Thursday, September 27, 2007

What's Next for Conservatives?

The Intercollegiate Review first appeared in my mailbox some 30 years ago -- presumedly they got my address from Youth for Reagan after we went to the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City to work for Gov. Reagan. Subtitled "A Journal of Scholarship & Opinion," it is published twice during the academic year by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to provide "a thoughtful and thought-provoking interdisciplinary perspective on contemporary issues by digging to the roots: first principles, philosophy and religion, cultural and historical forces."

IR was my introduction to the intellectual, academic side of the conservative movement -- names like Russell Kirk, Stanley Jaki, Richard Weaver are among the better-known. I am now getting to the point of not being surprised to find that those interviewed, writing or discussed in publications such as First Things or Mars Hill Audio appear throughout my archives of The Intercollegiate Review.

At least for me, ISI's purpose, "to convey to successive generations of college youth a better understanding of the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society," has been met. Which is why I've supported ISI (perhaps best known for its Choosing the Right College) over the years and am glad to continue receiving its publications.

All this is to introduce the "Editor's Note" by Mark C. Henrie that appears in the latest (Vol. 42, No. 2, Fall 2007) issue of The Intercollegiate Review:
As the 2007-8 academic year begins, the political struggle in Washington over continued U.S. military engagement in Iraq is reaching a new intensity. Arguments are advanced, tactics debated, blame assigned, contextual narratives proffered—all in an attempt to score partisan advantages. It will be decades before we are able to come to a disinterested historical assessment of the Iraq adventure: after all, even today we do not yet have such an account of Vietnam. Perhaps it really is true that by taking the fight to “them” “over there” we have prevented, so far, another attach “over here.” What is certainly true, however, is that the political sound and fury over Iraq has distracted us from a deeper effort to grasp the new relationship between the West and Islam that was heralded by 9/11. In the face of a new—or rather, very old?—adversary, our political class has simply recycled shopworn theories and discovered precedents for the unprecedented in strained historical analogies.

Thus, in one form or another, both liberals and neoconservatives have agreed that terrorism is best understood as a “symptom” of the desperate situation of backward societies lacking economic opportunity and political liberty. The prescription that follows is that we must address the “root causes” of terrorism in the Middle East—either through ameliorative liberal concessions or by muscular Wilsonian democratization. Once these societies are modernized, all will be well. The only problem with this excellent theology is that the actual 9/11 hijackers were not the wretched of the earth but rather educated, largely middle-class Saudis who had long resided in European cities. Subsequent events such as London’s 7/7 Underground bombing and this summer’s “doctor’s plot” in Scotland seem to show that it is not Arabian backwardness but rather Western modernity that is “the problem,” the “root cause.” What then? In a similar vein, it is often said, hopefully, that Islam is due for a Reformation. Alas, it is not implausible that Wahhabism itself is the Islamic Reformation. What then?

We shrink from such questions because, for at least two centuries, we have presumed a “universal” history in which the West represents the vanguard of mankind, behind which all humanity will at length follow, so that all will inevitably become “like us”—enlightened, largely secular, liberal democrats. We have not considered the possibility that “modernization” may lead to quite different destinations. The Cold War struggle with Soviet communism was an ideological conflict precisely because both communism and Western liberal democracy laid claim to the status of the “vanguard within the vanguard” in the West’s universal history. The current interaction with a resurgent Islam is not an ideological conflict, however, precisely because Islam rejects the universality of the West’s history.

American conservatives have to hand a rich repertoire of arguments, concept, and theories concerning ideological struggle, a legacy of our leadership role in the Cold War. We lack, however, similar resources for understanding a “civilizational” conflict. We need new thinking for a new historical circumstance.
                                        —Mark C. Henrie
For what it's worth, I'm not so sure that American conservatives -- who must be distinguished from the neo-conservatives who have done much of the thinking for President Bush's administration, or the faux-conservatives who long-ago hijacked the Republican Congressional leadership -- actually lack such resources. The conservative critique of neo-conservatism -- and most of the thoughts behind Henrie's "Editor's Note" above could have been written before the disaster that began on September 11, 2001, and were written by some in the build-up for the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- points me in that direction. But we may need to re-discover them.

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