Roger’s Rules

Why I am not pessimistic

Writing yesterday about our government’s latest act of profligacy—raising the debt ceiling from $12.394 trillion to $14.294 trillion—I concluded with this observation:

“More and more, I believe, the burning question with which the Obama administration confronts us is this: Will he and his colleagues damage the country beyond repair before the voters, roused from their dogmatic slumbers, realize what is happening and throw them out? I wish I were more confident that the answer was no.”

Digesting that last bit, a friendly reader wrote to express his sadness that many of the chaps whose work he favors were so “pessimistic. America,” he wrote “can still redeem itself . . .”

Ellipsis in the original, which I take softens the original declaration into something more optative. In any event, I believe the reader has seized upon a supremely important point that is partly psychological, partly political.

First, a terminological point: a pessimist is someone who looks at a state of affairs and concludes that things are worse than they really are. An optimist looks at the same state of affairs and concludes that they are better than the facts warrant.

Our difficulty, of course, is that we have no reliable access to that common reality which would enable us to say with confidence “this is how things really are, so chap A took too dour a view, chap B too rosy a view.”  As with most important things in life, there is a leap involved: our  affirmations about most human realities are less statements of fact than pearls containing at their core a grain of dark uncertainty.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a little book about Kant’s political philosophy which I read when I was in graduate school. I remember being surprised at first that the book focused on Kant’s “Third Critique,”  the Critique of Judgment, which deals partly with taste and aesthetic judgment and partly with judgments about the ends and purposes of nature. “What do those subjective activities have to do with politics?” I asked myself. “Everything,” was the answer. As Kant notes, when we make an aesthetic judgment (“this painting is beautiful”) we do not offer a judgment that compels assent because of logic (“2 plus 2 equals four”). Rather, as Kant picturesquely puts it,   we “woo” or court  the agreement of others by appealing to a sense of the world we hold in common because of our common humanity.

Kant and Arendt have a lot more to say about the subject. I mention it here to underscore three points: 1. the element of uncertainty that, like that grain of sand in a pearl, is an essential concomitant to our political judgments; 2. the standard which our common humanity supplies to guide and inform our political deliberations; 3. the importance of rhetoric, what Aristotle defined as “the art of persuasion,” in politics. Politicians may draw upon  facts and figures in their speeches. At the end of the day, however, they do not demonstrate anything. They appeal to our imaginations, to our emotions, to our common sense of what is the good life and how to achieve it. Indeed, one of the signal dangers that stalks political life is the temptation,  felt by politicians as well as their audiences,  to regard  political pronouncements as inarguable statements about the way the world is rather than—what they really are—the expression of opinion.

And this brings me back to my reader’s sadness about what he judged a pessimistic assessment of America’s situation.  I do not believe it is pessimistic. Montaigne says somewhere that admonition is  one of the highest offices of friendship. What he meant was that a true friend would take the trouble to criticize and warn. Such ministrations take effort. They are risky—among other things, they risk the continuation of friendship. But they  are evidence of genuine concern and solicitude. How much easier to proceed in a spirit of universal commendation, a “prizes-for-everyone” attitude like the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland.

What is true among individuals is also true in our relations to the community at large. Acquiescence is easy. Benignity is a cinch. Criticism takes effort, even as it also takes heat.

Is the Obama administration fiscally irresponsible? There is a difference of opinion about that. I would say, “Yes, it is.” The President and his team, presumably, dissent. What no one disagrees about, however, is that fiscal irresponsibility is a bad thing. The operative question is whether the administration’s policy counts as fiscally irresponsible. If the answer is “Yes,” then the question is how much damage that irresponsibility has caused and what we can do about it. To say this much is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. It merely attempts to establish the mise en scène on which attitudes such as pessimism and optimism can get to work.

I heartily agree, I should add,  with the sentiment expressed by my correspondent: Pessimism is an unproductive emotion. Gloominess should not be encouraged. In the spring of 2008, when the Presidential race was hotting  up, I wrote a column here criticizing the upsurge of gloominess among conservatives. I had, I noted, recently begun keeping a folder marked “Conservative Gloominess.” The folder, I wrote, was “full of articles and animadversions by various hands: dire prognostications about who the next occupant of the White House will be, harrowing descriptions of disarray among conservatives, despairing portraits of U.S. or European society.” I went on to observe that

What’s odd, or at least uncharacteristic about these bulletins from the abyss is not their substance—to be candid, I have written plenty of items that could justly be filed there—but their tone and what we might call their existential orientation. From time immemorial conservatives have delighted in writing works with titles like Leviathan, The Decline of the West, The Waste Land. Nevertheless, by habit and disposition conservatives tend, as a species, to be less gloomy than—than what? What shall we call those who occupy a position opposite that of conservatives? Not liberals, surely, since they are so often conspicuously illiberal, i.e., opposed to freedom and all its works. Indeed, when it comes to the word “liberal,” Russell Kirk came close to the truth when he observed that he was conservative because he was a liberal. In any event, whatever the opposite of conservatives should be called -– perhaps John Fonte’s marvellous coinage “transnational progressives” is best –- they tend to be gloomy, partly, I suspect, because of disappointed utopian ambitions.

