A fortnight ago Josh Marshall recommended his ‘two best political books’: Michael Lind’s Up From Conservatism (1996) and David Frum’s Dead Right (1994). That David Frum? Off to library went I. (And checked out Lind, too. Pretty good.) I can see why Marshall finds Frum’s book … interesting. Its thesis is clearly stated in the final chapter’s final paragraph:
“Conservatives suffer a very different political problem from liberals these days. Avowed liberals have a difficult time winning power in this country; avowed conservatives do not. You no longer get far in public life by preaching that the poor are poor because someone else is not poor, or that criminals can be rehabilitated, or that American troops should get their orders from the United Nations. There’s no liberal Rush Limbaugh. But exercising power – that is a very different business. When conservatism’s glittering generalities, “you are overtaxed,” turn into legislative specifics, “you must pay more to send your kid to the state university,” we run into as much trouble in midsession as the liberals do at election time. Twelve years of twisting and struggling to escape this snare have just entangled us ever more deeply in it, until we have arrived at the unhappy destination this book describes. Is there a way out? Only one: conservative intellectuals should learn to care a little less about the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, indulge less in policy cleverness and ethnic demagoguery, and do what intellectuals of all descriptions are obliged to do: practice honesty, and pay the price.” (p. 205)
Frum’s conception of liberals as unhappy until there’s a paroled murderer and UN bluehelmet on every corner – is subject to doubt. But we pass over in silence; the man, to his credit, does not mince words about the faults of his party. Chapter 2 is about the hideousness of Houston, 1992 (the Rep Nat. Conv.): “Wall to Wall Ugly”. Chapter 3 is “The Failure of the Reagan Gambit”, i.e. how Reagan cut taxes but failed to trim the budget, thereby generating deficits that became the business of Democrats to fix. Chapter 4: supply-side economics is not credible. Chapter 5: Bill Bennett is not credible. Chapter 6: Pat Buchanan is the antipodes of credible. Chapter 7, “the Pseudo-Menace of the Religious Right”, is a thoroughly unconvincing apologia, yes. But Chapter 8, “1996” concludes bluntly, as per above.
I read the book with considerable care, not just for the history lesson – indeed I learned a thing or two - but because I was genuinely curious what Frum thinks conservatism looks like in all its glorious and unalloyed philosophical ideal purity, scoured clean and purified of blemishes, flaws, errors, compromises, distortions due to human weakness, money, K Street, the usual suspects. This question interests me, as per recent posts.
Also, many months back I went on a multi-post tear into the NRO. (Goldberg and the Derb, specifically.) What impressed me then was the lack of discernable political philosophy. To adapt the great conservative Carlyle: seldom have I seen someone execute such a shallow dive into such deep water and emerge so muddy. Day in, day out.
I won’t rehearse my gripes of last year. Go read if you care to. The posts hold up OK, which is more than I can say for most of my political posts from last year. My compass is evidently twitchy and unreliable. Wouldn’t advise anyone else to use it. But I do find the following piece of simple woodcraft has its rugged employments: figure out which side of the trees the NRO is growing on. Then head dead-straight in the opposite direction until you hit civilization. (There are honorable exceptions to this rule.)
As I was saying, I read Frum to find out whether he could refute my generally bad impression of the philosophical state of the National Review’s specific brand of conservatism. On the strength of Marshall’s recommendation, and Frum’s evident willingness to take his colleagues to task, I was prepared to be impressed by the rigorous and principled quality of the man’s views, even if I did not share them. At least I was prepared to give the man a fair shake. And I have been mightily disappointed. And this would be a good point to announce and clearly label for what it is the rather heavy-handed rhetorical device I intend to employ throughout the rest of this post. I am going to attribute rather outrageous views to Frum, not because I actually think he holds them but because I think he does NOT. These outrageous views are the views he WOULD hold if, perchance, he upheld and investigated only the most immediate ramifications of the bits and snippets of philosophy he espouses. My accusation, then, is this: the man thinks he has a conservative philosophy; it seems to me he does not.
And this post is too damn long, I’m warning you. Just started typing and didn’t stop. It’s probably pretty approximate at points. Which is bad. Oh, well. Here goes. Carpe diem and caveat emptor.
Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start):
“Since it’s formation in the early 1950’s, the intellectual movement known as American conservatism has stood for two overarching principles: anticommunism abroad and radical reduction in the size, cost, and bossiness of the federal government at home. Anticommunism has lost most of its zest, for the time being anyway. The bossiness of government might have seemed to be an issue with staying power, but conservatives have tiered of it all that same. The country’s leading conservative politicians and intellectuals may attack this or that ridiculous feature of overweening government, they may propose this or that more or less libertatian alternative to President Clinton’s plan to reorganize the American medical system, [remember in the olden days – 1993 -when we all seemed foredoomed to have national health care?] but radical criticism of the very idea that Washington should extract and redistribute one-quarter of the nation’s wealth has simply petered out. The single-parent family; tumbling educational standards; immigration; crime; ethnic balkanization – the conservative magazines and conservative conversation bubble with ferment over these. About morality and nationality, conservatives have a lot to say. But their fervor for eliminating the progressive income tax and the redistribution of wealth via Washington has cooled, when it has not disappeared altogether.” (p. 1)
What is your impression at this point? I’m thinking: economic libertarianism. The man thinks the social and cultural issues are tasty, yes, but incidental. Appearances can be deceiving, however.
“The new topics could well enhance conservatism’s appeal. Social conservatism is potentially more popular than economic conservatism. But severed from economic conservatism, social conservatism too easily degenerates into mere posturing. The force driving the social trends that offend conservatives, from family breakup to unassimilated immigration, is the welfare function of modern government. Attempting to solve these social problems while government continues to exacerbate them is like coping with a sewer main explosition by bolting all the manhole covers to the pavement. Overweening government may not be the sole cause of America’s maladies. But without overweening government, none would rage as fiercely as it now does. The nearly 1$ trillion the federal government spends each year on social services and income maintenance – and the additional hundreds of billions spent by the states – is a colossal lure tempting citizens to reckless. Remove those alluring heaps of money, and the risks of personal misconduct would again deter almost everyone, as they did before 1933 and even 1965.”
It’s a bit – um, ripe - to analogize immigrants and single-parent families directly to sewage. Nevertheless, this can still be read as more or less pure economic libertarianism (with just a layer of slime on top.) What ‘offends’ conservatives about the welfare state is that it is economically inefficient: it destroys value by systematically encouraging masses of people to behave in reckless, value-destroying ways, which ultimately hurts those masses themselves. The cost of maintaining the safety net eventually frays even the satefy net, and then you’ve got nothing. Of course, this is putting the thesis rather crudely and ignoring numerous variants. But never mind that. It turns out economic inefficiency isn’t what ‘offends’ conservatives after all, at least not Frum.
“The great, overwhelming fact of a capitalist economy is risk. Everyone is at constant risk of the loss of his job, or of the destruction of his business by a competitor, or of the crash of his investment portfolio. Risk makes people circumspect. It disciplines them and teaches them self-control. Without a safety net, people won’t try to vault across the big top. Social security, student loans, and other government programs make it far less catastrophic than it used to be for middle-class people to dissolve their families. Without welfare and food stamps, poor people would cling harder to working-class respectability than they do not.”
The thing that makes capitalism good, apparently, is not that it generates wealth more efficiently than other known economic engines. No, the thing that makes capitalism good is that, by forcing people to live precarious lives, it causes them to live in fear of losing everything and therefore to adopt – as fearful people will – a cowed and subservient posture: in a word, they behave ‘conservatively’. Of course, crouching to protect themselves and their loved ones from the eternal lash of risk precisely won’t preserve these workers from risk. But the point isn’t to induce a society-wide conformist crouch by way of making the workers safe and happy. The point is to induce a society-wide conformist crouch. Period. A solid foundaton is hereby laid for a desirable social order.
Let’s call this position (what would be an evocative name?) ‘dark satanic millian liberalism’: the ethico-political theory that says laissez faire capitalism is good if and only if under capitalism the masses are forced to work in environments that break their will to want to ‘jump across the big top’, i.e. behave in a self-assertive, celebratorily individualist manner. Ergo, a dark satanic millian liberal will tend to oppose capitalism to the degree that, say, Virginia Postrel turns out to be right about capitalism ushering in a bright new age of individual liberty, in which people try new things for the sheer joy of realizing themselves, etc., etc.
Let’s be even more explicit about this. Postrel (for example) is like (say) J.S. Mill, insofar as she thinks freedom is good because it is required by, and conduces to, ‘pagan self-assertion’. I quote a passage from Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”:
“What made the protection of individual liberty so sacred to Mill? In his famous essay he declares that, unless the individual is left to live as he wishes in ‘the part [of his conduct] which merely concerns himself,’ civilization cannot advance; the truth will not, for lack of a free market of ideas, come to light; there will be no scope for spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of ‘collective mediocrity’. Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only ‘withered’ capacities, ‘pinched and hidebound’, ‘cramped and dwarfed’ human beings. ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’. ‘All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.”
