Thursday, March 08, 2012

HHS, Pat Buchanan, Hitchens on Thatcher, Charles III In Waiting, John Maynard Keynes, D. G. Hart, and Right-Mindedness

On the masthead of The American Conservative are the words "ideas over ideology" and "principles over party." I am an enthusiastic booster of this publication. Ideologues of all stripes will find something to offend on almost every page. A few selections, and some comments, from the March 2012 issue, following:

1. The lead editorial--"Liberal Misconceptions"--tackles the recent flap over the HHS ruling regarding contraception. Personally, this issue is not the hill upon which I wish to fight a battle to the death. But the TAC writer zeroes in on the question that has bothered me--namely, why the insistence that contraception absolutely must be covered in health plans, with its denial being characterized as a denial of rights? I have health insurance, but with no dental coverage. When I go to the dentist, I pull out my wallet, and I do not feel as though I am somehow being denied my rights as a patient.

...the HHS ruling did combine two fundamental precepts of modern liberalism--that true freedom requires other people to foot the bill for one's choices and that women in particular are not free until they have been pharmaceutically liberated.

...the notion that lack of a subsidy is infringement of freedom has to be understood in light of the larger principle....At stake is the core liberal principle of autonomy: while anyone can choose when to have sex, without the aid of technology women cannot control when they conceive. Pregnancy circumscribes many freedoms, including the freedom to work; thus individual liberty requires "free" provision of contraception.

This liberal view is itself a religion of sorts--certainly it is as intimate and foundational as most faiths. And as sectarian, too. Just as it would not be right to tax one church to support another, liberals are in no position to demand that people who hold other understandings of human life and liberty conform to the rituals and liturgies of their worldview. Few liberals, blind to their own biases, see this however.

Such matters aren't settled by political brawls; a much larger project of suasion is required. Churches understand this better than their critics, and in fighting to preserve the domain of conscience--the right to refuse to participate in someone else's encompassing worldview--the opponents of mandates like this are in fact championing the most basic freedom of all.

2. Pat Buchanan defends his recent termination from MSNBC in "Blacklisted But Not Beaten." The publication of his most recent work, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025, and in particular the 4th chapter entitled "The End of White America," has stirred up a hailstorm of criticism from the professional Left. A group called Color of Change, Media Matters, the Human Rights Campaign, and of course Abe Foxman's Anti-Defamation League beat the drums for Buchanan's termination from MSNBC. The president of the network bowed to the pressure, first putting him on leave, and in recent weeks firing him. Buchanan notes that he said nothing more than did the Atlantic and Newsweek in 2009 when they ran cover stories entitled "The End of White America," and "The Decline and Fall of Christian America" respectively. Frankly, I take Buchanan much the same way I do Ron Paul--appreciative of their warnings against our over-reaching foreign policy, but a bit spooked when they turned their attention to domestic issues. And being a Texan, I do not share Buchanan's alarm over our changing demographics. I still watch MSNBC, and it remains the best US news channel, but there is a big hole where Buchanan's commentary used to be. I miss him already, and the discussion is diminished by his absence.

3. Peter Hitchens writes of "The Myth of Margaret Thatcher." He rightly bemoans the cruelty of the recent movie of her career, but notes that "Conservatives must come to grips with the noble failure of the Iron Lady." Living for many years overseas, Hitchens came to see Britain as foreigners did, which he said made him melancholy. "They thought we were still polite. They thought our schools were still good. They thought we were law-abiding and hard-working and patriotic....And with this went an absurd, uncritical worship of Margaret Thatcher..."

He faults her on a number of accounts: her Falklands War was to "save her own bacon," with a Royal Navy she had been trying to "cut to ribbons" only weeks before; her coal mine, steelworks and shipyard closings "look thin in an age where it is generally recognized that manufacturing industry is still important after all;" the gigantic welfare state continues unabated; British state education "annually turns out tens of thousands of some of the most ignorant and unemployable teenagers in the industrialized world;" political correctness run amok under the Equalities Act, etc.

Perhaps above all, the hideous cultural and moral revolution of the 1960s goes completely unchallenged. Civility, beauty, tradition, the small and the particular are all still despised and trampled on....Marriage, the family, and private life continue to fade away, blasted by the chilly interference of the state and the roar of all her years she did little or nothing to reverse the demoralization brought about in the 1960s, when she had the power to try.

