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March 23, 2009


Conservatism is the water that tempers my whisky.
The water that drowns your family, not so much.

OBSW Smackdown! Nicely done. Andrew been a bit too pure lately.

Not only did I not know he was a conservative, I didn't even know Lao-Tzu had a blog.

In that vein, since I'm a chem e by training:

"Conservatism is "formless" like hydrogen sulfide: it takes the shape of its conditions, but always remains still stinky. This is why Russell Kirk calls conservatism the "negation of ideology" in The Politics of Prudence. It is precisely the formlessness of conservatism which gives it its odiferousness. Left alone, the spirit of conservatism is essentially what T.S. Eliot calls the "stillness between two waves of the sea" in “Little Gidding” of his Four Quartets. Conservatism is both like H2S and the still stinkiness between the rotten eggs -- the rotten eggs are not the H2S acting, but being acted upon; still, stinkiness is the default state of conservatism:

Besides, I think he cribbed that "formlessness of water" line from Bruce Lee.

It is just a silly argument to try to make.

In the absence of any particular society that we might happen to find ourselves in, maybe you can try to define conservatism as anti-ideology (Even so, isn't anarchism more formless than conservatism?). But given that the structure of our society inherits the ideology of the past, and given that our present society is often the result of past injustice, to advocate taking no action is just the same as a vote for whatever the establishment might happen to be.

So, if your political ideology is formless like water, what happens when you find yourself in a giant welfare state? In a planned economy? In a state that violently suppresses civil rights? Are you going to be just as formless? Are you going to be still? If the default state of conservatism is stillness, then isn't conservatism acquiescence to *anything*, anything we might happen to find ourselves saddled with from the past?

BTW, Hilzoy, kudos on finding so many links. My goodness.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and if it is broke, wait for it to fix itself.

Even if, like a levee, it has no capacity for self-repair.

"stillness is the default state of conservatism"

Maybe that's why it sucks at actually accomplishing anything. You kids go meditate while big gummit liberalism unscrews America.

I think conservatism in the sense of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. If it is broke, proceed with extreme caution" is a useful attitude to have around, on the understanding that we also need people who are impatient and do want to fix things. Even conservatism in the sense of thinking nothing should be done for the first time can be useful as a caution, provided we don't have to many conservatives of that kind. I believe that a healthy body politic needs liberals who dare to dream and conservatives who question those dreams, liberals whose vision soars and conservatives who keep their feet planted on the ground.

The problem is that for the past eight years, liberals have been the ones who bore the burden of being "reality-based" and conservatives dared to dream about imposing democracy at gunpoint.

In short, I really think we need conservatives like Andrew Sullivan or OC Steve. What a shame there aren't more of them.

Conservatism is in and around all things, and returns to the beginning of all things. It is neither form, nor substance, nor is it not neither form nor substance, but rather the source by which form and substance are possible.

Wait, wasn't that the Tao? A.S. should probably stick to Palin smackdowns.

think of a bowl. it has a shape.

think of water in the bowl. what is the shape of water in the bowl ?

its shape is the opposite of the bowl's shape, for every bowl, every vessel.

conservatism's shape is the opposite of all good bowls and vessels.

but it seeks to escape its bowl and find new bowls, below its previous bowl, from which to escape. forever unsatisfied. always seeking lower and lower places to escape from.

until it finds earth and becomes mud.

When I think of Rush Limbaugh or Newt Gingrich, stillness and patience are not the adjectives that leap to mind.

Rush and Newt aren't true Scotsmen, er . . conservatives . . .

A problem I've had with what Sullivan has been doing is that he combines a desire to campaign for a wisest general approach for conservatism with a desire to be standing on something established, eternal, and "home" - a reliable bedrock. This initial problem has not seemed to be quite with what he is doing, in any manifestation, but with how he is describing it. My criticism doesn't seem to be with the substance of what he was saying but with his motivations interacting with language. I liked his candidate for "what conservatism should be" better than a number of other candidates, but, reading The Conservative Soul, I kept having this peculiar double vision: he was creating new distillations or proposals that people should follow, while saying, and believing, that this conservatism was already something there and real and was already really what conservatism is.

