U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Essential Relativism of Postwar Conservatism

Nash_CIMAToday I return to a perennial USIH topic: George Nash’s important work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945.

This virtual space has hosted its fair share of discussions about the continued relevance of Nash’s CIMA. Posts dealing with that work began here, and continued here, here, and here among many others. Hopefully this entry adds something fruitful to the conversation.

Andrew Hartman has been a driver, or instigator, in several of these discussions. Take note of the LONG string of comments attached to his March 2011 post (first in the string above), wherein he and David Sehat (and others) discussed the importance of race to postwar conservatism and the relative absence of that topic in Nash’s book. More recently, LD Burnett has re-opened our conversations about Nash, with her recent reading overlapping mine. I picked up the book last summer, but my reading was delayed until last month. Considered together, our posts point to a conclusion: USIH bloggers seem to agree that Nash’s CIMA is an important, perhaps canonical, book in the historiography of intellectual history. If not that, it’s at least highly relevant here and is a masterpiece within Nash’s oeuvre*

Having now completed seven chapters and 210 pages, I’m ready to do my part in continuing these discussions. The seventh chapter in particular, titled “What is Conservatism in America? The Search for a Viable Heritage,” got me thinking about something rarely discussed about conservatism today. So this post will oscillate between the past and the present—it will engage in some historical thinking about, well, the lack of historical perspective in relation to current conservative politics.

In his study of the Culture Wars—if I’m understanding Hartman’s major themes correctly—he is particularly concerned about cultural relativism, extreme relativism, and anti-relativism. Those topics arose in his post on “The Politics of Epistemology.” Even if I’m misunderstanding these as prominent themes of Hartman’s forthcoming book, I would assert that relativism, especially the cultural variety, is one of the hottest of the hot philosophical-intellectual parts of the Culture Wars. It is most certainly a prominent theme in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Indeed, I would say that relativism is one of The Right’s most moving critiques of our nation and its political culture, cultural politics, and ethical-moral sensibilities. That critique resonates across several divides: Democrat-Republican, young-old, religious-secular, educated-uneducated, South-North, East-West, etc. Yet, despite the cross-over appeal, it is my sense that nearly all of the criticism of relativism in the United States derives from The Right.**

The seventh chapter of Nash’s book, however, underscores a number of opportunities to criticize The Right for its own varieties of relativism. I was struck by Nash’s discussion of conservative views on how to ground conservatism in America, particularly in relation to the Revolution, Declaration, Constitution, Bill of Rights, various Amendments, Abraham Lincoln, the Congress, and Supreme Court (pp. 191-203). On each of those topics the postwar Right engaged in serious historical interpretive revisionism in order to counteract the power of Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America. They went so far, in the work of Frank Meyer (as some of you already know), to accuse Lincoln of being an ideologue who oversaw a “despotic democracy” or “repressive dictatorship” (p. 197). Lincoln became the anti-hero of 1950s conservative history. Despite the distortions, I don’t mind the historiographic endeavor. Revisionism can be quite stimulating. What is striking, to me however, is the contrast of that endeavor with the traditionalist “New Conservatism” from the same period that focused on enduring values (first things, if you will). Those conservatives, altogether, believed in the stability of The Right in contrast with the liberal left.

Indeed, the endeavor points to some serious cultural relativism. Insofar as it suites The Right, from the 1950s to the present, they are willing to relativize their views on a number of supposedly deep-seated conservative values. Please accept my advance apologies for the extreme, simplistic brevity of these then-and-now points:

– The Supreme Court was a danger Earl Warren was at its head, but is the bulwark of the Republic with its current majority of conservative justices.
– Executive power was bad with Lincoln, but good for Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 43.
– The balancing power of Congress was crucial in relation to FDR, but unfairly limiting in relation to Reagan.
– Small communities are important when we’re at peace, but The Nation is sacrosanct when we’re at war (see Ray Haberski’s God and War for more on this).
– Politics should be local and small when in comes to business regulation, but large and national in relation to moral crusades (domestic and international).
– History is our supreme guide when it comes to strictures derived from ancient and feudal societies, but is mere trivia, or even error-filled, when considered from the Enlightenment going forward. Don’t bother pointing out that to the anti-majoritarians that the idea of majoritarian democracy (if not its practice) derives from ancient Western civilization.
– The integrity of the political minority is the supreme expression of Republican values, until it conflicts with foreign affairs in the 1980s.
– Conservatives are cosmopolitans in the 1950s when considering European-derived economic and political views (think Burke or Hayek), but parochial when it came to international cooperation via the United Nations.
– Virtues infuse all political endeavors, except when justice is used to counteract extreme libertarianism—or when justice is used to argue for equality.
– The power of the state is to be feared, unless its protecting business abroad—unless that power is turned toward promoting justice and equality instead of mere freedom.
– The Constitution is sacrosanct for its enshrinement of checks and balances, until the document’s contradictions are noted—or until the power of amendment, enshrined in the Constitution, is used to update the same.
– And, most recently, the artistic/cultural relativism (or revisionism) of films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ are acceptable, but Serrano’s Piss Christ violates all ethical standards in the arts. But perhaps the former is okay because it relied on private funds, whereas the latter was not because it was sponsored by the NEA?

