Monday, June 28, 2010

The Technology of Terror

I began life as a conservative, a happy inheritance from my father, who was an instinctive conservative brought up in rural Oklahoma and a career officer and combat veteran in the U.S. Army. I cut my intellectual teeth on William F. Buckley, Jr., a stray reference from whom sent me off to read Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France," which has rightly been called the foundational text of modern conservatism. So enchanted was I with Burke--and the way in which he enlisted the arguments of Shakespeare's Duke of York against Richard II's seizure of private property and those of Dryden on the importance of the monarchy in "Absalom and Achitophel"--that I wrote about Burke in college and graduate school, thereby establishing an intellectual basis for my political convictions. All of which is to say that from early days I was in what is now called the paleo-conservative camp. But that camp, I now see, emphasizes the unchanging elements of human existence and says in effect that an understanding of human nature as it has always been furnishes us with a sufficient basis for political principles. In this way, the paleo-conservatives, invaluable as are their contributions to political thought, overlook the importance of technology, which, if it isn't slowly altering human nature is at least so powerfully and ineradicably changing our environment as to suggest important refinements in the way we think about politics.

This realization, I think, is one of the most important insights of the neo-conservatives, who helped formulate, for instance, the Bush doctrine of preemptive war, an innovation which is justifiable only because technology has so radically altered the conditions of life. When leaving office, George Washington could well enjoin the nation to a kind of isolationism; now, however, in a world of ICBMs and international suicide attacks, such isolationism and so strictly defensive a military posture is almost impossible. Hence it is no surprise that Robert Byrd, who passed away today, was so proud of his vote opposing the invasion of Iraq (an invasion, it is well to remember, supported at the time by virtually all the main Democratic players currently in Washington, DC). Byrd was a very old man, whose attitude toward life was well set before many of the technological advances which have led to what Raymond Aron called "universal history": the condition in which what happens in, say, the Soviet Union matters greatly in the far-flung corners of the globe because the Soviet Union is, through technology, able to project its power to those remote locations. Byrd's speech against the war resolution was an admirable appeal to essentially nineteenth-century conditions of life. He gave a beautifully nostalgic speech, but it was not a speech notable for its clear assessment of life in a world with cruise missiles.

The past century presents a wonderful test case for both the paleo- and neo-conservatives. Pose the question as to why the past century was the bloodiest in recorded human history--with 6 million murdered in Germany, 30 million in the Soviet Union, 70 million, by the estimate of Jung Chang, in Mao's China, to say nothing of the horrors of Cambodia and the smaller terrors of Uganda--and the neos and paleos will very likely give very different answers. For the paleos, the problem lies with the deadly turn toward atheism combined with totalitarianism, essentially a philosophical or spiritual problem, the results of which were so clearly predicted by Nietzsche and Dostoevski in such different idioms. The neos wouldn't disagree, but they would be more willing to emphasize the rise of technology, which allowed unparalleled surveillance, control, and destruction of such vast populations as occurred in the twentieth century.

For this reason, while the paleos are more likely to emphasize what the pundits call the social issues, the neos are more likely to emphasize the libertarian commitment to freedom for all and limitation of government. Not that paleos don't support these values as well, but the energy that they bring to the cause is often less intense than the energy that they devote to the social issues. For this reason, it seems to me, Orwell is perhaps more the patron saint of the neo-conservatives, because of his horror of the fear that can be induced by technology once the people have ceded their liberty to the state; for the paleos, Burke, with his emphasis on the organic nature of society and the proper relation between government and human nature, is the fons et origo of conservative philosophy.

I suppose that I am meandering to a conclusion along the lines of this: while I had for many years viewed myself as the very model of a modern paleo-conservative, I now find myself with an increasing sympathy for the neo-conservative tribe. I don't think that the two approaches are at all incompatible, but I think that we are very ill served by the suspicion (not to say vituperation) with which the paleos sometimes speak of the neos. I think that often the neos and paleos take the views they do less because of a careful reflection upon first principles than because of intuitions or lines of influence and inheritance (as I once did). We would all do well, however, to reflect clearly on the extent to which the neo-conservative weltanschauung is governed by a consciousness of the importance of technology and the very great dangers it poses for tyranny when evil people apply that technology to bad ends. In a more colloquial idiom--we can all be libertarians and then focus on the social conditions that we would like to see uppermost in a society that has been secured from external threats and soft tyrannies at home.

No comments:

Post a Comment