Saturday, September 01, 2012

A Conservative Manifesto

My brother wrote this to our family 4 years ago when Obama was up for election the first time.

I don't usually  post things this long, but this is in a category by itself. I believe that this is one of the most informative political commentaries I have ever read. You may call me biased (yes this is written by my brother), but before you do, read it for yourself. 

Dear Family,

Why I am a conservative by Graham Ward Dennis.

I must apologize at the outset. Others have apologized because what they wrote was long. By comparison there is not a word in the English language for how long this document is. Frankly, its length is evil. So I apologize profusely to any poor sap who tries to make it to the end of the document. If you do, you'll find a promise to pay for your meal at the Georgia Pig next summer!

Reason #1: Aristotle, Jesus, Burke, Solzhenitsyn, Muggeridge, Buckley 

Principle: Reform is always preferable to revolution, or so say these six heroes.

Political Philosophy:

The left, for the past three-hundred years or so, has hitched its ideological wagon to a philosophy of revolution. I would argue, however, that the ideology of revolution can be traced back much further. This is precisely what Xenophon is concerned about in his famous political treatise Cyropaedia (the education of Cyrus, written over 2200 years ago). One of the central themes of Xenophon’s political philosophy is that Cyrus lacked something of the highest and greatest importance—political prudence. Cyrus never properly understood the limits of politics. This was because he didn’t understand the limits of human nature. He was an ideologue. Reflection on the limits of politics (within the framework of an understanding of the limits of human nature) is precisely what constitutes the basis of political wisdom.

This classical formula is the starting point for my own political philosophy. I expect my leaders to begin with a prudent understanding of human limitations. This distinction is also magisterially outlined in St. Augustine’s City of God. What the “city of man” can achieve is different than what the city of God can achieve. The city of man is primarily involved in creating an infrastructure to deal with the “temporal” ends of man. While the city of man can at times officiate these temporal ends with great success, even this aspect of its vocation is subject to decline (due to the inherent sinfulness of man). But the eternal ends of man cannot be officiated by the city of man. Only the city of God has the infrastructure (and the divine foundation) to officiate (and provide for) the eternal ends of man. Of course, it is possible for the Church to influence the city of man. But even here she faces a profound limitation—even the church cannot bring about the full and complete conversion of the city of man. The city of man will always be heterogeneous in nature (and, Augustine argues, even the church herself cannot ultimately separate the sheep from the goats).

Because the city of man is not the city of God, and because the city of man is therefore more prone to vice than the city of God, it follows that the city of man is more profoundly subject to decline. The state, lacking the explicitly divine foundation of the church, is much more prone to the vicissitudes of and irregularities of human nature (sinful human nature). As much as she may try to separate herself from these problems (as the Enlightenment project claimed it would finally be able to do), the 20th century demonstrated conclusively (to my mind) that the city of man cannot do any such thing. The 20th century was—on my argument—the official death of the naïve humanist optimism that had been growing ever since the dawn of the Enlightenment. I follow Malcolm Muggeridge and Solzhenitsyn in this argument (two giants who earned the right to speak authoritatively on the dangers and errors of unfettered Enlightenment humanism).

How does this relate to the issue of conservatism/liberalism? I think everything. One’s attitude towards “change” and “revolution” and the hope we can attach to human institutions depends largely upon one’s political philosophy. Again: what are the limits of human nature vis-à-vis the political?

Reason #2: A deep well of political prudence.

