Oops, It Didn’t Work!

On Friday, William F. Buckley threw in the towel. He speaks of the Iraq war when he announces It Didn’t Work, but he’s really talking about the conservative movement. In his constrained acknowledgment of the failure of neoconservatism’s most extreme expression, he’s really acknowledging the failure of the conservative movement. It’s falling back to earth now, like a spent rocket. It never deserved so much of our attentive energy, but it sounded so promising, to the more credulous among us.

I discovered William F. Buckley in 1965 at USAF Training at Williams AFB, AZ. Most of my classmates loved this guy, so erudite and impressive and reasonable sounding. But he didn’t sound reasonable to me. I remember asking my mates, “Can’t you hear the words he’s saying? It’s crazy.”

Even then, the idea of boosting the most capable by taking from the least among us made no sense to me, whether in a family or a society. But that didn’t matter to most of my fellow elitists – we had prevailed over most pilot training candidates, qualifying for The Fighter School – the most exclusive of the Air Force’s eight training bases. Like most elites, we didn’t spend a lot of time examining the accidents of birth or nurture that equipped us to qualify for those few slots at “Willy”.

Once you strap on that G-suit and start drilling holes in the sky, there’s no limit to your arrogance. You’re omnipotent and you know it, clap your hands.

Conservatism Didn’t Work. That’s Bill Buckley’s impending conclusion, but he can’t form his mouth around the words. It hardly matters which metric or cultural barometer you use, the Big-C conservatives (like the Big-L liberals before them) have had their turn at the wheel, and they’ve fucked up beyond all recognition. This shouldn’t be surprising, when you consider this insight from Buckley’s arch nemesis, Kenneth Galbraith:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy;
that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

Galbraith’s exposé is literally true, not just clever satire. When the most powerful people in a society set themselves up to bleed the rest of the body politic, the culture’s in as much trouble as any body is when its most aggressive cells metastasize. Yep, that’s what unbridled conservatism is: a network of ambitious, well-connected cells sucking as much energy as possible from their host. Once you strap on that three piece suit and start drilling holes in the economy, there’s no limit to your arrogance. You’re omnipotent and you know it, clap your hands.

Self-interest is not the problem: it’s the primary source of energy in any society. Galbraith is exposing a deeper, cultural problem. Like alcoholics enabled by their admirers, our mutual dysfunction is that so many of us have placed our bets on the metastatic principle of self interest. Most of We the People Mortgage Holders have decided that we and our families will surely prevail if we work the pecking order just a little better than our less fortunate neighbors: we’ve decided that we will somehow buck the odds and will succeed if we advance ourselves to the detriment of those whom we’re in a position to slight. When selfishness is enshrined above the commons’ sense, the Tragedy of the Commons is as certain as if Shakespeare had penned it. And ultimately, just as deadly.

The flaw in this tragic logic is easy to see. Conservatism, like the stock market, systematically moves resources from the less informed to the more informed. Pick your sides. Only suicidal hubris allows people to assume they’re on the inside track of that power law.

Ed vs. the Coneheads

Ed Cone and his readers are conducting a spirited debate about Buckley’s capitulation over at Ed’s blog. Ed threw the gauntlet down by asking, “Why does Bill Buckley hate America?

Why does Bill Buckley hate America?

“One can’t doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed,” writes the father of the modern conservative movement in The National Review.

Well, of course, one can doubt it, if one ignores the facts.

And as the facts get harder to ignore, one can blame the media.

No fair blaming the richly-documented incompetence of the administration and widespread predictions that we would end up exactly where we are.

Ed is one of my heroes. He descends from a family of authentic American visionaries and capitalists who built a great textile business in North Carolina and struggled to keep the plants and workers together. Ed and I hung out together when he came up to document the Dean campaign and at a few subsequent conferences. It’s obvious he gets it. Maybe it’s because he now writes about IT and systems for Ziff Davis: People who think in terms of systems seem to have a larger view than those who think in terms of sound bites.

Checked by Mates

Conservatism has entered its end game and can no longer disguise its motives with platitudes and swell-sounding theories. Buckley hints at the sorry truth that this four-decade crescendo has been an intellectual exercise, sort of a stimulating debate not quite ready for prime time, unencumbered by concerns about consequences in the real world:

What do we do when we see that the postulates do not prevail — in the absence of interventionist measures (we used these against Hirohito and Hitler) which we simply are not prepared to take? It is healthier for the disillusioned American to concede that in one theater in the Mideast, the postulates didn’t work. The alternative would be to abandon the postulates. To do that would be to register a kind of philosophical despair. The killer insurgents are not entitled to blow up the shrine of American idealism.

The shrine of American idealism. The horror! Can we ever abandon our precious conservative postulates! 

Even his headline speaks to the conservatives’ distance from real-world consequences: Saying “It didn’t work” is as reflective as saying “Oops”. It’s how you characterize a patio door broken by a softball, not how you describe a conscious assault on American values, culminating in a colossal, unilateral foreign adventure that guts America’s sense of fair play while killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of peopl
e, including our own. No wonder these people who’ve never seen combat don’t want us to see flag-draped coffins. They have no sense of participation in the real fight, for theirs is an ivory tower engagement.

I’ve often said that real combat is no place for dreamers and idealists. Nor is the hard landscape of geopolitical practicalities. Those who understand the realities of insurgent warfare knew all along that this Iraqi colonialism wouldn’t work. 

What will work, inevitably, is patience. A skillful idealist should realize that time is on our side, that our pervasive media and peer-to-peer Internet-based communications is the overwhelming power in the world right now, not these obsolete imperial adventures.

Claims Made for Selling, not for Using

Conservative promises are like the complex features we never use, on all the gadgets we probably don’t need. this “philosophy” (if that’s what you call a justification for selfishness) is a set of theories and visions that are worthless once you take the appliance out of the show room (Conservatism’s think tanks and heavily subsidized media outlets) and install it at home (government). Once put into service, there’s no way we’ll use that fancy control panel for anything but a timer, and that’s where conservatism’s questionable social compact breaks down.

The entire shaky premise of conservatism has been the “trust us” assurance that Bush trots out whenever the curtain is pulled aside to expose this most questionable wizard. Conservatism has predicated its promise on a complex set of features we might use some day, but which, so far, have provided no discernible benefits to We the Users. 


Impatience Alert – Flamers take a break

Comments are on, but for those of you who adore the passion around the tiresome Liberal/Conservative “debate”, please save yourselves the trouble. I’m a practicing capitalist, shot down in Vietnam, voted for Reagan and formed more businesses than most people have worked for. Conservatives can now empathize how it felt for the liberals as the air leaked out of their movement. Get used to years of this sinking feeling. Now it’s obvious to anyone:

This conservative movement has been an unbelievably expensive detour from the American Dream, which was forged in the late 18th century out of the Age of Enlightenment and Common Sense, reinforced by the realities we grasped thanks to Theodore Dreiser, two world wars and the Great Depression. Don’t embarrass yourself by siding with Warren Harding. Go do your homework and calculate the components of your grandchildren’s tax burden. Then ask yourself if those expensive, broadcast-era slogans have been worth it.

On the other hand, I-told-you-so liberals might ask why no one has a clue what you’re talking about.

1:20:20 AM    

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