North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

George Lukacs, Nationalism and Conservatism

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The National Post this morning went some way towards reclaiming it’s role as Canada’s conservative, intellectual newspaper. On the heels of its look at C.S. Lewis, it published a long look at historian John Lukacs and his new book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred. The article first appeared in the Boston Globe and is thankfully accessible online there. I was not very familiar with Lukacs before I read that article but was intrigued by it since I also subscribe to a kind of conservatism that is, as I see it, something deeper and more important than “Republican attack dog” or “anti idiotarian.” The National Review’s Richard Brookhiser described Lukacs by writing that he “favors conservation rather than conservatism; he defends the ancient blessing of the land and is dubious about the results of technology; be believes in history, not in Evolution,” and that’s certainly the description of a worthy and interesting man.

Lukacs’ latest book, however, alleges that “today’s politicians of the right have abandoned the conservative values of stability, order, and tradition and instead learned to bind nationalist majorities together by evoking hatred, directed not just against foreign foes but against fellow citizens who are seen as insufficiently patriotic.”

Them’s fightin’ words for some, but not necessarily for me. I see the kind of hyperbolic right wing rhetoric that Lukacs reefers to – Ann Coulter comes to mind- as conservative thought boiled down until it is easy to sell to the very large and diverse audiences of the mass media and the “pop” politics book. It has a place, and that place is right alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, Ann Rand books and the Left Behind series. In other words, I’ve always seen Conservatism as a big tent, big “C” phenomenon, not all of which hold much sway on my mind or my emotion. Serious conservative thought takes place in the old churches, churches that have a long and respectable intellectual tradition (not all of them do!), and to a lesser degree in universities and various think tanks. I don’t worry too much about boiled down conservatism because I consider it to be 1) on the whole better than most liberalism on the intellectual market today, and 2) a possible stepstone to something more meaty, mature, and stable. That kind of credibility spread is unavoidable in a democratic big tent and we see it in Liberalism as well. There is no shortage of potboiler liberal books to be had, written by the likes of Micheal Moore or Al Franken. And liberal movies are almost cheaper than porn – Pleasantville, The Ice Storm, Million Dollar Baby, The Cider House Rules, take your pick!

I loose no sleep over that kind of book, on either side of the political isle, because I do not suppose that they speak for all that is best and most vigorous in political thought today. If I read them or their authors it is to stay current in the marketplace of names that populate the day to day output of the press. If I want to truly engage liberal thought I look to the best that comes out of our universities, which are today (perhaps inevitably), liberal. I would look for a John Rawls or Richard Rorty. If I was to pick up and refute liberal flotsam and, having done so, declare myself to have fairly wrestled with bested “liberalism,” I would be overselling my accomplishment by a far margin. I take a similarly dim view of highly capable liberal thinkers and writers who obsess over what can only be described as a cartoonish vision of who and what conservatives are. Ted Rall, if he was “highly capable” (he’s not; he’s a wing nut), might fit this side of the bill.

I take this stand – some might call it aristocratic or elitist- because I do not want to recklessly assume the worst about those I disagree with in the political sphere. I don’t read Rall and simply conclude that he is representative of all liberals and that, therefore, all liberals are stupid and paranoid. I think liberalism is a flawed doctrine, especially in it’s extreme versions, but I do not think people who hold it are lacking in intellect. I am appreciative of liberals who return the favour. My position is that we are working off different axioms of political thought. These are rules of thumb that are not easily conducive to argumentation and refutation, such as “above all do no harm.” A conservative (wisely, I think) embraces that, and a liberal is more ambivalent. His ambivalence arises from a conviction that something in the present is intolerable, and that it can be altered. He is more inclined to gamble than the conservative is. That does not mean he’s less intelligent, but it might mean he’s less wise, if history is any guide.

Getting back to Lukacs’ worry about nationalism in popular versions of conservatism, I will admit to having not much good to say about nationalism. I regard it as a form of self worship and I think we see it most often in people lacking religion. It gives them the pomp, ceremony and communal feeling that might be better directed in a mature church setting. It is, in a way, love of family and love of neighbor taken in exaggerated and potentially negative way. Those are good things, but love of God (ie. Orthodoxy) ought to rank higher, so that we can see God in others and not just in those near or similar to ourselves. Religion has its dangers as well, so it is important that religion be understood as something in which God’s hand is seen in prayers answered and unanswered (ie. religion does not simply justify whatever you want). So far I have not seen anything in mainstream conservative thought that seriously put that in jeopardy, even when that thought takes tasteless and crude forms.

In Canada, interestingly, it is liberals at the moment who are more prone to feverish nationalism (conservatives might be more militaristic; this is not the same thing). It is breathtakingly common in this country to hear them write and speak to the fact that conservative ideas are “alien” and “unwelcome” in this country, and that conservatives “hate Canada.” No, we simply do not like or subscribe to your vision of the country. How easily they slide the words “official” and “authorized” over their vision. How easily they forget that the mainstream churches have been a part of Canada since the very beginning, since before the current constitution, and before the Charter of Rights. Quebec was a very traditionally Catholic place until very recently, so I find it bizarre to be told that some the things that I bring to my politics (pro life, traditional marriage) “have no roots here.” This post at Mere Comments sums this game up very nicely:

Those who believe and do what the Church has always believed and done are marked by this title [religious extremists; the U.S. style “religious right”] as sectarians, while those who endorse something it has never believed or done are by implication the “regular” Christians.

Rewriting history to serve current political games and exploiting our love for those most like ourselves is an equal opportunity sport, one that all of us have to guard against. There is nothing inherently conservative about it. Our Liberal party has never embraced direct democracy of the kind Canadian old Alliance party offered, but they do claim to be the only ones who are able to speak for the Canadian people and that just might be the key to populism, Canadian style.

There is an article by Lukacs on the Decline of Liberalism here.

A Lukacs’ bibliography is at The New York Review of Books (although some of the links are broken it’s still useful).


Written by Curt

March 22, 2005 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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