It is fair to counter these assertions by asking whether these apparent points of relativism are merely superficial and circumstantial as opposed to deeply destructive of conservatism. Perhaps an exploration of the deeper “first things” of conservatism (i.e. preservation, Christian virtue, etc.) resolves all of these contradictions into a stew of the right and the true. When I look at these changed positions, however, in the space of the last 50 or so years, I see a cafeteria kind of conservatism at work. I see political, philosophical, and social relativism as essential aspects of conservatism itself, not just its opposition.

Am I confusing ‘relativism’ with ‘contradiction’? A bit. Contradiction deals with the present—with holding to logical incompatibilities.*** It’s about logical inversions. Some conservatives today may hold contradictory views on some of the topics Nash (and I) outline above. Relativism is about how point of view trumps truth and validity, particularly in relation to moral and ethical thought. The changed views outlined above, often argued on ethical principles by conservatives then and now, point to relativism—that there is no absolute ethics to American conservatism.

And this should be disturbing to adherents of relativistic movements, whether liberal or conservative. Note of this caution from Chris Swoyer’s in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on relativism: “Relativistic arguments often begin with plausible, even truistic premises–e.g., that we are culturally and historically situated creatures, that justification cannot go on forever, that we cannot talk without using language or think without using concepts–only to end up with implausible, even inconsistent, conclusions. There is little consensus, however, about how to block the slide from inviting points of departure to uninviting destinations.” In other words, the consistency of any movement depends on its ability to minimize relativistic assumptions. At the very least, it’s better to understand how your views are relativistic rather than denying it altogether. Yet that denial seems to be a contradictory core trait of postwar conservatism.

It’s tempting to go the way of Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell, diagnosing psychological projection for conservative critics of relativism. Since this smacks of elitism and outdated historiography, as noted by Nash, I’ll refrain (pp. 125-126, 441-442). But I’m still tempted.

I’m sure I haven’t thoroughly teased out this topic. Even so, please accept this post as a humble conversation starter. Perhaps Nash considers relativism over time in the movement in the latter third of the book? Perhaps he, or other historians and conservatives, have critiqued right-wing relativism in the present? Maybe there’s another book on The Right that tackles this topic? – TL

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*Because of our apparent esteem for his work, I’m surprised no one has posted on Nash’s Reappraising the Right: The Past and Future of American Conservatism (ISI Books, 2009). Can a reader talk about whether that book may be relevant for discussion here? Aside: Nash has also written a lot on Hoover, and Hoover doesn’t get a lot of attention here, so that may explain some neglect for other Nash works.

**I say this knowing that the Left engages in indirect critiques of relativism when it argues, absolutely, for human rights as part of the first things of liberalism. But I can’t remember the last article I’ve seen by a left publication that has argued against left-wing relativism. I confess, however, to an imperfect knowledge of all leftist literature.

***The SEP article focuses on Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction. Perhaps Wikipedia’s page on contradiction is more useful here.

15 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Aside: Although I’ve been contributing to the USIH blog for over six years, I’m a little intimidated this week. The spectacular run of formal, rigorous essays appearing here over the past few weeks has me thinking that this post is, well, a bit shabby. I’m pleased to be a part of such exceptional company! – TL

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for this post. I have some responses which I’m going to post later on. I just wanted to follow up with something regarding your (*) at the end of the post asking about Nash’s _Reappraising the Right_.

    It’s a funny story. I actually became aware of this blog when Andrew linked a review I wrote of _Reappraising_ in his first entry re: Nash on the blog. If you look at that initial post which inspired the “race debate” in the comments, you’ll see that Andrew links my review at the end of his post. Here it is: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=31209

    You’ll see in this review that I address the way Nash discusses in _Reappraising_. More later, just wanted to be sure I trolled for more review traffic first…

    • Thanks Jason. Funny indeed. I didn’t reread all of the comments to Andrew’s old post, so I clearly missed your review. I’ll check it out. – TL

    • Jason: I read your review. Very interesting. I like the scholar-activist distinction you pose. Question: Did you cross-check the chapter on Willmoore Kendall in *Reappraising the Right* with the CIMA chapter (*) on him? I wonder if the piece reprinted in the former was a forerunner, or successor, to the latter?

