Thursday, March 24, 2011

Change you can... well, you know the rest

Over at the website for National Review, Robert VerBruggen has an article criticizing the treatment of  Bradley Manning, accusing the government of  “inflicting arbitrary and pointless miseries “ on him. It's not exactly revolutionary stuff, and VerBruggen does not speak for the magazine as a whole, but it was a pleasant surprise because National Review has long been the flagship publication of American conservatism and has often demonstrated the failings all too typical of that movement. It was nice to see something like this article getting published there, even if the comments section quickly crushed whatever feelings of hope and goodwill VerBruggen himself had engendered by reminding me of why his example was so heartening in the first place. (The clinical term for this is “Greenwald Effect.")

Nevertheless, this means that if measured according to the conventional political spectrum, on the issue of due process and humane treatment of prisoners the country's foremost journal of mainstream national security state conservatism is now to the Left of Barack Obama.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Opiate of the Red States

A few weeks back, the conservative organization Young Americans for Freedom denounced Congressman Ron Paul and expelled him from their National Advisory Board, on which he had served for twenty years. This, despite the fact that Paul was the recipient of the group's greatest honor, the Guardian of Freedom award, and despite the fact that Paul is by far the most thoroughgoing opponent of big government and supporter of free enterprise in Congress country and has done an enormous amount to popularize those ideas- ideas that are ostensibly among the YAF's core principles. (Young American's for Freedom should not be confused with the Young Americans for Liberty, another student-based group. You can tell them apart by the fact that YAL's leaders don't don't snicker when they say the last word of their group's name.)

This, in microcosm, is an excellent reenactment of the story of the American conservative movement since the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001.

The reason for his expulsion action was simple- Paul is anti-war. He thinks that “limited government” is incompatible with spending hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars on the military every year to perpetually garrison the entire planet and billions more for armed social engineering projects on the other side of the world. He's argued that foreigners become upset when their friends, relatives, countrymen, or coreligionists are maimed or killed, and that this displeasure has more to do with why some of them are willing to hurl themselves to certain death for a chance to kill Americans than hatred of push-up bras or BLTs or the works of Montesquieu does.  His preferred response to terrorism does not involve unending “nation-building” military occupations or the unprovoked flattening of whatever foreign country he happens to be annoyed with at the time.

Let's take a look at YAF's core statement of principles, the Sharon Statement. The Sharon Statement endorses strict constitutionalism and federalism limiting the federal government to its constitutionally enumerated powers, the free  market, the view that the proper role of government is to preserve individual freedom through law enforcement and national defense, that national sovereignty must not be ceded to foreign or international bodies, and that the standard by which a foreign policy should be judged is “the just interests of the United States.”

Not bad. If anyone within spitting distance of importance in mainstream American right-of-center politics had actually demonstrated principles like these within my lifetime, I'd hold modern conservatism in much higher esteem. Remove the now-outdated references to international communism (the statement was written in 1960) and it sounds like something Ron Paul could easily have written himself- and, unlike most Republican who hold public office or enjoy any media prominence, actually believe. Even if you accept the claim that Paul's non-interventionism does not “serve the just interests of the United States,”  Ron Paul is still by far the national political figure who best exemplifies the ideals of what is supposed to be YAF's creed.

And yet Paul is still utterly beyond the pale in the eyes of YAF's leadership ; not merely unfit for participation in their organization, but a moral monster. The YAF's leadership didn't merely say that they thought Paul was too far out of step with the YAF's ideals for them to continue working with him. In the statement issued about Paul's expulsion, YAF Senior National Director Jordan Marks said that Paul's actions “border on treason.” (Emphasis added.)

YAF is just one group, and there's clearly a strong element of opportunism here. The official statement against Paul- who has long been quite vocal about his foreign policy views- says they're only taking action against him now because he's started leading "left-wing subversives" into the movement. If we give Mr. Marks the benefit of the doubt and assume that he would not publicly state that someone is on the border of being guilty of something that is punishable by death under the laws of the United States and has traditionally been considered to be among the most despicable of all crimes unless he actually meant it, it would follow that YAF has been willingly associating itself with a known borderline-traitor for years. Apparently, YAF's leadership cannot abide an influx of young anti-interventionists inspired by Paul's example, but is "big tent" enough to accept years of behavior that borders on “levying war” against the United States and/or “adhering to their Enemies.” That seems sort of odd for a group that expresses so much concern about defending America, though perhaps the various left-wing anti-Americans I was exposed to in my formative years have clouded my judgment.