I am a conservative because I believe that the greatest conservative minds have an absolutely clear and deep understanding of these things (by “greatest conservative minds” I’m obviously not thinking of Limbaugh and Hannity). At the top I mentioned six names. All of them share the same political philosophy: they prefer reform to revolution. Why? Because they have a deep appreciation for the limits of human nature vis-à-vis the political. This insight, from Jesus forward, also depends upon an explicitly religious understanding of man (Aristotle may have been weak on this). When Jesus says that his kingdom “is not of this cosmos,” he means that it does not arise out of—or depend upon—this human order of things. It has a divine foundation. The city of God has Christ as its head and it has an explicitly divine foundation. Insofar as man’s political activity has a certain autonomy from the city of God—the city of man suffers from not having a divine foundation—it follows that the city of man’s limitations (vis-à-vis the political) are an essential element that must be considered when we reflect upon politics. Reflecting upon this limitation is, for me, the sine qua non, the indispensible foundation, upon which all subsequent political reflection (the practical dimension of politics) must rest. Our founders stand at the end of a process of reflection upon the limits of the political. The greatness of their political insight is to be found especially in their deep and prudent reflection upon the limits of the political. Three branches of government and a system of checks and balances is precisely the distilling of these insights into a system of government.

It is important to note, however, that intellectuals in Europe have been much more smitten with the path (and the ideological language) of revolution. Their founders drank deeply from the French philosophes, men like Diderot and Voltaire—men who also despised Christianity and who wanted to destroy the ancien regime (the “old order”). In Europe, political philosophy has often centered upon principled philosophical humanism. Its vision of a unified humanity—however beautiful—is expressly founded upon a rejection of its Christian heritage. It has been engaged in a long and protracted act of philosophical/theological patricide. Just before the dawn of the 20th century, Yeats said “the center cannot hold.” But what is the “center?” In my opinion, the center is common sense founded upon a Judeo-Christian ethos. Reading Solzhenitsyn, one can see quite clearly the tragedy of that center not holding. Dostoevsky prophesied it, Solzhenitsyn chronicled it. The 20th century was the century of patricidal radicalism. Strangely, however, much of Europe is immune to the kind of radicalism that we associate with the left in the United States. Let me provide some examples and then a little commentary that hopefully will help to clarify some things.

If we look at abortion policy, something striking emerges. The countries that have the largest percentage of Roman Catholic populations generally have the least liberal abortion policies. Spain has many loopholes (a “mental health” exception), but its official policy is very strict. There is no “abortion on demand” in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortion is legal on the following grounds: rape, malformation of the fetus, danger to the mother’s life or mental health. Spain, of course, is a predominantly Catholic country. Let’s compare Spain to Denmark. In Denmark, abortion is basically a form of contraception. Virtually 20% of all pregnancies in Denmark end in abortion. Less than 2% of Denmark is Catholic. Another dichotomy would be Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) versus Ireland. Ireland has the strictest abortion laws of any European country. It is, notoriously, one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Britain, however, is one of the most progressively pro-abortion, and of course, it has a history of being anti-Catholic (with a Catholic population of only 10%). Sweden, of course, also has a very liberal abortion policy. Sweden allows abortion on demand until the 18th week of the pregnancy—where abortion on demand obviously means that no medical rationale need be given. Sweden is, of course, a profoundly non-Catholic country.

What is the relevance of this to my “political philosophy” spiel? You’ll see in a moment (hopefully!). It also has a profound impact upon my view of Obama. So bear with me.

First of all, as shocking as this may seem to Americans (that we have one of the most liberal abortion policies in the world), it is important to note what is taking place in Europe right now. Europe’s “Council of Europe” (a parliamentary assembly) has been considering a policy similar to the one that the United State presently has—viz. that it is a civil rights issue and that women should be given the right to choose. The vote was 102 to 69 in favor of giving women autonomous rights (in almost exactly the same way that Roe v. Wade did in the U.S.). The countries that presently do not have “abortion on demand” (our policy) are those countries in which the Catholic religious influence is the greatest (e.g. Ireland and Poland). Now this group doesn’t have any de jure political power—it is merely making suggestions to governments. But what is striking to me is that the very same argumentation present in Roe v. Wade is supported by this group. And they have considerable political cache.

What’s the upshot of all of this? The upshot, for me, is that radical liberalism tends to cut itself off from the influence of the city of God. Denmark’s abortion on demand policy reflects its almost wholesale commitment to liberal humanism. Humanist moral policies are subject to all of the vicissitudes and vagaries of human nature. Without the check of the city of God—without its moral guidance—I think that great disaster looms on the horizon. Unfettered humanism is dangerous, period.

