How are you? If you are well, I am also well.
I hate open letters. Or — perhaps more accurately — I hate the modern form of them. There’s been a spate of them where the author takes either a moralising, condescending tone, assuming the didactic role of the teacher, or a sarcastic, condescending tone, assuming the role of chief rock-thrower in a city full of glass.
This is a shame because there’s no reason for open letters to be like this. As you know, I’m a fan of politics as a conversation between people who disagree but like each other as people. I want to see people who disagree on an issue tackle and explore issues together, rather than just having a weekly opportunity to tear each other apart.
Less Henderson v Marr and more Margaret and David, essentially.
On reflexion, I guess there’s no reason why an open letter format couldn’t be used in this way. Two intelligent people have a disagreement about an issue via open letter such that others look on and see what parts of the two positions they like and which parts they don’t. Further, it’s a good way to expand on ideas too complicated for the 140-character format of Twitter. This isn’t to be disparaging of Twitter — I think its limitations cause people to think about how communicating more succinctly (‘Had I had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter’, said Circero. Also captured by Shakespeare in Hamlet: ‘Brevity is […] wit’) — but some subjects require a bigger space.
Before I launch into a lengthy exploration of our conversation on Twitter — about my conception of a ‘good conservative’ (which I have rather pretentiously and indulgently titled ‘Civilitatas Optimatum’, the Political Philosophy of the Elites) — it would be vulgar and ugly of me not to congratulate you on your exceptional coverage of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse. Your reporting of this issue has been sensitive, intelligent, and moving. I know that I would not have the personal strength to cope with these hearings and I am in awe of your capacity to do so. If there were any justice, you would walk home with a sack full of awards for those articles.
On Twitter, you noted a number of issues about my political beliefs. First, you commented that the conservatives of the past century — the ‘old conservative bully boys‘ as you put it — would have been unlikely to include me among their number. Second, you (perhaps accurately) describe my argument as affording myself the luxury of positioning myself against the ‘bad’ conservatives while denying that same position to others. Finally, you ask what I think a ‘good conservative’ should wish to preserve, suggesting that I might be cooking the books with activist left achievements (feminist, anti-racist, &c.,) listed as conservative triumphs.
I wish that my answer were as brief and precise as the questions.
As you are already aware, I hold a lot of difficult philosophical positions (not always convincingly). My arguments are frequently targeted not towards people who identify as my counterpart, but to people with whom I share an identification. Most notably, despite being an atheist, I’m sure I spend more time arguing against other atheists than against the religious. Although I might share the label ‘atheist’ with another person, routinely the assumptive framework behind the identifications are radically different. My position has been, and remains, that modern atheism has gone to custard and is no longer intellectually serious or defensible.
Similarly my perspective in favour of the death penalty, which your newspaper was kind enough to publish. Despite being in favour of it for highly complicated reasons, I still think, on average, an abolitionist will be more intelligent, more well informed, and more rational than an advocate of the death penalty.
Similarly my pro-choice position on abortion which is entirely contradictory to the mainstream position in its favour.
On the face of it, these are three unrelated positions on three unrelated topics. Perhaps the thing they most obviously share in common is a tendency towards showing the dilemma of language. My atheist position rejects the bizarre language claims of pop-atheists; my death penalty position rejects the language claims of abolitionists; my pro-choice position rejects the language claims of the pro-choice movement.
But, from my perspective, they are linked by something more fundamental: my character and my political persuasion as a conservative.
I have been quite openly and unabashedly an advocate for virtue politics, arising from my deontologically-flavoured virtue ethics. This, I believe, leads me inescapably towards conservatism: a protection of values, standards, and — in the old phrase — the mos maiorum. Virtue politics must, by necessity, be retrospective — backwards-looking. And it must do this unashamedly. Though the world — the environmental world, the political world, the social world, the cultural world — might change around us, the conservative (good or bad) holds tight to the belief that we are anchored by the very best of the past.