Of course, many thinkers have argued that the kind of ‘negative liberty’ characteristic of the operations laissez faire capitalism precisely does not produce ‘pagan self-assertion’. To the contrary, it produces – if not mass misery – then at least withered, pinched, hidebound dwarf personalities. The thing to note about Frum’s position is that it is, as it were, a lower synthesis of the standard defenses and criticisms of capitalism. It assumes the worst-case scenario predications about capitalism's tendency to destroy individual spirit, and advocates capitalism on that basis. (As a great conservative once toasted: “Gentlemen! To Evil!”)
But isn’t this a horribly uncharitable reading I have just confabulated? Couldn’t Frum be saying, in the above passage, nothing more noxious than that the severe threat of punishment for risky behavior is just one cog of the mighty engine of economic efficiency – growth, wealth? He could be, but he isn’t. Here is the acid test: would he really be willing to go so far as to sacrifice economic prosperity expressly for the sake of breaking the spirit of ‘pagan self-assertion’ that causes one to wish ‘to leap across the big top’?
Why, yes – yes, he would. Because he believes 1) that big government devastates potential prosperity; and 2):
“For most conservatives [including, by implication, Frum], shrinking government has always been a political means rather than an end in itself. The end was the preservation of the American heritage, and beyond that, the heritage of the classical and Judeo-Christian (or Christian toute court) West. If that heritage could be preserved without fighting an ugly and probably doomed battle to shrink government, most conservatives would drop the size-of-government issue with hardly a pang.” (p. 13)
But is Frum really serious when he says this? And what exactly is he saying? Tolerating marginal economic inefficiency - if the voters bang on the ballot box, bawling for it – is not the same thing as advocating widespread economic misery (and the voters be damned). Surely Frum is at most guilty of insufficiently vigorous advocacy of prosperity. He can’t be expressly advocating the lack thereof. Oddly, there are various strong hints that he is. Example:
“Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character. William Bennett in his lectures reads admiringly from an account of the Donner party written by a survivor that tells the story in spare, stoic style. He puts the letter down and asks incredulously, “Where did those people go?” But if you believe that early Americans possessed a fortitude that present-day Americans lack, and if you think the loss is an important one, then you have to think hard about why that fortitude disappeared. Merely exhorting Americans to show more fortitude is going to have about as much effect on them as a lecture from the student council president on school spirit. Reorganizing the method by which they select and finance their schools won’t do it either, and neither will the line-item veto, or discharge petitions, or entrusting Congress with the power to deny individual NEA grants, or court decisions strinking down any and all acts of politically correct tyranny emanating from the offices of America’s deans of students – worthwhile though each and every one of those things may be. It is socials that form character, as another conservative hero, Alexis de Tocqueville, demonstrated, and if our characters are now less virtuous than formerly, we must identify in what way our social conditions have changed in order to understand why.
Of course there have been hundreds of such changes – never mind since the Donner party’s day, just since 1945 … But the expansion of government is the only one we can do anything about.
All of these changes have had the same effect: the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastophe.” (p. 202-3)
Words fail me; links not much better. The Donner party? Where did all these people go? Into each other, to a dismaying extent. A passage from one of those moving, stoical diary entries:
"...Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him. I don't think she has done so yet, [but] it is distresing. The Donno[r]s told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have [cannibalized] ...ere this time."
The stoical endurance of the Donner party in the face of almost unimaginable suffering is indeed moving. The perseverance of the survivors is a lasting testament to the endurance of the human spirit. (On the other hand, the deaths of all who stoically refused to cannibalize their fellows might be deemed an equal, perhaps a greater testament.) But it is by no means obvious – some further demonstration would seem in order – that lawmakers and formulators of public policy should therefore make concerted efforts to emulate the Donner’s dire circumstances. What will the bumper-stickers say? “It’s the economy, stupid! We need to bury it under ten to twelve feet of snow so that we will be forced to cannibalize the dead and generally be objects of moral edification to future generations.”
I think we are beginning to see why Frum feels that his philosophy may be a loser come election time. I think the Donner party – who, be it noted, set out seeking economic prosperity in the West, not snow and starvation – would not vote Republican on the strength of William Bennett’s comfortable edification at the spectacle of their abject misery. (“Let’s start with the fat one over there in the corner, playing the slots. We can eat off him for a week. See how he likes it.”)
To put what is surely rather an obvious point yet another way: if the Donner party is really what you want, the policy riddle (how to reproduce these conditions, since the Donner party was not political, per se?) already has an answer: Stalinism. The Gulag Archipelago opens with a morally edifying tale of misery and starvation, like so:
“In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which has actually a frozen stream – and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondent reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.”
As Solzhenitsyn observes, the publication of this tale was a bit of an official slip; for it opened a window on “the amazing country of Gulag”, inhabited by the freakish zek peoples.