      I’m usually putoff by “movement historians.” My bias alarm finds many ways to beep in those kinds of texts. But I must say that I’m *very pleased* with Nash’s ability to put some distance between his political leanings and the material presented. The proof is in the innumerable contradictions given between the five strains of the movement you identified. And those contradictions enabled me to think about the post above. – TL

  3. I’m used to being called Sexist, Intolerant, Xenophobic, Homophobic, Islamophobic, Racist, and Bigoted. But Relativist?

    Now you people have gone too far.

    • Tom: No personal slight intended, of course. In my third-to-last paragraph I noted the need for all movements to be keenly aware of their relativistic assumptions and tendencies. And I chastise left-leaning folks, in footnote #2, for not being more forward about their own anti-relativism. – TL

  4. Fun post Tim–I obviously have a lot to say, most of which will have to wait until later.

    For now, I’m glad Jason chimed in–I was going to direct readers to his review. I’ve read large chunks of “Reappraising the Right.” I think the chapter on Podhoretz and “Commentary” is fantastic. I mentioned it in this post (on Dector and Gore Vidal): http://s-usih.org/2011/10/gore-vidal-master-polemicist.html

    Vidal argued that Jews should not find common cause with evangelicals. I used Nash to argue that such an alliance actually demonstrated that jews were more fully American than ever before. I wrote:

    That many Jews have found common cause with evangelicals, and not just regarding Israel, has not constrained their freedom as Jews in the United States. Quite to the contrary, as George Nash convincingly demonstrates in “Joining Ranks: Commentary and American Conservatism,” a chapter from his latest book, Reappraising the Right, the conservative turn taken by the Jews at Commentary demonstrated that Jews were more mainstream than ever, and thus less threatened as a minority than ever. Nash writes: “In 1945, Commentary had been born into a marginal, impoverished, immigrant-based subculture and an intellectual milieu that touted ‘alienation’ and ‘critical nonconformity’ as the true marks of the intellectual vis-à-vis his own culture. Two generations later, Commentary stood in the mainstream of American culture, and even of American conservatism, as a celebrant of the fundamental goodness of the American regime, and Norman Podhoretz, the son of an immigrant’s milkman, was its advocate.”

  5. This is a fascinating post. May I suggest that, for thinking about contradiction as a historical category, this Badiou essay is very useful https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=29+Cardozo+L.+Rev.+1877&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=308f78b9482ba5d707695d60f602bccb Badiou treats the classical laws of identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle, in their various permutations, as a framework for thinking about varieties of historical contradiction, with the Marxist notion of contradiction, of course, as the subject of scrutiny. Very interesting stuff.

  6. Wonderful conversation starter, Tim! Although I believe the new conservative Peter Viereck beat us all to this conclusion. At least, I see his complaint about the postwar Right’s “rootless nostalgia for roots” (Conservativism Revisited, 2nd ed., 1962, pp. 124, 139) as an implicit charge of cultural relativism. I think Kevin Mattson’s chapter on “postmodern conservativism” in Rebels All! might be relevant here as well.

    • Viereck is such an intriguing figure. I admire, of course, his historical thinking (even when I disagree with it). And I’m ashamed to confess that I haven’t read Mattson’s *Rebels All!*. – TL

  7. I sense that Paul Gottfried would have something intelligent to add on this topic, possibly with regards to the superiority of “the political” over moral consistency, perhaps explained via the continental influence of Weber, Schmitt et al. Just a hunch.

  8. Relativism is a difficult concept with which to grapple; sometimes it is so slippery as to escape the line between the real thing and an epithet. For a good example of thoroughgoing Left-Wing anti-relativism, look at Alan Sokal/Jean Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, where the authors criticize a lot of theory for being subjectivistic, anti- or pseudo-scientific and so on. Indeed the prank/spook of Postmodern theory that Sokal wrote as a trick for Andrew Ross’ journal was predicated on not only a defense of objective knowledge but a moral attack on the dangers of the loss or denial of such knowledge. Many in the Marxist tradition like David Harvey attack relativism too. Popular scientific humanists like Steven Pinker and Sam Harris identify as Liberal yet nevertheless hold to an objective account of knowledge. They even go further and argue that historical change can be quantified as objectively morally superior, a mirror opposite of the RIght charge of objective moral decline. It seems to me the Relativism charge is really only a way for the Right to attack personal behaviors or public representations they want to oppose or prohibit under the guise of an objective theory of morality.

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