On the Philosophical Underpinnings of Conservativism

What do conservatives stand for?

One popular narrative is that conservatives cling to tradition and resist change. There is an element of truth to this description in that conservatives do value tradition–albeit not for its own sake. Rather, out of the conviction that systems and institutions which have proven themselves over the course of generations should not be hastily cast aside in favor of the untested (and typically ill-fated) vogue. But ultimately, this is a feature of conservativism rather than its essence.

Conservativism is a response to progressivism. The point of divergence between them relates to the (im)perfectability of man–a centuries-long debate with theological origins but profound political implications:

Progressives tend to view history in a more-or-less linear fashion. It is held that as a result of mankind’s essential goodness (or rationality), or else as a result of immutable suprahuman forces, humanity is on a trajectory towards some “end of history” (the notion of progress is incomprehensible absent an end-state. For instance, what would constitute “progress” on an infinite line?).

Insofar as this (implicit or explicit) climax is viewed as utopian in nature (as is usually the case), progressives believe it is their responsibility to hasten this outcome, or even instantiate their ideal in the here-and-now. They typically view governments as a means to achieve these ends, appealing to some conception of the Good which the state is supposed to realize, often by means of some presumed universally-superior mode of societal arrangement. It is this impulse which undergirded the Enlightenment, Marxism, and myriad other revolutionary movements—and its negation forms the basis for conservativism.

 

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Who is Whitewashing History? (Hint: It’s the Neo-Confederates)

 “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered”

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

 

With the Confederate Battle Standard finally removed from the South Carolina Capitol grounds, many conservative commentators have expressed concern that the battle may not be over, that the movement to abolish public symbols of the Confederacy in may spread to other monuments—for instance, renaming streets and public schools which honor white supremacists, or re-appropriating landmarks and dismantling memorials which commemorate slave owners and segregationists.

Of course, these fears are not unfounded: there is such a movement underway. But what is perplexing is why anyone would find this to be problematic. Conservative claims that these actions amount to “whitewashing history” or “cultural cleansing” are beyond ironic:

It is whitewashing history, on several levels, to celebrate and honor the Confederacy independent of its subjugation of blacks. The so-called “states’ rights” narrative about the origins and meanings of the war are falsified by Declarations of Secession from the southern states, and the words of Confederate leaders themselves—who left no doubt that what they were fighting for was the continuation of slavery. In fact, had they won independence from the North, the vision was to build an empire by conquering and enslaving the denizens of Mexico and Central America as well.

While it is true that there were issues related to the proper collection and allocation of taxes and tariffs, representation in the Congress, and the extent of federal sovereignty—most of these problems also turned on questions about the legal status of blacks (especially given that slaves constituted the majority of the population in many southern districts, and the economy was heavily-dependent on slave labor).

The developments which provoked outright secession were principally the northern state’s general refusal to enforce the Fugitive Slaves Act, along with concerns that Lincoln and the Republicans might ban slavery in any new states which joined the Union (even if they allowed existing slave states to continue the practice, for lack of viable alternatives).

That “Southern culture and way of life” the Confederates were so eager to preserve? It was entirely contingent upon the subjugation of blacks. Whites in slave states rightfully viewed emancipation as an existential threat to their livelihood, their culture and their very lives. They dreaded reprisals by newly freed slaves, be they political, economic, or violent (they assumed the latter most often, given the “savage” constitution of blacks). For this reason, even those few southerners who supported the abolition of slavery generally proposed dumping blacks back in Africa, rather than allowing them to live free and equal alongside their former oppressors (even when the slaves were eventually “freed” they were kept separate from whites through America’s apartheid system).

Again, this is spelled out unambiguously by the very people who spearheaded the rebellion—so it is ahistorical to deny or minimize these realities. For elaboration on this point, see the video below featuring Colonel Ty Seidule, the head of the history department at the US Military Academy at West Point:

 

 

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America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing extremism–Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law-enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents (such as those affiliated with the Tea Party).

In order to help diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly grievances with the Internal Revenue Service (whose offices he struck). The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass-casualty event as a catalyst for political change—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for terrorism. And yet, the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such—and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!

 

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Understanding ISIL’s Appeal

“Thirty, forty years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist, whatever. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

Slavoj Zizek

 

It is oft-remarked that proponents of the prevailing international order, despite rhetoric about freedom and democracy, eagerly support dictators, warlords and other autocrats in order to preserve the status quo. However, this tendency is no less pronounced in opponents of the system. For example: during the Cold War, Lenin and Mao inspired large swaths of Westerners, particularly young people, into leftist movements—many of which carried out campaigns of domestic terrorism in order to provoke revolution.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) similarly aspires towards a new form of social arrangement. In this post-Occupy movement period, where no one else seems to have the willingness or ability to meaningfully “fight the system,” ISIL appears to many as virtually the only actor interested in, and capable of, radical societal reforms. Understanding this source of ISIL’s appeal will be critical to countering its narratives, undermining its recruitment, and ultimately defeating the group.

