I'll take Joe the Plumber over Joseph de Maistre any day. Mon Dieu.
American conservatism, on its good days, is about preserving markets, individual liberty, the Constitution, and such traditions as shore up those things. European conservatives, especially since the collapse of Communism, sometimes hit similar notes, but there is a creepier current in the European right, more concerned with venerating state-supported traditions – and even state-supported churches – and defending monarchy, aristocracy, or the homeland’s ethnic composition, squelching individualism in the process with an almost sadistic gusto.
These aren’t so much attitudes the American right rejects (or defends less ardently) as things that most Americans, even before the Revolution, have simply forgotten were considered paramount back in the Old World. We came here to forget these things, and it worked! That, and the relative weakness of the hardcore left in the U.S., leaves us free to have arguments that, however fierce they may appear from the inside, look mostly like narrow liberal-vs.-libertarian fights from a broader European perspective.
Joseph de Maistre, writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, is the founding Continental-conservative “throne and altar” defender in much the same way that Edmund Burke is the founding Anglo/American conservative defender of traditionalism and governmental humility. Maistre is much more frightening (I’m indebted for my copy of The Works of Joseph de Maistre, which sat in the New York offices of National Review for a time, to one Helen Rittelmeyer, who gave away many old books before going back to North Carolina to regroup, stabilize, strategize, and no doubt emerge a better and even more clever individual).
Maistre has his own brand of humility, of course, and like Burke recognizes that the Revolution was an outburst of dangerous arrogance, attempting to remake society from scratch without realizing how delicate and complicated a piecemeal process had created it over the course of centuries. He even sounds at times far more relativistic – quicker to concede that local customs may suit local conditions in a way that cannot be transplanted to other regimes – than, say, the fellow libertarians I saw gathered last night to honor the Atlas Foundation and its efforts to spread ideas like individual rights in sometimes-hostile places like China (though an Atlas spokesman rightly noted they ask the locals what their needs are rather than telling them how best to promote liberty, and I hope their collaboration spreads).
But if Maistre sounds humble at times, it is not at all because he respects your right to do as you please. On the contrary, his writings are a protracted paean to complete obedience – to both church and state, as he repeatedly makes explicit – and the crushing of all thought of rebellion or second-guessing of the monarch. His central thesis, really, is that submission must be total or else there can be no authority at all.
I, of course, want a world with neither thrones nor altars.
Libertarian as it can be at times, American conservatism has undeniably been infected to some small degree by thinking like Maistre’s, and it often seems to appeal to Maistre’s fellow Catholics. The recently-deceased philosopher Thomas Molnar from Brooklyn College, for instance, was an admirer of the horrific, very overtly pro-Vichy thinker Charles Maurras, a promoter of Catholic nationalism and denouncer of Jews. Whether or not Maurras’ imprisonment after WWII was appropriate, he was a monster. Be very suspicious any time you hear a conservative praising Molnar.
(But then, perhaps you should be suspicious of me attending traditionalist discussion groups, lo these two decades ago, at which Jim Kalb would display a copy of a de Maistre book to let newcomers know which part of the bar to sit in.)
One of the tragic things about politics is that rather than declaring proposals wholly good or wholly evil, one should always be mature and pragmatic enough to weigh likely alternatives and ask of any proposal: “Compared to what?” But the downside of this necessary approach is that almost any terrible faction can be made to look good by comparison to at least some of its enemies. This is how the two major political parties in the U.S. continue to get away with what they do. It’s also why Maistre can rant like a tyrant and still seem preferable to the mass-murder and fanaticism of the Revolution he detested.
Furthermore, it’s largely through comparisons to Communism (with its mind-boggling death toll of about 100 million) that the Catholic Church manages still to have a reputation in some circles as a bulwark of freedom and markets. Yet this passage from a Drudge-linked Reuters article from June 3 about the current Pope is a good reminder that he’s no real use to American-style, free-market conservatives:
The pope made no mention of the leaks scandal but spoke of the damage to family life that modern society can inflict.
“The one-sided logic of sheer utility and maximum profit are not conducive to harmonious development, to the good of the family or to building a more just society,” he said.
“[This] brings in its wake ferocious competition, strong inequalities, degradation of the environment, the race for consumer goods, family tensions,” he said.
