Thursday, December 2, 2010

The march of the dinosaurs

The political term "conservative" differs in meaning from place to place as populations look back on different historical golden ages.

In the 2000s the US experienced a wave of "neo-conservatism" as George W Bush rose to power and took on ambitious democracy-building ventures abroad. The movement was controversial and political opponents quickly demonised it as the brutal and logical conclusion of right-wing conservativism: cutting taxes on the rich and sinking into debt to fund foreign imperialistic wars.

Yet the neo-conservatives emerged initially from the left, from social-democrats who had become disillusioned with the massive social programmes of the 1960s. As the neo-cons grew in power their ideas about American politics became the dominant ideas of the right. This rise of ex-socialist rightists left behind some of the other conservatives. From the remnants rose paleoconservativism.

Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture is one of the main paleoconservative publications, and an astonishing glimpse into this perspective.

First the paleoconservatives have a very conservative emphasis on good manners. To them, the crude posturing of right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck is repulsive, as is the crass hedonism of the grasping rich. They complain about an alleged decline in old-fashioned politeness.

Paleoconservatives worship Christ, not the dollar and certainly not the flag ("to pledge allegiance to a flag is idolatry"), and many are Christian to the point of anti-secularism. They dismiss the modern liberal consensus over the rights of homosexuals and of abortion, seeing traditional Christianity as a central influence on American civilisation.

One great clash with Republicans comes in foreign policy: paleoconservatives favour American military withdrawal, even isolationism. For one, they are sceptical of the ability of governments to truly win their ambitious foreign wars, particularly their attempts to install democracies in regions with no heritage of democracy. Some paleoconservatives, though, hold a simple contempt for the various foreign peoples Americans find themselves fighting over. Islam is seen as a threat, Muslims as aggressive, traditional enemies to Christian civilization. The idea of fighting for Muslims in the Balkans or Middle East seems absurd.

Yet the paleoconservatives also reject the strong pro-Israeli stance of Republicans, and they sometimes criticise neo-conservatives for their simplistic and jingoistic anti-European or anti-French perspectives. They want to abandon Israel to its own struggles; the US should simply slash its military, forget its interventionism around the world, stop acting like an empire.

Instead manpower should be shifted back to protecting America's borders, from immigrants. The paleoconservatives are bitterly opposed to liberal border controls and see the flooding of Latin Americans and Asians into the US as a disaster: "mass immigration is a greater threat to the survival of our country than any terrorist campaign possibly could be."

They also want to control the flow of trade over borders, taking a more protectionist view of economics than the free trade-obsessed Republicans. Internally they oppose the welfare state and corporate bailouts for big business, instead favouring capitalism, albeit capitalism that adheres to local tradition. Think family corner shops, not Walmart.

Unlike other right-wingers who delight in economic growth and the social and demographic change that this causes, the paleoconservatives are truly conservative, nostalgic for a better time. Clyde N Wilson writes this interesting piece on things he misses in the US today. His list includes "my city without mosques and Hindu temples", seeing only American cars on the roads, an absence of illicit drug use, intelligent journalism and "finding a motel not operated by someone named Patel." This is nostalgia, unhappiness with modern life and with the immigration of Asians. Wilson wrote about missing simple things too, polite and hard-working students, buttermilk, postage stamps "with dignity and educational value" and so on.

The paleoconservatives sometimes like old things simply because they are old, emphasising tradition, bemoaning the shallow, the commercial and immoral messages of Hollywood. Instead of a powerful, imperial United States that stretches its military across the world and injects its hedonistic, soulless culture into foreign countries, they want an isolated US, Christian, peaceful, protected, traditional, European, abandoning both hip liberalism and arrogant neo-conservatism alike. Aggressive American nationalism is sometimes dismissed too, though, for nationhood should come from real personal ties with family, community, church and ethnic tradition, linking identity to a much more local patriotism than a pan-American nationalism.

