What’s Wrong with the World

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What's exceptional about conservatism?

Without raining on Paul Cella's fine parade, I've posted at my personal blog my own response to Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. It takes Paul's initial critique into due account, but seeks to move discussion in a direction I prefer. If you care to comment on that, please do so at my blog. I'll post something new here in full once Paul has completed his series at The New Ledger.

Comments (18)

Mike, I certainly agree that a conservatism worth the name needs positive content. I also agree that a public life worth the name needs positive content.

On the other hand, I am not willing to say that there is nothing to the lauding of an open society. Again, in the 1940's and 1950's an "open society" in the U.S. did not mean that "anything goes," and yet there was an obvious and glaring difference between the United States and totalitarian countries on precisely the fact of permitted dissent, criticism of the government, freedom of the press, and the like in the U.S. (And that was even when "under God" was added to the pledge in order to distinguish the freedom-loving Americans from the godless Communists! A small thing, perhaps, but a real acknowledgment as far as it went of the source of our freedoms and the positive good for which we stood.) It is very important that we not go from saying that free speech absolutism is untenable (which everyone, including liberals, realizes that it is), that liberals penalize obviously legitimate speech and actions which they deem unacceptable (which they do), and that a positive vision of the good is necessary to hold a society together (which it is), to, in essence, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and aligning ourselves with the _enemies_ of the open society. We also should not regard wide latitude of dissent and debate to be trivial on the grounds that it is negative--that it does not tell us what we should think and believe. While it is true that it is not itself a positive, contentful vision of the good of society, it is by no means trivial. It is a very bad thing for citizens to be constantly feeling that they must look over their shoulder, watch every word, not criticize those in power, and to know that their press is merely an organ of the state and that the state functionally owns their children.

So I say hurray for the open society, down with its enemies, and now let's get on to using our freedoms while we still have them to build a positive vision, and instantiation, of the good.

Oops, will put this over at your blog.

Lydia, if we take the Open Society according to J.S. Mill's lights, then there is surely an touch of absolutism in it. "All questions are open questions" becomes the operating orthodoxy of society and the state, and (in time) the only folks left out of this happy-happy-joy-joy open society are those who want to close certain questions -- i.e., the "intolerant."

But when we look at America historically, we quickly see that her people have been repeatedly willing to close questions. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the biggest of all questions facing the world -- "shall we are shall we not become Communist?" -- was slammed closed, despite an enormous amount of whining by liberals. That society was also emphatically closed to the kind of wallpaper pornography that we have to endure today.

Over the past decades we have moved closer to that Millian ideal, where all manner of leftist agitation is tolerated, pornography and obscenity are embraced by law, and the "intolerant," being enemies of the open society, are read out of its protections for speech.

In a word, I can't even raise one cheer for this imposture.

Well, Paul, I made it clear on the other thread (yours) that I hold no brief for J.S. Mill, did I not? In fact, I even said that it is _unfortunate_ that it was Mill who said one true thing--namely, that truth can often best be seen by debate with error.

It seems to me that there are so many ambiguities here. For example, are we talking about relativism in principle or about permitting debate? Are we talking about government action or about private shunning? If government action, government action of what sorts, and in what areas?

What astonishes me and disturbs me is that it seems that several people here are willing _unequivocally_ to condemn something that they call "the open society" (without making totally explicit just which parts they are condemning and which parts they are not) but not _unequivocally_ to condemn totalitarianism and distance themselves from it. In the other thread, Paul, you said that as a "prudential" matter you would allow a fairly wide range of dissent. Well, I'm sorry, but that doesn't sound very enthusiastic to me. And frankly, it doesn't sound to me like it does justice to the enormous joy and relief of all the people who have risked their very lives over the years to escape from totalitarian countries to come to the land of the free. It doesn't sound to me like anything like justice is being done to the terror of living in such a society and to the pride we should have in not being one. Widespread permitted dissent, particularly from government policies, _is_ part of American exceptionalism, and God bless it. It _is_ part of who we are, and many thousands have reason to thank God for it.

Now, I couldn't agree with you more on pornography. It's ludicrous to think that pornography is some sort of "speech" or "dissent" or "dialogue." I support laws against flag burning, for goodness' sake!

But we need an open society in the sense of having a free press, having a very, very wide range of political debate and freedom from censorship and fear, and so forth. And it is _right_ for us to criticize the new liberal totalitarianism on the grounds that it is shutting down legitimate discussion.

