Inner Checks and Political Balances
Honoring the best tendencies in conservative thought means ignoring the worst. Scott McLemee has some idea where to start.
In January 2002, on his way back from an academic conference, a young journalist named David W. Miller was killed by an intoxicated driver, along with the two people who were giving him a ride home from the airport. As often happens, the drunk was unhurt. Now he's in prison -- where, with any luck, he will serve every single day of his sentence. There are old and very reasonable arguments for why justice cannot, by definition, be a matter of revenge. But I am happy to ignore them, in this case -- for David was my colleague, and someone I respected enormously, and he was just about to take off a couple of months of paternity leave following the birth of his second child. It does not seem possible that the man who killed him could suffer enough.
Now, it would be sentimental overstatement for me to claim a deep friendship. But there was more to our collegiality than the usual blend of mutual tolerance and bland amicability required to make a workplace tolerable. That we could talk without yelling at one another seemed, at the time, like a tiny miracle of civilization. David had worked for the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review and was not exactly shamefaced about being a conservative -- while in my cubicle there was a portrait of Lenin.
In fact, he looks down on me now, here in my study at home. I have sworn to take his picture down if, and only if, Henry Kissinger ends up on trial for crimes against humanity. (Frankly, I'm tired of looking at old V.I., but am still awaiting that necessary bit of evidence that bourgeois democracy is
capable of truth and reconciliation.)
David and I had the occasional, let's say, spirited conversation. Neither of us ever persuaded the other of much. With hindsight, however, it's clear that knowing him was incredibly instructive -- and not just because he kept up with scholarship in the social sciences that were far from my own stomping grounds.
He was, as the saying goes, a "movement conservative," in touch with the ideas and arguments being cooked up in the right-wing think tanks. But he was as intellectually honest as anyone could be. Around the time we first met, he had just published an article on the famous "broken window syndrome" -- that basic doctrine of conservative social policy -- showing there was scarcely any solid research to back it up. And when he did argue for any given element of the right's agenda, it was
hard to escape the sense that he did so from the firm conviction that it would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people.
In short, talking with David meant facing a repeated obligation to think the unthinkable: that someone could be a conservative without suffering from either cognitive deficit or profound moral stupidity.
Of course, any person who spends very long on the left must come face to face, eventually, with the hard truth that a certain percentage of one's comrades are malevolent, cretinous, thoughtless, or palpably insane. This is troubling, but you get used to it. What proves much more disconcerting is
the realization that someone from the other side possesses real virtues -- and that they hold their views, not in spite of their better qualities, but in consequence of them.
All of this came back to mind upon reading a recent profile of Roger Scruton, the conservative British philosopher. In most respects, it is a typical newspaper piece on a thinker. That is, it avoids any effort to discuss his work (or even to describe it) and focuses instead on his personality, which on a generous estimate may be described as curmudgeonly.
There was one passage in particular that hit home. It's when Scruton says, "One of the great distinctions between the left and the right in the intellectual world is that left-wing people find it very hard to get on with right-wing people, because they believe that they are evil. Whereas I have no problem getting on with left-wing people, because I simply believe that they are mistaken. After a while, if I can persuade them that I'm not evil, I find it a very useful thing. I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you
correct your views?"
Scruton is on to something. Of course, the point is very seriously blunted by the way he pretends that Manicheanism is a peculiarly leftist failing. In his heart of hearts, he must know better. Certainly the American right is very keen on the language of apocalyptic confrontation with absolute evil.And Scruton himself is not above a certain amount of nastiness, once the polemical fires are stoked.
That's just the way of the passions, though -- the tendency in our nature that must be controlled by "the inner check," to borrow a very old-fashioned conservative notion discussed by the political scientist Wesley McDonald, who teaches at Elizabethtown College. In his book Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology, published last year by the University of Missouri Press, he explains that the inner check is that factor in the soul that can subdue the more vicious parts of one's nature -- in the interest of the common good, and of the higher human potentialities.
See also, "superego." But there is perhaps a value to the more frankly moralistic expression "inner check." The superego is what makes you neurotic. By contrast, the inner check is what makes it possible to say, as Scruton does, "I know that my views on many things are open to correction. But if you can't discuss with your opponents, how can you correct your views?"
For an instructive display of the inner check in action (and a reminder of how much work it has cut out for it) you might check out a recent exchange concerning Unholy Alliance by David Horowitz.
According to its author, this is the book that provides the ballast of heavy thinking to back up "Discover the Network." And a good thing it does, for otherwise "Discover" might be regarded as a laughable exercise in guilt-by-association that makes the John Birch Society's None Dare Call it Conspiracy look like sober political analysis.
So it was interesting -- encouraging, even -- to see that Timothy Burke had written a long commentary on the book. The impression one gets from reading Burke's essays, over time, is that his ideas are measured without being equivocal. He tends to be scrupulous about defining where his arguments are coming from and where they are going. That precision is not the same as rigidity, however. He would probably be identified by most conservatives as a man of the left. But more than anything else, his writings call to mind a comment by Raymond Aron, who for decades was considered the anti-Sartre of French political and intellectual life. "The last word is never said, and one must not judge one's adversaries as if one's own cause were identified with absolute truth."
During a previous exchange, Horowitz had challenged Burke to grapple with Unholy Alliance, which demonstrates (says Horowitz} the linkage between radical Islamism and the American left. And Burke took up the gauntlet.
Burke begins by noting that "there is an intellectual history waiting to be written that plausibly connects the New Left with some of the forms of romantic anti-Western sentiment among some American (and European) activists and intellectuals that flourished between 1980 and the present."
He adds that such a book would do well to examine "a wider, more diffuse 20th Century history of connections between anti-Western ideas, texts and political commitments within Europe and the United States that would not be isolated in any simple way to 'the left' (indeed, would cross over at points to authors and thinkers typically regarded as conservative)."
Let's be clear on this: from the start, Burke more than half concedes a point that Horowitz takes as urgent: that there are indeed continuities between some parts of the Third World-ist left and modes of thought and politics that are, in the strictest sense, reactionary. But Burke thinks that the matter has to be faced with a certain degree of rigor and scholarship. Otherwise, why bother?
Burke argues that Horowitz has not offered even the most rudimentary approximation of the kind of analysis that he has promised. And yet Burke also makes an extremely (to my mind, astonishingly) generous estimate of Horowitz's potential to write something intelligent and serious.
In answer, Horowitz has issued a petulant, abusive, and interminable response that one suspects will turn into a chapter in his next autobiography.
At this point, it is hard not to think of the "inner check" -- the doctrine that there is (or should be) a small voice of constraint within the soul. "Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite," as Russell Kirk put it in The Conservative Mind (1953), "for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason."
The inner check is not a part of the self -- but, rather, that internal force subduing the self, which would otherwise howl and rave, and demand that the world adore its every claim to glory. Reading Burke and Horowitz side by side, it's not hard to come to figure out which one really embodies that
Now, over the past couple of years, I've tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35, taught me so much by his example -- by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, it's meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.
To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output -- journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. It's not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it.But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside one's familiar ruts.
But now it's time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.
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