5 Jun 2007
Of Blogs, Souls and Politics...
I just finished reading a book called The Conservative Soul: How We Lost it, How to Get it Back, by Andrew Sullivan. The book left a significant enough reaction on me that I have a review for it.
I first became acquainted with the work of Andrew Sullivan through the Atlantic Monthly's website, which links to his blog, The Daily Dish. For those more removed from the Beltway, Sullivan was/is one of the premier political bloggers, and his blog was once among the most-influential in DC. He was an ardent supporter of Bush in the 2001-2003 years, allegedly becoming required reading for the White House staff. Beginning in 2004 he had a major falling-out with The Bush Administration (hereafter referred to as TBA) and has taken up blogger arms ever since then. I find his blog worth a quick view - he also tries to keep things interesting with YouTube clips of all sorts.
Anyways, with that background, I decided to read his book (free from the library, of course). And I must say that I have a very mixed reaction, perhaps inspired by my readings of reviews by his friend David Brooks and by the New York Review of Books.
Sullivan is a mixed bag, and while I will leave it to the above reviews to flesh out his story, here he is in a nutshell. He is a child of Irish immigrants to England, selected for a scholarship to Oxford, a doctoral student of philosophy, Tory activist, immigrant to America, youngest editor of The New Republic, openly gay and HIV positive, and a practicing Catholic, as well as being the blogger personality. This makes his life experiences and viewpoints eclectic, to say the least. This book was his attempt to make clear what a conservative is in his understanding, being himself a self-professed conservative.
His argument is as follows: a conservative is a person who sees the world through the lenses of skepticism and doubt, always questioning and listening to his conscience, and never believing in an ideology or any concept a priori. The conservative embodies the ideals of 16th century French philosopher Montaigne and 20th century British philosopher Oakeshott, and sees the world as a never-ending game of pool: one must consider play based on where the balls are placed, and one can never really control the consequences. The conservative above all values freedom and the strong but limited government that allows him the space to muse his lonely, sublime existence and to express himself as needs be.
The conservative is therefore threatened by the fundamentalist. Sullivan defines the fundamentalist as anyone who excepts some external set of values as a revealed truth, and who tries to bend himself and his world to fit into this truth. Such a person cannot tolerate other ways of thinking, and must either convert or destroy anyone who does not share his revelation. The fundamentalist is forever reaching back to that one moment of his conversion, and is governed by fear of sin, defeat, and by thoughts of the end-times.
All well and good, and at this point I'd like to say that I share many of Sullivan's more compelling philosophical thoughts, such as the inability of God to be defined by human presumption and the dichotomy between knowledge (and its limits) and (false) certainty - although Jacob Bronowski's discussion of the latter topic in his Ascent of Man is far better. Sullivan also provides some great philosophical arguments against those who would invoke "natural law" or the "culture of death" to colour debates about human biology, birth and death.
However, as Sullivan's colourful past can show, he has more than a few axes to grind, and when grinding them the quality of his writing slips. As the above reviewers observe, his book is high on philosophy and low on journalism. He doesn't really bother to get to know the fundamentalists in any meaningful manner. Christian fundamentalists are a series of Falwell quotes, references to American mega-churches and the "Left Behind" series, and rehashed research from fellow gay anti-fundamentalist provocateur Bruce Bawer. His knowledge of Islam and political Islamism is far worse, and one can see why his views on it were once so popular among neoconservative Republicans. In his mind, the Taliban, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all the same, where women are "domestic slaves" and gays have walls dropped on them - sadly true in instances, but ignoring the deeper complexities that make these or any non-Western society a real, rather than a rhetorical point. Likewise, he manages to conflate "fundamentalism" to mean anyone motivated to change the world by ideals, be it "Islamofascists" real fascists, communists, Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, Christianists, Socialists, liberals, internationalists, international realists, Whigs...the list goes on. As David Brooks notes, this would seem to include the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Civil Rights movement leaders in its logical conclusion, as well as anyone motivated by faith to perform works of good in the world. Brooks points out that poetry and philosophical skepticism are all well and good, but hardly make for a coherent and successful political movement.
But this is precisely the point. For all of Sullivan's personal philosophy, and in direct contradiction to the book's title, we never see what a conservative is, merely what this conservative does. We can very clearly substitute "conservative" for "Andrew Sullivan" and read his referral to himself in the manner of Caesar, and we would not be too far off the mark.
For clearly he sees himself in his actions as the embodiment of this "conservativeness" (never an -ism, please!). Him and his worthy pantheon: Jesus (naturally), Oakeshott (Sullivan's personal friend and the subject of his doctoral thesis), the equally obscure Montaigne (I have studied both philosophy and political science and blissfully never heard of these two before), and the larger-than-history Lincoln, Churchill, Reagan and Thatcher. History is not his strong point, and where Sullivan carefully reads the philosophy of his foes he botches the history of his heroes. Sorry, but the US military did not liberate eastern Europe from communism, not even with those Pershing missiles. But no mention of Gorbachev is even made in this book - Reagan just apparently won the Cold War in Reykjavik by himself. Churchill presciently warned about a mobilized postwar Britain being turned to - evil! - a social welfare state, one that only Thatcher could disspell: but Churchill himself was reelected as Prime Minister of this social democracy in the 1950s. Sullivan often twists history against itself: Jefferson is quoted both negatively and positively compared to Sullivan's viewpoints.
And perhaps here is the meat of the issue. This book is in large part an exercise in both the egoism of an elite thinker and convoluted mea cupla for why such a thinker played willing attack dog against war skeptics in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Sullivan's most telling line on the subject:
"I can see the comedy and tragedy of an entire debate almost all of which was premised on what turned out to be a falsehood.... This falsehood was taken as fact by every major intelligence agency and by both supporters and opponents of a war to depose Saddam. We were all wrong."
Because, of course, we were all suckered, just like him. Unfortunately, I wasn't and I don't buy this attempt at an apology. He supported Bush when there was the need to question Bush, and it does no good now to say that, in fact, Bush isn't a real conservative but in fact the enemy of the conservatives. Sullivan is correct that TBA's executive power and willingness to torture are serious erosions of all our liberties. But most-favoured bloggers *ahem* calling in to question the patriotism and loyalty of those arguing against war in 2003 helped to get us there.
Furthermore, as the NYRB review notes, there is something of an Oxford-elitist tinge to his dislikes: he favors the familiar rituals in the village Catholic church for their own sake and unconnected to doctrine to the American megachurches and shopping malls. Fair enough, but the former seems to be something for Sullivan like what yoga has become - ancient rituals performed for a mind-clearing exercise by the urbane and educated rejecting any unpleasant or "unnecessary" cultural or doctrinal baggage. All you need to know is that this thinker is right and everyone else is wrong. Ironically, Sullivan himself often shows the zeal of the converted in his viewpoints.
Sullivan only cuts short his musings in the last ten pages, where he attempts to squeeze in that in addition to being a musing philosophy professor, the true conservative also supports free markets, the flat tax, gay marriage, marijuana legalization, preemptive war (but with a large international coalition), kite-flying, beer drinking, and of course blogging.
This book left me pondering the meaning and limitations of my existence, almost fainting trying to comprehend my own mortality. And it also served to show me why I should avoid political blogging where possible.