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Ryn: Where in the World Are We Going?

Claes Ryn
Catholic University of America

Where
in the World Are We Going?
Sunday Morning Session
The Philadelphia Society National Meeting
Philadelphia, April 2, 2006


          
Within the so-called American conservative movement intellectual and political
confusion are today rampant. Hence the following attempt to sort out what is
what.

First
of all, a conservative is acutely aware of the flawed nature of man. The
capacity of human reason is limited. Our existence is ultimately a great
mystery. Conservatives recognize that for these reasons we need the best of the
human heritage to help guide us.

The
Jacobin suffers from no such humility. Who needs history when there are
universal principles that are also self-evident? It’s all so clear. Traditions
are but historical accidents, props for old elites that should be replaced by
the enlightened and virtuous, people like him. Leo Strauss and his disciples
have taught us to disdain “the ancestral” and heed only principles of
reason.

Conservatives
and Jacobins differ profoundly on what ultimately commands our loyalty.
Conservatives stand in awe of a higher power. The ancient Greeks spoke of it as
the good, the true and the beautiful. Others refer to it as the will of God.
This higher reality is, in any case, not some ideological blueprint. To feel
obligated to look for and to do the right thing is not the same as to know just
what it is in particular circumstances. The complexity and unpredictability of
life disincline the conservatives to sweeping, categorical assertions.

The
Jacobin is a true believer. He has access to universal principles, you see, and
they demand “moral clarity.” You are either for his principles, which makes
you virtuous, or you are against them, which makes you evil. It’s all so
clear.

To
have unquestioning faith in one’s own moral superiority is for Christians the
cardinal sin. Only a profoundly conceited person could think that for another to
oppose him is by definition morally perverse.

But
the Jacobin assumes a right to have his way. Behind his moralism hides a desire
to dominate. The hesitation or trepidation that may trouble men of conscience do
not deter him. The will to power silences all doubt.

For
the conservative, the universal imperative that binds human beings does not
announce its purpose in simple, declaratory statements. How, then, does one
discern its demands? Sometimes only with difficulty. Only through effort can the
good or true or beautiful be discovered, and they must be realized differently
in different historical circumstances. The same universal values have diverse
manifestations. Some of the concrete instantiations of universality take us by
surprise. Because there is no simple roadmap to good, human beings need freedom
and imagination to find it. Universality has nothing to do with uniformity.

For
the Jacobins, ahistorical, ideological precepts define universality, and these
demand conformity. Comply with them, or else.

The
conservative is attracted to both universality and diversity, because the two
do, in a sense, need each other. He does not cherish diversity for its own sake,
for much of the diversity in the world offends all higher values, but diversity
of another type is how universality comes alive in the infinite variety of
individuals and circumstances.

Because
universality manifests itself variously, the conservative is no narrow-minded
nationalist.  He is a cosmopolitan.
This does not mean that he is a free floater, at home everywhere and nowhere.
That describes the Jacobin ideologue. The conservative is a patriot, deeply
rooted in the best of his own heritage. It is because he is so attached to what
is most admirable in his own culture that he can understand and appreciate
corresponding achievements in other cultures. He is able to find in different
places variations on a common human theme. The culturally distinctive
contributions of other peoples deepen and enrich his awareness of goodness,
truth and beauty.

The
Jacobin is not interested in diversity, only in imposing his blueprint. What
history happens to have thrown up is just an obstacle to what ought to be. Only
what is “simply right” deserves respect. It’s all so obvious.  

Conservatives
see in Jacobin principles a hair-raising obliviousness of life’s complexity.
To implement such principles may devastate a society. A society may be wholly
unsuited or unprepared for changes demanded of it. So what, say America’s
neo-Jacobins. We need moral clarity. What was there before does not matter.
“Democracy” must take its place. One model fits all. To ensure a democratic
world, America must establish armed and uncontested world supremacy.