They often reject the kneejerk liberal response to race-related issues. Here Tom Landess explains that many American heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were openly racist, arguing that the modern southern states - constantly attacked for racism - are the least racist in the country.

They also reject the libertarian movement:

The tendency, if not the actual argument, of libertarianism in the last 50 years has been to deny that Soviet communism was ever a threat, to embrace mass immigration, to endorse global free trade, to abandon and ridicule both nation and religion, and to welcome the deliberate destruction of traditional culture and morality by whatever forces (in the state or outside it) are waging war against them.

These traditionalists of course clash with feminists. Thomas Fleming argues that the traditional woman had a respected place in the home while modern women are forced to work horrible and degrading jobs:

When women did hard work outside the home, it was because they had to. They were the victims either of some terrible economic decline or of liberal capitalism’s destruction of the social networks of Christendom. Many women who do servile and menial work today are in even worse condition, because they have internalized their servitude and are proud of clerking in a store or teaching violent hooligans in a public school.

One comment below that article describes a meeting of feminists at a restaurant in 1983. A rubbish barge floated past them on the nearby river, steered by a woman. The feminists all cheered, the woman ignored them, implying that feminism was: "a few busybody termagents make a lot of money at foundations or activist groups deconstructing civilization, while real women are forced by poverty to pick up their garbage."

The paleoconservative world view is often supported by quite detailed historical analysis. Articles explore the fall of the Roman Empire, seeking comparisons with modern USA, or the Englightenment philosophers and their impact on the Founding Fathers.

The paleoconservatives argue among themselves over these points, but these are broadly representative of the movement. It stands apart self-consciously from the mainstream conservative movements in the US, quick to distance itself from them and denounce their perceived flaws. Still, to modern liberal discourse their views are often obnoxious: racist, sexist, xenophobic and fearful. There would be little time for them in most mainstream media but that, of course, is precisely why it's worth reading them a little now and then.


  1. Interesting stuff. Not the people you hear a lot about.

    There are a few people here with similar goals (return to olden times), but they're usually affiliated with the neo-nazi right. They want a return to pagan times and to get rid of all foreigners. Basically return to the Viking age.

  2. Interesting, Vidar. I read a little about the black metal music movement in early 1990s Norway. Some of those guys became involved in Pagan neo-Nazism, attacking Christianity as a "Jewish religion" and fighting immigration.

    I think the Irish equivalent would be highly Catholic and fairly anti-secular, more isolationist (withdrawal from EU for example), emphasising simple rural life instead of sophisticated urban hedonism and anti-immigration. But these people get very little media attention, really I'm just guessing!

    One thing I found interesting about the paleoconservatives was that quite a lot of their debate is highly informed by history. They lack the noisy stupidity of some extreme movements, even if I question lots of their conclusions.

  3. I was reading a book abouth the fall of the soviet union, and the author was calling the generals who were pro-soviet right wing, strange

  4. Nice observation Rohan, "right wing" and "conservative" are used very broadly. In college "right wing" was practically a term of abuse!

  5. also extreme "right-wingers" share a lot of policies economically with extreme "left-wingers". In India, the extreme right-wing hindu nationalist organisations regularly attack symbols of "capitalist consumerism" like malls,pubs, nightclubs as "western or imperialist influences"

  6. True. Also some far-right parties call for economic protectionism. They want to help "the people", namely THEIR people, their ethno-national group, not outsiders, so some support welfare and state intervention in the market so long as it protects the in-group.

    Ireland is interesting because many of the most nationalist people are also very left-wing. I guess this is a legacy of the situation in Northern Ireland, where Irish nationalists called for socialist redistribution of wealth from the richer Protestent elite.

  7. You commies will be happy when you are in the cauldron of equality. As the savage eats your sinning flesh and drinks your blood for attonments sake and its social justice.

    You are surely a Papist--with the dullness and derangement of the mind and spirit.


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