Conservatives, CPAC, and the breakup of the narrative juggernaut

Conservatives, CPAC, and the breakup of the narrative juggernaut

I’m putting down a marker here.  CPAC is coming up, and it’s got conservatives in something of a tizzy, as it did last year.

There are profound things going on, and this won’t be the grand, broad-scale treatment they merit.  But what’s going on has to be noted, and a thoughtful debate on it fostered.  It’s too big to leave to hindsight.  We need to be deciding, as we go along, what we think (and I mean, quite literally, “decide what we think”) – lest we lose our way.

Last year, it was the invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos, which was issued at some cost in conservative unity, and then rescinded.  (In the interim, audio surfaced from an interview in which Yiannopoulos appeared to condone pederasty.  Conservatives understandably had to come down against any implication of being OK with that.)

This year, it’s a two-fer.  So far.  There’s no telling how many -fers we may end up with before all is said and done, because that’s just the kind of time we’re living in.

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One of the cases, about which apparently I was the last to know, is that CPAC’s organizers have invited Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak to the 2018 conference.  Maréchal-Le Pen is the niece of Marine Le Pen – recently the front-running right-wing candidate for president of France – and the granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, longtime leader of the French National Front.

Jean-Marie Le Pen has been notorious for years for anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.  Supporters of Marine Le Pen are certain that she doesn’t share these sentiments, and as far as I can tell they are equally certain about Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.

Which is nice, but doesn’t quite cut it for me.  Europe, as Jay Nordlinger suggests (NRO link above), is at this moment wrestling with what the philosophical core of its right-wing-ism is.  We shouldn’t be surprised that there’s uncertainty about that; Europe has for centuries had a problem with nativist and ethnic antipathies – anti-Semitism very prominent among them – that America, for all our faults, has not been afflicted with in the same way.

American conservatives can readily make common cause with the classical liberalism of Europe, and even much of the cultural traditionalism.  But the ingrained, institutionalized anti-Semitism that can lurk under the surface in Europe is not our cup of tea.

In a time of great political flux, it has been heartening to see some on the European right repudiate anti-Semitism actively and categorically.  But it has also been daunting in the last couple of weeks to see Poland’s “right-wing” government come out, jarringly, with a law that stifles free debate on the actions of Poles in relation to the Holocaust – and in particular, to see the pent-up rush of anti-Semitic sentiment that tumbled out in its wake.

From here, we’re not in a position to judge how pervasive that sentiment actually is in Poland.  But its manifestation from at least some people is very troubling.  It’s an issue France is by no means immune to, and one the Le Pen family has famously been on the wrong side of.

Most importantly, it is not representative of conservative priorities in the United States.  I’m not sure America buys anything useful by importing discussions of “conservatism” that come from a place our conservatism doesn’t.

It’s not that I wouldn’t be willing to sit through an address given by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen.  I could sit through a lot of addresses, and make up my mind by doing my own research, and listening.

It’s that it matters – or it should – what CPAC’s choices say about conservatism in America.

That said, the key phrase in everything I’ve said so far is “’conservatism’ that comes from a place our conservatism doesn’t.”

I hope what that means is obvious.  But is it?

I think we are less and less sure what we all mean by the words and concepts we use.  At one conservative website, for example, I see everyone agreeing vigorously that to be a “nationalist” is to be a Pat Buchanan (i.e., it’s bad, with which, by the “Pat Buchanan” standard, I agree) – yet when I try to divine what these people are talking about, it sounds to me like what they mean by “nationalism,” I would call a combination of “statism” and “nativism.”

I’ve never thought of nationalism as a bad thing.  These other conservative folks seem to think the only way to frame the correct set of sentiments is as “patriotism.”  But for me, in a time when transnationalism, supranationalism, and globalism are very real and systematized modes of political thought, it’s necessary to emphasize that it is positive, useful, and in fact essential to affirm nationhood as a good thing, and to be clear what we mean by that.

Unfortunately, we’re nearing the point at which we can’t even talk about it.  We may all be naturally, benignly patriotic, but what are we being patriotic toward – and how do we agree on defining that?  We can’t defend the benefits of national sovereignty by making “nationalism” a bad word, and associating it with things like obsession over racial or ethnic homogeneity.

That’s not even empirically accurate – never what universally, inherently, or primarily defined “nationhood” – much less philosophically necessary.  (We certainly can’t let the singular category of “national socialism,” selected to distinguish it from the Soviet Communists’ international socialism, poison for all time the concepts of nationhood and nationalism.)

Nor can we achieve anything useful to conservatism by accepting other shorthand or bumper-sticker terms – like “populism” – that summarily deal positive, useful concepts out of the fold of the righteous and the good.

