Welcome to TP Ideas‘ weekly roundup of the best conservative writing! Every Friday, we take a look at three pieces by right-leaning writers that constructively articulate core elements of their worldview. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling us how right liberals are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s get started.
1. “Purgatorio, Canto XXVII” — Rod Dreher, The American Conservative
What time I dedicate to reading Rod Dreher is usually spent in exasperation. But there’s a reason he’s been a fixture of conservative blogging for years, and he’s generally at his best when he attempts to explain his own internal world to others rather than critiquing the outside world.
In this piece, Dreher takes his ongoing meditations on Dante’s Inferno as an opportunity to reflect on why he returned to a distinctly conservative and traditional Christian faith — and in particular why he chose to rededicate himself to chastity outside of marriage:
Why couldn’t I be a Christian but also up to date in my sex life? Well, because it’s dishonest, is why. There is no way to reconcile sex outside of marriage with the Christian faith. It cannot be done without first doing so much violence to Scripture and Tradition that it has little binding power left. I was not (and am not) the kind of person to put it like this, but it’s true: either Christ is the Lord of all your life, or He is not really your Lord: you are. I knew this. I knew I was lying to myself that I could have both. And I knew that my desire for my sexual freedom was greater than my desire for God. God would have to wait.
Meanwhile, I came very close to making a mess of my life, following my own desire. I hurt women. I didn’t mean to hurt them, but I did. I was selfish. I couldn’t think clearly. More than anything else, I wanted to be in love, and to be committed to one woman, but I didn’t know how to do that. And then I had a moment of reckoning — the details aren’t important — that made me realize how reckless I had been, and how my selfish behavior — my lustful behavior, to speak frankly — stood to wreck truly wreck, more lives than my own. At one point, I even began to fear for my soul.
Now, I think it’s just factually wrong to assert that sex outside of marriage cannot be reconciled with Christianity. That said, two important things emerge here: one is the possibility that even consensual sex can be quite destructive on the human level. What motivated Dreher to change his life was not disgust with his own sexuality or disgust with female sexuality — often the accusations leveled by the left — but rather a profoundly felt desire to not hurt others.
The second thing is how Dreher found subjugating his own desires to, not just a higher calling, but a higher calling with deep tradition behind it, to be both a positive and freeing experience. Not because he concluded on his own intellectual terms that the tradition is correct, but because he recognized himself coming undone without it as an anchor. The sublimity of it just sort of became irresistible. “Deliver me from the prison of my own subjectivity,” as Helen Rittelmeyer once put it. It’s worth grappling with that as a legitimately felt human need, and you can read the whole thing to get the full sweep of it.
2. “Afghanistan — Graveyard of Empires?” — Max Boot, The Hoover Institution
It’s long been the position of the Obama Administration that Afghanistan was the worthwhile war its predecessor should have focused on, rather than becoming distracted by the monstrous blunder of Iraq. But Max Boot’s latest piece for the Hoover Institution suggests neither the White House, nor its supporters, will like what it must become to reach its objectives there.
And Boot thinks part of the issue is we’ve over-learned the historical lesson that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires.” In fact, he argues, the British in particular managed to more or less achieve their foreign policy aims in Afghanistan for almost four decades, despite being beaten back by the country’s indigenous forces in 1880:
From 1880 to 1919 Afghanistan was a virtual protectorate of the British Empire, with the British supporting the rule of Abdur Rahman, “the Iron Emir,” and his son Habibullah. Habibullah’s assassination in 1919 brought to the throne his brother Amanullah, who launched the Third Afghan War to regain control of his country’s foreign policy. He succeeded but only because the British were too war-weary to offer much resistance. [...]
Afghanistan is likely to remain impoverished and corrupt, but it is not necessarily destined to once again become a terrorist safe haven. The Afghan security forces can safeguard their country from a Taliban takeover, but only if they continue to receive assistance from the U.S. in such vital areas as intelligence, logistics, planning, and air support. U.S. commanders estimate the total cost of aid to the ANSF at $4 billion to $5 billion a year, and they believe that an absolute minimum of 10,000 U.S. troops will need to remain behind as advisers and as a high-end counterterrorism force. A greater commitment of money and personnel would further increase the odds of success—but that seems unlikely given President Obama’s rapidly waning commitment to the once-necessary war.
The old saw that comes to mind here is “there is no reason to think all good things can go together.” The White House is clear that preventing the resuscitation of the Taliban is its goal, and all things being equal it’s a goal that’s perfectly consistent with liberal or even liberal-left values. But Boot raises the disturbing possibility that the goal is unreachable unless the United States maintains a significant and ongoing commitment of blood and treasure, while reverting to something akin to old-school British colonialism.
3. “The Perils of Workplace Purges” — Leah Libresco, The American Conservative
So we have two selections from The American Conservative this week. That could raise suspicions, since the magazine often plays the role of mainstream conservatism’s loyal opposition. But we chose both pieces because they actually take up causes in harmony with mainstream conservatism and defend them especially lucidly.
Liberal hackles were recently raised by the evangelical Christian boycott of WorldVision, a humanitarian group that was willing to hire employees in same-sex marriages until the boycott forced it to scuttle the policy. Leah Libresco starts with that event, but then uses it to push back against the removal of Brendan Eich from heading up Mozilla; an effort many on the left supported, thanks to Eich’s donations to the Proposition 8 campaign against same-sex marriage in California:
Balkanized businesses, which only hire employees or leaders that are politically palatable to their donors and customers aren’t economically or socially efficient. Instead of creating weak-tie relationships across ideological divides, they segregate people who disagree, fostering a fear of contamination by association. This exclusionary approach raises the stakes of political conflict dangerously high… [N]either side benefits from policing orthodoxy as tightly as these boycotts would do. World Vision made its policy shift in the service of this kind of neutrality; since some of the churches it worked with and the states it operated in recognize gay marriage, World Vision would respect, but not praise, their policies. That turned out to be unacceptable to its donors, who saw anything less than exclusion as tacit endorsement.
A healthy body politic requires that there be room to be wrong and still belong to normal society and commerce. A society that won’t live together can’t learn from each other.
What stands out is Libresco’s invocation of the direct and concrete experience of human diversity as a worthwhile value — a sentiment the left should sympathize with. Cutting ourselves off from economic and social interaction with people whose values we oppose, even profoundly, runs the risk of stunting our individual and collective growth.
The point echoes Michael Brendan Dougherty’s recent warning that the left’s dedication to egalitarianism may drive it to trample pluralism. Yet there’s also a tension: Libresco wants businesses to not use the freedom Dougherty wants the state to leave them. Conversely, we on the left could ask ourselves, if we think the state is a legitimate tool in preventing this sort of balkanization, should those protections be extended to individuals’ political and ideological stances? Just how deep and reliable is the distinction between mere social pressure and outright censorship?