Monday, August 25, 2014

In which I agree with Ross Douthat...

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition IV, 1911.
...when the Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street makes fun of the administration's insistence that there's anything "medieval" about the self-denominated "Islamic state":
The idea that America’s foes and rivals are not merely morally but chronologically deficient, confused time travelers who need to turn their DeLorean around, has long been a staple of this administration’s rhetoric. Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and tyrants in general have been condemned, in varying contexts, for being on the dreaded “wrong side of history.”
Obviously if the would-be Caliph were to be transported back to the actual medieval Caliphate of Baghdad with its alcohol and sexual adventurousness, freedom of thought and easy acceptance of Jews, Christians, Chinese, and even Shiites (Sunnis, however, often had to bend to the theological whims of the ruler),  and art, music, fragrance, he'd want to behead them all or run away.

But I have a little difficulty with the warmed-over Fukuyamism with which he goes onto explain,
that the history of liberal democracy is actually inseparable, as Abram Shulsky writes in The American Interest, from “the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.” Whether reactionary or utopian, secular or religious, these counter-ideologies are as modern, in their way, as the Emancipation Proclamation or the United Nations Charter.
In which modern conservatism, the illiberal reaction of Burke and Maistre and their successors to the excesses of democracy—their fearful hostility—and ultimately to the Emancipation Proclamation and the United Nations Charter and the modern welfare state in its entirety, completely disappears into the foliage.

The medievalism of the new reactionaries in "Iraq and the Levant" or Novaya Rossiya isn't something Obama just made up as a dis with which to taunt them, it's a direct reference to these particular dictators' express desire to turn back the clock of progress and return to some purer moment of time, whether it's the imaginary Caliphate or the land of St. Vladimir or for that matter Benjamin Disraeli's Merrie England where the tenant farmer lived in perfect harmony with the kindly squire or the Father Knows Best moment of ca. 1938 when God was still in charge of Man at Yale. Yes, these ideas are all entirely modern, in that the pasts they refer to are all modern (or postmodern) inventions, as opposed to real pasts, but they are all primarily conservative.

The Monsignor's attempt to sneak his own particular, not very violent anti-modernism into the tent of those who accept modernism, and the way he does it simply by not using the word "conservative", is another of those instances of deep Douthat dishonesty that make him such an interesting figure. For more on conservatism as a reaction against "liberal democracy" from its very beginnings in the 18th century, see Corey Robin.

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