Drawing the line

In an exchange about The American Spectator’s publishing of Angelo Codevilla’s treasonous article, I said:

No matter how conservative a person may think he is, if he does not believe in America as a concrete thing, but sees it only as a set of principles, then when it comes to Third World immigration he will almost automatically do a Benedict Arnold to the open borders camp in order to distance himself from “racism.”

And this is the ground on which genuine conservatives must take a stand: If you only believe in America as a set of ideas and values, if you don’t believe in America as a concrete historical nation, people, and culture, then you’re not a conservative, and you’re not on our side. You’re on the other side.

People will say my position is extreme and fascistic. But it is no more extreme and fascistic to say that America is a concrete nation, and not just a set of ideas, than it is to say that a human being is a concrete person, and not just a set of ideas.

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

Amen! Ideas can’t have themselves. An idea can’t be actual except as a formal aspect of a concrete actuality. There is no such thing, anywhere, as “just an idea.” It follows inescapably that one can’t form a loyalty to a mere idea. In practice, what we think of as loyalties to ideas—e.g., loyalty to Christianity or to Existentialism or to Democracy—is always in practice loyalty to concrete persons, if only to the persons we ourselves have so far concretely been.

Further, unless an idea can be carried into practice in individual lives—as in, e.g., voting, or joining the Army, or praying, or working—it will survive only as noise in the mind.

Thinking that ideas are concretely real is a basic error of thought. Bateson called it mistaking the map for the territory. Whitehead called it the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Those who avoid this error behave perforce with respect for the ontological momentum of their fellow creatures, in just the same way that the woodworker accommodates himself to his tools and materials, even as he uses the former to shape the latter. Thus those who remember that their loyalties are owed to particular, actual things—to families, persons, nations, churches, farms, enterprises, animals, and so forth—end by respecting their concrete reality. In the inescapable work of creating their lives, they behave so as to preserve such values as already exist in their fellow creatures. They don’t play with people as if they were merely imaginary.

But playing with people as if they were mere ideas is almost the definition of the liberal. In his blithe inattention to things as they are in themselves, and to the dignity and moral weight that inhere in concrete fact, the liberal reverts almost instantly to treating persons (and other creatures generally) as means to his own ends. Should he persist in this course without any compromises, without any unprincipled exceptions, he will end as a murderous totalitarian tyrant, whether great or small.

Conservatism is a commitment to the concretely real. That is why conservatives are so often orthodox believers, committed to the traditions of a concrete, living social organism—i.e., to the ideas it has consistently embodied and carried into practice in ritual, dogma, and secular policy.

Liberalism is a commitment to the ideal. That is why liberals are so often gnostics, repudiating the world as it is, rejecting its history and traditions as worthless or evil, and interested to destroy its form and structure so as to replace it with something more perfect.

Steven Warshawsky writes:

I agree that the distinction VFR and others make between America as “a concrete thing” versus “a set of principles” is useful analytically. But I see several problems with this line of reasoning.

First, it too quickly glosses over the point that what makes America’s concrete reality (now and/or in the past) worth cherishing and defending is its adherence to certain values and ideals. Why don’t traditionalists support mass immigration? Not because of concerns about population control or resource depletion. But because of concerns that the people doing the immigrating—overwhelmingly from non-western cultures—do not bring with them the human and cultural capital that is required to maintain a republican, capitalist society. In other words, we’re concerned about what’s inside these people’s heads as much as or more so than what their bodies look like physically. Besides, there are plenty of true-blue Americans whose values and ideas are anathema to what traditionalists believe. Yet we do not hesitate to reject these Americans’ “concrete reality.” Why? Because of their (in our view) non-American principles. Ultimately, American civilization is about principles: A socialist, statist America is a contradiction in terms. [LA replies: I didn’t say that America is “only” concrete and that America is “not” based on ideas and principles; I said that America is not “just” based on ideas and principles.]

Second, the challenge from the left is not that it denies the concrete reality of America, per se, but that it seeks to transform that reality by transforming the values and ideals on which this country is based. [LA replies: I didn’t say that the left is not seeking to transform America’s ideals. Of course they are. And this fact is recognized by conservatives. What I am bringing out is the side of the problem that is NOT recognized by the overwhelming majority of conservatives.] The left has been enormously successful in achieving this objective during my lifetime. Hence, the “concrete thing” that America is today is much different than what it was when I was born, in the mid-1960s. Just look at California, where I grew up. Many parts of the state bear little resemblance to what they were 40 years ago. The left has changed the “concrete reality” of our country by changing, through persuasion and compulsion, the governing ideology of this nation. Ideas drive civilization. A society that not so long ago was 90% percent white and European in origin had to be persuaded ideologically to throw open its borders and allow itself to be transformed into what we have today. The left did this. As a result, the concrete reality of this nation has fundamentally changed. [LA replies: Yes, of course, as a result of liberal ideology the concrete reality of America has changed, and it will continue to change—unless a force is exerted against that change aimed at stopping and reversing it. And such a force can only come from people who do not accept that change.]