The best way to unwind this probably involves a Burkean perspective on tradition, etc.... whether or not that way leads out of the murk... but if I have a problem with this pattern in its actual effects, rather than just as a conception, the problem has to do that he persists, in regard to his construction of "the conservatism of doubt", to focus on "conservatism" rather than on "doubt".

If he pursued the latter course he would be looking at simple questions about certainty and about prudence, for example, which would rather usefully lack a partisan label on them and which would take him out into the general fields of ethics, economics, etc. But, as he continues to think about "what conservatism is" as a locus of "doubt", and as being a real and reliable thing, his results are flavored. He has a tendency to put his functional criticisms of things right next to his conservative-flavored matter-of-taste intrinsic "I can't approve of this!" objections, in talking about them, and to put them on the same level, as coming from the same river of conservative-doubt reliability. I recall that in one place in The Conservative Soul he writes "the conservatism of doubt is empirically validated" - and that "is" jumped out at me in a disheartening way, because that phrase "is empirically validated", applied so broadly, is where doubt goes to die, in any way that happens to fool someone like Andrew Sullivan or any person specifically. I liked his "conservatism of doubt" construction at first as a challenge to ideology as guide, but I think it ends up being a creeping failure to keep those lines of error out of the mind of a thinking person, just because he can't stand to have "conservative" be just a neutral general adjective, or to have it be mostly the banner of a lot of remarkably foolish people. For him, "conservatism" is something solid and reliable and meaningful; it's where those qualities live. His search for a version that seems to him like it would succeed in being like that doesn't and can't make safe that use of it (or such a use of any such ideological dingus).

And meanwhile I second what Enlightened Layperson said. His relationship with this strange-attractor may hobble him or waste his time somewhat, make him react short when he should think long, etc. but the fact that he has seen it necessary to go to such trouble about his fixation, and his nontendentious "strayings" in picking his issues here and there, have made him a fellow very worth reading.

Hilzoy, you've outdone yourself. Great work.

Movement conservatives do tend to define themselves by what they oppose, but power and tribalism are the key drivers, and ideology trumps competence. As you note, "Conservatism has not had much to do with the patient preservation of anything for several decades." It's be nice if that changed. Conservatism is like water for many conservative pundits in that whatever's seen as good is labeled conservative and what's not is labeled liberal (Jonah "Liberal Fascism" calling Nixon liberal, for instance, or the Goldberg and Peggy Noonan attempts to claim Bush was liberal, but only after his popularity sunk). As Digby's often put it, in their view, conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed. The meaning of "conservatism" will keep changing, but what won't is their certainty in their own Rightness and Righteousness, regardless of what reality shows. It's striking how the neocons still aren't admitting they were wrong – they're just lying about their past statements.

(On the water theme, in addition to Hurricane Katrina, I can't help but thinking of water-boarding, which you touch on with Abu Ghraib – although to be fair to Sullivan, unlike the National Review crowd, he opposes torture.)

Conservatism is "formless" like water

Shorter Sully: Conservatism is whatever it needs to be in order to justify the policies I like.

I don't get the appeal of this line of argument either, at least not coming from anyone intellectually honest who isn't trying to post hoc justify whatever their side does.

Moreover, calling the screed Sullivan linked to a "meditation" is like calling Spongebob slash fic "literature". There is barely one single thread of coherent thought in that pile of cliches and bad prose. My irony meter redlines when someone describes formlessness and mutability as the greatest strength of an ideology grounded in resistance to change.

This is what a failed philosophy looks like as its adherents trip over each other in their rush to exculpate their worldview with No True Scotsman fallacies while trying to figure out what they actually stand for.

Raivo Pommer
[email protected]


Italien wird wohl eines der ersten Länder sein, mit denen die Schweiz über ein neues Doppelbesteuerungsabkommen verhandeln wird.

Die Schweizer Aussenministerin Micheline Calmy-Rey hat am Montag in Rom ihrem italienischen Amtskollegen Franco Frattini die Lockerung des Schweizer Bankgeheimnisses gegenüber Ausländern erläutert und die Position der Schweiz dargelegt.

