Monday, October 6, 2008

every man a commissar

Helen Rittelmeyer has written a post which I find almost entirely disturbing. Helen seems to make a provocative case for most of the post, but then retreats a bit at the end. Everything I'm writing here, though, seems to me to be a fair assessment of what she's said; as always I rely on you to tell me if I'm wrong.

My disappointment with the idea expressed in this post springs from some elementary first principles, namely that what any thinking person is actually responsible for, and should be loyal (yes, loyal) to are morality, ethics, principle, relationships and values. Of course most of us find affinity with other people, and for reasons beyond my understanding, those camps tend to be found in polar binaries. And we all, to one degree or another, commit to the project of our side when we aren't fully committed to the entire platform. But degree matters, and distinctions matter, and there are some bridges that we simply can't cross, for reasons of principle. The important question isn't when and to what degree we break with our party when we feel bound to but that the ultimate arbiter is that we are bound indeed to notional qualities and not communities.

What happens if Helen's party, her team, advocates action which is entirely morally or philosophically unacceptable to her? Something truly disqualifying? I can't read her argument as anything other than an endorsement of the idea that she would be straightjacketed into supporting that venture, or abandoning her ideological self-definition. And it even seems like she would cut the rug out from the right to do the latter.

Some might say that surely context and degree matter, and that if her side really did advocate something dramatically at odds with her beliefs, she'd break away. But I put it to you that this is the kind of reading which Rittelmeyer's belief refuses. As soon as individual (and necessarily contingent) ideas of what is or isn't acceptable under the umbrella of ideological loyalty are considered, you're no longer sticking to the notions of tribal politics that Helen has laid out. As she says, "you're still standing by your guys no matter how the argument turns out". She argues for an extra-political conversation that takes place sight unseen, so as not to give material aid and comfort to the enemy. But to me, part of the reason why intra-docrtinal arguments have power is because of their accessibility to the other side. Any idea of sufficient integrity to be pursued is an idea that can be thought through in the open air of the marketplace of ideas-- another benefit of free expression. Also, as soon as you've decided who is to be excluded from this sotto voce policy discussion, you've effectively set rather tight parameters on what ideas are going to be genuinely considered.

Setting aside the definition of loyalty she's crafted-- it seems that the only necessary criterion for gaining the endorsement of Helen Rittelmeyer is to be on the "conservative" side of a two party system. As she says, "At any given moment, the GOP might be more or less in line with conservative principles, but it is, and will continue to be, the conservative party in our two-party system." This is troubling. Parties routinely continue to represent themselves as being the party of a particular ideological bent long after they've cease to really be so; so the farce of the fascist Nazi party being the "National Socialists". I can't imagine the Republican party abandoning the pretense of being the conservative party. I can very easily imagine a scenario where the Republican party ceases to be meaningfully to the right of the Democratic party (or whatever other opposition). 

More importantly is the fact that, of course, what constitutes conservative principle is precisely what is at issue in the kind of internecine squabbles that Friedersdorf is engaged in. Daniel Larison's quest, for example, is to change the signaling mechanisms that label one a conservative. The existence of a reformist conservatism is largely a product of just such a desire. In these days of Bushism, belonging to the conservative "tribe" amounts to an endorsement of torture, unfettered and unapologetic military adventurism, the abandonment of privacy rights, and unblinking loyalty to the party mechanism. For orthodox conservatives-- or "paleocons", if you prefer the pejorative-- these are of course precisely the opposite of conservative values. The question is, to which vision would Rittelmeyer feel beholden to? If it's simply whatever vision she feels is most consonant with her values, her post has lost what I'm reading the meaning to be. She'd be partaking in precisely the kind of critical thinking that she suggests is inimical to the tribal politics she prefers. So which conservatism? 

She writes "The most I can hope for is that the GOP will achiece the greatest success with those 'cultural cues' (Conor's phrase) that serve as shorthand for the most important conservative values." This is a pretty bold. If that is the most she can hope for, she has a dim vision of her ideology indeed; and I take it from many of her other posts that she indeed does hope for far more than that.

More tellingly is the fact that according to those "cultural cues" she has such fondness for, Rittelmeyer is not a "good" conservative by the vast majority of conservative opinion. Whatever her stances on policy, free-thinking Yale graduates, I assure you, are not in the "Joe Sixpack" coffee klatsch. This has been one of the weirdest aspects of the sudden vogue for the pure identity politics that the right so long derided on the left. Many of the people who are willing to excuse the political exercise of the McCain campaign whereby the country is split into real and unreal Americas would, I assure you, be surprised to find themselves in the latter camp. How do I know? The same reason that I have no doubt that Obama is "really black"; because it is the oppressor who gets to choose. It's the racist who knows damn well who is black enough to call the n-word. And it's the "Joe Sixpacks" who decide who to allow into the franchise. If they're allowing in bohemian Yale postmodernists, what can those cues mean, exactly?

If she was thus exiled, the question becomes... to whom and how could she complain?


X. Trapnel said...

Exactly. Nice.

X. Trapnel said...

Part of the problem is that Helen seems to have an all-or-nothing approach to authority and loyalty, which is simply a mistake.

Jon said...

Nice take down, Freddie, though one tiny point to add.

You ask, "What happens if Helen's party, her team, advocates action which is entirely morally or philosophically unacceptable to her?"

In her post and the comments, she makes it clear that it's ok to break with your team, but you better damn well shut up about it and never say anything to anyone about anything ever again.

By the way, thanks for linking to your blog, I tend to just read you at The League.