 

Beyond brainwashing

ISIL’s recruits are generally not stupid, ignorant or naïve , nor are they religious zealots,  nor are they somehow unable to resist social media messaging. It is comforting to write-off ISIL supporters as deranged or “brainwashed” because it helps distract from the role the anti-ISIL coalition’s members played in creating and perpetuating the conditions under which the “Islamic State” could emerge and flourish—but the extensive post 9/11 body of research on terrorism clearly shows that regardless of how a campaign may be framed, the primary reason people support terrorism is to achieve political aspirations.

For example, it is widely assumed that most suicide bombers were uneducated, mentally ill or otherwise cognitively deficient. Or that martyrs were simply nihilistic (often from having few socio-economic prospects), or were narcissists eager for notoriety. It turns out that those cases are the exception rather than the rule:  Suicide bombers tend to be wealthier and better educated than most in their societies. In fact, it is their deeper understanding of societal problems that often impels their activism. And rather than being sociopathic, would-be martyrs tend to be prosocial, idealistic and altruistic, driven by compassion and a sense of moral outrage.

Millennials tend to be especially globally conscious and passionate about making a difference. However, they are also intensely skeptical about societal institutions, or that “the system” can work to evoke sufficient change on pressing issues. This is the main source of ISIL’s allure among youth.

Sympathizers are well-aware of the atrocities committed by the organization—crimes which are disseminated widely by ISIL itself, in part to lure unpopular foreign actors into their theater of war. By taking the bait, the Western-led coalition has allowed ISIL to position itself as a resistance organization against a U.S.-dominated unipolar world order, a bulwark against meddling in Middle East and Muslim affairs by former colonial and imperial powers and the repression of western-backed autocrats. ISIL’s recruitment has surged as a result.

 

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Foreign Policy Fundamentalism

Originally published in The Wilson Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3 (Summer 2015)

Print version available here.

 

With pomp and polish and platitudes, the 2016 presidential campaign is underway. It began in December, as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced he was “actively exploring” a run for the White House. Bush is more moderate than much of the Republican base on many issues–perhaps too moderate to ultimately win his party’s nomination.[1] On foreign policy issues, however, Bush tows a hawkish line, pushing for a more aggressive U.S. posture against Syria, Russia, Iran, China, and Cuba in order to better promote and defend American ideals and interests throughout the globe.[2]

On the whole, the Republican hopefuls are “racing to the right” on foreign policy, arguing for a more muscular approach to international affairs. A narrative is taking hold that many of the problems facing the world today are the result of the Obama administration’s “failed leadership.” More specifically, they were not brought about by America’s ill-conceived actions, but instead, because of U.S. inaction: a failure to intervene as often or aggressively as “needed” around the world, which (to many conservatives’ minds) projected American weakness and undermined U.S. credibility.[3] The solution? Clear principled American leadership. This line of reasoning permeates the recently-announced campaigns of noted surgeon Ben Carson, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and increasingly reflects the political strategy of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as well.[4]

The presumed Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is perhaps more aggressive still: unwavering in her advocacy of Israel, comparing Putin to Hitler over Ukraine, pushing for a more confrontational approach to China, championing intervention in Libya and Syria (just as she previously did for Iraq), supporting the troop surge in Afghanistan as well as the likely ill-fated campaign against ISIL, defending the counterproductive drone program, and arguing for increased sanctions and the threat of force against Iran (although she now tentatively supports the nuclear negotiation effort).[5]

During her pre-announcement book tour, Clinton lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy, particularly the administration’s aspirational credo:[6] “Don’t do stupid shit.” Her complaint was not that the Obama administration has failed to live up to such an apparently modest goal, but instead, that “don’t do stupid *stuff*” is not an organizing principle, and “Great nations” need doctrines to guide their foreign policy.[7]

On its face, this line of criticism is absurd. Clearly, “avoid doing harm” is, in fact, a maxim designed to guide action (just ask any medical professional).[8] Granted, it’s a principle guiding what not to do, rather than what to do. However, for this very reason, it is more basic (and more important than) any offensive strategy: it constrains what sorts of affirmative policies are desirable or even permissible. But notwithstanding this apparent lack of understanding about what “organizing principle” means,[9] there is a more profound error that Secretary Clinton holds in common with the Republican frontrunners: the assumption that grand strategies are necessary or useful in guiding foreign policy. They aren’t.

 

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The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction

It is problematic to assert that the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is not “Islamic” in large part because the  assertion presupposes there is a “true” and a “false” Islam—one by which Barack Obama or liberal Muslim intellectuals can judge whether others are “authentic” believers or not. This is the same takfir (excommunication) doctrine that animates IS and its precursors, a dogma that most of IS’ critics are eager to condemn when turned on religious minorities (especially Christians) in the Middle East.