Frattini möchte mit «konkreten Massnahmen» auf die vom Bundesrat am 13. März beschlossene Auflockerung des Bankgeheimnisses reagieren, wie er nach dem Treffen mit Calmy-Rey sagte. Zur Debatte steht eine Revision des Doppelbesteuerungsabkommens nach den internationalen Standards. Sowohl Calmy-Rey als auch Frattini bezeichneten das Verhältnis zwischen Italien und der Schweiz als vorzüglich.

Not only is conservatism formless like water, but life is surprisingly similar to a box of chocolates!


This post Rocked!

Conservatism is formless like water. Or Play-doh. It has no shape, but takes the shape of the thing it's in, even though it doesn't change at all. Unless you bake it in an oven, in which case it gets very hard, but that's actually its strength. An effervescent combination of mutability and eternal changelessness, conservatism is like the stillness between artillery bombardments, bravely waiting for the moment when it will be forced to fight a valiant rearguard action against the forces of progress. This stillness and vivacity may seem in conflict, the adaptable and the reactionary a contradiction, but it's not:

The Rum Tum Tugger is a terrible bore:
When you let him in, then he wants to be out;
He's always on the wrong side of every door,
And as soon as he's at home, then he'd like to get about.
He likes to lie in the bureau drawer,
But he makes such a fuss if he can't get out.

Because quoting T.S. Eliot makes bad arguments seem both cultured and whimsical, conservatism is like the Rum Tum Tugger--boring and seemingly indecisive, it actually calls for acting in the right way at the right time for the right reasons, whatever we say those are right now. Waiting, watching, yowling at the front door or complaining because you won't give it wet food, these are the strengths of conservatism. Conservatism pees on the floor not out of malice or incompetence, but because it recognizes that litter boxes are like gun control and knows that if it is patient, making a mess on the floor will get you to let it outside, usually without having its nose rubbed in it, knowing that you will let it back in.

Water and Play-doh and the Rum Tum Tugger are awesome, and so is conservatism.

If we were to compare the US’s political landscape with the Western tradition, it’s Republican Party and movement conservatives resemble reactionaries and right-wing statists. The Democratic Party and its Neo-Liberalism resembles conservatives and moderately liberal movements. There just has not been a Leftist bloc since the New Deal and New Society.

The quoted title has a Maoist ring to it.

I should note that Sullivan did not write this.

Also: I could do, and contemplated doing, something equivalent for liberalism. What set me off was the idea that *this* -- this rather nice account of patience and stillness and such -- was, of all things, *conservatism*. I think it would be child's play to construct something similarly ludicrous on the other side.

Though of course I wouldn't have all the Abu Ghraib photos to draw on.

Conservatism means not changing things when you don't want them to change, and changing things when you have to. Modern American conservatism means not changing things when it can help you screw the other side and changing things when it can screw the other side.

Conservatism means denying the reality that when things change it means that sometimes our response to them must also change. It attempts to deny that not all things can be decided based on historical references. I think of that when I read conservatives complaining that there is no proof already in existence that the proposals of the Obama Administration will help the economy in any way. From that they infer that either nothing should be done or the only things that should be done are the same things that were done in previous recessions. They cannot admit that distasteful as it might be, since there is no historical precedence for our current mess we're probably going to have to roll the dice based on best guesstimates.

Conservatism means never having to say you're sorry.

Or, conservatism can be disagreeing with a liberal. Still, pretty damn funny.

What's funny is how a lot of 'liberal' notions are grounded in an idea of conserving something. Environmentalism seems a lot like conservation, concern about minority cultures and such seems like conservation. But conservation is not conservatism, at least as it is construed in the current American political scene.

Conservatism is formless like cheap peanut butter, the sort loaded with corn syrup and dull yellowy-brown like a healthy baby's crap. Like cheap peanut butter, you can pick it up at any supermarket, and be told lies about how nourishing, healthy, and tasty it is. Like cheap peanut butter, conservatism has a pleasant aroma until it goes stale, and a bland, friendly look in its colorful jar, and it sticks and clings to your hands in a greasy sort of way.

But even cheap peanut butter tastes so much better...

hilzoy: *nods* Right, Sullivan didn't. :o) I didn't mean he had, I just took off thinking about Sullivan on my own hoof.