This highlights another problem with the “real versus ideal” argument. What reality, exactly, are traditionalists defending? Few parts of our nation today correspond to the traditionalist view of history, culture, and politics. Indeed, it is the left that is defending America’s present concrete reality—multicultural, statist, hedonistic—whereas it is the right that is seeking to transform our actual, existing country to something different, what it once may have been, but no longer is. So I find Kristor’s remark—that “conservatism is a commitment to the concretely real”—quite puzzling. As far as I can see, conservatives are marked less by their “commitment” to the actual people and culture of the United States circa 2009, than by their commitment to an “ideal”—to restore the country to what it used to be, not solely or even primarily in terms of the physical makeup of its population, but in terms of its political, economic, and social culture. [LA replies: I refer you to Frank Meyer’s excellent definition of conservatism, which I’ve quoted before: Conservatism is a “political, social, and intellectual movement” that “arises historically when the unity and balance of a civilization are riven by revolutionary transformations of previously accepted norms…. Conservatism comes into being at such times as a movement of consciousness and action directed to recovering the tradition of the civilization.”]

The point is that traditionalists are no less committed to “ideals” than liberals. The contest is over whose ideals will prevail. At this point in our history, liberal ideals are winning, and this is changing the “concrete” reality of our nation from what it was when traditional ideals were in ascendancy. [LA replies: of course traditionalist are committed to ideals as much as liberals are.

Here’s the problem. On one hand, all of your observations are true and valuable. On the other hand, all of your observations proceed from the incorrect assumption that I have not said the same things myself, that I’ve left those things out. Thus, because I emphasized the “concreteness” part of the picture, you falsely assumed that I was ignoring the “idealism” part of the picture, whereas I talk about the “idealism” part of the picture all the time. Similarly, because I emphasized the “concrete” aspect of conservatism, you assumed that I was ignoring the fact that liberalism has already changed our concrete reality in very substantive ways, whereas I talk about that all the time. The larger problem that your response makes me think about is the limitations of blogging. The very act of writing a short, concise statement that deals with just one aspect of a large and complex issue and not with all aspects of that issue automatically solicits responses that say, “But you left out this, and this, and this.” If those are the rules, then the only viable intellectual conservative writings are long articles and books, in which all aspects of a problem are covered adequately, and conservative intellectual blogging should be dropped.]

Kristor writes:

It is curious, and somewhat droll, that in a prior exchange, Mr. Warshawsky emphasized the concrete aspects of civilization, and I the ideal, while here we seem to trade places. But really both of us, it seems, believe that an emphasis on the concrete at the expense of the ideal, or vice versa, is inadequate to reality. I agree with him in both exchanges: civilizations are concrete embodiments of ideas. Without the ideas, nothing is concretely embodied; without the concrete embodiment, nothing is concretely embodied. An adequate account of becoming must address both the material and efficient aspects of causation—i.e., the embodied delivery of the past, the facticity thereof—and the final and formal aspects of causation—i.e., the ideals, values and desires embodied in that past, and by it delivered to our present deliberations as the raw data for our current decisions.

The conservative obeisance to the deliveries of the concrete past entails a due regard for the ideals it embodies. The liberal obeisance to the abstract ideal entails at least some disregard for the deliveries of the past.

Mr. Warshawsky points out that the immediate concrete past of our civilization is more and more liberal in form, and that conservatives now espouse values less often concretely embodied than had been the case in halcyon days. Indeed so. But the conservative obeisance to the past is not slavish, or blind; the conservative does not cease to think, just because he is a conservative. The whole point of thinking is to figure out which of the ideas that have come to us from the past are wrong, and which are right. It is just as foolish to overlook the fact that something we have already done is mistaken, and thus fail to correct it, as it is to throw out the baby with the bath water. Because they are mesmerized by the abstract perfect ideal, liberal gnostics are more prone than conservatives to both those sorts of errors.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 07, 2009 09:03 AM | Send

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