Nevertheless, its example is depressingly illustrative; either Marks et al. sincerely believe what the say about Paul, or they're playing to an audience that they expect to be well-disposed towards what they said. In either case, once YAF's leaders decided to abandon their convenient hypocrisy (or emerged from cryogenic hibernation, or whatever was stopping them from driving History's Greatest Monster from their ranks before now), their condemnation and excommunication of Paul had a well-established template to follow.

Support for militarism and foreign adventurism is not merely the dominant or most strongly held position in post 9/11 mainstream conservatism, but its defining principle as a political movement. This level of condemnation comes in different degrees but the fundamental principle is pretty consistent: being conspicuously antiwar is qualitatively worse than deviating from other principles conservatives claim to hold dear. Almost unlimited disdain for supposed conservative principles like free markets, limited government, constitutionalism, and federalism is excusable as long as you're pro-war enough, and no amount of support for them matters if you aren't.

(Mainstream liberalism follows a similar principle in regards to abridging civil liberties, giving giant piles of government money to the rich and privileged, compelling members of the middle and working classes to give piles of their own money and/or their homes to same, blasting hapless foreigners to pulp in ill-conceived military ventures, powerful white guys doing horrendous things to vulnerable females, and the like.)

It's possible to be pro-war and yet so unacceptably deviant in others ways that you're consigned to the outer darkness with folks like Paul, but it's damned hard. Being a vehemently anti-religious Marxist isn't enough. Instituting a state-level prototype of Obamacare while serving as a governor isn't enough. Being a Democratic Party candidate for the vice-presidency with F ratings from the National Taxpayers Union and the National Rifle Association isn't enough. This phenomenon isn't new, of course, since mainstream Cold War conservatism spurned vocal antimilitarists like Murray Rothbard and John T. Flynn but was glad to embrace New Dealers and social democrats who were sufficiently interventionist, but it's more rigid and far more hysterical.

Now, this is not universal, though the intense hostility many conservatives display towards conservative dissenters (such as paleoconservatives) on this issue only serves to emphasize the general rule. The popularity of Ron Paul in the last few years further shows that there are people who identify as conservative who don't share these priorities, and my hope is that things like the Tea Party movement will spur some conservatives to take a more serious interest in the idea of limiting government power that won't fade into oblivion once the Democrats are out of the White House. The resurgence of antistatist-sounding rhetoric among so many politicians and other prominent figures on the Right is to a great extent a pose, to be sure, but part of the reason the pose is so useful is because it brings in people who actually do take ideas like that seriously, at least some of the time, but have enough blind spots or gaps in their understanding and awareness to be taken in by Republican lip service to them.

(The other principal reason the pose is useful is that there is a significant- probably more significant- strain within modern conservatism that places great value and emphasis on the word "freedom", but has little or no regard for the freedom of individuals in even a limited or confused sense. It's not that they're lying- except to themselves, I suppose- it's just that they have a conception of freedom devoid of actual content. “Freedom” in this context simply means what America is and does, regardless of what America is and does; You could swap in “goodness” or “American” or “fahrvergnugen“ with little or no loss of meaning. They're the exemplars of the “shut up and enjoy your freedom of speech” philosophy.)

A political movement mimicking the rhetoric of ideals its biggest players and many of the rank-and-file don't actually respect very much- either as a deliberate deception or due to self-delusion-  is playing a dangerous game. The people who aren't in on the joke may eventually notice the disparity between your words and deeds, or realize that what you claim to believe has implications- perhaps radical implications- you haven't acknowledged. That's why the all-consuming primacy of the “War on Terror,”or some other foreign menace, is so helpful: it eternally excuses conservatism's failure to be what it claims to be.

It allows you to assert hostility  to “big government” as a general principle while supporting so many deviations from it- because the war on terrorism is so important, the Constitution is not a suicide pact, etc.- that the exceptions devour the supposed rule. It means that someone like Ron Paul should be rejected in favor of people who make professed Republican hostility to domestic big government, collectivism, welfare statism, and meddling Washington bureaucrats and political elites seem like an obscene joke, because the War on Terror is so important that all other principles are secondary. But hang in there, and someday we'll have the luxury of making an effort to act on the ideals we're always talking about. Just not today, or the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.

American conservatism is remarkably similar to communism in this respect, now that I think about it.

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