I do wish you had, or would write something similar about liberalism - or at any rate I like that you thought of doing so. :o) With either one, the business that this inchoate/general/starting-place rubric or temperament or cluster array or vein of things somehow is or abides, the perpetual wellspring and morning star, and is reliable - as opposed to a lot of multifarious matters of trying to look carefully, on the merits, at this or that or the other specific question with its details and its inconveniences... It's worth mocking, and the attraction to doing this, particularly among "conservatives" about "conservatism", is very peculiar.

Conservatism is the ceaseless abnegation of its very essence wrapped in an ever changing set of farcical justifications constructed solely to obscure its one true claim: Power is ever adaptable to maintaining itself at any cost, and this, they claim, is the one and only bedrock ultimate good of an otherwise abysmal human condition.

Great stuff, Hilzoy.

It's suggestive that our Meditator cites Adam and Eve/Original sin (or religion at all), and that, indeed, Ignorance is a signal virtue in his philosophy. That *is* an accurate description of political conservatism as far as it goes. Analogues are: lassitude, laziness, superstition, and passivity. Conservatism is like water - always choosing the line of least resistance.

Worth noting, IMO: Front Porch says:

Technology and art are at odds like never before.

Spectacularly wrong. Technology and art are convergent like...well, not like 'never' before, but like no time in at least a couple of centuries.

I think conservatism is formless, but useful, like vinegar and water.

Conservatism has the form of water filling the lower 9th ward. Or, as T.S. Eliot says in "Little Gidding" of his Four Quartets:

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.

I dunno - The annotation of the blather rocked (though I also liked John Cole's rather less polite deflating of same), but the problem is that Hilzoy is so darn polite when she explains her objections afterwards.
I first read the post on my phone, and as the phone lacks the ability to see where links are headed without following them, I was suspicious of Hilzoy's intentions, as I could see no way that so many hyperlinks could be sincere, but I couldn't easily know. And because of Hilzoy's (nearly always admirable) habits of restraint and civility, the text she wrote after the quote was quite ambiguous. Cetainly, Hilzoy made it clear that she felt the musings were not so connected to the real world as might be desired, but it remained possible that she felt the text nonetheless conveyed some important insight worth taking seriously, which was not otherwise my impression. Certainly Sullivan's post was written as if he had discerned some merit that had quite escaped me.

WT: I did most of it last night, having started with the idea of writing something more like "conservatism is actually like peanut butter", and then hit on adding links. As I said earlier in comments, it really wasn't the piece stripped of any reference to conservatism -- I rather like patience and stillness, myself. And it wasn't a way to bash conservatism. It was, somehow, the idea that this, of all things, was what conservatism is really all about that just struck me as ludicrous. So the annotating basically did itself, and then I went to bed, with it almost done.

Somehow, in the morning I added the rest. It might be because I found out that the person who wrote it is actually a senior in college -- I suspect that that, plus my being a teacher and all, accounts for the "look, some advice if you want to write this stuff" aspect of it. Partly, though, I wasn't entirely comfortable with the unadorned linkage -- it didn't seem to me to get across exactly what it was that originally bugged me about this (which can be summed up in the thought: calm? patient? conservatives???)

Oops: in the comment above, "As I said earlier in comments, it really wasn't the piece stripped of any reference to conservatism" should have "that bothered me" after it.

On a somewhat related note, I just heard on NPR there was something called a "volcanic eruption" in Alaska. I'm glad it was being "monitored".

I'm glad it was being "monitored".

But why must it be paid for with my North Carolina dollars??

I dunno, I think this metaphor is brilliant.

Conservatism is just like water- mindless, useless as either a foundation or a building material, with a intrinsic tendency to rush downhill. Like water, the conservative movement seeks the lowest possible position and then sits there, stagnating.

Like water, Colorado ranchers and rich people in Orange County fight over who gets to control it. When you fail to maintain and strengthen the regulatory mechanisms that hold back the power of conservatism, you get a mess like New Orleans after Katrina.

Like water vapor in the atmosphere, conservatism increases global warming. And these days there's a lot of sewage and toxins dissolved in it.

Really, the only way conservatism could be more like water is if we needed it.

The problem is that Kirk is essentially bullshitting us.

Prudence only exists within a defined normative system - you have to know what is good or bad to also know what is prudent. Prudence cannot exist apart from the normative system (that's how prudence operates within the thought of Aristotle and Plato).