It’s a romantic view. It’s certainly idealistic, even if many modern conservatives have recast the word as a pejorative.
But it’s that romance with the past — the love of the past — which ignites the passions of the conservative.
This opens the conservative up to a very sensible attack: every atrocity committed by mankind arose from the past. There was something flawed with the culture of yesterday that allowed for the world-changing, grandscale horrors of wars, and for the pervasive, systemic, socially-invisible (to the elites) horrors of oppression.
It is, in my view, recognition of this that distinguishes the good conservative from the bad. I even mean more than mere ‘recognition’. I think I mean something closer to ‘ownership’ or ‘engagement’.
This is similar to my argument in favour of patriotism. The love that conservatives have for the past cannot be a blind, unconditional love. The only honest love is one which comes to terms with the flaws of the beloved. This is as true with abstract ideas as it is with other people. How routinely we see people profess their love in movies, television shows, and pop songs when they mean something shallower: an ability to see only those elements that they like or an affliction to fictionalise the object of their desire.
Too often, conservatives fall back on privileged ways and shut down criticism of the past. This, more than anything, is what I see as the biggest failing of the conservatives who went before me. Threatened by communism and feminism, they were incompetent to defend the very best of the past by engaging with criticism. Their only way to win the argument was by either refusing to engage with it (marginalising it) or by actively stamping it out.
The result is the world we see today. Conservatives who openly ridicule feminists and who use the words ‘communist’ and ‘socialist’ like they’re playing Magic: The Gathering. Conservatives who feel capable of saying nothing but the most trivial or the most inflammatory. Conservatives who — when they shuffle off the mortal coil — will leave very few ideologically-similar people to replace them.
Perhaps that last one is for the best.
This allows me to answer your first point about the ‘conservative bully boys’. When we read the letters of, say, B.A. Santamaria and many similar conservatives of that age, we cannot help but see an intense, almost pathological, insecurity. They intuited — correctly — that there was something that needed to be protected and that they were under threat from something else, but they could never quite diagnose it properly. When we think about communism today, we think of something starkly different to the way people in the 1940s-60s. Armed with the Internet and whatnot, we can go and read the source material of the political philosophy. Back then, they could only perceive a corrupting, threatening force which infiltrated through the liberal intellectuals of the day (see, for example, G.B. Shaw’s account of his visit to the U.S.S.R.). They could never engage with it because to do so would be to admit that there was something intellectually interesting with which to engage.
Perhaps it’s my arrogance and inflated sense of my own intellect, but I think I could have succeeded where B.A. Santamaria failed. We can debate whether or not he was successful in preventing communism from spreading to Australia — an argument I think is analogous to whether or not Santamaria was successful in preventing Australia from being wiped out by an asteroid — but it seems to be beyond doubt that his attempt to squash communism did little but make it easier for mercantile, Thatcherite ways to infiltrate Australia instead. As Santamaria was opposed to the individualism, consumerism, and selfishness of unfettered capitalism (an opposition to which I share), I wonder if he ever recognised the role that he played in promoting them in Australia.
It is interesting to compare Santamaria with Edmund Burke. They were viewing a very similar world centuries apart. The French revolution provided the material for Burke to analyse; the rise of the U.S.S.R. for Santamaria. In both cases, they were attempts to smash cultural relics following the betrayal of history by the elites. But where Burke was able to diagnose the disease and suggest an effective cure, Santamaria could not. One was an elite cultural surgeon; the other a ham-fisted buffoon.
I think this questions the assumption behind your point. Why would I wish to have fit in with those ‘bully boys’ when I have a host of alternatives? If there was no place at the table with Santamaria, I’m sure there would have been a place for me at the table of Cicero and Burke. Similarly, Dixon and C.S. Lewis. I’m not sure that I’d have liked to dine with Ayn Rand. I might find a place at the table with Scruton, depending on what he was cooking that night.