True, when we find ourselves confronted with minds so twisted that they literally believe that saying, "Homosexuality is a sin" is tantamount to vile pornography--or, indeed, worse than that--then there is nothing that we can say to them. Yes, one needs some manner of common sense--which is being deliberately destroyed--to understand these things. And our common understanding of them has been deliberately destroyed, to no small extent. But part of our common understanding in a more decent age which you and I both applaud was the importance of free debate and inquiry--in other words, something like the open society. That, too, should not be thrown out by conservatives frustrated with the faux-openness of contemporary liberalism.

On the point, that I made in Cella's post about the use of shaming and shunning, in a conservative society, as a way to get people to conform.

You said Lydia that: "The idea that a businessman could refuse to sell food to Serrano as a form of shaming and shunning, for example, would seem bizarre to most people but isn't bizarre to me."

I seen a BBC Documentary on the porn industry in which, they showed that many mainstream businesses were making profits from pornography indirectly. They pointed out that if the companies put special morality costs, on the companies, they could put them out of business or at least severely damage there ability to function.

This is the sort of idea I was thinking of, were the public refuses to use companies that profit from these type's of things.

Here is a Scene from the documentary.


Here's a description of the documentary as well:


I also agree that there should be laws prohibiting against pornography, but I think this idea and concept can be applied to many different areas as well.

They pointed out that if the companies put special morality costs, on the companies,

Sorry, I rushed that last comment a bit.

What I mean is, if the Companies such as the Internet Providers and the Credit Card companies, that the porn industry depends on to function, where to put extra taxes and costs on them for morality reasons, they could damage them profoundly.

And our common understanding of them has been deliberately destroyed, to no small extent.

That's a really important part of the overall equation. When our country was founded, those who did the founding and did the formation all spoke a common idiom: they all believed in a God, and while they didn't all believe in an active, intervening God, they believed in a God who is the bedrock of morality, and that He wrote that morality into human nature. When they spoke of forming laws, they spoke to each other in ideas by which they, more or less, all meant the same thing. Nowadays, what with atheists, agnostics, Humean skeptics, pantheists, naturalists, new-agers, and wiccan demon-worshipers, we no longer speak together with the same meanings for important expressions. It is virtually impossible to have a meaningful national debate on any important matter, since the progressive forces have managed to twist meanings out of their former channels into who-knows-what plethora of "what it means for me" freakishness. And this was done intentionally, as Lydia says: extreme individualist liberalism aimed for exactly this babel of nonsense.

Doesn't it destroy the very concept of speech, and thus freedom of speech, if you make it so that nobody can understand each other, make it so that words no longer conserve agreed-upon meaning? Well, the same applies for other freedoms too: it destroys the concept of religious freedom if by it one person means "I can have a religious ceremony to marry the Eiffel Tower", while another means "your saying out loud that homosexuality is a sin violates my rights."

Let me ask you, Lydia: do you think we have an open society now?

In my essay I presented three or four instances where, from my perspective on things, the evidence tends to suggest a no answer.

I'm puzzled by the comparison to totalitarian societies. I promise you the horror of those hellish places is not far from my mind: I have been reading about Whittaker Chambers lately, for Pete's sake.

But in my view the question of whether all questions should be open questions is not much related to totalitarianism. It was Chambers, after all, who showed so vividly how the Communist in his despair has long since closed numerous questions in favor of sheer materialism; that questions open for discussion are the farthest thing from his mind; and thus arguing over such matters is a distraction from the real business of totalitarianism.

But the fact is, there is a wide range of variation between the poles of totalitarian and perfectly free. I stand by my characterization of the American tradition: "The American tradition on dissent has generally been to allow plenty of it, up to a point; but to be highly vigilant against open sedition; and then, when pushed, to hit hard and unapologetically."

I'd say this willingness to hit hard and unapologetically was more important to the defeat and overthrow of Communism than whether we had Playboy and Rock 'n Roll.

I second Tony's point about our modern Tower of Babel.

Let me ask you, Lydia: do you think we have an open society now?

Not as much as we should and not as much as we used to but far more so than they have in China or Iran. And that's good. It's something to be proud of. American freedom of dissent will take a lot of killing and is not dead yet. And it has nothing to do with Playboy, but it does have everything to do with the fact that I can say on the Internet that Barack Obama is a very bad man, a pro-death ideologue, and that I hope he fails, and not have to worry about being thrown in prison for saying it. Not even have to think about it or lose a moment's sleep over it.

I never endorsed the claim that "all questions are open questions." I do endorse the claim that a wide range of dissent is not "merely" prudential but is deeply important to the fabric of American society and to the existence of America as a country to be proud of.