4. Rod Dreher's "Philosopher Prince" attempts the unenviable task of casting Prince Charles as champion of "traditionalist ideals and causes." I am generally sympathetic to monarchies and monarchism. Just not the British. My preference runs to the Ruritanian or in-exile variety. Outside of the Japanese, the Plantagenet-Tudor-Stewart-Hanover-Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Windsors are no doubt the longest show running, and I have no desire to see a 946-year act come to a close anytime soon. I just have a hard time warming-up to any of them, particularly Prince Charles. I get the idea that while the Windsors have been enormously successful in protecting and nurturing their particular family franchise, that they have no larger loyalty to the institution as a whole, or in fact, anywhere outside their borders.

Dreher writes that "Charles believes Western civilization took a wrong turn at the Enlightenment, is headed toward destruction (especially environmental) and cannot save itself without an abrupt change of intellectual and spiritual course."

I agree with every word of that. It is just that I have a hard time taking that as my marching orders when they come from Prince Charles. To be sure, he has put a bit of his money where his mouth is: supporting historical preservation, funding the teaching of traditional arts and skills, supporting localism, decrying modernist architecture, creating new urbanist communities, and turning his 1,000 acre farm into a successful organic gardening enterprise. This is all well and good, and certainly doable if you are one of the richest men around.

In the past, some American Orthodox Christians have made much of his visits to Mount Athos, or clandestine meetings with Orthodox priests in England, creating speculation that Prince Charles is a secret wannabe Orthodox. To his credit, Dreher does not even hint at that, noting in fact that the Prince is just as enamored with Tibetan Buddhism, and Islam and "its insistence on the essential unity of all things," as well as being a thorough-going Perennialist devoted to the teachings of Rene Guenon, all the while being a "prayerful and devoted Anglican communicant." In today's parlance, he would be dubbed "spiritual."

Most of his critics are on the Right, who find him incredibly naive about Islam and its leaders in Great Britain, as well as being dangerous in his ignorance of economics. Localism, traditionalism, organic farming, historic preservation and such like are all issues I support. Indeed, Charles seems to be someone who is given to thinking about things, which is something of a novelty in his line. I will give him that. I just think that if I am being lectured about "godless, hedonistic materialism in the modern age," that it needs to be from someone with less godless, hedonistic, materialistic baggage. God Save the Queen!

5. I do not understand economics, but I did appreciate the following paragraph in "Why Stimulus Fails," by William W. Chip.

Conservative critics of today's Keynesian stimulus spending may be right, but not necessarily because Keynes was wrong. Unlike philosophy or physics, economics is a social science that seeks to explain the events of its time, not to reveal eternal verities. It may be that Keynes got the formula exactly right for the 20th century but that we have entered a new era in which his theory has become as obsolete as classical 19th-century theories that Keynes himself debunked. As Keynes famously said: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

6. D. G. Hart weighs in on contemporary American Christianity in "Church Not State: Christians must choose between faith or worldly relevance." Well, yes. Hart divides adherents into 2 broad camps--the "republican Christians" and the "Augustinian Christians." (To me, the larger story seems to be the extent to which Americans have fallen off the grid of either one.) He places his particular Presbyterian sect into the "Augustinian" category, along with right-thinking Lutherans and Roman Catholics. This did not seem nearly as natural to me as it apparently did to Hart. I suppose for some people, church history really does begin in 1517. But no matter. I also found it interesting that he had nothing to say at all about Episcopalianism in this country--in either category.

These quibbles aside, I agreed with most of the points he raised. Extended quotes, following:

Over the last 30 years, born-again Protestants have overwhelmingly backed Republican candidates in the belief that for religion to matter, it must influence not only what people do when they gather for worship but also what they do every other day of the week....arguments for taking religion seriously in politics have coincided with the resurgence of the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan.

Consequently, to propose that a truly conservative position is to contend for faith's own inherent merits, quite apart from any benediction from the civil government, is to risk sounding liberal--or even worse, secular.

The idea that faith is important to the degree that it shapes public life--especially the workings of government--although asserted with the most laudable of motives, is in fact the greatest impediment to taking religion seriously. (emphasis mine.)

The ideas and standards that inform most faith-based politics do not arise from religion's own ideals but from the shifting demands of policy, legislation, and re-election.

Hart believes that if we are to take religion and its theological and liturgical convictions seriously, then we need to be prepared for the kind of disagreement and balkanization that come with the most devout of faiths. Americans have not been well prepared for this kind of religious antagonism. the largest and most influential religious bodies have not only failed to explain such disagreements, they have actually established the dynamics that undermine faith's importance.

Hart concludes that the "republican Christians" that have been most eager to assert the relevance of faith, have also been the most responsible for its secularization. Meanwhile, the "Augustinian Christians" who objected least to secularization, who were least likely to talk openly of their faith, were often the ones who took faith "in all its details more seriously."

