Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Existential Problem of the Present for American Conservatives

The central problem for American conservatism is its fascination with its past at the expense of the present. I call this problem, the problem of the present. In moral situations, we face the exigencies of life afforded by sensitivity to the fact that people are vulnerable to a range of injuries and injustices of life presently and currently. As such, the liberal intelligentsia often observes remedies to immediately respond to the temporal proximity of an injurious reality or institutional injustice, often with the medium of government in some way.

To resist this liberal intrustion, the American conservative is aesthetically obsessed with providing moral justifications of why we cannot remedy, undue or modify an existing practice especially those practices that are institutionally ingrained in American life. The Conservative goes out of their way to enshrine the past with a detached contemplative reverence in what could only be called an aesthetic attitude. This attitude is much the same with that of the tourist walking the Roman ruins. As Simone De Beauvoir says, "The tourist considers the arena of the Coliseum, the Latifundia of Syracuse, the thermal baths, the palaces, the temples, the prisons and the churches with the same tranquil curiosity" (Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 75) These things merely existed, and in that, they satisfy. In political culture -- and this is the point we are aiming at -- the American conservative uplifts the practices of the past in a magical and deceptive manner. For them, as De Beavoir says of the estranged Italian too, "the present already seems like a future past" (Ibid, p. 75) For the Conservative wants a Jeffersonian purity or a Madisonian understanding of our institutions and our Jurisprudence to reflect the past as if it were truly present as a perceptual object. However, the sad case, and this is what we academics understand, this can never be so. We cannot will the present to be a future past anymore than we could believe in square-circles.

The reason we cannot accept a willed action to be a future-past in the present is that we cannot extoll the conditions of our nation's history to the point we are willing blindly. The very philosophical truth is harder to admit. We are limited by our own finitude. We cannot reach out beyond the circle of our age, and transcend time and place to enter the subjectivity of a past author anymore than we can recreate the conditions under which the past was realized within that author. In thinking this transcendence of history possible, American conservatives merely "understand the temporary events and through them to cultivate that beauty which perishes not"--they are victim to their own blind reverence, the aesthetic attitude of history. They take the point of view of history when the present challenges their understanding. In taking that point of view, which I and many others have already shown to be an impossibility, they, as De Beauvoir would say flee "the truth of the present" (Ethics of Ambiguity, p. 76) According to the existentialist, choice is deprived of meaning if it is effaced willingly by those that could act, that could respond to the present.

If ethics has any meaning, then it can be agreed solely that ethics is about the freedom to respond. This aesthetic attitude, as De Beauvoir rightly claims, causes "inertia," or our inability to respond to the exigency of injury and injustice. The freedom to respond to meaning, to someone's suffering, is at heart why liberals are so emphatic about uprooting the bonds of tradition that hold sway over our considerations. We want to upsurge the existence of others, and make those outside our sphere better in some way. Ethics is about responding and uprooting the false views that blindly steer us away from a full commitment to the moral life.

Of course, the Conservative can only come up with two responses. First, the unreflective conservatives will esteem the fact that in religion one can have access to the past as it was revealed in a text. But such a response dares to cut its own feet off when even in their own view, the religious text is the only revealed access to that transcendence they seek in human tradition. For the religious conservative, only the Bible is capable of that transcendence. If they admit of American exceptionalism, then they are harder pressed to be dissuaded by their own shortcomings. American exceptionalism is at the root of all conservative fanaticism and stupidity. If we admit that we -- as a nation -- share in the teleology of a divine plan, and that our greatness coincides with the plan of God, then those exceptionalists succumb to the same version as before. They forget that transcendence is only capable of God, and put themselves on a pedestal of the sacred being they all admit more infinite in nature than they can possibly understand. To put these versions down, I need not even get started in my own philosophical views.

The second response is more sensitive to the content of what I have said here. He will say that you cannot forget history, we ourselves and our nation being the product of historical forces. In that, we both agree. I take to heart the historicity of our being. We are being, thrown by the world and its forces as directed by the fact that we are temporal beings. We live in time's ebb and likewise when we view the past with a backward glance, we cannot help but see the past solidify into a narrative. The point is, we don't forget the history. We do not make the history to be something so metaphysical that we are determined within the limit of history. Instead, we view that the freedom to respond to the present is more important, and that in our response will have a human signification, a meaning that attaches on to the forever moving present that we will make into history. In this way, liberals perceive the present as something not detached from history, but as a continuum without losing sight of the exigency of the present. In this way, we are progressive without being determined by the optimism about the future, but keeping the future open to all possibilities because we realize that we are bound ethically to all.

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