Politics & Policy

Freedom Kills

John Walker, Andrew Sullivan, and the libertarian threat.

First, George Bush refers to “the evildoers” at every turn, but insists on pronouncing it “the evil Dewars.” And now the major news networks are constantly referring to John Walker, the American Taliban, as “Johnny Walker”: “Is Johnny Walker un-American?” “Does Johnny Walker represent a viper in our midst?” etc.

Well, you can count me out of the “war on terrorism” if it becomes a proxy war on our most cherished brown liquors.

What John Walker Says About the Right

So let’s talk about John Walker, the man, and leave poor Johnny out of this. Indeed, it’s turning out that John is one of the most interesting cultural Rorschach tests we’ve had in a while.

If you haven’t been following the argument, you should read the article in yesterday’s New York Times comparing the life of Mike Spann — the “God and country” CIA agent who was killed in Afghanistan — to that of John Walker, the son of hippy-dippy divorced parents from Marin County, California. The article put some flesh on what a lot of conservatives have been saying over the last week. Spann is a red-state guy, Walker a blue-stater. Spann is from Alabama: He’s religious, from a strong, stable family, and he always wanted to fight for his country. Walker comes from a wishy-washy, whatever-floats-your-boat family living in the shadow of — where else? — San Francisco.

The always eye-opening Shelby Steele made the definitive “blue state” argument in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. In brief, Steele argues that Walker is a product of overly permissive, fashionably anti-American Left-coast liberalism.

Andrew Sullivan, of the coincidentally named AndrewSullivan.com, also saw Walker’s obvious cultural significance, labeling him a poster boy of blue-state culture. But Sullivan then backed off from the “blue state” argument, after his readers persuaded him that he had it wrong. The Walker case is “much more complex and more interesting than my original impression,” Sullivan writes. One of the arguments that persuaded him to drop his “blue state” analysis is the fact that Walker became a “right-wing” fanatic. He excerpts a letter from a reader making this case:

Maybe I missed something, but I am not sure how a religious fundamentalist and zealot like John Walker is an embodiment of the American Hating Left. He is a right wing religious nut just like the guy arrested here in Cincinnati last week for sending fake anthrax to abortion clinics. While you may be correct that his permissive parents and his multicultural context may have produced him (sounds like something some right wing nut case would say about homosexuality, right Andrew?), what it produced was a right wing Islamic religious nut who hates the West and America for its decadence (which he enjoyed and benefited from) and sin, just like his brothers on the right wing Christian extreme (like maybe Tim McVeigh, who was a Catholic to boot?). Let’s at least be honest that Walker represents some of the worst of American permissiveness and multiculturalism, while being the embodiment of right wing religious fanaticism. I think we all get caught on this one.

The lefties, meanwhile, have been slow out of the gate, but basically think that tagging the Left with Walker is just so much McCarthyism. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The Problem of Andrew Sullivanism

What I do want to talk about is the problem with the conservative critique of Walker and with Sullivan’s approach in general.

It’s not surprising that Sullivan changed his mind after reading that letter. After all, he had already made it a project, if not a mission, to establish that so-called “theocons” (i.e. religious conservatives, particularly Christian ones) practiced a form of Talibanism — long before most people in the United States had ever heard of the Taliban.

For example, in the cover story for the current New Republic, on the future of conservatism, Sullivan uses the war on Islamic extremists to argue that America, and conservatives in particular, need to drop our own support for such “extremists” at home. “It is hard to fight a war against politico-religious extremism,” Sullivan writes, “if you are winking at milder versions in your own political coalition.” This is reminiscent of his argument during the Clinton impeachment battles. “For the new conservatives,” Sullivan wrote in 1998 in The New York Times Magazine, “the counterattack on homosexual legitimacy is of a piece with the battle against presidential adultery.”

Sullivan’s essay in The New Republic is certainly worth reading, but in the end his conclusion is that all branches of conservatism are wrong, and that they should basically adopt Sullivan’s own quirky, iconoclastic, personal brand of conservatism, complete with his imperative of incorporating gays into the mainstream conservative movement.

In a nutshell, this is my problem with Andrew Sullivan’s conservatism. He’s a brilliant and charming guy. But he seems to reject or critique all forms of conservatism that don’t dovetail with his own personal priorities. I’m not referring solely, or even primarily, to his homosexuality or advocacy of gay rights. From what I can tell, Sullivan’s conservatism is informed not just by his sexuality but by his Catholicism, his blue-collar British roots, his serious hang-ups about British authoritarian culture, and — not least — by the fact that he’s a follower of the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott (if I were smarter and more patient, I think I’d be an Oakeshottian too) and a protégé of the classical conservative Harvey Mansfield. Moreover, Sullivan’s conservatism isn’t just informed by these things, it’s informed by the perhaps insurmountable contradictions between these things.

For example: Oakeshott had a brilliantly nuanced and highly tolerant understanding of conservatism and of liberal society (he believed, I think, that the best metaphor for a good society was a good conversation). Meanwhile, Catholicism is wonderful, but it’s hardly a democratic institution. And as for Mansfield, he’s a leading opponent of gay rights. Further, anti-traditionalism in Britain may have its uses, but in America anti-traditionalism runs against many of the things conservatives rightly want to preserve. As Hayek pointed out, in America you can be a conservative traditionalist and still be a champion of liberty — because our institutions preserve liberty rather than combat it.