“We understood because we ourselves were the same kind of people as those present at that event. We, too, were from that powerful tribe of zeks, unique on the face of the earth, the only people who could devour prehistoric salamander with relish.”
I think we can all agree that Solzhenitsyn’s book is among the most moving testament’s to the living human spirit ever committed to paper. I think we can all also agree that one shouldn’t inflict suffering in an attempt to replicate Solzhenitsyn. Why not is a nice question, but for the sake of abbreviating the present argument let’s just take as read: Stalinism bad. From this premise it follows that Frum’s (and Bennett’s) conservative point of view is somewhat confused; because their point of view implies that Stalinism will be good. It produced economic misery, yes; but by hypothesis we don’t care about economics; Stalinism produced a great deal of stoical, enduring good character in the form of resistance to itself. The goal of government, Frum says, is inculcating good character; and lectures won’t do it; you need to right social conditions. Ergo, the gulag is good public policy. And snow helps.
At this point let me step back and make quite clear: I don’t actually think Frum is a crypto-Stalinist, let alone a Stalinist. I don’t think he is actually advocating the intentional infliction of dire economic hardship and suffering – let alone cannibalism - on the American people for the sake of hardening them up, stiffening the national spine. I think if there were some Americans caught in the snowy mountains these days, he’d advocating sending in the helicopters and so forth – and he wouldn’t order them to stand off, just filming the poor schmucks eating each other for Frum’s subsequent viewing pleasure and moral edification.
Which is to say: Frum is not thinking about what he’s saying. Because what he is saying more or less instantaneously implies an indefinitely large cloud of things he really – really, really – doesn’t think.
We are at this point very near the heart of what Frum styles his ‘conservative philosophy’. But at the heart of it is a sort of proto-cognitive itch; a sensibility, or feeling, or subconscious reflex. Orwell talks about this in chapter 12 of The Road to Wigan Pier, incidentally: the naturalness of hostility to the softening that results from modern machine civilization. That’s the feeling, he explains. But, of course, next comes the thought.
“So long as the machine is there, one is under an obligation to use it. No one draws water from the well when he can turn on the tap … Deliberately to revert to primitive methods, to use archaic tools, to put silly difficulties in your own way, would be a piece of dilettantism, of pretty-pretty arty and craftiness. It would be like solemnly sitting down to eat your dinner with stone implements. Revert to handwork in a machine age, and you are back in Ye Old Tea Shoppe or the Tudor villa with the sham beams tacked to the wall.”
That’s Frum in a nutshell. Had the feeling. Stalled out before he got the thought, right in front of ‘Ye Old Conferfative Philofophie & Non-Load-Bearing Architectonic Façade’. (Indeed, this seems to me an appropriate shingle to hang outside the offices of the National Review. And the next time someone over there has the temerity to quote Orwell piously. Take it down: whack!)
Exactly how is this Frum? You don’t drive west through the snowy mountains in covered wagons, gee-yawing a hundred head of cattle. You rent a U-Haul and follow the interstate highway system (thank you, federal government!) Likewise, the welfare state is a machine. It exists. If it were abolished, it would still exist in potentia. It can be built. A number of versions of it exist around the world today. There are reasons not to use a great many of these, since they have a demonstrated tendency to guzzle economic efficiency. And a number of them are just disagreeably interfering, perhaps. On the other hand, it seems that the majority of the voters prefer some sort of safety net to none. They don’t want to shoulder 10-12 feet of snow worth of risk themselves. And a machine exists to shoulder that risk. Are we going to use the machine or not? Damn straight we will! So the argument is reduced to: cost-benefit analysis, and weighing of diverse preferences and degrees of risk-aversion, so forth. There are a lot of technical questions and doubts, and serious arguments about people’s values to be had and hammered away at and ultimately voted up or down. Meanwhile Frum is clean out in the cold. He doesn’t disapprove of the welfare state on economic grounds, so he will not be a participant in these rational debates about costs and benefits. He wants to abolish the welfare state on pretty-pretty arty crafty aesthetic grounds. (Stretching a point, these might be moral grounds. But they are largely aesthetic, I think.)
Note how Frum’s pretty-pretty - “aren’t the hungry strugglers picturesque!” - perspective is indeed that of an aesthetically-minded spectator. And a very asymmetric perspective it is. Just as a movie-goer may enjoy watching all the grunts struggle heroically forward through the mud on the silver screen – while he himself sinks into a soft seat, 64 oz. Bladder-Buster Coke and popcorn ready to hand - Frum would never dream of employing public policy as a means to the good end of hardship for himself. But if it is good for the poor and middle-class to suffer and toil, surely it would do the well-to-do some good as well. We could stiffen upper-classes spines quick by raising the top tax bracket to, say, 95%, while firing all the cops, letting all the criminals out of jail, giving them guns, and busing them to the richest neighborhoods before letting them go. Not a good idea, obviously, but a lot of rich people would learn a lot of important, genuinely meaningful life lessons. And if you sold tickets (or gave them away, financing it all with tax dollars) some folks would be sure to find it aesthetically beguiling. But no. Not a good idea. A very bad idea. Brutality against kulaks and the well-to-do. Not good public policy, however character-building and highly rated as reality TV.