Moreover, I think it's very important that we not let bitterness and cynicism over the wanna-be totalitarians of the left lead us to say that the very notions of freedom of debate, thought, and inquiry _are intrinsically_ shams and not worth worrying about or defending save in some highly attenuated form, as opposed to saying that they have been shams _as held by_ many members of the left.

I completely agree that between totalitarianism and Playboy (which I take you to have in mind when you talk about "perfectly free") not to mention the even worse things than Playboy that are now upheld as legal, there is much space. Indeed, so much space that I think there is a great gulf. I think that phrases like "open society" and "freedom of speech" can and do serve as quite legitimate shorthand for what is good and what we should retain and fight for. Therefore I oppose blanket condemnations of them.

Let me give you just one example, Paul: There are people on this very web site--commentators and, I believe, co-bloggers of mine, who I believe regret the establishment clause of the First Amendment _as intended_. In other words, who think a truly established church of a particular kind--Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, for example--would be a very good thing and that things began to go downhill and some sort of crypto-relativism was put in place when America was set up ab initio as a non-confessional state. I completely disagree with this. I do _not_ regret the first amendment in its original meaning. I'm in favor of it. And I oppose (for example) anti-proselytizing laws against evangelical missionaries in non-evangelical countries. That's just one way of beginning to see what I mean when I say that I'm in favor of a free society. If your preferred version of Christianity cannot stand up unless other denominations are suppressed, I say you have something to be afraid of. Yep, I believe in the marketplace of ideas in a non-trivial sense. My version of Christianity says, "Bring it on."

And I oppose (for example) anti-proselytizing laws against evangelical missionaries in non-evangelical countries. That's just one way of beginning to see what I mean when I say that I'm in favor of a free society. If your preferred version of Christianity cannot stand up unless other denominations are suppressed, I say you have something to be afraid of. Yep, I believe in the marketplace of ideas in a non-trivial sense. My version of Christianity says, "Bring it on."

Sounds good to me. I love the idea. This was embraced, pretty much point blank, in Dignitatis Humanae. Let the truth speak its own power out loud.

Of course, I ALSO think that DH insisted that the marketing of ideas had to be done in a way that respected true freedom, and true common good. And that includes (for example) not taking unlettered farmers and pushing them through a treatise against X, Y, or Z that only a doctoral candidate can properly weigh and pick apart. And not claiming your opponent's thesis is X when it is really Y.

Historically, I believe that if such a marketplace had been observed with such rules of charity, then Protestantism would have had a MUCH harder time getting off the ground than it did, since it is manifestly the case that the reformers kept mis-representing what Catholicism teaches. 95 theses indeed. And regularly failed to limit their holding forth of novel doctrines to those reasonably educated and grounded in history, language, etc. But they would DEFINITELY have been able to reform the Church from within had they observed such limits. Eventually.

As I see it, error has no rights, but everyone who sees a truth has a right to speak it (in due season). And since we all have the truth with an admixture of defect or lack of perfection, we have a right to speak the truth that we have that is contained in an imperfect whole of thought, as long as that speaking respects the common good. There are indeed cases where we can point to someone defying that requirement: 60 years ago, the state would have been well within its rights to suppress the spread of witchcraft and wicca: it is clearly an example of teaching error that does not respect due limits. I am not confident _now_ that the state would be well advised to suppress it, since prudential considerations are vastly different.

One thing that I think we should explore with more interest and care are various ways in which governmental entities at various levels can be _non-neutral_ towards things, including religions, without actually outlawing a given religion. Take your example, Tony, of Wicca. I think governmental entities should be non-neutral towards Wicca in the sense that they do not invite Wiccans to offer invocations (shudder) at the openings of governing bodies. I think they should be non-neutral in the sense that they discriminate against Wiccans in appointing chaplains to the army. I think they should be non-neutral in the area of prisoner accommodation--not deliberately buying Wiccan ceremonial items to supply them to prisoners, for example. And it would be perfectly fine to discriminate against them in immigration practices.

Also, they shouldn't be accommodated by special exceptions in law concerning nudity, for example. If a community has anti-nudity laws and the Wiccans want to dance nude in a field, they should be told, "No, we don't have to make an exception for you."

Combine this with throwing out non-discrimination laws tout court (I know, drastic, but I think important) so that all private entities as well as public schools, police departments, etc., can openly discriminate against (inter alia) Wiccans, thus opening the door to all manner of societal pressures, and I think we have a recipe for discouraging Wicca without outlawing it, where "outlawing it" would mean things like fining people for attending Wiccan ceremonies or getting warrants to search people's houses for implements of witchcraft.

