He takes on Alan Wolfe:
Open University: [Wolfe's essay] is, as as I wrote at the time, "friend-enemy politics posing as an opposition to it. It is Wolfe who sees [the 2004] election as an apocalyptic contest between liberal democracy and its opponents rather than a competition between two legitimately opposed parties in an ongoing contestatory system."... The essay compares unlikes to unlikes in the service of equating liberalism to nice intellectual approaches and conservatism to thuggishness: "Schmitt had an explanation for why conservative talk-show hosts like Bill O'Reilly fight for their ideas with much more aggressive self-certainty than, say, a hopeless liberal like Alan Wolfe." (I have an explanation, too: it rests on the distinction between talk-show hosts and thoughtful academics.)...
It's popular in the blogosphere to trot out the other side's most obnoxious and venomous and extreme spokespeople (Pat Robertson! Noam Chomsky! Ward Churchill! R.J. Rushdoony! Ann Coulter! Al Sharpton!) as a substitute for debate.... But a one-sided list of bad actors can't be used as evidence in an evaluation of which side has worse actors....
Here at OU Alan has been busy warning people against what he takes to be the censorious impulse involved in suggestions of anti-Semitism (regardless of underlying merit). [Karl] Schmitt was a Nazi. Throwing around claims like "conservatives have absorbed Schmitt's conception of politics much more thoroughly than liberals" seems to me at least as... uninviting of further discussion... as some of the claims that he's suggested illegitimately manifest a desire to censor....
I'm no conservative, but I found the claim that liberals do, and conservatives do not, care about process over outcomes, about precedent, about the boundedness of state power and the autonomy of society, and about engaging with their opponents as legitimate participants in debate very offputting. Linking that claim up with Schmitt made it all the worse.
My problem is that in America today I don't see many conservatives. I see plenty of Bush-apologists. But I don't see very many people who think that the traditions we have inherited deserve respect because they are our traditions. People who advance such arguments--that "women should be discriminated against" and "homosexuals should be beaten up" and "abortion should be banned" and "couples in movies should always have three feet on the floor" because that is the way things have been--always seem to stop short when the traditions that we have inherited are things like "workers should be unionized" or "taxes should be progressive" or "people should be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures" or that those "quaint Geneva conventions" are the law of the land.
As Max Weber said, the materialist interpretation of history is not a streetcar that you can get on and off where you wish. Similarly, one would think that a conservative philosophical orientation is not something to be applied to support those past institutions and practices you like and to be ignored when past institutions and practices are things you don't like. But it is.
In fact, in practice, it always has. A conservative philosophical orientation has always been a streetcar to get you to where you already knew you wanted to go.
When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise.
Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.
Even in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn't argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions--the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues--well, let's let him talk:
Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: We [in Britain] procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended.... You [in France] might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution... suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. ... In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views.... [B]y pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.
You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General].... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as... a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage....
Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... a generous and gallant nation, long misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty... that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king? Had you made it to be understood... that you were resolved to resume your ancient [liberties,] privileges[, and immunities]... you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth...
Burke's argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its ancestral traditions. Burke's argument is, instead, that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were better than in 1788, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn't an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.
What are good institutions? Burke sounds like Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke's views on what good institutions are are Enlightenment views--that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose. Because he finds that the English past is usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven views, Burke makes conservative arguments in Reflections. But whenever conservative arguments lead where Burke doesn't want to go--to Richelieu or Louis XIV or the plunder of Ireland or the Star Chamber or Warren Hastings or imperial centralization--Burke doesn't make them. England's inheritance of institutions and practices is to be respected wherever it supports Burke's conception of properly-ordered liberty, and ignored wherever it does not.
You see, for all that Alan Wolfe is an intolerant wolf in tolerant sheep's clothing in his attack on conservatives for being intolerant, Alan Wolfe is right. Conservativism is at its base a form of intellectual thuggishness: a hitting-one's-adversary-on-the-head with the blackjack of tradition when doing so seems likely to gain one a momentary rhetorical advantage. That warped it at its origin, and warps it today.----