Dear Fellow Denizen of the Dark Side,
Welcome to the very first, inaugural, present-at-the-creation edition of our new newsletter. We hope you'll enjoy it as a supplement to your weekly magazine and to the daily material posted at weeklystandard.com.
I was working on an editorial for this week's issue when Steve Hayes's draft edit came in Thursday morning, and I thought he'd said what had to be said well so I could take the week off. So I did. But I do want to urge you, in case you haven't done so, to read his strong editorial, "Obama's Fantasy-Based Foreign Policy."
What I was going to focus on also had to with Obama's foreign policy, but in a less direct way. Still, perhaps there's something worthwhile in what I'd drafted, so here it is:
"The Modern Manner"
"You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext. So it is a very serious moment....It is serious in terms of sort of the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems."
"And I believe Russia, in the Crimea and in Syria, is really engaging in activity that is completely contradictory to the standards that most of us are trying to operate by in the 21st century."
---Secretary of State John Kerry, in TV interviews, Sunday, March 2
Progressivism is a touchingly simple-minded faith: The higher the number of the century, the better things should be. The more "modern" the times, the more civilized they should be.
But progressivism happens not to be true. No modern composer has surpassed Mozart. No modern playwright even approaches Shakespeare. President's Day still honors Washington and Lincoln, not Bush and Obama. The horrors of the 20th century surpassed anything dreamed of in the 19th. And the 21st century hasn't gotten off to such a great start.
Still, one might say: What's the harm of hoping? Men have to believe. They've lost faith in God. Let them believe in Progress.
To which one has to respond: The conceit of progress could be harmless. But not if belief in progress becomes an excuse for inaction, a cause of complacency, a way of justifying weakness. Which is what is has become.
It must be wonderful to be a progressive. It saves you from thinking. It allows you to appeal edifyingly to progress and trust that progress will be self-executing. If you're a progressive statesman, it appears, all you have to do is some finger-wagging. Tell trouble-makers "you just don't" do certain things any more. Then presumably the a-historical offenders will sheepishly back off from their reactionary behavior.
But they don't. it's the progressives who are the sheep. The wolves don't believe in progress and aren't very moved by the finger-wagging. The ex-Marxist Putin seems cured of any confidence in historical inevitability. Assad seems not to be a believer that the tactics of 20th century dictators can't be used effectively in the 21st. Al-Qaeda seems oblivious to the charms of "the modern manner."
Of course, the truth is the modern manner is what we make it. Invoking it as a totem does little good. If the 21st century isn't to be a sad story of failure and defeat, we'll need to overcome the seductive faith in progress.
The seductions and failures of progressivism may have been particularly on my mind last week. I'd spent the weekend at a conference at Pepperdine University on the legacy of the great political scientist, James Q. Wilson. (You can watch a panel I moderated with Boston College's Shep Melnick and Penn's John DiIulio here, and remarks by Harvey Mansfield here.) It was a fine conference, and much of the debate centered on Jim's critique, both explicit and implied, of a kind of progressive rationalism. The more I see liberals trying to make public policy, and liberal academics trying to justify social planning, the more strongly I'm taken with Jim Wilson's critique of this kind of social science rationalism. Indeed, the more I believe that what Hayek called "the fatal conceit," and Oakeshott described as "rationalism in politics," is a curse of our time. Of course that doesn't mean we skeptical conservatives are against reason. Quite the contrary. But that's the beginning of another long story...
Actually, Yuval Levin and I addressed that story (a bit) in a conversation at the New York Historical Society, which last Tuesday night centered on Yuval's terrific book on Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. We'll have audio of that available pretty soon, and I encourage you to listen to Yuval explain clearly and eloquently the relevance and importance of Burke for modern conservatism and contemporary America.
Moving from elevated discussion to street-level confrontation, I might add that while I was out in L.A. for the Pepperdine conference, I took a break to appear on Bill Maher's HBO show. I'm not sure I make any of my arguments particularly well in that forum, but at least I tried not to let his attacks on the Tea Party, the military and religion, go unchallenged. Watch (part of) it here if you wish. But you'd probably be better off taking the time to read Levin, or Burke.
Until next week—onward!
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