J.S. Mill saw Frum coming a century and a half away. In his essay, “Coleridge”, he writes:
“Take for instance the question how far mankind have gained by civilization. One observer is forcibly struck by the multiplication of physical comforts; the advancement and diffusion of knowledge; the decay of superstition; the facilities of mutual intercourse; the softening of manners; the decline of war and personal conflict; the progressive limitation of the tyranny of the strong over the weak; the great works accomplished throughout the globe by the co-operation of multitudes; and he becomes that very common character, the worshipper of ‘our enlightened age’. Another fixes his attention, not upon the value of these advantages, but upon the high price which is paid for them; the relaxation of individual energy and courage; the loss of proud and self-relying independence; the slavery of so large a portion of mankind to artificial wants; their effeminate shrinking form even the shadow of pain; the dull unexciting monotony of their lives, and the passionless insipidity, and absence of any marked individuality, in their characters; the contrast between the narrow mechanical understanding, produced by a life spent in executing by fixed rules a fixed task, and the varied powers of the man of the woods, whose subsistence and safety depend at each instant upon his capacity of extemporarily adapting means to ends … One would attends to these things, and to these exclusively, will be apt to infer that savage life is preferable to civilized; that the work of civilization should as far as possible be undone, and from the premises of Rousseau, he will not improbably be led to the practical conclusions of Rousseau’s disciple, Robespierre.”
The thing that is in fact keeping Frum from turning into the moral equivalent of Robespierre – IS THAT HE DOESN'T ACTUALLY MEAN IT. I doubt he actually approves of staging Donner parties.
What Frum has got, to repeat, is just a feeling that the kids these days are getting a bit soft. Everyone feels this way sometimes, of course – since it’s true. But some people have thoughts as well as feelings about this attendant effect of civilization. And so it turns out Lionel Trilling was maybe not such a poor prophet after all, when he wrote way back in 1953: “in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition;” for the anti-liberals do not, by and large, “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” Irritable mental gestures. Yep. Frum.
OK. Trilling too strong. I do concede there are serious conservative thinkers and intellectuals. I make a point of reading – and I quite enjoy reading - quite a number of quite conservative writers and thinkers, and I hope I am smart enough to learn from them when I should. But it is seriously easy to pretend you’ve got a conservative philosophy when really you’re armed with nothing but irritable gestures.
We all like watching movies about rugged tough guys (well, most of us: I do). But – write this on a 3 x 5 card and consult as necessary – it is absurd to advocate that the government intentionally impose hardship on the people, against their will, for the sake of toughening them up.
Now what would Frum say to all of this (after he calmed down and stopped just cursing my name)? It is important to pursue this question because – I have admitted this already – I have just spilled a lot of ink over what Frum implies but obviously doesn’t intend. So it sounds worse than it is: multiple adversions to Stalinism, so forth. To repeat: I am quite sure Frum is not a closet Stalinist. What is he?
Well, for starters he would strenuously object to the numerous hints dropped above that he advocates producing a broken-spirited society of cringing conformists. He would explain that he has an ideal not of child laborers toiling in dark, satanic mills. He has an ideal of rugged, self-reliant individualism which is, however, not exactly a ‘jump across the big top’ sort of individualism. (“I hate swingers!” said the man in the movie as he threw a lamp in the hot tub.) But, he would insist: that doesn’t make this ideal fawning lickspittlism and flinchophilia. (Monopoly Capitalist Boss twirling his handlebar moustaches and cracking the whip – Ha! Ha!) Frum would object that he talks about the Donner party not because he likes starvation and snow but because, as per the Mill passage, he likes crafty, stoically resourceful, lean and hardened woodsman-types.
It is perfectly fair to retort that the objection still stands: at best this is risably twee nonsense; faux-rusticated arty-woodcrafty tourist fantasy. At worst it is bonkers: blow up the cushy offices; blow up the factories. Drive the slackers and liberals back into the woods to eke out a living from roots and berries. That’s exceedingly asinine public policy, to put it mildly.