Instead, one could argue that IS’s doctrines are far outside the mainstream beliefs and practices of contemporary and historical Muslim communities. By virtue of its fundamentalism, which relies heavily on fringe interpretations, cherry-picking Quranic verses, and revisionist history, IS rejects and does violence to the rich, diverse, and pluralistic Islamic legal tradition. IS tries to be as provocative as possible, especially in relation to other jihadist groups–often deliberately and cynically evoking Islamophobic and Orientalist tropes to goad its Western enemies. Many of its aspirations and tactics, moreover, have modern, secular roots. Alternatively, one could look at who tends to join the group:

Of their Western recruits, many are recent converts who adopted Islam as a sign of their pre-existing support for IS (rather than being driven to IS by their religious beliefs). Others have spent their lives as “cultural Muslims,” with more-or-less secular lifestyles, suddenly becoming “devout” after some kind of socio-legal tension that alienated them from their communities. Regardless of their religious or ethnic background, they are overwhelmingly young people. In short, IS tends to appeal to those who lack a strong theological foundation in Islam. Continue reading “The Islamic State’s Supposed Theology is a Dangerous Distraction”

Factions Speak Louder Than Herds

There is a growing body of research suggesting that when beliefs become tied to one’s sense of identity, they are not easily revised. Instead, when these axioms are threatened, people look for ways to outright dismiss inconvenient data. If this cannot be achieved by highlighting logical, methodological or factual errors, the typical response is to leave the empirical sphere altogether and elevate the discussion into the moral and ideological domain, whose tenets are much more difficult to outright falsify (generally evoking whatever moral framework best suits one’s rhetorical needs).

While often described in pejorative terms, these phenomena may be more akin to “features,” than “bugs,” of our psychology.

For instance, the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis holds that the primary function of rationality is social, rather than epistemic. Specifically, our rational faculties were designed to mitigate social conflicts (or conflicting interests). But on this account, rationality is not a neutral mediator. Instead, it is deployed in the service of one’s own interests and desires—which are themselves heavily informed by our sense of identity.

This is because our identities are, among other things, prisms through which we interpret the world. These trends hold just as true for secular agents as religious ones, for liberal ideologues as conservatives (as for so-called “independents,” they are generally partisans in disguise)—the phenomenon is known in academic circles as “cultural cognition.” Continue reading “Factions Speak Louder Than Herds”

Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

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Reclaiming Jihad

In the wake of the excesses by ISIS, and the public outcry against them which often takes on an Islamophobic hue, many Muslims have tried to defend their religion by minimizing al-jihad (the struggle) as something peripheral to the faith, or else as antiquated: necessary in the time of Mohammed, but rarely of relevance in contemporary societies. Still others attempt to portray jihad as almost entirely metaphorical, as being primarily an internal and personal struggle—this interpretation based on a questionable hadith in which the Prophet makes reference to a “greater” struggle, which is inside oneself v. the “lesser” struggle, which is in the world.

Ultimately, all of these methods are counterproductive to promoting understanding, be it within the Muslim community, or between the community and the broader population. To many who are wary of Islam, these maneuvers seem disingenuous because, as they are eager to point out, the Qur’an clearly tells a different story. Rather than trying to avoid this basic reality, Muslims should embrace it. Jihad is not a dirty word, it is the base upon which Islam’s other “pillars” rest.

 

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Irreligious Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is not exclusively, or even primarily, a religious phenomenon.

The classical conception of liberalism includes, among other things, a commitment to free markets, universal law, democracy, pluralism, and secularism. While often held to be universal values, these ideologies are not intrinsically compatible or necessarily intertwined—in fact, these ideas were not even historically compatible. In many contexts, they diverge and conflict. Individually and collectively, they are neither necessary nor inevitable ideologies; they may even be inferior to alternative social arrangements (such as state capitalism, illiberal democracy, legal pluralism, etc.) at realizing the will and interests of a given population.

While much of the narrative regarding the “Arab Spring” has focused on the supposed tension between Islamism and Liberalism—these false-dichotomies overlook the essential problem, which is a conflict internal to liberalism in simultaneously promoting democracy, secularism, and universal law in many contexts, to include the MENA (Middle East & North African) region. Accordingly, Western attempts to instantiate or promote their own values and institutions in these societies is likely to foster instability and sectarian strife rather than pluralism and cooperation.

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Liberals v. Democrats in Egypt

If people are truly given the right to self-determination, there is a good chance that, in many societies, most will reject the bulk of the (classical) liberal agenda — but isn’t this their right?

As a case study, consider Egypt. Much has been made over President Muhammad Mursi’s temporary power-grab, of the Islamist dominance in Parliament, and the Islamic flavor of the recently ratified Egyptian constitution. More disturbing, perhaps, is the Mursi Administration’s increasingly “authoritarian” response to continued civil disobedience. While these developments shock liberal sensibilities, it is not clear that they run contrary to the will or interests of the Egyptian people.

While the international media loves to focus on secular, liberal protestors, they are not representative of the general population of Egypt: neither their will, their values, nor their interests. Nor were they responsible for the transition in Egypt; in fact, many of the current protestors against Muhammad Mursi were in favor of the Mubarak Regime. The recent protests have been relatively small; the opposition movement is divided and disorganized; there have been constant counter-demonstrations in favor of the President, sometimes larger than those against him. For years, labor movements and Islamists represented the primary opposition blocs to the Mubarak regime. Accordingly, the narrative that the Islamists “hijacked” the revolution seems problematic. Continue reading “Liberals v. Democrats in Egypt”