When you define “populism” to mean know-nothing self-centeredness and shortsightedness among the masses, it doesn’t sound very good to me either.  But we’re lumping a lot of things under “populism” today, and being disdainful about it, when the sober truth is simply that middle-class people are objecting to the impact on them of policies it’s institutionally inconvenient to change course on.

That doesn’t make them “populist,” or at least not in any bad sense.  It makes them sane.

We have to be able to think about these things, and ultimately talk about them together, without the sense of navigating a minefield.

Yet, that said, a CPAC invitation to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen does the opposite of smooth our path in that regard.  It seems to gratuitously add problems of perception and meaning, as if the ones we have aren’t big enough.

It’s quite enough to deal with, trying to sort out why folks like NR’s Jonah Goldberg, and the good people at RedState, seem to understand certain terms so differently from the way I do.  Now Matt Schlapp has to bring in a Le Pen to the flagship U.S. conservative conference?  What are any of us talking about?

It’s kind of fascinating to me that the first -fer, the Maréchal-Le Pen invitation, should occur coincident with the second one.  The second -fer involves a spin-off forum sponsored by the American Principles Project (APP), which was to be open to CPAC attendees at a breakout session on Friday afternoon.  Pamela Geller had organized it, with the topic to be something she has become famous for exercising and defending on the edges: free speech.

One of the speakers on her panel was to be Jim Hoft, founder of the Gateway Pundit blog.  But APP reportedly told Geller a short time ago that Hoft would have to be excused, because he has called into question the credentials and purposes of the Parkland, Florida students now engaged in anti-gun activism after the high school shooting there.

Without getting into the rights and wrongs of that, I would merely observe that I can see both sides of the issue here.  The APP doesn’t want to see its panel hijacked by a transient topic that probably isn’t worth an intense debate.

On the other hand, the general topic is free speech, and repression of it by the biased operation of social media.  Does Jim Hoft have to be on the same side of an ancillary issue as everyone else, in order to be acceptable on a free speech panel?

If the answer is yes, isn’t that pretty much an endorsement of Twitter “purges,” and the shadow-banning of users and points of view on the social media platforms through algorithm manipulation?

It’s a conundrum.  It can’t be solved in either direction by its own logic.  It can only be solved arbitrarily, by invoking another principle, outside of the logic internal to it.

Pamela Geller has cancelled her participation, and apparently APP is scrambling to put together another panel.  Seems like another thing we don’t have the conceptual tools to talk about.

Thus CPAC 2018. I think where I have differed from old-consensus conservatives all along is in whether I perceive this breakup – and it is a breakup – as a fearful thing, and evidence of nameless evil stalking us.

I think, instead, that it represents the collapse of part of the great “narrative juggernaut” that has overlaid our entire civilization’s perception of reality for a long time now.  (The political left has its own problems with communication, meaning, and internal logic.  We hear less about that for a number of reasons, not least of which is the drain-off of truly intellectual energy from left-wing thinking over the last 40 years.)

I wrote about that “narrative juggernaut” last June, comparing it to the story of the Tower of Babel, in which God confused the common understanding of the people in the empire of ancient Babylon and caused them to “scatter” – the very thing their leaders were politically determined not to do.

The stranger our current day becomes, the more it appears to me that we are experiencing something on the order of a Babel-like “reset.”  We are regularly astonished by what the people around us are revealed as meaning and intending.  We find fewer things by the day on which we apparently agree.  The common coin of our culture – shared understandings and expectations – doesn’t facilitate transactions the way we’ve always assumed it would.

That doesn’t mean that when we come together face to face, as one human to another, we can’t find ways to communicate.  The simple, varied, and self-evident humanity of the discussion held in the White House on Wednesday — the one on school safety in the wake of the Parkland shooting — made that clear.

It does mean that the ability of a set of common, abstract understandings to motivate us is fading rapidly, when those understandings are brokered through our culture and our politics.  It’s not we who are breaking down.  It’s the culture and its conventions, especially our ritual political incantations.

If you don’t understand God to be holding it all in His hands, it can look pretty alarming.  But if you do see the extent to which the narrative juggernaut of our civilization has been built on unsustainable premises, you see that no matter how determined some of us are that we must all share those premises, there is no future in that.

The narrative juggernaut can’t be our touchstone or reference point any longer.  We don’t even know what we mean now when we recite its catechism.  We’ll have to break it into its constituent parts, and recover what started out in it as functional and powerful.

But if we try to build it into another juggernaut, I think we’re going to be frustrated.  It appears to me that we’re being appointed to a time of “scattering”: not, by any means, being sequestered from each other, which isn’t actually possible, but rather losing the arrogant assumption that we’re all here to be press-ganged into a civilization with one politically-dictated stance on everything, and one centrally-ordered purpose.

One thing is for sure.  Whatever our “CPACs” morph into, in the coming years, they’re going to be interesting.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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