Friday, July 28, 2006

Conscience of a Conservative

It's a strange age in which the battles of the Middle East become a battle for the soul of Anglo-American conservatism. The drive to enlist conservative support for the ongoing pulverisation of Lebanon has crystallised a long-brewing debate about what exactly conservatism means in the post-9/11 world. When a leading conservative pundit calls neoconservatism a "spectacularly misnamed radicalism," it signals some major internal stresses.

The source isn't hard to pinpoint. 'Conservatism' has become fused with a foreign policy project built on its philosophical antithesis - radical social change. If conservatism means anything, it means valuing and preserving traditional social structures. The Anglo-American tradition rounds this out by taking the individual rather than the group as the political subject, which means being concerned with one's own affairs rather than those of others and restricting the power of the state. Yet today there is relentless presure to define 'conservatism' by commitment to forcing radical change in foreign societies, judging people by groups and accommodating state power over the individual.

That's how we end up in a situation where to be 'conservative' means to endorse the invasion and social engineering of other countries. Or to acquiesce without question every time the government strips away civil liberties in the name of fighting terror. Or most lately, to take sides in an intractable and morally ambiguous foreign conflict. Israel is comprehensively justified and Lebanon must pay the price until various third-party 'evildoers' - the US president's phrase, not mine - are brought to destruction. Today, conservatism means certainty - in the purity of one's cause, the wickedness of one's enemies and the acceptability of any damage inflicted along the way. This is sometimes called 'unilateralism', but the term is usually avoided so as to obscure how a social philosophy has been hijacked by an extreme school of foreign policy.

The problem is that the world is not black and white - a lesson that one lays on top of earlier lessons about distinguishing right and wrong, in the process of reaching maturity. The existence of evil does not justify arbitrary destruction to stamp it out - something that true conservatives understand well and all the 'vanguard parties' of the 20th century did not. Since today's claimants to the conservative mantle have lost this insight, they ought to be called 'postconservatives' rather than 'neoconservatives', as the latter term implies that they've added to the sum total of human wisdom rather than drained it.

The local 'postconservative' mouthpiece is The Australian, which has swapped roles with its foreign affairs editor since AWB was in the news - now Sheridan has some perspective while the editorial pushes a morally blinkered and intellectually obtuse argument. 'Argument' is a generous term for the string of unsubstantiated or simply brainless comments that I've extracted below, with an explanation for why each would be crossed through with red ink if it was in a first-year undergraduate essay rather than a newspaper opinion column.

Not the UN, who in deploying a largely useless peacekeeping mission alongside Hezbollah installations in southern Lebanon made their own soldiers the accidental targets of an Israeli missile and created the strong impression that the international body has taken sides.

One would expect Australia's leading newspaper to explain what the UN was doing in the warzone before calling it useless. Or what the UN hoped to gain by making Israeli targets out of peacekeepers, who are not 'UN' soldiers but the military personnel of various countries. Not that it matters, because it's the UN. One gains a strong impression that The Australian has taken sides...

It only makes sense for Israel to pressure the Government in Beirut to do what it should have been doing all along – kick Hezbollah and its Syrian and Iranian masters out of the country – if you accept the legitimacy of that Government.

Let's rephrase this - 'Israel will get action from the Lebanese government by destroying its infrastructure and displaying Beirut's powerlessness to defend its people. This is the logical outcome of recognising that government's legitimacy'. The same logic that said undermining the Palestinian Authority would help combat groups like Hamas.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly declares his desire to destroy Israel while pursuing a nuclear weapons program that many Western leftists – especially in Europe – see as a useful moral and military counterbalance to the Jewish state.

It would have been nice for the editors to buttress this claim by citing all the rallies, opinion pieces and diplomatic maneuvers in support of Iran's nuclear program. But what do you know - there aren't any. Of course as an Australian postconservative you don't need evidence, when you know exactly how 'leftists' and Europeans think...

In the meantime, Israel must make sure that even as it attacks Hezbollah it does not alienate other foes of the organisation.

I struggle to find any redeeming feature in this sentence. At least it gives the Lebanese credit for the same forebearance that Australians would show, were the US military to bomb our country for weeks to get at terrorists in our midst.

Doubtless The Australian's editors, with their focus on the big picture, would consider all these shortcomings superfluous. What matters is that they stand solidly behind Israel as it blasts the shoots of democracy in Lebanon, thus guaranteeing its security for generations to come. It must be hard for people like George Will to watch conservatism bastardised into the sort of 'greater good' mentality that led Marxism down into the pit. On the other hand, it's easy being a postconservative - no matter how much destruction is wreaked, the world will thank you in the end.


Leng said...

I turned to your blog in the hope of finding something intelligent on this issue. You came through, as always. Also, as a Chinese Malaysian/Anglo-Saxon Australian, I related to "Model Minority". Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

John Lee said...

thanks. Nice to have a reader who appreciates this blog's randomness