Welcome to TP Ideas’ second installment of our roundup of the week’s conservative writing! Every Friday, I take three pieces written by conservatives that intelligently articulate core parts of the conservative worldview and explain what made them worthwhile. The goal isn’t to find conservatives telling progressives how right they are, but rather to pick out writing that helps progressives understand where their ideological opposites are coming from.
So let’s begin.
1. “Time for the ‘Never Agains’ on North Korea” — Nicholas Eberstadt, The Wall Street Journal
Progressives have a tendency to use neoconservatism as a term of abuse (“neocons”), synonymous with every Bush administration foreign policy folly from Iraq to torture. But that lazy equation obscures the fact that, at its outset, neoconservatism coalesced around a principled critique of America’s Cold War diffidence towards human rights abuses abroad. Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, exemplifies this strain of neoconservatism perfectly in a piece on his piece on a new U.N. report about human rights abuses in North Korea. Eberstadt paints an absolutely brutal picture of the holocaust — I use that term very deliberately — taking place inside the Hermit Kingdom:
Some of the most chilling passages concern the North Korean penal system — especially its dreaded kyohwaso (prison camps) and even more brutal kwanliso (political prison camps). The horrors begin with detention and interrogation centers, where people are initially detained after being accused of crimes against the state by the security services. (North Korea has more than one set of secret police.)
The charges are often of the most trivial or arbitrary variety — one witness said he was arrested for the crime of misspelling Kim Il Sung’s name when typing. The detainees are routinely brutalized, with cruelties large and small. “An old woman who had no shoes and asked for shoes in order to work,” the report says, “was told by the SSD agents that she did not deserve shoes because the detainees were animals and should die soon.” Then she was beaten until bloody.
In the prison camps, conditions are still more sadistic and dehumanizing. Starvation and torture are the norm, sexual abuse of women routine. Most who are sent to these camps can expect to perish there. Concludes the report: ‘According to the Commission’s findings, hundreds of thousands of inmates have been exterminated in political prison camps and other places over a span of more than five decades.’
“Given the bombshell report, democratic governments and independent organizations can no longer act as if they did not know,” Eberstadt says pointedly. It’s a forthright challenge to progressives who, post Bush, have rallied around the principle of openness to negotiation with states like North Korea to check our principles. Can we really, in good faith, cooperate with a regime so monstrous? And, even if we can, what more can be done to shutter North Korea’s death camps — and why isn’t the Obama administration doing it?
2. “Against Heterosexuality” — Michael Hannon, First Things
It’s not often you see a sexually conservative Catholic monk-in-training who thinks sodomy is sinful approvingly cite queer icon Michel Foucault on sexuality. Yet here we are.
Hannon’s basic contention is that conservative Catholics, and sexually conservative Christians more broadly, have made a grave error in joining the social war against “homosexuality.” Demonizing people with same-sex attraction for the degradation of sexual morality, in Hannon’s view, misses the point entirely: it’s heterosexuals who bear the most “blame” for separating sex from marriage and procreation. Rather, he suggests, conservative Catholics should follow postmodern theorists like Foucault and reject the language of sexual orientation altogether, focusing instead on developing a sexual system oriented around individual sin:
The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why. And yet, as I have argued throughout, in our own day homosexuality deserves the abominable label, and heterosexuality does too.
As regards sexual morality, we have reached a point at which it is no longer sufficient for us to criticize modernity’s poor answers. Like our Lord in the gospel narratives, we must also correct its terribly impoverished questions. Rather than struggling to articulate how to live as a ‘homosexual Christian’ — or, for that matter, the even more problematic question of how to live as a ‘heterosexual Christian’ — we should be teaching our Christian brethren, especially those in their most formative adolescent years, that these categories are not worth employing.
I like Hannon’s piece not only because it underscores my pet theory that the postmodern intellectual movement is secretly conservative (see also: James Poulos), but because it points towards a way for theological conservatives to sustain their traditional communities in a social, rather than political, manner. Hannon’s piece clearly illustrates why conservative Christians see themselves as a besieged minority to progressives who may have difficulty understanding that mentality. It also outlines a version of theoconservatism that channels the fear of cultural extinction towards an internal project of spiritual renewal rather than a campaign to deny equal rights to LGBT Americans.
In a free society, there will always be people who have moral views progressives find distasteful or even repulsive. By reframing sexual conservatism’s project as internal and social rather than political, Hannon forces progressives to grapple with the limits of our egalitarianism.
3. “What Do I Know About Corrupt Cops? My Family Owned a Few.” — J.D. Tuccile, Reason
I wanted to put Tuccile’s piece in the roundup for this lede alone:
Years ago, members of my extended family were gangsters connected with the Genovese crime family. They had the ability, which they used, to place people in favored positions within the New York City Police Department. I know this, because my father was offered one of those slots.
His post, while short, is a fascinating inside look at what it’s like to grow up mobbed-up. But it’s also an important piece for understanding where libertarians are coming from politically, and what they bring the table.
Libertarians occasionally refer to the state as a gang, the point being that it’s an organized group that uses physical force to extract resources from citizens. That’s not often an enlightening metaphor, but when the government’s civil army (the police) is literally owned by the mafia, the libertarian skepticism of government power makes a little more sense. The organizing thrust of Tuccile’s story is that state, particularly its enforcement arms, almost by definition possess the ability to exercise unlimited power if it so chooses. Any institution so powerful is also necessarily corruptible.
Hence why libertarians are often the first to call out abuses of police power and demand criminal justice reform. “Asking police officers to suppress highly profitable activities where there’s money to be had just for looking the other way is just begging for trouble,” Tuccile concludes. “That’s enough reason to give extra thought to every job, tool, power, legal protection, and consideration given to police officers.” It’s a point those of us who occasionally endorse expanded police powers to advance progressive goals should take to heart.