Conservatives also tend to enjoy a more active and enabling sense of humor. The English essayist Walter Bagehot once observed that “the essence of Toryism is enjoyment.” What he meant, I think, was summed up by the author of Genesis when that sage observed that “God made the world and saw that it was good.” Conservatives differ from progressives in many ways, but one important way is in the quota of cheerfulness and humor they deploy.

Not that their assessment of their fellows is more sanguine. On the contrary. Conservatives tend to be cheerful because they do not regard imperfection as a personal moral affront. Being realistic about mankind’s susceptibility to improvement, they are as suspicious of utopian schemes as they are appreciative of present blessings. This is why the miasmic gloominess emanating from many conservative circles today is so dispiriting. It goes against the grain of what it means to be conservative. It is dampening, and I for one hope it will prove to be a quickly passing phenomenon. Among other things, this recent access of personal gloominess makes the practice of professional gloominess -– the robust deployment of satire, ridicule, and so on -– much more difficult and less satisfying.

This brings me to the issue of truth. Conservatives are realists. They like to call things by their proper names. Like Oscar Wilde’s Cecily Cardew, they call a spade a spade, unless it is explicitly outlawed, just as they prefer to call “affirmative action” “discrimination according to race or sex,” taxation “government-mandated income redistribution,” and “Islamophobia” a piece of Orwellian Newspeak foisted upon an unsuspecting public by irresponsible “multiculturalists” colluding more or less openly with Islamofascists.

Towards the end of his thoughtful new book Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again, David Frum gently takes issue with Russell Kirk’s invocation of “the permanent things.” “How few of those there really are!” Frum writes. “The fact of change is the great fact of human life,” he says, pleading with conservatives to “adapt” to change and retake the intellectual and political initiative. Some such rhetoric might be required on the hustings. But I confess to having mixed feelings about that exhortation, if for no other reason than that I believe change to be not the but a great fact of human life. An equally great fact is continuity, and it may well be that one “adapts” more successfully to certain realities by resisting them than by capitulating to them. “When it is not necessary to change,” Lord Falkland said some centuries ago, “it is necessary not to change.”

I recognize that “change,” like its conceptual cousin “innovation,” is one of the great watchwords of the modern age. But William F. Buckley Jr. was on to something important when he wrote, in the inaugural issue of National Review in November 1955, that a large part of the magazine’s mission was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” It’s rare that you hear someone quote that famous line without a smile, the smile meaning “he wasn’t against change, innovation, etc., etc.” But I believe Mr. Buckley was in earnest. It was one of the things that made National Review unzeitgemasse, “untimely” in the highest sense of the word. The magazine, Mr. Buckley wrote, “is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and The New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.”

The Australian philosopher David Stove saw deeply into this aspect of the metabolism of conservatism. In “Why You Should Be a Conservative,” which deserves to be better known than it is, he rehearses the familiar scenario:

A primitive society is being devastated by a disease, so you bring modern medicine to bear, and wipe out the disease, only to find that by doing so you have brought on a population explosion. You introduce contraception to control population, and find that you have dismantled a whole culture. At home you legislate to relieve the distress of unmarried mothers, and find you have given a cash incentive to the production of illegitimate children. You guarantee a minimum wage, and find that you have extinguished, not only specific industries, but industry itself as a personal trait. You enable everyone to travel, and one result is, that there is nowhere left worth travelling to. And so on.

This is the oldest and the best argument for conservatism: the argument from the fact that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. It is an argument from so great and so mournful a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweigh it. Yet somehow, at any rate in societies like ours, this argument never is given its due weight. When what is called a “reform” proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic, “reform.”

Progressives cannot wrap their minds (or, more to the point, their hearts) around this irony: that “reform” so regularly exacerbates either the evil it was meant to cure or another evil it had hardly glimpsed. The great Victorian Matthew Arnold was no enemy of reform. But he understood that “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith had left culture dangerously exposed and unprotected. In cultures of the past, Arnold thought, the invigorating “remnant” of those willing and able to energize culture was often too small to succeed. As societies grew, so did the forces of anarchy that threatened them –- but so did that enabling remnant. Arnold believed modern societies possessed within themselves a “saving remnant” large and vital enough to become “an actual” power that could stem the tide of anarchy. I hope that he was right.