This isn’t a luxury affordable only to conservatives, of course. Look at the range of progressives; how many of those tables have a place set for you?
Were the tables at which I think I might have dined all ‘good’ tables? This brings me to your second point about affording myself a luxury that I denied to others. I have a position of advantage when it comes to my predecessors: I know what happened next. When Cicero delivered an oration about the virtues and values of Rome, he had no idea how Rome would end. He had no idea which of his ideas would last, and which would be proven false.
When it comes to positions in Australian politics that we describe as ‘rightwing’, only the libertarians seem to have anything resembling a philosophical position. It’s a rubbish and entirely incorrect philosophical position arising from a fundamental confusion about the nature of man, but at least it’s a philosophical position.
If you were to ask Gerard Henderson, Piers Ackerman, or Andrew Bolt to explain their views without reference point to particular manifestations of political questions, do you really expect them to give a coherent, sensible, insightful view of their political philosophy? I don’t and I — much to my embarrassment — share their end of the political spectrum.
Theirs is a conservatism built on reactive intuition and old feuds. Theirs is a conservatism built on denying the legitimacy of alternative points of view.
So which luxury am I denying them? I have a genuine belief that you have a point, but I’m struggling to construct it here. There is something which I see separating me from the others: I’m non-partisan and I know of few others on my side of the fence who can genuinely say that. But this seems like a cheat, surely my non-partisan nature is the result of something deeper, not a cause of itself. Is the difference that I don’t deny the legitimacy of people who disagree with me? Again, isn’t this a symptom of something deeper rather than a cause in itself?
It could just be narcissism. Perhaps I’m a young Turk who has ideas on how the wheel could be reinvented and that nobody could possibly appreciate my ability to square the circle. I’d like to think it’s something more enlightened than that, but I could be wrong. I — to be brutally honest — fear that I might be wrong.
With regard to the third of your points, I shall have to reveal that which I’m certainly sure you already spotted. I’ve helped myself to two major language constructs as if they were obvious. The first was a hand wave to protecting virtues, values, and the mos maiorum without identifying specifically which virtues, values, and mores I intend to protect. The second was about the construct of history as a fundamentally settled matter.
The latter is the easier to answer and points in the direction of an answer to the former. I don’t think I need to assume the construct of history as an objective, observer-independent event. Indeed, championing a fictionalised history is one thing that conservatives — knowingly or unknowingly; consciously or subconsciously — have been doing for centuries.
It sounds dumb and inherently stupid, but there’s a fine tradition of this dating back into classical history. The Aeneid, for example, is both a work of fiction and a history. The political elites of the day (mostly Augustus) looked to it for both legitimacy and guidance on how to act. The idea of myth as a source of moral exemplars is not novel.
This is also the source of why conservatives (including me) feel the need to have some control over history. Perhaps one of the earliest major examples of this conservative fictionalisation of history is Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome, who created modern customs by constructing ancient ones. I wondered if this might have been an inspiration for Robespierre to do a similar thing following the French Revolution with his Cult of the Supreme Being. On a more basic level, consider also the way various elites created fictionalised family trees in order to legitimise their identity and position. I’ve never been able to understand Hegel’s comment that a great man condemns posterity to the necessity explicating him (it’s a quote I have written on the whiteboard in my bedroom), but I have felt that this is the sort of thing he had in mind.
It is because of the way conservatives fictionalise history that we both require and cause the creation of progressives. The fictionalised construct will inevitably privilege a particular reading, render perspectives invisible, and couch the story in particular language. It is only through engaging with the radicals that we get a clearer picture of the history we’ve constructed for our own purposes.
The ‘creation of progressives’ is an important phrase and I used it carefully. Again, a Hegelian thought: the person who wants to change society will inevitably be a product of the society they wish to change. In this sense, the ‘creation of progressives’ is not a gloat, nor does it question the authenticity of the progressive. When we create a fictionalised account of history that shafts and disenfranchises the majority of the population, it is inevitable that a product of this will be people feel that the creation is unfair, unjust, and unsound.
