What Conservatives Might See in Provocateurs

In yesterday’s posting, I essentially asked in a roundabout way whether more traditional conservatives would be more comfortable with others using more aggressive or flamboyant tactics if they were tethered not to Pres. Trump, but to someone like Newt Gingrich.

The former Speaker was labeled a “bomb-thrower” as he ascended to power.  But his politics, if not always doctrinaire conservatism, tended to fall enough within the ballpark of Reaganism that the establishment Right did not see him as the sort of threat they (we?) suspect Trump represents.

I added that some conservatives would still object to “bomb-throwing,” even if Trumpers were not in the dominant position of the GOP at the moment, and even if such tactics served a traditionally conservatarian vision, strategies, and projects.  I also wrote that I’d try to flesh out these ideas further, based on what I think the source of the remaining objections are.

Some of the objection to flamboyant political tactics may be aesthetic.  Conservatives, like everyone else, have grown up in a world where the Left (esp. the original New Left) has had a near-monopoly on provocative activism.  Who wants to act like those dirty hippies and commies, anyway?

Fair enough, although I wonder how much of the aesthetic objection is simply cultural habit at this point.  It may be that some Millennials have less of a problem with provocateurs not only because they are young, but also because they have not been programmed to associate it solely with the Left.

However, I suspect the larger objection is baked into conservatism itself.

What do conservatives do?  Well, many are into conserving things.  Especially those Burkean-types.  You know who you are.

In particular, conservatives are into the preservation of what they see as the virtues of various systems and institutions.  We tend to invoke G.K. Chesterton’s example of the fence:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.‘ “

Thus when we see someone on the Breitbart-inspired Right talking about #WAR, we reflexively recoil.  After all, politics is supposed to be the system that allows us to work out our political differences without war.  Talk of war is an admission of failure.

But what if we, as conservatives have failed — and not just failed, but failed on a massive scale?  What if we helped win the Cold War, but lost a hundred or a thousand other battles?  What if conservatives have been losing the political battle on the fiscal, social and cultural fronts for decades, perhaps a century?

This is certainly the pessimistic outlook that fuels nostalgia-soaked Trump supporters.  Taken to an extreme, such people become Neo-Reactionaries, who ostensibly see nothing left to preserve.  Virtually all of them are lying, either to themselves or to us, but that doesn’t mean the current political environment may nourish them.

What I am suggesting here, however, is that if conservatives are truly committed to saving institutions and systems — or what we see as the salutary aspects of them — we need to be honest about our historical record on this score, which is not terrific.  All too often, we have nobly shoveled against a flood and slowed it marginally.

Accordingly, if a Trump fan or a Young Alinsky is looking to target an institution like the University of California at Berkeley for some form of (non-violent) right-wing activism, the more stolid among us ought to take a moment for reflection.

As Chesterton suggested, we should consider and understand what a university is supposed to do.  We should ask ourselves — and everyone else: Is Berkeley doing any of those things in a satisfactory manner?  We should ask:  What does Berkeley actually do, and how much of it is it worth conserving?

I think I know how most conservatarians — and even some center-left types — would answer those questions.  If the answers are what I expect, then perhaps we should be thinking of issues like academic tenure differently than our knee-jerk conservative reflex might dictate.  Indeed, we might go well beyond tenure, and beyond the Berkeley campus.

In short, I am suggesting that — particularly in the current political climate  — conservatarians may have to consider the usefulness of more provocative activism, not only to defend and conserve those aspects of institutions and systems we revere, but also to expose where the budding totalitarians of the New New Left have already crashed Chesterton’s gates and (in some cases) burned them to the ground.

After all, if serious people leave political provocation to the shallow, the shallow and ultimately counter-productive will fill that vacuum.

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