One of the roles of the city of God, then, is to mitigate some of the harshness of the city of man. The church functions like a salve. But here’s the challenge: a politics must not emerge which totally marginalizes the voice of the church. European politics is slouching dangerously in this direction. Sadly, so too is American politics. The church is in danger of becoming an elaborate side-show.

Enter the central theme of my political philosophy: the church’s function is to be in the world enough to mitigate some of the harshness of a world without the church. For anyone who is nostalgic about Europe and European politics, it is important to consider something very important: Christianity is dying a steady but slow death in Europe. Christianity is exploding in other parts of the world, but in Europe, sadly, the church seems to be diminishing. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome of this story will be. Maybe there will be a revival of the church (as there has been in European countries that have come out from under the shadow of communism). Unless one believes that the city of man can run herself without the mitigating influence of the city of God (and history gives us no reason to believe this), Europe is slouching towards disaster. History has shown us again and again the frighteningly entropic nature of civilization without the mitigating influence of the city of God. The cycle of decline is inevitable—and its appearance is often unannounced and shocking to those who’ve bought into an ideology of “hope.” In my political philosophy, I’m sticking with St. Augustine not Marx. Remember, Marx is the father of a humanist political philosophy which believes that the final autonomy of man is the solution to all political ills (and thus, he is the father of the most explicitly humanist political philosophy known to man).

What does any of this have to do with conservatism? Well, it has everything to do with conservatism. In critiquing society, conservatism has been unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Does it have its unsavory elements? Yes. Have conservatives been on the wrong side of many issues? Yes. Have conservatives always had Christian values at the center of the political ideals? No. Then why am I a conservative? Because the great tradition of western thought—its Judeo-Christian tradition—is still alive and kicking in conservatism. No, you’re average red stater may not be a conservative of the stripe of Solzhenitsyn or Muggeridge or Buckley—but they have the common sense (and the virtues) to make them suspicious of unfettered humanism.

Why Not Obama?

The issue of revolutionary ideology is extremely important to me as a Christian. It is important because the liberal ideology of “change” does not leave sufficient room for “preservation.” As a Christian, we are called to “preserve” that teaching which was vouchsafed by Christ to the apostles. In the famous Great Commission passage Jesus tells the apostles not only to make disciples, but also to teach them “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” We must be in the business not only of transforming the world, but also of doing so by “conserving” the deposit that has been handed to us. The various revolutionary ideologies with which the left has so commonly been aligned undermine the virtues needed to “conserve” everything that Jesus would have handed over to us. Conservatism, on the other hand, does not (in principle) worship change as an end in itself. And therefore, it is more likely to be willing to remain in dialogue with the city of God.

But now I need to locate myself. I am a conservative of the stripe of William F. Buckley. Buckley was truly a renaissance man. He was constantly in dialogue with liberals. He was liked by liberals (although feared). He was magnanimous and kind and yet fierce. He avoided the two dangerous tendencies towards which conservatism can tend: (a) Ayn Rand’s individualist, libertarianism or (b) the stripe we might associate with the radical and strident tones of the “John Birch” society. Buckley steered a prudent, and philosophically consistent, path between the two. And he laid the foundation for a thoughtful, yet prudent, conservatism.

Given my history, lets locate Obama. Where does he fall? Here’s the history that we know.

1. Obama was a “community organizer” in Chicago. This puts him squarely in the middle of one of the most corrupt political machines in the United States. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is guilty by association. However, if he is really as committed to “change” as he suggests, we should see the earmarks of transformation all over the city of Chicago. We should have heard about rumblings of a guy who is cleaning house and helping to change the culture of corruption in Chicago. Sadly, this is not what Obama means by change. His deep association with all of the radical movers and shakers in Chicago (e.g. ACORN, Gamaliel) fits perfectly into the framework of a typical post-sixties radical on the left. The kinds of groups that Obama surrounded himself with (in his “community organization”) have notorious connections to Liberation Theology (and of course, fit nicely into the political philosophy of Reverend Wright). And we should be concerned about black liberation theology. In the United States, it finds its roots in Malcolm X and entails a notion of “revolution” and “change” quite profoundly different than that proposed by Dr. King. Sadly, with Dr. King’s death, Malcolm X inspired liberation theology has dominated the language of black politics on the left.