Nevertheless, there is something a bit more complicated at work. I’ve just been reading Empson’s fine and rather neglected literary critical masterpiece, .Some Versions of Pastoral. Fine book. The first chapter is “Proletarian Literature”. A relevant bit:
“As I write , the government has just brought out a poster giving the numbers of men back at work, with a large photograph of a skilled worker using a chisel. He is a stringy but tough, vital but not over-strong, Cockney type, with a great deal of the genuine but odd refinement of the English lower middle class. This is very strong Tory propaganda: one feels it is fair to take him as a type of the English skilled worker, and it cuts out the communist feelings about the worker merely to look at him. To accept the picture is to feel that the skilled worker’s interests are bound up with his place in the class system and the success of British foreign policy in finding markets. There is an unfortunate lack of a word here. To call such a picture a ‘symbol’, like a sign in mathematics, is to ignore the sources of its power; to call it a ‘myth’ is to make an offensive suggestion that the author is superior to common feeling. I do not mean to say that such pictures are nonsense becaused they are myths; the facts of the life of a nation, for instance the way public opinion swings round, are very strange indeed, and probably a half-magical idea is the quickest way to the truth. People who consider that the Worker group of sentiments is misleading in contemporary politics tend to use the word ‘romantic’ as a missile; unless they merely mean ‘false’ this is quite off the point; what they ought to do is to produce a rival myth, like the poster. In calling it mythical I mean that complex feelings, involving all kinds of distant matters, are put into it as a symbol, with an implication ‘this is the right worker to select and keep in mind as the type,’ and that among them is an obscure magical feeling ‘while he is like this he is Natural and that will induce Nature to make us prosperous.’”
This strikes me as sharp cultural criticism; and I believe Empson hereby enables me to peg Frum’s (American) Toryism to the board. First, the stringy, hard-bitten-but-loyal-to-the-system ideal worker. None of those beefy, beaming, jut-jawed Soviet-style proles for us, thank you much.
Obviously our ideal worker may have trouble making his way today, armed only with chisel, but substitute some implement more suitable for the information age and you have Frum’s (and Bennett’s) ideal. When they say ‘Donner party’ they are thinking: hard-bitten and hard-nosed. Not starving, but made tough by a life lived right on the edge of failure. Inclined to stick it out in an unhappy marriage. Not a counter-culture type. Not asking anything from those above. Not having a lot of sympathy to spare for those beneath. Interests ultimately narrowly aligned with those of the upper-classes.
But that’s not the brilliant part. The brilliant part is Empson's correct perception (I think it is correct, anyway) 1) that lots of thoroughly disparate matters are hereby artfully collected and crammed into one simple image; 2) an illicit feeling is generated that economics is, magically, a function not so much of social or cultural arrangements as aesthetic ones. There is a potent aesthetic to Empson’s ideal worker, and Frum and Bennett are in the grips of an analogous aesthetic. And the feeling is: if only we achieve aesthetic satisfaction here, economics will take care of itself.
That this sort of flagrantly cargo-cultic turn of proto-thought is possible - just build him, and the economy will come – is very striking.
I think both these tendencies of thought strongly at work in Frum’s book. First, the compulsive bundling and cramming:
"Neoconservatives may roll their eyes at conservatives’ fondness for sweeping moral assertions. Conservative rhetoric can sound a little overbroad, if not positively bats, to nonconservative ears. Conservatives, however, see the things they dislike in the contemporary world – abortion, the slippage of educational standards, foreign policy weakness, federal aid to handicapped schoolchildren – as all connected, as expressions of a single creed, a creed of which liberalism is just one manifestation."
This passage cracked me up. (Belle was moved to inquire solicitiously: “Are you OK, honey?”) It is, of course, precisely because people know some conservatives see all these things as connected that some people think some conservatives are bats. (If it thinks like a moonbat, and it talks like a moonbat, and if it comes right out and says it’s a moonbat, it’s a moonbat.)
Seriously, here’s a cautionary lesson taught by the 1960’s (you’d think conservatives could learn such things): just because you feel that everything is, like, so connected in a mysterious way, doesn’t make it so. And for damn sure you don’t have the right to bother other people with constant reports of your weird but strong intuitions of, like, total interconnectedness.
It almost makes me feel sorry for neo-cons: trying to hold decent seminars on foreign-policy – US military posture in the Middle East, etc. ,etc.; always having to step on the conservative faithful to keep them from breaking in with ‘deeply-connected’ tirades against wheelchair-ramps in schools. Tinfoil hat stuff. Yeesh.
Far more interesting, actually, is the matter of feeling – not thinking, to be sure – that good social and cultural aesthetics will produce good economics. Just get the right sort of people – i.e. the people that appeal to conservative sensibilities – and somehow the economy will be fine. If you like it, call it natural. After all, if it wasn't natural, why would you like it? As Empson says: ‘while he is like this he is Natural and that will induce Nature to make us prosperous.’
