Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right (Reviewed December 2008)

The Conservative Soul: Fundamentalism, Freedom and the Future of the Right, Andrew Sullivan (2006)[****]. Obama's election has renewed my long-held (perhaps somewhat pollyanna) dream that conservatives and liberals could really talk to one another (rather than just shouting in each others' direction), a dream which stems from a Quakerly sense that both conservatives and liberals probably speak some kernel of truth. The problem is that when I speak to conservatives, it often feels like we are speaking different languages. So I was pretty excited when I stumbled across Andrew Sullivan's blog The Daily Dish , because he strikes me as very much a conservative I could actually sit down and talk to. He's super smart, kind of sweet and earnest, and despises George W. He's also gay, Catholic, British and kind of cute. So I gave his book a try, and mostly was not disappointed. It is well-written, thoughtful, and only a few times made me laugh out loud at the absurdity of its assumptions. I loved Sullivan's description of conservatism as being rooted in loss and regret, in our resistance to the interruptions in the narrative of our lives. (I was less convinced that such a temperament, which I and many liberals I know share, necessarily leads to political conservatism.) His dissection of fundamentalist religion and how it is destroying democracy and freedom (from within and without) is spot-on, and his description of his own religious experience echoed my own very much: "Trying to get an abstract meaning of the Mass misses the point. The point is the activity, not the idea ... Eventually, even the words are acts." His explanation of why government should be limited, and his skepticism of grand governmental schemes to remake the world, all made sense. His insistence that government's first and most fundamental role is to secure the safety of its citizens, and that to do so we must grant the government a monopoly on force, especially made sense, because it strikes me that this failure on the part of government in the ghetto is profound and a major reason for the entrenchment of a poverty of opportunity for kids living there -- a failure that cannot be blamed on anything but the government's own failed policies (i.e. the "war on drugs," the militarization of the police, etc.). I was much less convinced that among the roles of a limited government should be protecting private property, and that government should not be in the business of redistributing wealth. Short a "natural" or God-given right to property ownership (which Sullivan denies -- he denies that any rights or laws are "natural" or God-given), why should government to use its monopoly on force to protect an individual's ownership rather than to redistribute it? The biggest failure of the book -- and of conservatism in general -- is Sullivan's failure to account for the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism. As Sullivan depicts conservatism -- limited government concerned primarily with liberty and freedom -- slavery and institutionalized racism are our government's greatest failure, yet there's not a word about its legacy or what role government should have in the face of that legacy. All in all, though, this was a great introduction to a reasonable and thoughtful conservative philosophy that has really helped me better understand my own political philosophy.

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