Conservative Euphemisms for State Aggression
Every season there is a new contender for the conservative mini-treatise of the day. Usually written by the newest would-be Buckley, it offers readers a new way of understanding the ideological climate and a new perspective on how conservatives should fit within it. National Review used to publish these all the time in the 60s and 70s, and the conclusion was always the same: feel no guilt about your support of big government in such and such an area because conservative philosophy can be twisted and re-rendered to make that not only permissible but necessary.
In more recent years, the cause has been picked up by other publications. The American Conservative calls for supporting the protectionist state. The Weekly Standard calls for supporting the national-greatness state. The Wall Street Journal is all for boosting welfare for warfare. Many formerly libertarian writers have seen the light and come to support the interventionist state in foreign policy. Innumerable e-zines call for tearing down the Democratic Party–ruled state in order to support the Republican Party–ruled state. And vast numbers of religious right outlets see a rationale for the moralizing state.
The upshot after all these decades is bitterly ironic. The only thing that seems to unite the myriad special interests on the right is that each one has some special project for the state to support, so they all agree to support big government as a kind of vast logrolling project. If each group does its part, everyone stays on top.
If this plan sounds familiar, it is because the political right – the red-state fascist right – has only recently fully come around to discovering what the left discovered long ago: you don’t have to agree with the goal of your compatriots so long as you agree on the statist means to achieve that goal. This is how the Democratic National Convention can look like the cantina scene in Star Wars, but somehow it all works. What has been lacking on the right has been an attempt to present a rationale to the multitudes on how the right can operate the same way.
Thus do we have "The New Fusionism" by Joseph Bottum appearing in First Things. He begins by pointing out that the many factions on the right have hugely disparate interests – "abortion, tax cuts, school vouchers, judicial overreach, the government’s bloated budget, bioethics, homosexual marriage, the creation of democracies in the Middle East, federalism, immigration, the restoration of religion in the public square – on and on."
These interest groups would not otherwise get along and yet they appear to, says Mr. Bottum. Let’s cut to the last scene: they have all agreed to favor state intervention in their area, in exchange for which they support state intervention in everyone else’s area. This is the new fusionism: everyone agrees to back state building. This much we can say about his essay: at least it treats the only political question worth asking, namely what do you want the state to do? Libertarians are constantly criticized for single-mindedly focusing on this, but all other questions concerning politics are really irrelevant by comparison.
And yet here is what is strange about this essay. Mr. Bottum never quite puts it this way. Reading his essay, you find a long string of euphemisms for state intervention. We are in the end talking about groups supporting the only thing that the state does: namely roughing people up through violence and threats of violence. That’s what every line of every regulation comes down to. That’s the meaning of every tax. That's the whole upshot of every tariff, expenditure, prohibition, and bomb. It all amounts to increased use of violence in society. Strip away the banners, songs, uniforms, and speeches: that’s all that the state really is.
The reason people don’t want to say that, however, is that it sounds rather unseemly and ugly to admit that one wants to expand the sphere of coercion and aggression in society. No one wants to be known as an advocate of using violence. And so a major art of statecraft is to come up with other words for state action besides the ones that actually describe what the state does. Mr. Bottum seems to be a specialist at this.
Now, to be sure, he justifies his call for a dramatic expansion of the state in the name of the end of violence. In the case of abortion, his concern is violence against the unborn, but as with most other prolifers, there is nary a word about the violence that is inherent in the enforcement of a national antiabortion policy: the army of social workers, the impositions on localities, the intrusions into family life, the criminal penalties against women and doctors and others that would naturally be implied. Nor is there any concern expressed for what an unprecedented expansion of government power this would amount to.
So too for war. We are told that it is America’s job to enforce human rights abroad, but we are not told about the tens of thousands who die in even America’s small wars, the destruction, the suffering, the expense, the death and injury of our own troops, the stolen lives, the lies and corruption of the political class and the media and the universities, and on and on. What do war and morality have to do with each other? It’s dirty, evil business.
From Rome to the US 2005, empires have always justified themselves on grounds of their violence preventing greater violence. But the essence of the means remains the great taboo. Mr. Bottum’s fusionism, for example, proposes a grand statist project without ever telling you what it really is. His whole essay makes for a fascinating study in the euphemisms for state power. Here are a few we can cut and paste from his piece:
- there are truths about human life and dignity that must not be compromised in international politics
- intellectual and moral seriousness in one realm can breed the desire to find intellectual and moral seriousness in another
- to reawaken a sense of national purpose
- to restore American patriotism
- a forceful American foreign policy
- led the fight against international sex trafficking and a host of other human-rights abuses
- what we do at home and what we do abroad
- to enact certain domestic agendas and the attitudes that drive our foreign policy
- summon the political will
- to believe its founding ideals are true for others
- the active advance of democracy
- reversing the failure of nerve that has lingered in America
- to restore confidence
- an admirable patriotism
- deep changes that might reawaken and remoralize the nation
- the sense of national purpose regained by forceful response to the attacks
- help summon the will to halt the slaughter
- revitalize belief in the great American experiment.
Interesting that the words government and state do not appear anywhere in the substance of the argument. But the first goal of statecraft is always to disguise itself. How many cloaks has the left woven for a hundred years? How many more will the right weave for the next hundred?
Mr. Bottum is right about this much: "This isn’t conservatism, in several older senses of the word…. Call it the new moralism, if you like. Call it a masked liberalism or a kind of radicalism that has bizarrely seized the American scene. Mutter darkly, if you want, about the shotgun marriage of ex-socialists and modern puritans, the cynical political joining of imperial adventurers with reactionary Catholics and backwoods Evangelicals."
I would rather mutter darkly than dissemble about the bloody essence of statism.