By S. T. Karnick
August 26, 2005
In its unswerving and forceful opposition to the War in Iraq and in particular the nation-building efforts that have followed the quick military victory that resulted in the ouster and capture of Saddam Hussein, the antiwar right has exposed a terrible dilemma at the heart of the farther-right reaches of American conservatism.
In arguing against the Bush policy in Iraq, publications such as The American Conservative and blogs such as Lawrence Auster's View from the Right have repeatedly accused the Bush administration of adopting what the attorney and journalist Spencer Warren aptly characterizes as “the PC mantra that all societies and cultures are equal.”
Two days ago, for example, Auster demonstrated this assumption in commenting on some Muslims’ practice of female genital mutilation: “For Bush and his supporters to think that peoples who believe in such things and practice them are essentially like us and that, above all else, they desire individual freedom (if only someone will deliver it to them), is the wildest fantasy” (emphasis in original).
In a statement yesterday on his site, Auster continued this line of argument: “Muslim countries including Iraq widely practice the butchery of female genital mutilation. The adoption of a democratic constitution in Iraq is not going to change that deeply ingrained custom. A society that practices such monstrous cruelty toward its own girls and women will continue to be cruel generally, and accept the use of violence and terrorism. Therefore... Bush’s strategy must fail.”
Auster makes an important point about the persistence of cultural habits. He and other conservative writers also rely on this premise in arguments about immigration, pointing out that it is impossible for the United States adequately to assimilate large numbers of people from radically different cultures.
However, what Auster is explicitly denying in the present case, and what antiwar conservatives in general tend to sidestep in arguments about Iraq is the powerful effect of something in which he and others on the right strongly profess belief: the common characteristics that all people share as a result of human nature.
It is these characteristics that the Bush administration means to depend on in Iraq (and which are essential to any strategy of assimilating immigrants into American society). The administration may well be wrong to believe such a liberation of Iraqis' inner nature possible, but the arguments that Auster and other antiwar conservatives make regarding human nature actually lend support to such a view of human possibilities.
In a letter to this author and others, the journalist and attorney Spencer Warren, an antiwar conservative, pointed out that the great flaw of the left is its denial of human nature:
”[R]adical egalitarianism...is not the American tradition of equality of all individuals before the law, but of the absolute equality of result, custom, and historical tradition, including absolute equality of every society and culture on Earth—and the elimination of any differences dividing peoples...[S]uch extreme equality that abolishes difference is not the natural order.”
Warren then identifies the historical source of this point of view: “The drive toward coerced absolute equality has been the radical project for more than 200 years, since the French Revolution.” (Full disclosure: Warren has borrowed this distinction from my article on “The Origin of Modernity,” published in the Summer 2005 issue of The National Interest.)
He then attributes this attitude to the Bush administration: “Ironically, this egalitarian view, in the broadest sense, is the premise of Pres. Bush's policy in Iraq—that societies in that region—including their religion—are not so different from ours and can develop into free societies with some help and a good constitution. Time will tell. But the bizarre conjunction of this policy premise with the PC agenda demonstrates the profound contemporary influence of the radical egalitarian ideal.”
Warren is perfectly correct to point out that some societies and ways of life are indeed better than others. In addition, he is right to share Auster's belief that cultural habits are a matter of valid concern in public policy discussions.
Moreover, Warren improves on Auster's argument by acknowledging that the belief in total freedom from restraints of human nature is not a liberal idea but a radical one, and that the idea traces back to the beginnings of what has been commonly called the Enlightenment.
However, in arguing against Western projects of nation-building in the "developing world," conservatives such as Auster and Warren (and Buchanan and the like) face a huge dilemma: their belief in a common human nature (though one that certainly permits a wide variety of human customs and organizing beliefs) is a strong argument against radicalism of the left, but it is not useful in refuting the logic of projects based on a belief in a common human nature, which Bush's nation-building action in Iraq most certainly is.
I believe that the interaction between human nature and human culture is more complex, variable, and flexible than Auster and other antiwar conservatives tend to think. The acknowledgment of this truth is central to the classical liberal (and modern conservative) position, and from such a point of view, it appears that antiwar conservatives would make much more headway by two means:
1. Acknowledge that the Bush administration is reasoning from what the antiwar conservatives believe to be a valid premise (that all human beings share commonalities through what is called human nature) when the administration argues that the people of Iraq have the potential to live democratically. (By the way and to make it perfectly clear, I personally consider the commonalities of human nature to be a rock-solid truth based on science, strongly confirmed by modern insights in sociobiology.)
2. Argue that the mission the administration has set itself conflicts with human nature, specifically the human tendency to cling to cultural notions that, however perversely, accomplish certain things necessary to human existence (such as the need for physical and emotional security, etc.).
I would be very interested in any such arguments. In fact, Auster may have had something of the sort in mind when he argued today, “President Bush and his neoconservative supporters justified spreading democracy to Iraq on the basis that all people are the same, all people want the same individual freedoms that we want, and therefore all people are ready and able to adopt liberal democracy based on universal individual rights.”
This appears to be a small step toward acknowledging that both Bush and Auster accept the reality of human nature and that their disagreement is a factual one about the persistence of culture in the case at hand: Which is stronger in the present case—the natural human desire for freedom, or the natural human tendency to cling to cultural habits and assumptions?
Such an agreement would place the right’s arguments over Iraq on a factual basis instead of the current false vision of a conflict of fundamental worldviews. Perhaps even more important is that it would enable all parties on the right to remain steadfast in our recognition of what unites us: our belief in human nature and opposition to radical visions of human mutability and the consequent longing for utopian schemes to transform civilization and human beings.
That, after all, is where the most important war is being fought.