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. “This Is A Perfect Example Of Why Democrats Aren’t The Party Of Science” — Josiah Neeley, The Week
By now liberals have developed a habit of thinking of themselves as “pro-science.” But Josiah Neeley, a conservative Catholic and a public policy analyst from Texas, is having none of it.
In The Week, Neeley has an article pointing out that licensing laws for doctors currently include “naturopathic medicine” — Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) actually introduced a legislative resolution to celebrate the branch of medicine in October — and Neeley doesn’t hesitate to needle liberals on that front. But those laws also prevent nurses from performing even far more standard forms of medicine, thus constricting the supply of doctors and raising the price of health care.
If [naturopathic medicine] doesn’t sound very scientific, naturopaths agree. In one revealing interview, naturopathic oncologist Daniel Rubin states that “one of the greatest challenges we face [as naturopaths] is the widespread public belief in the scientific method.” […] There are a lot of lessons one could draw from this, ranging from the Democrats’ claimed status as the “party of science” to the wisdom of letting legislators decide what is and isn’t “safe, effective, and affordable health care.” But instead, I’d like to focus on how the treatment of naturopathic doctors compares to another more respectable group of medical professionals: nurses.
Via occupational licensing, states restrict the scope of practice that nurses can engage in both with and without the supervision of a physician. In some states, these restrictions are severe. Texas, for example, requires Advanced Practice Nurses to be supervised by a physician. And even with physicians’ supervision, nurses are not allowed to perform many medical services at all. As a result, medical care is more expensive.
“As the naturopathy example shows, public health is really not the concern here,” Neeley continues. “The real goal is to increase salaries for those within the guild by restricting competition.” The point actually mirrors another critique of the United States’ health system regularly leveled by left-wing economist Dean Baker: namely, that immigration and licensing laws prevent foreign doctors from easily entering the US to practice. So Baker wants to raises the supply of doctors directly, while Neeley wants to allow more nurses to perform equivalent tasks to doctors. But the basic complaint in both cases is the same: that current policies constrict the supply of medical care, driving down competition for doctors and allowing them to get away with charging higher prices.
2. “Fantasy And The Buffered Self” — Alan Jacobs, The New Atlantis
Alan Jacobs, a professor of the humanities at Baylor University and an occasional contributor to several conservative publications, has a dense and fascinating piece in The New Atlantis on the shift in religious sensibilities from the pre-modern pagan world to the modern enlightened world has given rise to the fantasy genre. Drawing heavily on Charles Taylor’s work, Jacobs argues that individuals in the pre-modern world saw themselves as “porous” — at the mercy of mystical forces of good and evil that they considered to be very real in the world, and which they developed all sorts of rites and traditions to navigate. But with the rise of science and the enlightenment, people now instinctively see themselves as “buffered” from these forces. We no longer see those forces as deeply real, making us safe from them.
But this safety comes at a price: the world may no longer be frightening to modern humans, but it is no longer wondrous either. Jacobs suspects that it’s a fundamental drive of our species to seek out a “re-enchantment” of the world; that fantasy storytelling is one method we’ve developed to do so; and that the fantasy genre reveals we may not be so modern as we think:
Fantasy itself is not a recent development but rather an ancient form (though not under its current name). What we now call “fantasy” is something closer to “realism” in the pagan world, which is populated by many powers capable of acting upon “porous” human selves. In the pagan world, success in life is largely a matter of navigating safely among those powers, which are unpredictable, beyond good and evil, and often indifferent to human needs. (Such indifference means that they can help as well as hurt, but also that their assistance can never be relied upon.) In this environment, fantastic creatures are at the very least personifications or embodiments of powers genuinely believed to exist. The realism is not strict, in that the writers and readers of earlier times did not necessarily believe in the existence of precisely such creatures as were described in their stories — perhaps not Apollo or Artemis any more than Dante’s Geryon or Spenser’s Blatant Beast, though such questions are necessarily and notoriously vexed. But at the very least the pre-modern world is one in which powers like those hold sway and cannot be safely neglected; a world in which what we would call the fantastic is an intrinsic element of the real.