It’s also for this reason that I think most anarchists and libertarians are completely batshit. They internalise the norms of the society they hate, reject those which do not satisfy their individualism, and then claim that they’re some sort of default-rational sceptic. They tend not to appreciate the debt that they owe to the past and that they themselves were not born but cultivated.
This process of critique from progressives I compare to a refractor head. The conservative believes that there’s something true beyond the wall of language — an a priori morality which exists prior to any cultural or linguistic instance of it, similar to mathematics — and each additional generation of progressives adds a new set of test lenses through which we try to see it.
This answer allows me to go back and answer the more difficult prong above. What is it that conservatives try to protect? That truth that they try to perceive on the other side of language. Standards of morality, virtue, and value that finds different, imprecise expression in language and culture. And it’s this that they (should) try to protect from the ravages of sceptics like communists, anarchists, and libertarians, who — as Kant claims in the Critique of Pure Reason — are a kind of nomad who despise all settled cultivation of the land and disrupt civil society from time to time.
This gives rise to a natural question: why do we go through this process of fictionalising the past instead of imaging the perfect future? To do otherwise is to be like the philosopher who won’t enter the water until he learns how to swim. We have to get it wrong — and get it wrong a lot — before we’re going to know what we’re getting right. To return to a prior theme, the role of conservatives is to prevent the whole thing from being toppled over at the first challenge. The ‘bad’ conservative sees this duty as ‘don’t let the ivory get scuffed by the barbarians’; the ‘good’ conservative trusts the ivory tower to take a few scratches while standing firm.
I depart again from my predecessors in believing that I do not have the one and only ivory tower. My cultural heritage championed the idea of British supremacy. Ours was the only ivory tower and it needed to be recognised — if not feared — by all the lesser kingdoms of the world. But I’m not sure that this view was correct and it is certainly inconsistent with the practice of former conservatives to be extremely worldly. Many conservatives were exceptional Sinologists, for example, and were well-versed in Arabic literature. And, of course, the study of the classics was to study something foreign both culturally and historically. This is something that I have struggled to understand about the xenophobic conservative model — and there must be something in here about cultural appropriation.
I don’t understand the contempt and loathing that progressives seem to have for our shared cultural history, ‘the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this and every country but his own’. But if my claim is that people should have a deep, abiding affection for their cultural history, my claim is incoherent if I limit this only to people of my own cultural history. I think conservatives from different cultures have more in common — and more to gain through intercultural exchange — than we care to admit. This is not to ignore the fundamental, irreconcilable differences, but it is to highlight that I don’t think that I need to be a white supremacist in order to be a conservative (which is a claim repeated by a mutual friend of ours several times now).
In this sense, I’m not cooking the books. I value the contributions made by people who disagree with me and I don’t think my political position is possible without the existence of alternative perspectives. At the same time, I acknowledge that my side of politics fucked up on these major questions. I acknowledge those errors and endeavour not to make the same mistakes again.
I’m going to make a whole lot of completely new mistakes instead…
Perhaps it’s ignorant or self-indulgent or pretense or confusion. Perhaps I’ve just written a few thousand words of the most asinine claptrap. Perhaps I am engaging in a post hoc rationalisation of something which is biologically hardwired (a claim which I find incoherent, by the way, but I could be incorrect about that as well).
One thing I find interesting about my view is that it doesn’t result in a neat division of ‘left-right’ based on economic lines or even particular affirmations. I would like to see less influence of economic language on political identification. Oh, for a day when people start to divide themselves into left and right based on aesthetic judgements…
I hope this provides some sort of answer to you and some insight into what I mean when I describe myself as being conservative.
With warmest regards,
Your friend in disagreement,
- An Open Letter to Open Letter Writers: Stop Writing Open Letters (3quarksdaily.com)
- Comedians: your job is to make us laugh, not write tetchy open letters (theguardian.com)