Works for me. You're right that there are different levels of accepting, tolerating, or pushing back against a religion.

As I see it, error has no rights, but everyone who sees a truth has a right to speak it (in due season). And since we all have the truth with an admixture of defect or lack of perfection, we have a right to speak the truth that we have that is contained in an imperfect whole of thought, as long as that speaking respects the common good.

Well said, Tony. And it is the great virtue of prudence that we must really on to establish those lines.

Lydia, I think your last comment about non-neutrality and open discrimination puts you so far outside the Open Society school of thought that I'm finding it hard to see why I'm arguing with you. You're closing questions all over the place.

On the First Amendment, my beef with current jurisprudence is the excision of the first word of said amendment without the proper amendment process, or rather the expansion of the word -- "Congress" -- to mean "all legislative bodies anyway in the country." I endorse strongly the idea of non-establishment for the Federal government, but I'm content to follow the Framers in allowing the states more latitude on these matters.

Well, sure, Paul, I deny incorporation as well. But I'm also glad that the states all decided to be non-confessional too--without any incorporation shenanigans, either--and that in this respect, as well as in respect of not throwing people in prison for criticizing the state government, the state constitutions mirror the federal constitution, so that we would have my version of free speech, freedom of the press, etc., even without incorporation.

When Lincoln gave orders in spring 1861 to the effect that Maryland secessionists could thrown in military prisons; when Federal officers, citing his orders, defied Chief Justice Taney's repeated claims of the writ of habeas corpus for several of those arrested -- how do you judge these events? The press of awful necessity? A shameful departure from American tradition? Or a justified action by a beleaguered executive sworn to uphold a political order that was threatened?

when Federal officers, citing his orders, defied Chief Justice Taney's repeated claims of the writ of habeas corpus for several of those arrested -- how do you judge these events?

You know, it's a funny thing: the more facts I learn about the Civil War, the more convinced I am that BOTH parties were gravely in the wrong, both legally and morally. The South was wrong on slavery. (I view the late growth of their laws against educating blacks as damning evidence against their own consciences on this.) The North was wrong to try to eradicate slavery without some form of just compensation. The South was wrong to try to force northerners to return slaves (state law generally controls meaning of "property"). Lincoln was wrong to run roughshod over Maryland. Lincoln was wrong to refuse to negotiate in good faith over federal forts in the South, such as Sumter. The South was wrong in forcing the issue by the first use of force at said forts, against totally contained "threats. And on, and on, and on.

More than anything, I view the Civil war as wrongly "settling" the issue of secession. The same state entity that had the authority to give over some limited portion of its sovereign rights (but not all) to the federal power, also retained all other rights (10th amendment). Therefore, the right to walk away from the union and take back full sovereignty was retained. I think that the southern states were WRONG to use the power of secession over slavery, but they certainly had the power. If you grant that they have the power to secede, then by definition the federal authority cannot have oversight of the use of that power (or it ceases to be a power to take up full sovereignty), so it cannot belong to the feds to say "you used your power inappropriately, we are going to step in." The practical legal stance (which I was taught in school for 12 years) that the Civil War settled the secession issue is just plain upside down.

Mind you, I don't much enjoy the likely prospect of what would have happened had the secession been left to stand: most probably, further splintering, with eventual intramural power jockeying, leading to
extra-national pressures from Mexico and the European powers to foment various wars between the factioned splinters. Not unrealistically, being dragged into WWI as a primary player in 1914, with the war also fought on our soil.

Tony, I've often thought that it would be a great college American history project for a student to do a research paper on arguments for and against the prerogative of the states to secede even after joining the union under the Constitution. I'm holding this in my back pocket in case one of our kids in college should be at a loss for an American History paper topic. Got any good accessible book ideas for arguments for and against with references to original sources?

Lydia, I have read bits and snippets of passages, quoted by others, in numerous contemporary articles and books that refer to earlier sources. At the moment I would be hard pressed to come up with any. I believe that Mark Alexander at Patriot Post (a phenomenal conservative website, by the way) thinks Lincoln was criminal in his approach to upholding the union. See this:


I don't agree with Alexander in his entire outlook, but he makes some good points.

I think that every high-schooler should at least think a bit about the issue (as well as whether we had the right to declare independence from Britain, and then ask, how does the American Revolution compare to the South's secession). I would imagine that the idea was beat to death a hundred times over in books leading up to and following the Civil War.

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