Sunday, October 26, 2008

Neo-Hobbism and Conservative Paranoia

My thinking about the liberal-conservative divide in US political ideology has been immensely clarified by teaching this term. The two major factors: teaching Hobbes and Locke again, and reading Michael Zuckert's Launching Liberalism in preparation for the latter (Zuckert is a sweetheart, and a thoughtful, intelligent fellow, to boot, I happen to know). Anyway, the one-two punch really drove home how well the distinction between Hobbes and Locke maps on to the distinction between conservative and liberal (even though there are also crucial non- and even ounter-correlations).

Right now, conservatism in the US is deeply committed to Hobbes' claim that authority, not truth, makes law. In international relations, conservatism has become the assertion of US global sovereignty and the derisive dismissal of appeals to any international law that would transcend and check rather than emanating from this sovereign. In domestic affairs, conservatives are much more concerned about lawlessness among the common-folk than about lawlessness among the law-enforcers--Dirty Harry, Judge Dredd, and George W. Bush are all conservative icons because they go outside the law in order to uphold the law, stepping in for the sovereign who is so lamentably absent. This goes alll the way back to conservative opposition to Martin Luther King, Jr., whose civil disobedience looked like lawlessness to the Right precisely because King appealed to natural law. Natural law is no law at all ot the Hobbist.

I'm less interested in the liberal side of the comparison for now than in the connection between Hobbist conservatism and the raving-looney act going on on the Right at the moment. Three exemplary posts at National Review Online will suffice for now.

First up, Andy McCarthy defends himself for posting about the Pittsburgh hoax:

Sen. Obama has expressly tied community organizing to "direct action." As he stated in the chapter he contributed in 1988 to a compendium about organizing in the post-Alinsky era, “[G]rass-roots community organizing builds on indigenous leadership and direct action.” (Emphasis added.) Obama's confederates, especially at ACORN, concede (indeed, brag) that "direct action" is sometimes violent lawlessness. One of his ACORN partners and most ardent admirers, Madeleine Talbott, led an attempt to storm the Chicago City Council in 1997. Some Obama supporters, like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, have actually been terrorists who tried to kill people. All that aside, there have been various reports of harrassment against McCain supporters (just as there have also been reports of harrassment against Obama supporters).

Taking all this into account, I don't apologize for thinking it was possible that an Obama supporter could conceivably have attacked the woman who made the false report. I also don't apologize for believing that a "direct action" culture is likely to lead to violent attacks, regardless of whether this particular attack happened. I'm glad it didn't happen and I hope the woman is prosecuted for obstruction of justice. I wish I had waited a few hours longer to do a post on the allegation, for then there would have been no post. But my brain is not ruled by political correctness, and if you are saying that you instantly concluded the story could not possibly have been anything but a hoax, it's you who are kidding yourself.

The real danger to law-and-order is grassroots "direct action," which short-circuits the only possible line of transmission for law itself, from sovereign to subjects.

There is more grist for this mill in my second example, wherein Stanley Kurtz defends himself against Obama's "Fight the Smears" website, which calls him (accurately enough) a "Right-wing hatchet man and conspiracy theorist." Hitting the same nail with his head, Kurtz rails:
Obama has been mightily helped during this campaign by his calm and apparently reasonable demeanor in debate. It’s tough to believe a man this cool could be a supporter or practitioner of Saul Alinsky’s militant intimidation tactics. Yet Alinskyite "direct action" is alive and well at Obama’s "Fight the Smears" website. This site still seems committed to the proposition that I should be barred from radio, television, and media generally–or at the very least barred without direct supervision from an Obama campaign representative. The thugocracy lives at "Fight the Smears."
Same scare-quotes around "direct action," same fear that grassroots organizing amounts to an extra-legal power-grab, that Obama is one step removed from Robert Mugabe.

Final example: Mark Levin's stemwider about the "Obama temptation," being the temptation we all (except Mark and his stalwart band at NRO, that is) feel to give in to this "charismatic demagogue." In what is sure to be a classic, looked back upon for years to come, Levin claims, among other things, that:
There is a cult-like atmosphere around Barack Obama, which his campaign has carefully and successfully fabricated, which concerns me. The messiah complex. Fainting audience members at rallies. [...] Young school children singing songs praising Obama. Teenagers wearing camouflage outfits and marching in military order chanting Obama's name and the professions he is going to open to them. An Obama world tour, culminating in a speech in Berlin where Obama proclaims we are all citizens of the world. I dare say, this is ominous stuff.
Obama's entire campaign is built on class warfare and human envy. [...] Obama's appeal to the middle class is an appeal to the "the proletariat," as an infamous philosopher once described it, about which a mythology has been created.
If the individual dares to succeed beyond the limits set by Obama, he is punished for he's now officially "rich." The value of his physical and intellectual labor must be confiscated in greater amounts for the good of the proletariat (the middle class). And so it is that the middle class, the birth-child of capitalism, is both celebrated and enslaved — for its own good and the greater good.
and, finally,
Unlike past Democrat presidential candidates, Obama is a hardened ideologue. He's not interested in playing around the edges. He seeks "fundamental change," i.e., to remake society.
Much of this is, of course, hilariously deranged. But there is a method to the madness. Obama doesn't seem to the Right to be someone who would leave the current configuration of sovereignty intact. The bizzaro-world claims about his Marxism are simply the displacement of this sense into the most deeply seated ideological place-holders available to the conservative soul. As a real threat to the this sovereignty, Obama really does seem revolutionary through the Hobbist lenses of the right.

In an important sense, the conservatives are right. Conservatives could dismiss all the appeals to international law and multilateralism during and after the Cold War as so much misleading but generally harmless blather: everyone knew that the US was in charge of the Western sphere, and the friend/enemy distinction was crystal clear.

Now, not so much. The Bush years really have produced a crisis in American sovereignty, and the economic crisis just adds insult to injury. In this situation Obama really looks to an American Hobbist like a usurper who will topple the very authority from which law flows.