Frum on economics is a very strange business. I quoted him already to the effect that conservatives would be happy to drop the demand for smaller government – i.e. the demand for an efficient economy – if they got what they wanted socially and culturally. One might simply be suspicious that he doesn’t mean it. Conservatives may say they would be willing to be taxed in a good cause. But that’s just a polite way of saying, ‘no, I like my money fine where it is.’ (Insert dsquared’s favorite quote here.) But I actually think the truth is more like: Frum has the strong feeling that if somehow his social and cultural demands were met, the economics would (magically) take care of itself. I think he envisions, as it were, the ideal lower-class/middle-class worker – sort of like the worker Empson sees on the poster, but suitably updated – and he thinks: no way that guy’s going to be poor. He’s one hard, conservative bastard (no offense intended.)
This sentiment or intuition or feeling (whatever you call it) produces a strangely hypertrophic concern with what seem (to me anyway) like rather ornamental details:
“If I am bearded, and I notice that my boss and the last four men in my section to win promotion are clean-shaven, I will find myself slowly nudged toward the barbershop. If the owner of the gas station across the road from mine smiles a lot, and I don’t, I will find myself forcing a cheerful manner myself, no matter how snarly I may inwardly feel. People who do not have to work for a living, however, can indulge themselves in a hundred little peculiarities of behavior – one reason that the English upper class is so famously odd. Millions of Americans now live as free from the pressure to conform as any English lord, thanks either to the direct receipt of welfare or to civil service employment where promotion is by seniority and firing is unheard of. The fact, as much as any fashion change, explains the sudden flaunting of ethnic difference in manner and dress that so distresses Patrick Buchanan in his native city. Relatively few vice presidents at Proctor & Gamble would dare wear a kente cloth or keffiyeh; nobody who intends to earn very much of a living in the polymer business can hope to get away with not learning English; but city hall employees and welfare mothers can do both.
So the cultural conservatives are simply deluding themselves when they hope for escape from the unpleasant task of resisting every enlargement of the ambit of government action and trying, when opportunity presents itself, to reduce that ambit.” (p. 196)
This is supposed to sound sober and sensible. If cultural conditions are functions of economics, you can’t change the culture without altering the economics. So conservatives must keep up the titanic, colossal, epic, probably cosmically doomed and tragic economic struggle to keep government small … so people will not dress funny or wear their hair in hairy ways? Sort of wimpy, as ragnaroks go. Notable disproportion here between means and the wished-for end. Even if you are the sort of person who feels deeply offended by funny, ethnic clothes (we're off the deep end) – even if you think it is anything like your business to dictate fashion sense to everyone around you (we're so off the deep end) – how could you possibly think it was so important as all that? And yet immediately we are off and running about after the bourgeois virtues, all dying out: thrift, diligence, prudence, sobriety, fidelity, and orderliness. I won’t bother to quote. Why can I not exhibit all these virtues beneath and/or behind a beard, kente cloth and/or keffiyeh? Frum seems to find it too obvious to bear arguing that the trick is impossible. (Yet he can’t actually think that.) Does Frum seriously believe there are no shrewd, sober businessmen in those parts of the world where businessmen wear beards and keffiyehs and kente cloths? (Obviously he doesn’t. That’s crazy.) So what does he think? I think he just has a powerful feeling that: things ought to be a certain way. And if they are that way, everything will be all right.
Bearded Guy: I like my beard.
Frum: You should shave it.
Frum: Because it should have been the case that you were too afraid to grow it.
BG: But I wasn’t.
Frum: But you should have been.
Frum: Because you are wrecking the culture.
Frum: Because the culture will decay and then the economy will fall apart and we’ll all be poor.
BG: Because of my beard?
Frum: Just think about it. Our economy depends on a healthy culture.
BG: But you don’t even care about the economy. You said you don’t.
Frum: I wish you hadn’t mentioned that.
BG: But I did.
Frum: Look, if you shave the beard, everything will be … better.
BG: You’re a moonbat.
Frum: It’s all related to … foreign policy and wheelchair access in public school, in ways that … would take a long time to explain.
BG: Get away from me!
Frum: Look. Just shave your beard!
Seinfeld had his Soup Nazi. Frum is sort of a Suit Nazi. (OK, that’s too mean.) A kente cloth-free zone. An advocate of radical (what shall we call it?) sartorauthoritarianism. Society and culture conservatively dictate everyone’s dress code down to a whisker.
Because otherwise you wouldn’t be (wait for it) FREE!
Let’s step back and take in the big picture. Near as I can figure:
Frum cleaves to a radically elitist conception according to which, ideally, a narrowly-conceived set of social and cultural ideals are imposed on a potentially recalcitrant and resistant population. Why? Because he has the philosophical clarity of mind to see that the alternative is unthinkably terrible: a radically elitist conception according to which, ideally, a narrowly-conceived set of social and cultural ideals are imposed on a potentially recalcitrant and resistant population. Nothing that fits that description could possibly be good, obviously.