Thus, prudence is essentially a meaningless term if you don't also identify a normative system along with it. That's why conservatism as a term is entirely meaningless - a conservative in the 1988 Soviet Union would defend a decaying Marxist Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat led by the vanguard of the party, a conservative in 1916 Russia would defend the Czar, a conservative in 1775 Massachusetts would defend the British Empire, a conservative in 1860 Massachusetts would defend the United States, a conservative in 1860 South Carolina could argue for leaving the Union, a conservative in 1788 France would support the King, a conservative in 1888 France would oppose a new King of France, etc.

Raivo Pommer
[email protected]

1929 Jahre-krise

Das scheint eine angemessene Symbolik für das große Thema, das sich Horst Köhler für diesen Tag aufgespart hat: Er liefert seine Deutung der Finanzkrise. Analyse, Lehre und Moral der größten wirtschaftlichen Erschütterung seit 1929 – ein Thema, wie geschaffen für ein Staatsoberhaupt, das sich als promovierter Ökonom mit Märkten auskennt. Das aber beruflich nie auf der Seite des privaten freien Marktes stand, sondern stets auf der Seite des regulierenden Staates und seiner öffentlichen Banken. So kamen schon Köhlers Worte von den „Finanzmärkten als Monstern“ vor einem Jahr nicht von ungefähr. Köhler muss trotz seiner früheren Positionen als Präsident des Sparkassenverbandes, der Osteuropabank und des Internationalen Währungsfonds (IWF) nicht fürchten, in dieser Krise unversehens zu „gierigen“ Bankern auf die Anklagebank gesetzt zu werden.

I hate to break-it to Conservatives, but you are what you do. I can say I am an environmentalist, but if I drive a Hummer, live in a 4000 sqft house for 2 people, keep my thermostat set at 62 in the summer and 85 in the winter, never recycle, always get plastic bags at the Safeway and have never bought one energy saving light bulb- then guess what- no matter how many lectures you give people about environmentalism- you are not an environmentalist.
I went to college with an honest to goodness American born Communist. We would argue sometimes about politics and I would always bring up Stalin, Mao, Progroms and Reeducation Centers. Her comeback was to say that wasn't "real" communism. Sorry, but bookshelf communism is not the real communism. You are what you do.
When Conservatives got power they used it to explode the debt, go to war, read peoples emails, listen in on phone calls, waterboard, dismiss annoying chunks of the Constitution and hand over the American government to cronies and corporations.

Conservatism is the maintenance of things as they are, and avoidance or distrust of things new. Insofar as new things, like Soviet Russian communism, are bad conservatism can be constructive. But in practice "conservative" parties and movements like the Republican party in the US are typically concerned with maintaining the wealth, power and status of those who already have these things, and have little to do with the general welfare.

My dad, once a moderate conservative and moderate Republican, has been a Democrat and vocally anti-Bush since 2003, but he still has nostalgia here and there for the Republican Party. Kind of like John Rogers' "I miss Republicans" blog post from a couple years ago, talking about how it was useful and comforting to traditionalist, small-c conservative people who value rule of law, and now they're gone.

But the thing Rogers is wrong about and the thing I always have to remind my dad of is, when was that? Rockefeller Republicans have usually been more influential than now, but that's not saying much. Gingrich doesn't have exactly the same problems as GWB but they're similar. Reagan and GWHB ramped up the war on drugs and as for obeying the rule of law, while they weren't as bad as GWB, they still got away with Iran-contra. I've never heard anything bad about Ford as a person, but coming on the heels of Nixon I wouldn't expect to. Nixon wasn't too ideologically right-wing - he founded the EPA, as my dad reminds me - but my god, what a weasel. Before Nixon the Republican leader was Goldwater, maybe principled but definitely insane. Eisenhower was an apolitical figure before his presidential campaign and could just as easily have been the Democratic candidate. Before that, we're getting into people who fought tooth and nail against the New Deal.

Yes, of course, the Democrats and the left never were perfect either. The differences are (a) our scandals and black sheep are all over the map rather than a specific pattern of lawlessness and plutocracy, and (b) we don't aspire to recreate a version of the past that's utterly fictional.

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