Hart notes that the Second Great Awakening (1820-1860) established "conversion" as the standard of genuine faith, leading to the combination of revival and reform as being normative for republican Christianity.

The republican Protestants demonstrate how a desire for a relevant faith redirects Christianity from convictions about the supremacy of eternal realities to the demands of the present. In the hands of republican Christianity, faith ceases to be otherworldly. Instead, it uses cultural health or social order as leading indicators of the world to come. In effect, republican Christianity immanentizes the eschaton.

For Augustinian believers, a modest republic free from continental, let alone global, ambitions was a worthwile endeavor becuase the church, not the nation, was the only vehicle for real and lasting greatness. The logic behind this Augustinian concession was that the truths and practices of a church did in fact mattter irrespective of liberty, democracy, and free markets, while republican Christians too often gave the impression tht their faith only mattered if it could be shown to advance the cause of political independence, republican government, and the creation of wealth.

I found it interesting that Hart did not buy into the Manhattan Declaration, and questioned the usefulness and wisdom of the project. He closes with H. L. Mencken's obituary for J. Gresham Machem (1936), a piece that is familiar to me, as my late, great friend Milton Burton was fond of quoting from it. Lines like this--"Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet attitudes, possible to anyone not actually in jail for felony"--were made for Milton.

Hart closes strong--"the biggest obstacle to taking religion seriously are those well-meaning republican Christians who do not understand...that the more deep-down-diving and mud upbringing faith is, the less it will need to prove that it matters in national life."

7. And finally, Samuel Goldman writes of "Right Minds."

Classical conservatism is a coherent theory of opposition to the French Revolution and its consequences. And it does insist on hierarchy in human affairs, both public and private.

But what the great sociologist Robert Nisbet called the “dogmatics” of conservatism cannot be understood by reflecting on Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, or other 20th-century publicists….The counterrevolutionary ideology has to be articulated on its own terms before it is connected to the dilemmas of contemporary politics.

The French Revolution was not the first revolution in human or even European history. Mobs had ruled the streets before; princes had often enough been deposed. Yet Burke insisted that that the Revolution was “the most astonishing thing that has hitherto happened in the world.” What was so astonishing about it? Burke’s answer was that the French Revolution was the consequence of an extraordinary new theory of society.

According to this theory, which Burke attributed to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, human beings are naturally free and self-sufficient. Because each man is potentially a Crusoe, any relations between individuals are essentially voluntary.

The question, then, is whether the “chains” that bind one person to another reflect the will of every individual involved. If so, they are legitimate—a term that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was the first to transform from a principle of dynastic succession into the moral justification of rule as such. If not, they lack moral authority and may be rejected, potentially with violence. So, in Burke’s view, went the philosophical argument behind the revolution.

This reasoning was mistaken, Burke argued, not so much in its logical structure as in its first principle. In fact, human beings are born into networks of sympathy, obligation, and authority. These networks make us what we are, transforming unformed potential and dispositions into concrete identities. On this view, there is no Archimedean point from which the legitimacy of existing social relations can be assessed. As Maistre put it in a brilliant formulation, “In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… . But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.”

If the social arrangements that characterize national communities are background conditions of humanity, they are not legitimatized by the consent of those who participate in them at any given time. Instead, they derive their authority from the way that they bind together past, present, and future in an enduring partnership. It follows that men and women of today have no right to dissolve the partnership in which they are involved merely because it seems inconvenient to them. Society, which always means a particular society, is an “entailed inheritance,” like a landed estate whose owner is legally prohibited from selling.

From this point of view, the radicalism of the French Revolution was not that it aimed to alter relations of authority in favor of the previously subordinate. The desire of subjects to rule kings, servants to dominate their masters, sons to command fathers might be misguided. But it was readily understandable, and certainly nothing new. The real issue was the Revolution’s implicit aim of establishing a condition in which nobody would obey anyone else unless he agreed to do so.

This aspiration, the conservatives insisted, was not merely unwise, but actually insane. The insistence that power be embedded in restraining traditions and institutions is the crucial distinction between classical conservatism and the fascism that would eventually replace it on the European right. Conservatism defends the authority of lords, of generals, of kings—but not of a “leader” who emerges from and rules over the disorganized mob.

But despite its anti-egalitarianism, classical conservatism cannot be assimilated to anything like fascism. This is not because it is more or less “extreme,” a comparative adjective that has no ahistorical meaning. It is because conservatism insists that authority is constituted but at the same time limited by the network of relationships that make up society.

