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No Way Out

Andrew J. Bacevich's response to Sam Tanenhaus's essay on the end of conservatism is welcome because it so clearly and succinctly expresses a paleoconservative sentiment that has growing numbers of champions online and may gather force over the coming years. Unlike the neocons, who marry conservative instincts in social policy to strong support for two of the least conservative practices known to man -- free-market capitalism and a militaristic foreign policy -- Bacevich is consistent. He rejects nearly everything about modern America: the culture of choice that gives us the unrestricted right to "fornicate, marry, breed, abort, divorce, and abandon"; the "Ponzi scheme" of advanced corporate capitalism and the fiscally irresponsible policies that facilitate it; and the foreign policy outlook of "global power projection" that has dominated both political parties since the end of World War II and led us into what Bacevich sees as an endless string of ruinous imperialistic wars. Conservatism, for Bacevich and other paleocons, demands an almost total overthrow of the status quo in favor of an alternative reality in which American citizens reject the ideal of individual autonomy, admire the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint, live financially within their means, and embrace a foreign policy driven by a narrowly defined national interest.

This vision -- in truth far more radical than it is conservative -- cries out for a response more thorough than what is possible in a blog post. For now, then, I'll simply focus on a single issue: the paleocon critique of the "culture of choice" and its accompanying longing for a culture in which fixed limits on human choice are set by absolute political, spiritual, and moral authorities.

From Joseph de Maistre to T.S. Eliot and beyond, right-wing cultural critics since the French Revolution have made the case for authority, along with what it ultimately requires -- namely, the suicide of the critical intellect. Consider the case of John Henry Newman, one of Roman Catholicism's greatest modern apologists and a convert from an Anglican Church he thought to be infested with theological liberalism (the mid-nineteenth-century version of a "culture of choice"). According to Newman, an orthodox Catholic must understand that having "ten thousand difficulties" with the church's positions on faith, morals, or doctrine "do not make one doubt" about their ultimate truth. The church's views on clerical celibacy may seem wrong to me, its stance on contraception may contradict my personal moral intuitions, its severely hierarchical culture may clash violently with what I know about the pervasiveness of human corruption -- but if the church asserts the truth and legitimacy of these practices and beliefs, then I have no choice but to accept them. And if I begin to doubt their truth and legitimacy? Then I must talk myself out of my doubt, for my own good and for the good of the church. I must exorcise the temptation to choose against the divinely sanctioned authority of the church and then train my mind to prostrate itself before it.  

Lest readers think that such issues are hopelessly abstract or merely hypothetical, they should take note of recent events in the ultra-orthodox and highly authoritarian Catholic order the Legionaries of Christ and its lay branch Regnum Christi. Several years ago, the order's founder, Marcial Maciel, began to be accused of sexual improprieties with seminarians. Maciel strongly denied these accusations, and several powerful defenders (including Pope John Paul II and Richard John Neuhaus) joined with spokesmen for the order in loudly and unequivocally proclaiming his innocence while both refusing to undertake an investigation and impugning the character and motives of those who dared to bring the charges. In other words, everyone involved properly deferred to authority by demanding the suppression of doubt. Which is exactly what you'd would expect from an authoritarian culture.

But that's not all you'd expect, is it? In what is turning out to be a perfectly predictable outcome, the Legionaries have begun to acknowledge that their founder had in fact behaved . . . inappropriately over the years. The details are still sketchy at this point, but it seems clear that Maciel (an ostensibly celibate priest who died last year) had secretly fathered a daughter and regularly funneled thousands of dollars in cash from the order to her mother. As for the charge that Maciel sexually abused young men, we don't yet know all the facts. But give it time. 

Why is the sordid scandal in the Legionaries of Christ pertinent to a discussion of Andrew Bacevich's essay? Because the scandal gives us a glimpse of what awaits those who would submit themselves to an authoritarian culture -- namely, credulity, abuse, and humiliation. And it also serves as a useful reminder of why the modern, liberal order, which valorizes consent and individual choice, and which Bacevich appears not to value very much at all, arose in the first place. It arose because the wars, abuses of power, and corruption that permeated political and ecclesiastical institutions in the early modern period convinced philosophers and intellectuals that human beings would benefit enormously from presuming the worst about human motives. If men were angels, we could submit happily to their authority and enjoy the comforts that come from such submission. But men are never angels -- least of all those who found and perpetuate institutions that treat those in positions of authority as if they were angels -- and so we are left with doubt, skepticism, suspicion, authority limited by consent, and individual freedom of choice.  

Does a culture founded on choice lead to problems of its own? Of course it does. But an authoritarian culture is no solution to those problems, which flow from the depravity of human nature itself. And that's why the paleocon critique of modern America is so troubling and radical: The object of its enmity is not this or that aspect of our society or culture but rather the human condition itself.