Second, some of the most celebrated practitioners of modern fantasy share with their pre-modern predecessors this belief that the fictional apparatus of fantasy is a relatively close approximation to the way things really are for human beings. J. R. R. Tolkien may not have believed in Sauron, but he surely believed that there are in human history people who sell themselves to the Enemy and find themselves as a result of that decision first empowered and then destroyed. And when, at the beginning of Lewis’s Perelandra (1944), the protagonist Ransom’s progress toward a friend’s house is impeded by invisible forces who fill him with fear, Lewis was describing the work of spirits whom he truly believed to exist, though under a slightly different description, just as he probably believed that some forms of scientistic rationalism are the product of demonic influence. In short, these writers sought to present their readers with an image of an enchanted world, of selves fully porous to supernatural forces. But because they did so in genres (fantasy, science fiction) known for the imaginative portrayal of the wholly nonexistent, readers confident in their buffered condition can be delighted by those stories without ever for a moment considering the possibility that the forces portrayed therein might correspond to something real. Indeed, the delight of the stories for such readers consists primarily in their perceived unreality.
Jacobs goes much further from here, drawing a historical sketch of how the shift from paganism to monotheism to Christianity all affected the shift into the modern framework, in ways liberals might find surprising. And he ends with a potent notion that the genre of fantasy is itself now being torn apart by the rise of technology. While still trying to resurrect the “old gods” of the pre-modern world, fantasy is also contending with the possibility that technology has become so powerful and pervasive that it has achieved its own status as a mystical force in human affairs, displacing those old gods and threatening to become a god of its own. The whole thing is well worth reading.
3. “Tobacco And The Soul” — Michael P. Foley, The Imaginative Conservative
This one is for fun.
Michael P. Foley took to the pages of The Imaginative Conservative this week, and did the title of his publication proud with an extended meditation on how the three major ways of smoking tobacco correspond to the three drives of the soul in classical philosophy. In Foley’s rendering, cigarettes correspond to the appetite, which is why they’re often associated with sex; cigars correspond to the spirit, which is why they’re associated with people in positions of power; and pipes correspond to the intelligence, which is why we always think of them being smoked by professors.
With the framework laid down, Foley then dives into how it can illuminate recent social and political trends:
As every student of Plato knows, if something has a relation to the soul it has a relation to the city. Thus if our theory is anything more than the smoke it purports to explain, it can be used to analyze political phenomena. For example, in recent years we have witnessed a concerted effort to sterilize our erotic attachments, to sap them of their danger but also of their vigor. The flat, unerotic words we now use for these attachments confirm this. Instead of “lover” and “beloved,” we now have “significant other” and, even worse, “partner” (a term which lends to the affairs of the heart all the excitement of filling out a tax form). Given this environment, it is no wonder that our most vigorous moral war waged today is against cigarette-smoking. Nor is it any wonder that this war’s only rival in intensity is the one in favor of “safe sex,” for condoms sterilize sex not only literally but figuratively as well.
Further, the relation between cigars and spiritedness may explain why cigars are now for the first time gaining a significant number of female disciples. For as women continue to enter the traditionally male world of competition, many are beating men at their own game by using the same tactics of gaining power. And with the tactics have come the symbols.
Most significantly, however, the relative rarity of pipe-smoking in America is a telling sign of its current intellectual crisis. If the pipe epitomizes the intellectual way of life, then is it any surprise that it cannot be found where schools substitute politically correct ideology for real philosophy, or where the intelligentsia, instead of engaging in serious thought, pander to the latest activist fads? Is it any surprise that America’s most famous pipe-smoker in the last thirty years has been Hugh Hefner, pajama prophet of the trite philosophy of hedonism?
Needless to say, the general point that this feature highlights conservative writing worth reading — and not arguments we agree with — applies in spades here. But Foley’s piece is worth reading for the pure, out-of-left-field creativity of its associative cultural analysis. He even gets into what we should think of chewing tobacco and snuff — they do not use fire, and thus correspond to the “subhuman” parts of the soul — and brazenly trolls liberals on marijuana, calling it a perversion of the soul-uses of tobacco: “it does not truly facilitate conversation, drawing the smoker into himself (not outwards, as does all good conversation) and dumbing-down any speech that is uttered.” So there you go.