Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Why I'm Advising a Conservative Student Organization

Here's my first column for The Centurion, the brand new student publication at Rutgers. It's the brainchild of James O'Keefe, who couldn't find a conservative to advise his organization (see previous post on this). I must say the first issue was pretty funny, in both senses--a lot of white male hysteria, on the one hand, a lot of disconcerting analogies, on the other (for example, a graphic comparison between Dred Scott v. Sanford and Roe v. Wade which would be hilarious except that they mean it).

The deal I struck with James was that I'd be the advisor as long as he ran my column without changes in every issue of the publication. The first issue put me at the back of the book, quite appropriate, but my page had a gray, barley noticeable hammer and sickle as background. Kind of a reply, I guess.

The upcoming issue has another column from me entitled "How to Talk to a Conservative--If You Must," but young James wants to renege on the original deal by running a reply. I met with the executive board Monday night and explained that this was not the original deal, viz., I don't care what you say, and you don't care what I say, and that's that. Everybody gets left alone: laissez-faire redux! Their fears are that the column both negates their opinions and appeals to the liberal majority among students here, making them, members of the besieged conservative minority, somehow laughable rather than, as they had hoped, rigorous and righteous bearers of intellectual rectitude.

The pictures of the founders in the inaugural edition look like parodies of yearbook pictures, all jutting chins in profile or confident tuxedo smiles, except of course the one of Justine, the lesbian who does the photography, the cartoons, the design, and the layout. The top of her glasses bisects her eyes about halfway down from her unruly hair. The camera she's holding covers everything else. Like most feminists, she insists that "Sexual preference is a personal aspect of our lives that should be give minimal attention by the government," and, accordingly, that she "do[es]n't agree with amending the constituion to didtate civil rights." The sidebar says "I'm defined by my values. Not my sexuality." As I read them, those values are straight out of John Stuart Mill: quite liberal, thus verging on socialist principles. But she's found a home here, among guys who believe that equality is a bad idea.

I told them they had to review "The Incredibles," the animated objectivist manifesto, in their next issue, just to demonstrate this bizarrely anti-American belief, but they're so weirdly elitist--so out of touch with popular culture--that none of them had seen it. They reminded me, at that moment, of Mark Lilla's characterization of the second-generation Straussians in the same issue of NYRB that carried Tony Judt's myopic piece on Dreams of Empire: "now they [the Straussians] are in the grip of an apocalyptic vision of post-Sixties America that prevents them from contributing anything constructive to our culture."

By admitting they don't live on the same planet I do, where Ayn Rand and Nicholson Baker are treated as novelists, not social theorists, and where movies are the mainstream of literacy, these young conservatives also reminded me of the sectarian Leftists that now try to run academia: absolutely certain of their truths, completely ignorant of ideas that don't accord with the received wisdom. I hope they don't take over.

My apologies, dear reader, and yes, you're still singular in every sense, as if you were a muse, I do digress. Here's the column.

I’m a Marxist, a socialist, a feminist, and a pragmatic postmodernist. So why did I agree to become the faculty advisor of an avowedly conservative student organization? Two reasons. First, no one else would do it. That is not surprising, of course. By now we all know that the pilot disciplines in the Arts & Sciences are dominated by leftists of one kind or another. Certainly departments of History, Literature, Anthropology, Political Science, and Sociology are—not just at Rutgers, but throughout the nation. Departments of Economics and of Philosophy are more politically ambiguous, but they are less visible on campus and in the larger world. Little wonder that James O’Keefe and Brian Karch had a hard time tracking down someone who would lend his or her name to their conservative enterprise.

Second, conservatism is a valuable political resource at any time, but it is especially valuable just now, at a moment of rapid change—at a moment when cloning and other genetic experiments have become practical questions, when a century of precedent and principle in U.S. foreign policy has been overturned, when radicalism of every kind, on the Left and the Right, seems normal. Conservatives revere the past, and caution us against our American urge to discard customs, rituals, and traditions because they do not conform to the standards of contemporary reason. They object to “social engineering” informed only by zealous devotion to the common good because they understand that unintended consequences often obliterate originally noble purposes. In short, they remind us of what we stand to lose when we want change.

