Principles First

On the periphery of public discourse, off in a dusty corner, in recent weeks a quiet and often ignored conversation has occurred. ‘Conversation’ is perhaps an overstatement, mostly it has been just a few of relatively close views of history discussing amongst themselves, or perhaps past one another, how to dialogue with a group that has a very different outlook. Why does this matter? Most people, even if they read the various post and articles that I am referencing, do not really understand, and if they do, they simply do not care.

It is as simple as this, there is a scramble within ‘conservatism’ to fill a massive void. What and who wins that scramble will define what opposition, insofar as it might ever again appear, exists in our solidifying uniparty oligarchical system.

Tyranny is on the menu. Most recognize the threat of Marxism, but there are other ideas in the water. A form of Maoist-capitalism is a menu option, so is a form of nationalism fascism/socialism (Duganism) – just under the surface. All three of these would serve a uniparty oligarchy well. What will oppose these ideas that are taking root in various ways? What can? Nationalist populism alone is certainly incapable. There are groups that recognize this.

Conservatism in America has failed to provide solutions to every problem since 1960, perhaps since 1929 or prior. It is inarguable that particularly over the last forty years, “conservatism” has conserved nothing, has won nothing that defended permanent things, and has stood for nothing other than flaccid resistance. I am not speaking here of individuals, or even some ideas, I rather mean the movement in the aggregate. Most that are honest see this now.

Here is the fundamental question. Can we build an oppositional philosophy based upon thinkers that believe Abraham Lincoln is a paragon of virtue?  Most Americans grew up believing Lincoln was close to sainthood, and few have ever really examined his actual words and his actions. This fundamental ignorance was by design.

In short – Lincoln started a war, not to emancipate slaves (his own words), made war on states (the right of the Federal government to do that was not held ubiquitously), suspended rights, violated the constitution, and arrested opponents in the North, and ultimately on 1 January 1863, dismantled an economic system, with no plan to address the void, that ensured a region would be impoverished for a generation, or more, and blacks would endure economic servitude for another 100 years. Lincoln began a war without a plan to put things back together, his goal, (his words) was to maintain the union (central power) regardless of the costs. There was nothing moral, rational nor reasonable about Lincoln’s actions. He is not an example for conservatives or of conservatism.

So, what of these small conversations held in dusty corners. Paul Gottfried published a piece in Chronicles recently, Clearing Up the Confusion on Leo Strauss. To the initiated, this was nothing short of an olive branch. Pedro Gonzalez, the editor of Chronicles, followed up, “Gottfried, like myself, thinks an alliance between paleos and populist-aligned Straussians is possible.” A day later, Chronicles published a review of Michael Anton’s The Stakes, going so far as to call Anton a “Paleo fellow traveller”.

It seems Gottfried and Gonzalez are in agreement with many of us, we face an existential crisis. I wrote a piece at The Calhoun Institute discussing this. The Straussians have a much bigger voice than true paleos, we do face an existential crisis, tyranny is on the rise. We need allies.

But in classic form, Brion McClanahan points out the danger of the ideology of Claremont, Hillsdale and the West Coast Strasussians (Jaffites).

“Conservatives like Anton consistently choose longtime heroes of the left, like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a calculated move, but one that will never have the desired effect. These conservatives believe that if they can somehow convince enough Americans, left and right, to view “equality as a conservative principle,” as Harry V. Jaffa wrote in 1975, or Martin Luther King, Jr. as a conservative (as Anton suggests in his book The Stakes), then Americans will come to embrace them as sober revolutionaries in a common American enlightenment.”

What Brion did not say explicitly, but has, as did those in his intellectual genealogy before have said innumerable times is this. It would be better to stand on true conservative principles, those that protect and enhance permanent things. In the times, near and far where conservatism failed to provide answers to problems, we would be better served by seeking to know where we abandoned our principles, rather than adopting and attempting to usurp men that ‘solved’ the problem in ways contrary to our principles. (read The Conservative Mind)

We cannot move forward, in this existential crisis harkening back to men that did not act from the principles we hold dear as examples. Only folly and tyranny can follow such a mistake. Indeed, which way Western man?

Postscript: Criticism of Lincoln quite often falls on deaf ears, "he ended slavery, slavery is bad and without Lincoln, there would be no United States as we know it" is the retort.

By what authority and at what cost?  These are valid questions, too complex for treatment here. Slavery being such an inefficient and nasty business, there were many in the south that would have replaced it long before 1860, if there was a workable solution, one that the banks and industrial interests in the North, that became rich off the slave trade and slave labor, were willing to consider. The question is and was much more complex than we paint it generally. But by what authority did Lincoln do what he did, to upset the economy, a region, the lives of blacks, and the very meaning of the federal compact? At what cost, surely considering the lives lost and the generations-long economic cost there were other options?  But it was never about slavery, not at least about ending it or being concerned with the welfare of former slaves - it was all about his (Lincoln's) conception of what the Federal government was, something that was at odds with men more brilliant than he before and after his term in office.

It is valid to call into question a man that 'conservatives' since WWII have championed. We need a new way forward, one that begins and ends with principles.

Author: Barry

Southerner, father, husband, Christian and a retired Army field grade officer. Author of five books and of several papers and articles on ethics, culture, history, geopolitics and military affairs.

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