Welcome to TP Ideas’ third installment of our roundup of the week’s conservative writing! Every Friday, I look at three pieces written by right-of-center folk that intelligently articulate core parts of the conservative worldview and break down why it’s worth the left’s time to pay attention. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling progressives how right they are, but rather to pick out writing that helps liberals understand where their ideological foes are coming from.
So let’s begin.
1. “The Homeless Modern” — Mark Mitchell, Intercollegiate Review
The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is the conservative institution I’m most envious of. ISI is an organization dedicated to making conservatives familiar with conservatism’s foundational intellectual texts; it’s omnipresent at massive movement gatherings like CPAC. There’s nothing like it on the left.
Mitchell’s piece in ISI’s journal clearly lays out why conservatives find progressivism philosophically distasteful. Adapted from a longer 2006 essay, Mitchell argues that the progressive ideal of freedom from want and oppression goes too far. By making freedom into politics’ ultimate lodestar, progressives have built a society that ignores the real foundation of human happiness, which is a sense of spirirtual and physical rootedness in a particular community. We feel unhappy and disconnected in the modern world, according to Mitchell, because we’ve “freed ourselves” from the traditions that make us feel like we have place we belong:
In her book The Need for Roots, the French writer Simone Weil points to one particular lacuna in modern democracy’s theoretical self-understanding. She argues that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul…. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future.” If this is the case, then a society characterized by hypermobility, a society that seems to take a sort of satisfaction in its own deracination, would be ill-equipped to fulfill a central human need. According to Weil, the modern condition of rootlessness is not merely geographical or even cultural but spiritual as well. Writing of mid-twentieth-century France, but sounding as if she could be writing to twenty-first-century Americans, Weil describes “a culture very strongly directed towards and influenced by technical science, very strongly tinged with pragmatism, extremely broken up by specialization, entirely deprived both of contact with this world and, at the same time, of any window opening to the world beyond.” Human beings have a need for geographical roots in a particular place embodying particular traditions, habits, and practices. But equally, humans require roots in a transcendent world, a world of spirit, a world of moral truth. In short, the uprootedness of the modern world is both spiritual and geographic.
Mitchell is tapping into a basic insight, supported by one of the most influential social science books of the past 50 years, that there’s something profoundly wrong with the way that Americans relate to each other in the modern era. Michell finds a solution to the problem in tradition and faith; what’s the progressive alternative?
2. “Twilight of the Right” — Alan Pell Crawford, The American Conservative
The American Conservative, in case you haven’t heard of it, is America’s best dissident conservative publication. The magazine’s most intellectually valuable work manages to do two things simultaneously: point out ways that the current Republican party has parted ways with traditional conservatism, and make a case for why that older conservative vision ought to remain attractive today.
Crawford’s piece is a particularly sterling example of this genre. An old hand in the conservative movement, Crawford has a number of really funny stories from the movement’s heyday, like the time when a prominent conservative leader joked about how Nixon’s nose “looks like a penis” during his admission of responsibility for Watergate. Other anecdotes are revealing, like when, during the same Watergate announcement, another conservative leader said “If I’d known he’d been up to all that stuff, I’d have been for Nixon all along.”
But the most valuable part of Crawford’s piece for progressives aren’t the schadenfreude-inducing takedowns of the conservative movement. Rather, it’s Crawford’s defense of why someone of his intellectual talent was attracted to the conservative movement in the first place:
Maybe it started with an early interest in the Scopes Trial and a nagging sense that there just might be another side to that story. I had gobbled up H.L. Mencken’s coverage of that signal event in American liberal mythology, and my reaction bordered on the schizophrenic. I was captivated by Mencken’s libertarian spirit and bouncy prose but also deeply troubled by the man’s contempt for the “booboisie.”
For some reason, I had a sense that ordinary men and women living quiet, decent, and productive lives were not simply the Great Unwashed. Maybe, it occurred to me, the real fools were those “discontented men of quality,” in Edmund Burke’s words, who, “puffed up with personal pride and arrogance,” disdained their less enlightened neighbors. By the time I’d gone to college in the early 1970s, Burke’s seemed a fair description of the way campus radicals regarded the George Babbitts and Archie Bunkers back home who were paying for their ungrateful children’s educations.
Crawford’s narrative of conservative decline weaves in conservative intellectual luminaries, from Russell Kirk to Peter Viereck, that most liberals have likely never read or even heard of. The juxtaposition should force even the most rigid progressive to question the assumption that conservatism is nothing but a pretty veneer masking prejudice and reaction.
3. “Yes, The Drug War Really Is Pretty Awful” — Radley Balko, The Washington Post
Radley Balko is a hardline libertarian, and also one of America’s most impressive criminal justice reporters. Some progressives seem to think those things are in conflict, but they’re deeply linked: his years-long investigation of the Cory Maye conviction, which ended up saving Maye from lethal injection and setting him free, was sparked by Balko’s principled opposition to that insane abuse of federal power, the Drug War.
Balko’s post this week, a statistical demolition of the case for harsh drug laws, is then very much worth your time. Responding to his Post colleague Charles Lane’s defense of criminalization, Balko marshals an damning bill of goods against the Drug War:
Here’s one more incredible statistic: The overall arrest rate for all crimes in America dropped 25 percent between 1991 and 2010. That makes some sense, since that’s also the beginning of the drop in violent and property crime. But the arrest rate for drugs over that same period has increased by nearly 35 percent. And as noted, that increase has been driven entirely by arrests for possession, not for manufacture or sale. The gap between black and white arrests may be narrowing, but that’s only because we’ve increased the rate at which we arrest white people for drug possession faster than we’ve increased the rate at which we arrest black people for drug possession. I don’t know that I’d call that an improvement for anyone, white or black.
Balko’s piece isn’t just persuasive on the merits of the drug war; it also explains exactly what progressives have to gain by the inclusion of some more ideologically out-there voices in the mainstream media. That drugs should be illegal is the most conventional of conventional wisdom; until recently, President Obama laughed off even marijuana legalization. While the left and the libertarian right often speak out about the drug war’s injustice, the mainstream establishment in both parties have long seen challenges to the status quo as out-of-bounds in polite company. This debate is a perfect case in point: Balko, a product of the libertarian movement, is doing battle with not only Lane, a former New Republic editor-in-chief, but also Post columnist Michael Gerson, a former Bush Administration speechwriter. Seeing this kind of debate in one of the nation’s most important papers should invigorate progressives — regardless of whether the spokesman for their side in it shares their views about Social Security.