This passage that underscores the general economic situation, while moving us on to the point about freedom
“… It was awareness of the social consequences of social services, not mere Gradgrind-like zeal for economic efficiency, that initially convinced conservatives to resist the expansion of the welfare functions of government. From its beginning, the American convservative movement has devoted itself to one supreme mission: to warn the country that it had embarked on the wrong path.”
Frum (and other conservatives, according to Frum) are motivated primarily by Gradgrind-like zeal for efficient eradication of social and cultural individualism. (Thank goodness the man isn’t working for our economic benefit! Whew.)
Some hemming and hawing about whether the trouble started in the 14th Century or more recently. Bring, blang, bling. Whenever. The evil decision was made:
“It was a decision in favor of moral arrogance, in favor of the radical reconstruction of the world along lines suggested by whatever reformist or revolutionary ideology happened to hold power at the moment. Moral arrogance inspired the French and Russian revolutions. The same moral arrogance, conservatives believed, lay at the very core of post-New Deal liberalism and of everything else that conservatives thought themselves to be defying when, in William F. Buckley’s memorable metaphor, they took their stand athwart history to shout “Stop!”” (p. 3-4)
Luckily, we have conservatives holding the line against moral arrogance with their (Frum’s own words) “sweeping moral claims” and deep convictions about how everything is interrelated – kente cloths, handicapped access, not enough British history in school, foreign policy - and only they hold the secret key of knowledge. It’s. All. Connected. (You may not be able to see it. But that's just because you are benighted.)
“It is not new,” Whittaker Chambers observed of this creed in another seminal conservative book, Witness. “It is, in fact, man’s second oldest faith. Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘Ye shall be as gods.””
Not conservatism – oh, no! liberalism! And what is it that makes liberals so authoritarian and arrogant? Well, Frum doesn’t quite out and say it, but it appears to have something to do with democracy and asking people what they want rather than deciding for them, forcing it down their throats (and making them like it):
“Viewers of the cable talk shows that proliferated in the 1980’s have seen this scene a hundred times: two pundits will be haranguing each other about some political point, and one will try to clinch his case by announcing triumphantly, “The American people don’t agree with you!” Strictly speaking, this shouldn’t be much of an argument – it begs the reply, “Well, then, the American people are wrong.” But it’s always felt to be deadly. In a democratic culture, feeling yourself at one with a crowd of people is a joy as intense as receiving the king’s soiled handkerchief was at Verseilles. Having tasted that joy in the early years of the Reagan presidency, conservatives have become addicted to it. Their message has adapted accordingly.
Conservatism has always been in danger of devolving from a philosophy of limited government to an ideology of middle-class self-interest.” (p. 8)
In short, conservatism, properly conceived, is not a philosophy whose practical implications are in the material interests of the middle-class. More of the same vein:
“What could be more tempting to a politician than to teach voters to blame taxes and regulations not on the requirements of the middle class but on the inordinate demands of the poor? What could be more reckless than to attack bloated education, highway, and farm budgets, which largely benefit the middle-class? Trouble is, the refusal to take that apparently reckless course dooms all other conservative hopes to futility. If you cannot say “no” to middle-class constituents, you cannot lighten the crushing load of government upon society. And it is that burden, in turn, that makes the social problems that conservatives fret about so intractable.” (p. 8)
Since things that are in the economic interest of the poor and middle-class can hardly constitute crushing economic burdens on them, I think it is fair to gloss ‘society’ in this context as follows: those earning more than $150,000 a year. A somewhat eccentric usage.
In short, Frum actually thinks that conservatism means forcing the poor and middle-class to sacrifice government programs whose existence is, or may be, in their economic interest. And why? Near as I can figure, for the sake of making over the poor and middle-class into more agreeable objects of aesthetic contemplation for (wealthy) conservatives, whose tastes run to: Donner party-like look-alike doughty leatherstocking hard-bitten frontier-type workers (respectful hats in hand.) And the word for this aesthetic transformation is: making people free. And somehow the economy is going to be OK.
Of course we could go around once again with Frum protesting that in fact these bloated government programs are not in the interests of the poor and middle-class because they are ultimately economically inefficient. The problem with this is that – even if it is true – it isn’t what Frum has been saying for 200 pages. I've got no problem with economic libertarianism. At any rate, I can reason with such folk. But Frum is a cultural and a social conservative. What's his philosophy? I’ve had enough of this. I’m stopping.
The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.
Those folks at the NRO are often weird.