Thursday, January 04, 2007

Racism, Libertarianism and Ann Althouse

In the last week or so their has been a good bit of twittering in blogosphere over a dust up between Ann Althouse and Jonah Goldberg along with a slew of others over Althouse's recent postings describing her experiences at a conference held by the Liberty Fund. The short of it is that Prof. Althouse was shocked to discover that Conservatives and Right Libertarians are actually sincere in their allegiance to a theory of Federalism that has historically been used to defend racial discrimination and the de jure elevation of white supremacy to the status of public policy. Having voiced her dismay Althouse became a target for an avalanche of abuse.

I've been catching up on this debate and though its late in the day, after wading through all cheap shottery and personal nastiness, I do think there is substantive point that Professor Althouse has brought forward.

What's at the heart of this whole business is a fundamental truism about ideological approaches to real world conditions. That being, that a blinkered subservience to an abstract theory will often lead to practical consequences that negate the values supposedly championed by the theory in question.

The 20th century's premier example of this is, of course, the tortured history of the failed Soviet experiment. The lesson might be summarized as: In order to secure the liberation of the people it became necessary to tyranize them. This forshadowed a later example of the same sort ideological blindness that took place in South east Asia: "In order to save the village it became necessary to destroy it".

I must admit that I was surprised that Prof. Althouse was surprised to discover that the Right wing contains such true believers. I suppose it's possible, living in a place like Madison, to be lulled into the notion that such folks exist only on the Left. I'm afraid that Althouse has neglected her inquiries into Rightwing theology, since she appears to have thought prior to this epiphany that the Conservative movement was a welcoming environment for pragmatists.

A lot of intelligent people have been similarly misled. Our current politics result, in a large degree, from a fixation on the perceived excesses of the Left that has accepted, uncritically, the Right's pr that they are the "practical", "commonsense" and "responsible" alternative. In the wreck of the Bush administration and the GOP's extinct Majority, all that boiler plate about the "adults being back in charge" rings more than a little hollow.

Still, it's a bit disheartening to realize that Prof. Althouse is seemingly unaware that in questioning the Libertarian/Conservative formulation of Federalism she is striking at a taproot of Rightwing ideology as it has devolved over the last 40 years. Had she understood this she wouldn't have been so surprised by the response her criticism engendered.

The notion of Federalism that she encountered at the Conference is the ideological glue that has held the otherwise disparate elements of the contemporary "Conservative" movement together. It is the modus vivendi that has allowed paleo-Conservatives, neo-Conservatives, Right Libertarians, Dixiecrats and Social Conservatives to cohabitate.

Each of these currents endorses "Federalism", albeit for differing and sometimes conflicting motives. Right Libertarians support it ostensibly because it limits the ability of the national government to infringe on the individual. Paleo-Conservatives see it as defense of traditional relations of local power and authority. Neo-Conservatives embrace it as a weapon against a national Liberalism detached from their dreams of global hegemonism. Social Conservatives wield it against the encroachments of modernity in all it's cultural and political forms. The Dixiecrats were the true trailblazers, having argued for generations that Federalism and Conservativism were synonymous with their brand of apartheid politics.

The challenge that Prof. Althouse posed, regardless of the merits or demerits of her style, turned over a rock that Right Libertarians prefer remain unmoved. To whit, the Federalism they espouse actually represents a historic accomodation to racist sentiment, the antithesis of any doctrine of individualism, for mean political advantage. Likewise, it enables a corresponding accomodation with Social Conservatives whose entire political raison detre is the use of Government's coercive powers to maintain conformity with traditional social, cultural and sexual mores.

One might ask how Right Libertarians reconcile the principle of individual liberty with such crass political opportunism. The short answer is that they don't. They much prefer to pretend that the contradiction doesn't exist.

Therein lies the motive for the rain of derision that they have showered on Professor Althouse for having the temerity to suggest that their elegant abstractions be measured against real world consequences. It is a pile on that some commentators on the left, to their discredit, have chosen to join.


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