So conservatives deserve a respectful hearing from us liberals, socialists, and radicals. But who’s a conservative these days? George W. Bush wants to privatize Social Security, abolish the income tax, amend the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage, and create a new American Century by fighting preemptive wars. He is not a conservative; he’s a radical who wants to repudiate, not reclaim, the past. Does that make John Kerry, a man of the Left, more conservative than his opponent? You betcha.

The editors of The Centurion tell me they believe in utilitarianism, objectivism, and original intent. How conservative are these beliefs? Utilitarianism—“the greatest good of the greatest number”—would have scared the founding fathers, who feared an “elective despotism” because they knew that majority rule (the greatest number) was not necessarily consistent with justice, and that popular government would last only if it served the cause of justice by soliciting the consent of the governed. Objectivism, the obscure doctrine invented by the novelist Ayn Rand, is an extreme form of “radical individualism”—it is precisely what conservatives such as Robert Bork, George Gilder, Michael Novak, and William Bennett cite as the primary source of cultural decay in the late-20th century.

And then there is original intent. The wonderful irony of this concept is that it is the result of exquisitely complicated intellectual artifice dating back to the late-18th century. There is no such thing as original intent, in other words, in the absence of argument about it in the aftermath of the founding. There has never been any unanimity about what it was, because there can’t be. For the founders themselves disagreed about the purposes of their new nation, as the conflict between “Hamiltonian” and “Jeffersonian” programs in the 1790s (and after) demonstrates. These purposes are, then, a product of continuing reinterpretation, or rather they just are this reinterpretation—there is no difference between the perception and the practical consequences of “original intent.”

If you believe that the founders had the last word, for example, you will probably not believe in the rights of privacy and sexuality recently enunciated by federal courts. But you will nonetheless be engaged in an argument, because you will have to defend your interpretation of the “original” language against another interpretation. Whether it’s the Constitution or the Bible, there are rival accounts of the same text, and all you have is the words on the pages in question. To convince others that your account is better than theirs, you have to do more than recite those words.

Think of the debate about the Constitution that Lincoln changed between 1854 and 1860. By the mid-1850s, conservatives in the North had fallen back to a constitutional defense of the status quo—slavery was sanctioned by the 3/5 clause of the Constitution, they said, so that any ideological agitation or legislative movement against it was a challenge to the legal basis and the political legitimacy of the United States as such (not to mention white supremacy). Radicals in the North, mainly abolitionists, had long since repudiated the Constitution as a blood-stained document on the very same grounds, that it sanctioned slavery. They wanted to challenge the legal basis and the political legitimacy of the United States, and they did so by claiming that the Constitution was an unnecessary and unforgivable departure from the egalitarian principles of the Declaration of Independence.

The conservatives and the radicals agreed on one thing—they assumed that there was no way to treat the Constitution and the Declaration as politically commensurable or intellectually continuous documents. Lincoln changed everything by proving that this assumption was false. From the Peoria speech of October 1854 to the Cooper Union address of February 1860, he insisted that a clear majority of the founders (those who actually made the Revolution, wrote the Constitution, and led the new nation into the 1820s) were committed to the eventual extinction of slavery. That is why they excluded it from the territories by Congressional acts such as the Northwest Ordinance—the first legislative act of the very first Congress—and why those founders who later served in the national government kept restricting its spread by legislative action.

By this account, both the Declaration and the Constitution could be cited as anti-slavery texts, and could therefore be understood as politically commensurable and intellectually continuous documents. To put it another way, the ethical ideal announced but not accomplished by the Declaration (“all men are created equal”) was consistent with the historical reality permitted and determined by the Constitutional settlement. Lincoln was, in this sense, deducing “ought” from “is,” value from fact—a move that neither politicians nor philosophers are supposed to make.

Thus Lincoln had positioned himself as both a radical who would not compromise on the Declaration’s incendiary insistence on equality and a conservative who would not forfeit the Constitution’s protections of enumerated and established rights. That position, that synthesis, was revolutionary in its time. Rather than insisting on an either/or choice between radicalism and conservatism, we should be searching for a similar synthesis in these interesting times. At any rate, we should understand that when we choose between radicalism and conservatism, we steer our fellow citizens toward a political dead end.