2. Obama presents to us two selves: (a) the noble person who is above politics and (b) the quintessential politician who is a product of the corrupt patronage and tribalist politics of the Chicago (Daley) machine. Which Obama are we getting? We are clearly getting an Obama who DID NOTHING to challenge the notorious corruption of Chicago politics. One of Obama’s first political acts in congress was a classic pork-barrel (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours). Emil Jones (president of the Illinois Senate) allowed Obama to sponsor an ethics bill. Obama, in return, sent plenty of hog hind to Jones’ district. Also, most of Obama’s support in the state of Illinois (during the primary) came from the infamous James Meeks (mega-church pastor and long-time Jesse Jackson ally). Meeks is famous for throwing around “uncle Tom” language to any “nigger” (what he calls blacks that are moderates) who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his radicalism. So we clearly don’t see a man devoted to “change” in a politician who has no signs of doing anything to challenge (or even simply shake up) one of the most corrupt political machines known to mankind.

3. These ideological issues are important to me because they relate back to the issue I mentioned in my “political philosophy” piece. I want to know to what extent someone’s political philosophy will make him amenable to traditional (orthodox) Christian teaching. Ironically, Obama has supported a form of church activism which, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the historic church. Reverend Wright’s Christianity is nothing more than humanism with a collar (anybody remember Straik in That Hideous Strength?). I don’t think that we can mince words on this. And that brings up an important point. Obama is trying to remove the gap between the city of Man and the city of God. In typical liberal fashion, he believes that that the sphere of the political is synonymous with the sphere of the religious. I believe that they are intimately related, but that they must be distinguished in principle (as, for instance, Augustine does in The City of God). So Obama’s “audacity of hope” (the sermon which “converted” him) is genuinely audacious. Does it mean that we shouldn’t hope? No. Does it mean that our hope should be tempered by a prudent reflection upon the limits of the city of man? Yes. I don’t think that Obama has drunk deeply enough from this well of wisdom. Obama’s articulation of hope is strikingly familiar to that offered by Jimmy Carter (can I get an amen from some of our elder statesmen?). I’m afraid that for all of Obama’s apparent “newness,” he’s really just a classic example of the warmed-over, supposedly tempered, post-sixties “soft radicalism” that the left has been so completed dominated by since the early 70’s.

4. Frankly, the “Obama-as-Messiah” complex freaks me out. Note to Keith Olbermann: I’ve stopped watching your program because your man-love for Obama is beginning to gross me out.

Last point:

I don’t have much time to spend on this. But to put it simply, I’m not as enamored with European politics as two of my most beloved and dear family members (Robyn and Mary Anne). All three of us have spent a significant amount of time over there. All three of us have had ample opportunity to think about and study European institutions. And one of us has come to very different conclusions. I respect both of these ladies very much, but I must say that their estimation seems a bit too Pollyanna. And to me, that brings me back to the question of political philosophy: we must reflect carefully and prudently upon the limits of politics. A Pollyanna approach is dangerous insofar as it tends to forestall such reflection. There are many demographic issues which make the situation in European health care different than our own. And there are some very important issues to consider.

1. European health care needs have derived largely from it being a “stagnating” population. In other words, Europe is becoming a “childless culture.” Not only has life expectancy increased, but birth rates have radically decreased. There’s nothing Pollyanna about that. In fact, I think it’s downright disgusting. The ratio of old to young in Europe is strikingly worse than that of either Canada or the U.S. But I think that we are also in for a shock on this same score—Medicare faces a similar (albeit not as dramatic) problem.

