In Defense of Red Tory Crunchy Communitarian Somethingorother.
May 7, 2009
Well, I see my dear old friend R.O. Flyer has decided to go after Craig Carter. More power to him says I; there’s really nothing better than dueling Yoder scholars. (Except of course, dueling yodlers.) But in the process he makes some rather harsh statements about Red Tories, Crunchy Conservatives, and Communitarians that give me pause. Example:
So, what we have here is a sort of Christian traditionalist anti-liberalism. Although most of these folks know quite well that we can’t turn back the clock in order to abort Scotus’ fetus, they sort of act like we should or that we should at least try to steer history in the direction of a society based on “Christian” values. Now how these folks understand Christianity is highly problematic I think and looks something a bit like pre-Vatican II Catholicism, I suppose. Or, perhaps a time before all of that…a time before the nominalists; a time before Ockham; a time before Protestantism. A true conservatism, in this view, is a sort of reappropriation of medieval economics usually all within the framework of a sort of participation metaphysics grounded in a hierarchical ontology (read Radical Orthodoxy). Let me just show my hand here: such a nostalgia for Christendom is utter bullshit; it is quite simply a wretched reading of history and, frankly, it is Constantinian.
There’s more here. There are a number of things I can say in defence of the position that R. O. is attacking, a few clarifications I’d like, and a few areas where he’s basically correct. I’ll start with the last and end with the first, in true communitarian style.
First off, R.O is correct to recognize that the bulk of modernity ain’t changing, and that attempts to revise it wholesale are not just silly but dangerous and potentially heretical. I’ve made some attempts to address the latent radicalism in some Red Tory corners, and I’ll say it again here: Red Toryism will succeed where it conceives of itself as a reform movement, and fail where it proceeds as a Utopian project. Likewise, the refusal to acknowledge that modernity has brought many things to light which are of value cannot possibly construe itself as traditional, since these things (e.g. gay rights) are founded very deeply in both the enlightenment and romantic response. Those who refuse to recognize that those are legitimate moments in the life of our culture have a very limited notion of tradition. One cannot, as Carter seems to think, throw off 500 years of history as if it had produced nothing of worth. The real question, and this is why I use the terms “right” and “conservative,” is how one should go about (a) moderating the excesses of the traditions we are given, (b) connecting that moderating project with the constellations of meaning given by tradition and (c) ground that project at the economic, cultural, and intellectual levels. This approach is quite distinct from Left approaches, particularly those of post-structuralists, but also for the social engineering carried out by urban planners and capitalist entrepreneurs alike.
This brings me to my second concern, which is that there is a frustrating conflation of terms going on in R.O.’s post. To begin with, I tend to see Red Toryism as being distinct from Crunchy Conservatism, and both are distinct from Communitarianism. Communitarianism, as I understand it, is a multi-faceted political and philosophical outlook which holds that tradition and community matter at the meta-ethical, ethical, and political levels and that our questions, our culture and our policy should be grounded in that fact. Given that background, there’s a huge range of positions available, as the differences between someone like Charles Taylor and, say, Alistair McIntyre should demonstrate. I see crunchy conservatism as being defined more by a set of broad policy points (localism, family values, environmentalism, distrust of government), and attendant cultural attitudes; its more an outlook than a coherent political program, also contain a huge range of opinion and outlook, and is mostly an American phenomenon. Red Toryism is unique in that it seems to actually have some real political potential in Britain, and yes, has supporters among the Radical Orthodoxy crowd, as well as a whole history of British utopians, socialists, agrarians, etc. who have a very particular view of nature, humanity, and community that doesn’t necessarily jive with American sensibilities. Each of these approaches share a distrust of liberal economics and the culture it spawns, but I don’t think there’s any wide-ranging consensus over any of these issues beyond that starting point; indeed, the difference that exists within that spectrum on an issue like gay marriage should give any easy categorization some trouble. So if R.O. wants to see a continuity between Carter’s invective, Dreher’s anxieties, and my aimless cryto-liberostoiccatholic ramblings, I suppose he can, but I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by it.
Now that I’ve made my qualifications, I think there are a couple charges R.O. levels that are either unfair or untrue. I’ve already outlined the sense in which this can be seen as genuinely conservative, and why this doesn’t entail rejecting science or some of liberalism’s social innovations. Likewise, the charge that a communitarian outlook requires radical medievalism has been dealt with before. What then is it that R.O is reacting to? It seems then, that the central concern is that taking on liberal society’s excesses from a Christian basis amounts to Constantianism, the capitulation of Christianity’s inherent radicalism to the values and conceits of Imperial Rome. This is hard for me to address given that R.O. hasn’t fleshed out why he thinks this is the case, and I’d be curious to hear more about it, since it involves us in bigger and more interesting issues. Speaking only for myself, my commitment to Christianity is somewhat limited, and I’m actually rather fond of Roman thinking, so the charge carries a bit less weight than it might for Christians arguing these points, but even given that, I have a hard time seeing how committing to localism, emphasizing a real economy, supporting the existence of families, internalizing externalities, and promoting respect and appreciation for the past amount to the things that word brings to mind. So what’s really the problem here? Or is the charge directed more at Carter than at the political outlook he exists at the fringes of?