This just in: the Bush administration is an extremist organization. I have it straight from the godfather of conservatism.
I’ve just gotten around to reading a really interesting piece by Tom Reiss in the October 24th New Yorker. “The First Conservative” profiles Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and political theorist Peter Viereck, who could arguably be credited with the first articulation of American conservatism as a political philosophy.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” In Viereck’s writing, words take a similar twist, with interesting results. To Viereck, conservative thinking is grounded in certain cultural values; whatever philosophy rejects them—regardless of the political label such views are conventionally given–is extremism. Thus, in the forties he equated Communism and Nazism because both were predicated on utopian beliefs: each was driven by a vision of the New Man and New Society and each had to eliminate countless people who inconveniently couldn’t or wouldn’t get with the program.
Viereck was frightened of any worldview that failed his test of realism. Realists understand “the inner unremovable nature of man as the ultimate source of evil.” (Or as Walt Kelly famously put it in his cartoon strip, “Pogo,” “We have met the enemy and he is us.”) Viereck’s most instructive object lesson had been close to home: his pro-Nazi father was convicted in 1941 of conspiring with the Nazis, spending four years in federal prison. Three years later, Viereck’s brother was killed fighting Nazis on the beach at Anzio.
Viereck broke with many fellow conservatives over McCarthy’s Red Scare of the fifties. “McCarthy,” Viereck said in 1945, “basically is not the fascist type, but the type of the left-wing anarchist agitator, by an infallible instinct and not by ‘accident’ subverting precisely those institutions that are the most conservative and organic, everything venerable and patrician, from the Constitution, and precisely the most decorated or paternal generals (Marshall, Eisenhower, Taylor, Zwicker), to the leaders of our most deeply established religion and precisely the most ancient of our universities…” He cast McCarthy’s campaign as “the revenge of the noses that for twenty years of fancy parties were pressed against the outside window pane.”
The way he sees McCarthy’s legacy has a certain ring to it: “I think McCarthy was a menace not because of the risk that he would take over—that was never real—but because he corrupted the ethics of American conservatives, and that corruption leads to the situation we have now. It gave the conservatives the habit of appeasing the forces of the hysterical right and to looking to these forces—and appeasing them knowingly, expediently. I think that was the original sin of the conservative movement, and we are all suffering from it.”
As it happened, conservatism took the road Viereck warned against and he was erased from its lineage, vilified for lecturing people on “how to be a conservative and yet agree with the Liberals about Everything” (that quote is from the National Review).
Now, I couldn’t be called a conservative by anyone’s definition. By Viereck’s, I lack proper respect for what is most “paternal,” “deeply established” and “ancient” in our class system. The fundamental values I want to protect and extend are incompatible with a belief in aristocracy. Given what Viereck sees as humans’ innate greed and desire to dominate, I don’t want to give any class hereditary privilege. I want to establish and protect everyone’s right to culture and heritage, to decent education, shelter and healthcare, to conservation of environmental resources and protection of the natural world, to preservation of endangered communities and freedom from religious ideology as well as freedom to worship. I want to establish, protect and preserve freedom of speech including democratic use of the airwaves, an intrinsically public trust. Noblesse oblige isn’t much use here.
But despite our many differences, applying Viereck’s criteria, Bush and Cheney aren’t conservatives either. In 2002, the President put forward his National Security Strategy with its centerpiece rationalization of preemptive military action, or as he put it, “Proactive counterproliferation efforts. We must deter and defend against the threat before it is unleashed.” This is an ambitious, aggressive, expensive program for world domination.
Plain and simple, Bush is a utopian extremist who imagines the world made over in his image, and who almost succeeded in impersonating a conservative before the country recently began to awaken. We are living with the social consequences of his extremism right now. Instead of conserving organic social institutions, the Bush administration has been starving them to feed its belligerence and appease its supporters: cuts in spending for every social good are financing massive military spending and massive tax cuts and other economic privileges for the haves. Even more chilling is the fact that we are living with the consequences of Bush’s extremism in waste of human life. The New Yorker profile quotes a 1997 speech by Viereck that characterizes it perfectly: “If you kill out of love or for a perfect utopia, you never stop killing because human nature is always imperfect.”
A very conservative estimate of the civilian death toll in Iraq stands at about 30,000. U.S. military deaths stand at 2,100. As I write, the war has cost $223 billion and rising, according to the National Priorities Project, which offers excellent information on the comparable cost of social goods.
We have seen this type of extremism many times in world history, whenever passionate ideologues worship their own fantasies of the world at the expense of actual existing human beings. “Compassionate conservatism?” Let’s call it what it is: extremism driving appeasement.