and in fact any shared, political middle-ground in order to promote the cherished value-system of their minority. Just as liberal deconstructionists destroyed the philosophical underpinnings of true Libralism in the ‘80s, which also once was great philosophy based on positive values, these new deconstructionists are doing the same to Conservativism. It is “American Idol” Conservativism, and Bush is the leader of their pack.

Andrew posted this reply:

"I think the reader has a point here, except that some on the right, specifically those trying to resurrect natural law, share the reader's analysis, if not his prescription. My own view is that there can be only one real grounding for a politics: and that is reason exercized within the constraints of an inherited historical tradition. By "reason," I simply mean that deployed in Socrates' dialogues, where mere opinion evolves gradually into reason by conversation and argument. That reason is sturdy enough to provide a coherent defense of elite institutions in a mass society. And you only have to read the Federalist Papers to see it in action. By "tradition," I mean the inherited Anglo-American idea of individual liberty, protected by constitutional forms and institutions. I see no reason why this cannot be defended today, using the reason deployed by Socrates and Plato. And that's what my book is trying to do."

And my further reply to Andrew:

Thanks for your post! Fascinating response! I, for one, wish we could carry on a continued dialogue on this (I should post my email and your response and maybe we can).

First, I wish you luck with your book and your effort: grounding politics in reason constrained by tradition. It is a worthy goal and we surely could use more of that!

But let us say, just for example in one small argument, that I wanted to ground politics in reason constrained by progressive (or humanist) values, rather than “tradition.” This, then, I supposed would make me a centrist liberal rather than a centrist conservative – which I guess is the difference between us.

In either case, we both argue to ground our politics in reason. That is, reason + X, with X being whatever flavor, I suppose, we value more in the potential the political collective to benefit the individual within the social enterprise.

But it is this flavor of difference that makes me wonder whether we can ground our politics at all. Surely both the conservative and liberal “traditions” or “values” can be defended historically as well as intellectually. So then I must wonder – what makes any one political philosophy more persuasive than another in terms of its overall value to our times?

So your response leaves me wondering. Is a path back to reason, without your or my extra X, perhaps sufficient? If not, how do we avoid falling about into another relativistic trap? In other words: can we ground a politics that is big enough for both liberals and conservatives to agree on and re-build a shared culture around? THAT, I think would be the real breakthrough that our politics needs. Without that, we’re going to remain trapped in our fractured universe of 1000 + 1 dis-unified multi-cultures….

Sometimes, I think your blog is attempting to do that. Other times, I think your blog is attempting to defend and re-define your core Conservativism, rather than ground a more universally acceptable politics in a shared reason. I, for one, no more want to see a revived Conservativism than I’d want to see a revived Liberalism. What I’m looking for is more of a Re-Construction of culture – one that recognizes the fractured nature of our society while at the same time creating a shared groundwork of values. You are at your best at doing this when you are defending basic values such as freedom from torture, freedom of speech, the value of the Enlightenment, etc. Maybe it does require a “return to our constitution” to reground our politics, but it must be a return that also recognizes that creating a shared value system today is very different from 200 years ago and can only succeed if it can forge an acceptable commonality amongst our many diverse cultures and understandings. Your “Eagle Party” seems like one potential way to start a movement of this sort, as long is it represents a broad-enough swatch of the electorate, but it’s just a start based on a few centrists political principles (balanced budget, libertarianism, strong defense). We need to go broader than that and actually re-construct a shared communal culture. Until we do that we will be stuck in ever more fractured and fractious culture wars.

At any rate, I think I'll read Andrew's book when it comes out and let you know more....

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