You don’t have to be ex-Hitler Youth to voice such sentiments, but being a typical Continental statist helps. (Maybe we can discuss that at our Catholic-friendly June 21 iteration of the Dionysium at Muchmore’s Bar, though, when I talk to Catholic author Dawn Eden onstage – join us.)
Maistre himself had a way with words, and even when he’s completely wrong (as he was in belittling the prospects for the fledgling United States), you have to enjoy his gusto and admit he was still saner than some of his Revolutionary, Enlightenment-era contemporaries (whose tone he echoes more often than you might expect, as when he writes “The best government for each nation is that which, in the territory occupied by that nation, is capable of producing the greatest amount of happiness and strength, for the greatest possible number of men, during the longest possible time”):
Now the true fruits of human nature – the arts, sciences, great enterprises, noble ideas, manly virtues – spring above all from the state of war...
[Almost reveling in the disastrous consequences of the French Revolution, feeling that Divinity itself may be using the mass murders as warnings against attempting other such revolts against the natural order:] But when a thinker justifies such means by the end in view; when he says in his heart, A hundred thousand murders are as nothing, provided we are free; then, if Providence replies, I accept your recommendation, but you shall be one of the victims, where is the injustice?...
The horrible effusion of human blood caused by this great upheaval is a terrible means, yet it is a means as much as a punishment, and can give rise to some interesting reflections...
[T]here cannot exist a great free nation under a republican form of government...
America is often cited to us: I know nothing so provoking as the praise showered on this babe-in-arms. Let it grow... [That’s two-centuries-ago French for “Yeah, good luck with that.”]
There is nothing moral or worthy of respect in these festivals [religious and traditional ones] in themselves, but it makes no difference, for they derive, however tenuously, from religious ideas, and this is enough to perpetuate them. Three centuries cannot bury their memory. But just let the masters of the world – princes, kings, emperors, powerful majesties, invincible conquerors – let them only try to make the people dance on a certain day each year in a set place...
Not only do I doubt the stability of American government, but the particular institutions of English America inspire no confidence in me...
Faith and patriotism are the two great thaumaturges of the world. Both are divine. All their actions are miracles. Do not talk to them of scrutiny, choice, discussion, for they will say that you blaspheme. They know only two words, submission and belief...
One will find in the first place that every sovereign is despotic and that, with regard to them, only two courses can be taken, obedience or insurrection...It can be said in general that all men are born for monarchy...
Curiously, though beneficially, Maistre follows that passage with an unusual, almost American-sounding enumeration of rules a monarch should follow, most bolstering his power but a few limiting his ability to punish or banish arbitrarily, and one forbidding the king to be a judge in civil cases. He sounds more like himself when condemning Tom Paine, the Protestant spirit of rebellion, and the eighteenth century’s “grave error” of believing that constitutions can be whipped up a priori rather than growing organically from the will of the people. He’s about one quarter correct, of course.
For sheer villainous portent, perhaps my favorite, noted by Robert Nisbet in his introduction to this edition, is this passage that climaxes a Maistre warning about the folly of trying to create a peaceful and harmonious world:
The whole earth, continually steeped in blood, is nothing but an immense altar, on which every living thing must be sacrificed, without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, the extinction of evil, the death of death.
Jesus Christ! He sounds like the deathgod Thanos, the Marvel supervillain. (Perhaps they would both enjoy that helicopter built from the taxidermied body of a cat named Orville that’s been getting press attention. By contrast, though, I have to admit the French are showing nice, animal-friendly ads for a comic book called Beasts of Burden written by a funny American I’ve met, Milk and Cheese creator Evan Dorkin.)
Combining psychological and nerdy themes for a moment, I’m not a big anime fan, really, but one of my young anarcho-capitalist pals, Colin Porter, pointed out this neat, very self-contained seven-minute autobiographical flashback by a prosecutor character in Death Note – about various wielders of a demonic book that can kill anyone whose name you write in it. It may be the coolest depiction of a basically-good but increasingly-fanatical character I’ve seen since Rorschach, and it is perhaps as good a reminder as any that fanaticism has its own internal logic that can lead to the same grotesque results whether it springs from left or right, licentiousness or prudery, subversion or authoritarianism.
There is something, obviously, to be said for moderation, in any century, flagrant injustices notwithstanding. And Maistre is a reminder of the extent to which the right and left have been each other’s tragic enablers.
But tomorrow, speaking of turning whole planets into blood-soaked rituals: Prometheus!