What does this backward-looking, theologically inflected ideology of hierarchy have to with the contemporary America conservative movement? The answer is: not much. In addition to the historical distance, the concept of individual rights imposes an unbridgeable theoretical gap between the two positions. Classical conservatism is essentially communitarian, and locates individuals in structures of obligation that are not derived from their choice or consent. The American conservative movement, on the other hand, appeals to many of same beliefs about natural freedom and equality that inspired the French Revolution.

These appeals are most obvious in the libertarian strand of the movement, which cannot simply be dismissed as an apology for economic exploitation. They are most destructive, however, when they are used to motivate and justify our perennially adventurist foreign policy. According to the ideologues of American exceptionalism, there really is such a thing as Man in the abstract. And Man has the same rights and desires in Afghanistan that he has in Arizona. The purpose of government is to secure these rights. To the extent that it aims to do so universally, the government of the United States is therefore the universal government, with the responsibility to reorder all the traditional loyalties and obligations that define “illegitimate” societies.

No matter which party endorses this vision, it is difficult to imagine anything more distant than from “the contrary of revolution” inspired by Burke and articulated by Maistre. For it is a mirror image of the very Revolution that they opposed.


123 said...

I think the view re birth control is that not providing birth control is refusing to provide what is considered a basic form of health coverage. One can disagree as to whether that should be the case (e.g., condoms are provided), but if birth control is included in what is normally understood to be "health care", then it should be provided.

The issue is really whether "Catholic hospitals" and "Catholic universities" are religious institutions or not. Churches and seminaries are exempt from HHS requriement because they are obviously religious. Catholic hospital and universities have been riding the line for some time regarding their status as religious institions rather than privately owned, religiously 'affiliated', nonprofit organizations. That is, they're basically run like general nonprofit corporations not like religious corporations. When employers are required to provide health insurance, they have to provide health insurance. This may be an argument against the universal mandate, but until it is overturned, that's the law of the land - unless you are a religious corporation like a church.

ochlophobist said...

Have you seen this on the HHS decision:

John said...

123 and Owen,

This is really, really not my issue. I do understand about the strict legal issue relative to Catholic hospitals. I guess my perspective comes from being the owner of a small business. I have never worked for a company or institution which provided insurance. I have always had to go out and get it on my own, as has my wife. Frankly, until the current flap, I had no idea whether such things were generally covered or not. As you say, you can't square that legally as long as it is the law of the land. I understand that, it just doesn't bother me.

Owen, thanks for the link. Seems like Big Pharma has both sides of the aisle covered. No surprises there, huh?

modestinus said...


That's a rather blandly positivistic assessment of the HHS mandate and "health care." Basically, as long as something is defined as "health care," then there is a "right" for it to be covered (so long as that "right" is defined by law). So if assisted suicide is defined as "health care" and I, being a potential caregiver to an elderly parent, determine that ma or pa's quality of life is no longer up to par, I should have a right -- so long as it is defined by law -- to access the proper chemicals/equipment necessary to off them? And, more critically, my employer cannot, by right, deny paying into the sort of coverage which would provided me with these death-dealing instruments?

At some point one has to take a step back and think for a moment about why it is the Catholic Church is concerned about "contraception" at all, and from there, why "contraception" (or, for that matter, abortion) may not be an appropriate facet of "health care." But that would require doing something which few on either side of the political-ideological divides of the age do particularly well: think through phenomena, concepts, and concrete life in a rigorous, non-consequentalist fashion. Heaven forbid.

Kirk said...

Quite a detailed synopsis there, John. Nice work.

With regard to the contraception coverage debate, if I remember anything from college econ, it is that there is no free lunch. Not sure why Rush and so many others claim that the insured masses want "free" contraceptives. They will be paid for. Of course, the Administration's "compromise" position--that the insurance companies would provide the coverage for "free"--is quite absurd. We all know that the cost of this coverage is hidden within the expense of the other coverage. The argument reminds me of the "free" prizes and goodies that used to come in a box of cereal. My family paid for that prize just as certainly as they paid for the cereal in the box. And who is paying for the insurance coverage? Is it the employer? No, the coverage is ultimately being paid for by the employee, who provides labor in return for the "benefit." Even if the employer "pays" for the entire policy with no contribution from the worker, it is still the labor that buys the coverage.

Kirk said...

With respect to Buchanan, I too miss his input on MSNBC. It was a shame to lose him. Maybe someday we will evolve beyond the necessity of intellectual purity.

And about Dreher--well, you know I'm not a big fan of his. Did he claim that the Prince of Wales is a Crunchy Con? I wouldn't be surprised. Only the best for old Dreher.