Monday, March 17, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #6: You Say Re-van-chist, I Say Re-vahn-chist

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

What follows will not be a radical criticism of the WWWtW post cited below, but will rather ponder the implications of the use of the word “state” in that post by author, Maximos, and how it relates to concepts of “society” and “government” and “nation.” I will be attempting to combine here my intention to initiate some talk about conservative guru, Russell Kirk, with my on-going critique of the concept of a “public orthodoxy” as proposed at WWWtW. Don’t be expecting a whole lot of coherence, as my thoughts are all over the ballpark.

In the comments section of WWWtW-Watch #5, Tom said:

I'd say it's reasonable to distinguish between "society" and "government”.

I'd also want to distinguish between a "public orthodoxy" enforced by the society and one enforced by the government. (Come to think of it, I want everyone else to make that distinction, too. Especially the government.)

My reply was that I did not see how “society” could enforce a “public orthodoxy” without resort to governmental power.

But, exactly what is meant by “society” in this context? The United States of America is a nation that has been characterized as The Great Melting Pot. In many respects, this has been a valid description. But America also remains, due to continuing waves of immigration, a nation comprised of a number of subcultures in various stages of assimilation and coexisting in an often uneven state of mutual acceptance. That being the case, what forms the core of American society? I would say that it is the Constitution, and only the Constitution.

In the excerpt below, WWWtW author Maximos seems to indicate that the crucially operative dichotomy is not that between society and government, but rather that between “nation” and “state.” Maximos, I surmise, is an avowed nationalist. Those individuals who disagree with his favored policies, whether foreign or domestic, one gathers, are “statists.” That which is identified as the “nation” seems to be an amalgam of “society” (presumably the entity that would embody any “public orthodoxy”) plus the geographical entity found within our national borders. The ”state”, then, would be an unholy alliance of the political and economic powers-that-be. Maximos writes:

A decadent state, inclusive of the political and economic establishments of a country, will war against the nation over which it rules, seeking to efface the world-image that has nourished and sustained it - and will employ the nationalisms of others in the process.

Maximos, as I understand him, is speaking here of the lack of will on the part of “the state” to stem the tide of illegal immigration across our southern border. He characterizes these elements as Mexican “revanchists.” Presumably, it is “society’ that is most at risk from this invasion; and as goes society, so goes “the nation.”

As a benighted lefty attempting to get all of these conservative ducks in a row, the better to conduct an accurate taxonomy of them, I have been looking into the thought of that ideological saint of the WWWTW team (see archives, April 24, 2007), Russell Kirk. In the opening chapter of his seminal work, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (entitled “The Idea of Conservatism”), Kirk outlines his “six canons of conservative thought.”

In the first of these canons, Kirk provides magisterial authority for the WWWtW call for a “public orthodoxy” by positing a Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.” He goes on to say: “Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.” In the second canon, Kirk decries egalitarianism and utilitarianism. We may return to those issues in a subsequent post. But in the third of his six canons, on which I want to focus here, he adds another layer of meaning to the mysterious term “society,” by asserting his “Conviction that a civilized society requires orders and classes. As against the notion of a “classless society.”

Hmmm. It would seem to me that, in America, the horse is pretty much out of the barn in terms of any kind of permanent caste system. What would be the basis of that which Kirk has in mind here? Economic level? Educational/cultural attainment? Heredity? A combination of all of these? Don’t we have that now, pretty much? Isn’t the opportunity for upward mobility both the pride of our nation and the aspiration that every father has for his son? What’s the beef?

I have to ask here: wouldn’t some kind of economic egalitarianism that would eliminate the extremes of both wealth and poverty, still leave open the possibility of a de facto “class system” based on educational and cultural attainments, especially in the sciences and in the fine arts?

And, to get back to WWWtW and the idea of a “public orthodoxy”—I ask again: why does a class system—even though it admits of a hypothetical cultural/moral elite--automatically empower that elite to decide what the “others” may read, think, and discuss in a public forum? I don’t find such a power anywhere in the Constitution. In fact, I believe that the Constitution proscribes any group having that kind of power.

I’m not sure that I’ve connected many dots here... Any thoughts?

Oh, the title of this post? I was amused at the horror expressed by Maximos at the revanchism expressed by the Mexican official in the video clip embedded in the post in question, as compared to his strident endorsement in the February 22, 2008 post, "Reflections on Kosovo, In the Wake of Independence” (you’ll need to scroll down to it in the archives) of the instantaneous Serbian revanchist aspirations with regard to Kosovo. I guess it’s all a matter of whose Christian ox is being gored by what Muslim bull?


Tom said...

This reminds me, I never did get too far into Maritain's Man and the State. He begins (as all good thinkers do) by drawing distinctions between "the people," "the state," and "the body politic." (I think "the nation" is in there, too.)

I don't know whether Maritain or Kirk had anything to do with each other.

Rodak said...

I don't know whether Maritain or Kirk had anything to do with each other.

I don't either. The more I try to sift through all of these terms, which seem, roughly, to pertain to the same entity, but from slightly different perspectives, the more confused I get. (I guess that's obvious.)
I do know that Kirk is my home-boy, though. He gets points for being a Michigander.

Civis said...

I still don't see how you reconcile your position with the fact that you are quite happy to have the state in control of education: and enforcing relativism.

Rodak said...

I have already, in other comment boxes, said that I accept neither your premise that the "state" is in control of public education, nor your assertion that relativism is a thing that can be "enforced."

I can't defend statements that I haven't made.

Rodak said...

This book review from this week's Sunday New York Times hits precisely on some of the points that I have been making. Please give it a read.

Civis said...

BTW, you inspired me to look for a R. Kirk book. I went by the local bookstore, but they didn't have anything--don't know if that means it's popular or not worth keeping in stock! I'll be honest, there is a lot about political theory I've never though or formed an opinion about.

I really haven't read much conservative literature. I'm not sure I want to either but anyway.

Anywho, I'll show my ignorance here and ask: if I were going to read only one book by R. Kirk, what should it be?

Another BTW, you've planted a seed for Simone Weil as well, but I haven't quite gotten the itch--but it's coming. I'll ask the same question, if I were going to read only one book by S. Weil, what should it be?

Rodak said...

The most important thing to me about Simone Weil is how faithfully she managed to live her life according to her beliefs. I would therefore suggest reading a biography of her, either before, or at the same time as, reading her writings. The definitive biography is that by Simone Petrement: Simone Weil: a Life. There is a recent biography in the Penguin "Lives" series by Francine du Plessix Gray, entitled simply Simone Weil. The former is by a friend; the latter is less than fully sympathetic.
The best thing to read, if you can get ahold of it is her two-volume Notebooks It will cost you around $200 to buy, however. If you have access to a university library, that is your best bet. The three titles most likely to be found in a bookstore are Gravity and Grace, Waiting for God, and The Need for Roots. I would recommend them in that order. Check out for all of the above.
As for Russell Kirk, this post tells you as much as I know about him, and provides you links that will answer your questions better than I can.

Rodak said...


There are links to some of the Simone Weil books on my "Library Thing" link on the sidebar.