Failure: Vox Nova Takes on Conservatism
I wasn’t going to do this, but now I am. A contributor (Morning’s Minion) to a certain blog (Vox Nova), whose views on gun control I previously challenged, took it upon himself to let it all out about “conservatism” – partially, I believe, in response to our exchange. The same themes are there at least, though he does go on (and on) about slavish right-wing support for Israel, an issue on which I am not so enthusiastic. I’ve also made my opposition to America’s interventionist foreign policy known. In doing so I respectfully digress from many of my co-bloggers at The American Catholic.
But there are a number of very broad points made by Morning Minions that are more or less directed at me, and my co-bloggers, and of course conservatives and libertarians in general, and I will answer them here.
In my opinion, what runs through that hodge-podge of peculiar and inconsistent beliefs that characterizes American “conservatism” is a theology of violence.
I believe the Old Testament was the original theology of violence. Nary a thing is accomplished for God’s chosen people without incredible acts of violence, on the part of either God or the Israelites themselves. One can certainly point out that Christianity introduces different solutions, but we still eat flesh and drink blood every Sunday. Some people might think that “violent” too.
What runs through American conservatism, at any rate, is realism. I disagree with many conservatives on foreign policy, but I am not a pacifist. Sometimes violence is necessary. And when it is, it won’t be successfully employed if we are weak-kneed about it. It can be a challenge to find the balance between becoming lethargically avoidant of violence, and fetishizing it, but it must be seen as a potential good in a wide variety of situations. That is the reality of a fallen world.
The charge, coming from someone who sympathizes with leftist policy positions, is moreover hypocritical; all political authority rests upon violence. The sort of wealth redistribution schemes the left promotes and depends upon for political power rely heavily on the threat of coercion. The right has no problem with admitting the necessity of violence or the threat of it for the common good and our security; the left speaks of “peace” and “cooperation” while working on programs that can’t exist without a state (a body of armed men) much larger than what most conservatives would like to see.
The next point:
On one level, there is of course the derivative Calvinist dualism that divides the world into friend or enemy, loyalist or traitor, freedom-lover or terrorist, patriot or socialist. And the other, of course, to is be destroyed.
Is he serious? Let me get this straight: it was Calvinism – Calvinism, which was introduced to the world in the 16th century – that taught men to “divide the world into friend or enemy”? For 10,000 or so years, men lived in a happy utopia, a garden of delights, free of conflict and division until Calvinism came along? This is, quite frankly, one of the most absurd things I have ever read.
The division of people into “us vs. them” sorts of groups is a tendency deeply embedded in human nature, and indeed throughout all of nature. Again, it is that whole “fallen world” concept, remember? You can’t even claim that “Calvinism” is just a particular historical representation of some tendency embedded in human thought – this so-called, and utterly misnamed, “dualism” is much older than that. Are monkeys being “Calvinists” when they have turf wars? How about cats and dogs?
Comparing human behavior to animal behavior can sometimes be degrading, but in this case I really don’t mean it to be. Conservatism embraces a healthy survival instinct, which absolutely does require identifying in clear terms who one’s allies and one’s enemies are. This is how both entire species and individual rational beings survive. Because we have reason, an intellect and a will, we also have a moral obligation to use these faculties with wisdom and restraint – and we are equally obliged to secure the common good (which includes defense as well, shocking as it may be to some Catholic lefties) by using them proficiently and not slacking in the vain hope that they will not be necessary.
The Church teaching is clear: “[G]overnments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.” (CCC 2308) I think America’s two latest wars fall short of this criteria, but certainly not all conceivable wars – including a war on the Mexican drug cartels, which I believe would be just.
I’d also add that to make this “us vs. them” phenomenon peculiar to conservatism is equally ridiculous. As if leftists, progressives, socialists, and communists do not vilify and slander the “reactionaries”, as if the regimes they’ve headed did not mass murder tens of millions of political enemies, including millions of Christians and faithful Catholics, throughout the last century and even today. As if the Soviet Union or China or for that matter, “Catholic” liberation theology, did not glorify and revel in revolutionary violence and all of the attendant imagery and song. What utter nonsense.
On another level, there is a liberal social contractarian that restricts basic human rights to those within the perimeter of the social contract – and liberalism is the reigning philosophy of the American right.
This is a verbal slight-of-hand as well. The so-called “liberal social contractarian” – by which, I can only assume Morning Minions means John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and those who follow after them – does not “restrict basic human rights to those within the perimeter of the social contract.” This is a fantasy invented by the author.
First, there is no one social contract. Secondly, why shouldn’t there be a social contract? Perhaps Morning Minions has never heard of the Salamanca school (of the 16th century), or of Francisco Suarez, a Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian of that school, who developed a social contract theory of his own. I’ll quote the wiki here, though you can check the link for Suarez’s work itself:
For Suárez, the political power of society is contractual in origin because the community forms by consensus of free wills. The consequence of this contractualist theory is that the natural form of government is either a democracy or a republic, while oligarchy or monarchy arise as secondary institutions, whose claim to justice is based on being forms chosen (or at least consented to) by the people.