The
will to power is here bursting at the seams. What argument could be better for
placing enormous power in the hands of the neo-Jacobins than a grandiose scheme
for remaking the world.  At lunch
yesterday we got to hear [from Max Boot] the pure, undiluted neo-Jacobin
message.  

All
Jacobins warn of the Enemy with a capital “E.” The Enemy is the embodiment
of evil, a force with which no compromise is possible. For the American
neo-Jacobins the Enemy is Terrorism with a capital “T.” Though the only
superpower, America must be in a permanent state of emergency, be armed to the
teeth and relentlessly pursue the Enemy.

One
current assumption about conservatives is nothing less than weird: that they are
hawks, always looking for prey and always bullying. Conservatives are in reality
normally doves, looking for ways to settle conflicts peacefully. They view war
differently from neo-Jacobin desk-warriors. The suffering and destruction of war
are frightful realities involving actual human beings. War is the very last
resort.

Conservatives
harbor no illusions about the international arena. Bad people behave badly. So
conservatives want to be prepared to handle threats to their own society and
civilization or to international peace. But their normal way of interacting with
other peoples is to try to defuse conflict and to pursue a common human ground.
This is the cosmopolitan way.  

In
domestic affairs, American conservatives have always feared unlimited power,
partly because of their belief in original sin. Fallen creatures must be
restrained by law. Government must be limited and decentralized, hence the
separation of powers and federalism. The sprit of constitutionalism forms the
core of the American political tradition. Unchecked power is an invitation to
tyranny. The framers even wanted the U.S. Congress, which was to be the
preeminent body of the national government, to have divided powers. Needless to
say they disdained democracy.

Jacobins
see no need for restraints on virtuous power. Today American neo-Jacobins are
promoting presidential ascendancy and great leeway for the executive. Old
restraints and liberties must yield to the needs of the virtuous national
security state.

Neo-Jacobins
undermine American constitutionalism by radically redefining its meaning. They
have little loyalty towards the culturally distinctive, historically evolved
America. This country, neo-Jacobins assert, represents a sharp break
with the past. They love to speak of the “Founding,” because that term
suggests that America does not have historical origins but emerged afresh from
enlightened minds. Harry Jaffa and others insist that to celebrate America is to
celebrate radical innovation and revolution.

Conservatives
cherish local autonomy and strong communities. As far as possible people should
be able to shape their own lives, partly because the good life has to be lived
differently in different circumstances. Jacobins resist anything that might
interfere with ideological homogeneity. Individual and local autonomy could,
they think, so easily get out of hand.

It
should be obvious that, due in large part to barely masked neo-Jacobinism,
American conservatism has in the last few decades been turned virtually inside
out. In 1952 many conservatives regarded Dwight D. Eisenhower as too
“liberal” because he was not willing to dismantle the New Deal. He would
only prune it. Today, in all but rhetoric, people calling themselves
conservatives accept a vastly larger and more intrusive central government.
Under the current allegedly conservative president alone the federal government
has expanded by 25%. Yet representatives of the so-called conservative movement
proceed as if nothing had happened and absurdly celebrate “triumphs of
conservatism.”

Only
a major intellectual or moral flaw in American conservatism could have made so
many susceptible to the neo-Jacobin bug. Many who caught it were myopically
preoccupied with practical politics and Republican partisanship. They lacked
historical perspective and philosophical discernment. Others dimly recognized
what was happening but went along to reap financial rewards and advance careers.
They concealed almost from themselves that they became hired guns advocating the
positions expected of them. Both groups made alliances that will prove
compromising. Historians will wonder how so many could have been so easily
swayed and manipulated.

Today
the utopianism, recklessness, cynicism and sheer incompetence of the
neo-Jacobins are becoming obvious. Many of their fellow-travelers are trying to
save what remains of their reputations by jumping ship. Intellectually
challenged supernationalists just raise their voices and call critics
unpatriotic. As for the neo-Jacobins themselves, they are blameless. It is those
who implemented their policies who should be blamed. They didn’t do it right.

The
neo-Jacobin virus should have been flushed out long ago.  

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