2. Those who defend European health care always radically underestimate the problems of efficiency, waste, and inequitable delivery of care. On ideological grounds, “universal healthcare” is supposed to be especially good at making certain that care is equitably distributed. But I think you’ll find that it is simply false that care is equitably delivered in European nations. And the closer their demographics approach ours, the more inequity, waste, and inefficiency reign.

3. Once prices for medical services (and prescriptions) are fixed by a governmental agency, it will necessarily follow that investment research and development of technology and general medical research will begin to slow down dramatically. This creates its own unique problem—which is often underappreciated and underreported. What happens in this situation is that specialized expertise begins to be best achieved in countries with competitive, private healthcare systems.

4. Once a government run health care system is put in place the ideological promise of equal care (regardless of social status, level or severity of disease, or financial or racial situation) becomes impossible to deliver on. It becomes a “noble lie.”

5. France’s situation is indicative of problems that accrue to countries with fairly open borders, highly unionized trades, and a relatively broad economic demographic. Here are some of the problems created by France’s system:
(a)  How do you staff a state-run organization? We are all aware of the terrible pitfalls with state-run or radically unionized staffing. Here’s where the Pollyanna issue enters. When people have free access to health-care, health-care consumption goes through the roof. What does this mean? It means that gross misuse and misappropriation of free, unfettered access to doctors creates the following problems (i) massive increase in “unnecessary” expenditure (ii) a massive glut in traffic (creating shortages of access when genuine needs arise) (iii) these two combined creates the “Soviet” crisis.
(b) It’s not just that we need to “live a different” lifestyle to make the European system work here. Rather, we need to see the pitfalls inherent in the European system (not be Pollyanna about it). We need to understand how they apply to our own demographics and our own culture. And finally, we need to make prudent policy decisions. This is quite a massive undertaking. But it won’t work with ideologues. France, that great ideological machine, is now experiencing the terrible effects of being too ideological in its approach to these issues.

6. The Pollyanna approach to Europe fails to take into account Europe’s overriding problem. It has lost a prudent understanding of “reform.” I experienced this first hand in Europe. Europeans tend to view “common interest” as only embodied in the state. The worst thing that a person can do, on the common (liberal humanist) view, is to pursue one’s own “self interest.” The French constantly approve extremely high taxation and oppose reform (proposed by particular interests or groups within the country) because they are suspicious of “self interest.” This is thought to be a virtue. I disagree. I think it’s a failure to think carefully about the tension between the city of man and the city of God. Part of the limitation of the city of man is that it cannot eradicate the natural selfishness of man. To create an ideological place-holder for common interest (the state or the government) is to assume something about the state that I don’t assume. This is what scares me about Obama. He, like the French and many other Europeans, doesn’t understand how self-interest works vis-à-vis the city of man. It’s not that self-interest should be turned into a religious principle, but rather than the state herself is incapable of eradicating it. Only the city of God can perfectly eradicate self-interest. This creates the need for a check upon the government (the principle established by our founders). That check is, in part, self-interest. The Pollyanna hope that it could be eradicated by the “common interest” of the state, is a very French (humanist), progressive European political ideal. I think it is extremely dangerous.

7. Lastly, this tendency to think of the state as the “family” has also led to a profound denigration of the family. Why? Because the family is suspiciously viewed as an arena of “private interest.” Normalizing people to the infrastructure of the state, then, becomes one of the central goals of liberal humanism. This is why public schooling is so important. It’s also why women’s liberation (understood within the framework of humanism) has been so anti-child, anti-family. Understanding the proper relationship between the city of God (our divine destiny) and the city of man (our merely terrestrial destiny) helps to keep us from falling into the trap of liberal humanism. And it helps us to be protected against a Pollyanna view of the state. Methinks that Obama is a “true believer” and that he is a liberal humanist with a collar.

Having made it thus far, you are hereby entitled to a free dinner at the Georgia Pig.

With great love and affection to all,

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