I think it is arguable that Suarez, along with St. Robert Bellarmine and others, had at least some influence on the tradition that ultimately manifested itself in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, which is not exactly a crude copy of Locke. But I won’t speculate too far down that road here. The point is that social contract theory has a place in the history of Catholic political thought dating back some 450 years.
And finally on this point, consistent constitutionalists (as opposed to doctrinaire libertarians or anarchists, who are a minority and don’t really influence policy anyway) will note that the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
This means that, if states like Massachusetts, or even cities such as San Francisco, want to establish government-run healthcare, they are free to do so. And the rest of America is free to stay out of it, and to deal with healthcare in different ways in different states and locales. This is the true American conservative vision, and the one most consistent with the founding principles of the nation – principles, which I have shown, that have never been denounced by the Church. Indeed, this is nothing other than the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.
Now we come to one of the older canards:
And on another level still, there is consequentialism – the notion that all acts should be evaluated solely on their consequences.
I have been on the receiving end myself of the charge of “consequetinalism” from two of Morning Minion’s co-bloggers, as have most of us at The American Catholic writers and columnists and beyond. It is high time to put an end to this nonsense. Vox Nova often indiscriminately applies this word when it has no relevance or moral weight, such as when the means to the proposed end are not actually inherently evil – perhaps just a little unsavory – or it uses it in such a way so as to give the impression that consequences don’t matter.
But consequences do matter. Paragraph 1750 of the Catechism establishes that “The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the “sources,” or constitutive elements, of the morality of human acts.” It also notes that they are of “secondary” concern, and cannot by themselves render an evil act good. Thus, they are neither to be ignored or elevated, but they are to be considered.
It may be true that American conservatives focus more on consequences, perhaps at times elevating them from secondary to primary concerns. This is a legitimate point of critique. It would have more credibility coming from one of the major contributors to Vox Nova if he and his colleagues did not wear it down to a useless nub.
I was once accused of “consequentialism” by one of them for simply defending the use of graphic photos of aborted fetuses as pro-life propaganda. This was an absurd claim, since showing these photos is not “in itself” evil, and it does lead to a good end. Another time, it was over simply preferring to ask Catholic dissidents to leave the Church once it became clear their intention was to revolutionize it. Again, more absurdity, since nothing inherently evil was proposed.
The lesson: if you want accusations of consequentialism to be taken seriously, stop crying wolf with them.
I will finally respond to the nonsensical claim that I believe either is, or could be, directed at me in particular given our recent exchange on guns:
Taking the individual autonomy underpinning liberalism and Hobbes’s social contract to absurd limits, these “conservatives” elevate the virtue of gun ownership to defend oneself against both other individuals and the state. If they cross you, shoot them.
Elevate? If you don’t use guns to defend yourself against other individuals (who are presumably trying to kill you) or a rouge state in a legitimate resistance, what are they for? I don’t understand how this is an “elevation.” Our individual right to life, which I would be terrified to learn that a Catholic and an American citizen disputed for some reason, means nothing without a corollary right to defend it. This is not an “elevation”, it is a basic principle.
I will also point out once again that it is not gun owners who live in the world of autonomy and the law of the jungle, but rather the urban city-dweller, the professional liberal yuppie who faints at the sight of a weapon. Many gun enthusiasts come from rural areas, from tight-knit religious communities that probably have a greater sense of sharing and cooperation than, say, a social worker or some other bureaucratic functionary. It is the leftist, materialist bureaucracy (along with the corporate media and consumerism, unfortunately ignored by some on the right) that atomizes individuals and creates the very conditions for the Leviathan state.
The last line – “if they cross you, shoot them”, is a childish and hyperbolic outburst that the author ought to be embarrassed to have written.
I could go on indefinitely, but I think I’ve covered the major points. The rest isn’t worth addressing, for reasons I already stated, and I will leave it to someone (who cares) who does hold those positions on torture or foreign policy to say something. He also argues that there is some contradiction between being pro-life and pro-gun. He brought up this point to me in the previous exchange, to which I replied, and which you may quote at any time:
You have a right to defend yourself for the same reason you don’t have a right to an abortion. You have a right to your life. The baby has a right to his or hers.
About the only thing to result from this attack on conservatism, as I see it, is that the phrase “social contractarian” now has a permanent place alongside “Calvinist dualism”, “consequentialism”, “individualism” in the Vox Nova lexicon of conservative-bashing. He certainly failed, in my view, to point out a single inconsistency – instead using the word “inconsistent” to mean “position I don’t like.” Meanwhile his own take on American conservatism is riddled with inconsistencies and hyperbole.