Republicans may be poised for some big gains today, but they have lately been duking it out over what it means to be a "true conservative." Is Sarah Palin the new face of the party? Is there room for moderate conservatives? What to do about ‘RINOs'? So Cory Robin, a professor of political science, delved into one aspect at the heart of conservatism: its relationship with violence. Is the true conservative one who longs for peace, whether or not war is necessary right now? Or is war somehow entwined in the very fabric of the movement?
Theodor Adorno, co-author of The Authoritarian Personality, along with blogger Andrew Sullivan, feel that the "pseudo-conservative" is one who loves war and "has ‘little in common,' in [Richard] Hofstadter's words, ‘with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism,'" Robin quotes. But it just isn't so: "The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it," Robin says.
War, violence and death are core to the conservative view of life, Robin explains. "It's philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively." To get at the heart of this philosophy, he goes back to a book by Edmund Burke, often thought to be the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Burke felt the self is in need of some sort of stimulus to make life interesting. But Robin notes his findings: "Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation." With the threat of impending violence, on the other hand, we are both vacated of our sense of self, and paradoxically "feel our existence to an extent never felt before," as Robin puts it. "The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of all," he concludes. Thus, it is the only stimulus that gives meaning to life.
How does this translate into conservative ideology? Robin says:
Most sublime of all is when... violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination. But history does not always present such opportunities. The conservative must settle for the lesser good of war, pure and simple.
And you can see this philosophy at work today. David Brooks, Robin notes, "welcomed ‘the fear that is so prevalent in the country' as a ‘cleanser, washing away a lot of the self-indulgence of the past decade'" after 9/11. Even more to the point, the conservative love affair with the idea of war and repulsion at the details of war gets to the sublimity of violence: "Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea," Robin explains. Thus, a war on terror that ignores the intricacies of terrorism is a perfect remedy for conservative ennui.