Anyway, my point is: That’s all great. These sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary impulses make Sullivan a joy to read (and talk to). But the extrapolation of one’s personal beliefs — or, more accurately, one’s personality — to a broad universal philosophy is at minimum a form of arrogance, and at maximum a recipe for disaster.

Take me, for example. I’ve done lots of things in my life that are “un-conservative.” Even now, my personal tastes are not entirely consistent with what most people associate with conservatism. But, I do not argue that conservatism would be better off if everybody adopted my own personal choices and tastes. Rather, I try to make the case for old-style conservatism in a way lots of people like me can relate to. The fact that I can’t or won’t live up to the ideal may make me hypocritical to a certain extent, but that doesn’t mean the message is wrong. As the moral philosopher Max Scheler reportedly said: The sign that points to Boston doesn’t have to go there.

Sullivan is right to criticize certain conservatives for being too ideological. But what he doesn’t give credit for, to these same conservatives, is that a little ideology is always necessary in order to remember what your ideas are.

Chinese-Menu Culture

If Sullivan is guilty of translating his personal priorities into a public agenda, he at least does so by speaking in the vocabulary of morality. His arguments for everything from gay marriage to the war on terrorism are deeply moral and proudly conservative.

The real villains — the ones who take this sort of political solipsism a great deal further than Sullivan — are to be found elsewhere, and John Walker is a logical consequence of their political agenda. You see, the real enemy isn’t the cultural liberalism Shelby Steele describes. It’s the cultural libertarianism that is rapidly replacing liberalism as the real threat to America, and the true opposition to conservatism.

Cultural libertarianism basically says that whatever ideology, religion, cult, belief, creed, fad, hobby, or personal fantasy you like is just fine so long as you don’t impose it on anybody else, especially with the government. You want to be a Klingon? Great! Attend the Church of Satan? Hey man, if that does it for ya, go for it. You want to be a “Buddhist for Jesus”? Sure, mix and match, man; we don’t care. Hell, you can even be an observant Jew, a devout Catholic or a faithful Baptist, or a lifelong heroin addict — they’re all the same, in the eyes of a cultural libertarian. Just remember: Keep it to yourself if you can. Don’t claim that being a Lutheran is any better than being a member of the Hale-Bopp cult, and never use the government to advance your view. If you can do that, then — whatever floats your boat.

Of course, liberalism subscribes to something very similar, but today’s liberalism is more of a condescending pose. It finds exotic ideologues — Marxists, black separatists, transgender theorists, whatever — fashionable and interesting as entertainment. The liberals who run the New York Times are simply thrilled to have these sorts of cultural rejectionists at their cocktail parties. But very few of them want their kids to become any such thing. They want their kids to go to private schools, attend an Ivy League or comparable liberal-arts college in New England, and become nice tolerant stockbrokers who are extra-careful to donate generously to the United Way, ‘cause that might help people of color.

But, at the same time, modern liberals hate traditional orthodoxies. If you’re a pious Zoroastrian, they will show you off to their friends as if you were an exotic fertility mask they bought on a vacation safari. But if you are a pious Baptist, don’t wait by the phone, because you won’t be invited over at all. And, of course, liberals see no problem with using the government to impose their cultural beliefs on others; they just won’t admit that’s what they’re doing.

In this sense, cultural libertarians are less bigoted than their liberal cousins. The libertarians think all ideologies — so long as there’s no governmental component — are equal.

But of course, the flip side of this is that cultural libertarianism is essentially a form of arrogant nihilism. There are no universal truths or even group truths (i.e., the authority of tradition, patriotism, etc.) — only personal ones. According to cultural libertarianism, we should all start believing in absolutely nothing, until we find whichever creed or ideology fits us best. We can pick from across the vast menu of human diversity — from all religions and cultures, real and imagined — until we find one that fits our own personal preferences. Virginia Postrel can write triumphantly that the market allows Americans to spend $8 billion on porn and $3 billion at Christian bookstores, because she isn’t willing to say that one is any better, or any worse, than the other.

Unreasonable Reason

The leading champions of this ideology are the folks over at Reason magazine. Nick Gillespie, who recently replaced Postrel as the editor, is a voluptuary of the idea that we can all have individualized, designer cultures. While he’s got a healthy disdain for identity politics, Gillespie keeps going beyond that, and argues that people should be able to be whatever they want. Perhaps because cultural libertarianism is so popular on the Left these days, Gillespie recently told the Washington Post that he will try to woo anti-drug-war liberals, and others on the Left, to the magazine.

For a long time, but now more than ever, Reason has essentially argued that being a drug addict is a lifestyle choice like any other. Because, hey, who are we to judge? Indeed, Gillespie is very fond of the usual argument of pro-drug libertarians: I’ve done lots of drugs, and I turned out okay — so why should I tell other people they can’t? In the latest issue, featuring a big neon sign spelling “DRUGS” on the cover, Gillespie confesses that when he was younger, he did “pot and alcohol, mostly, but also acid, mescaline, Ecstasy, mushrooms, coke and meth… Mostly I did drugs because they were fun and I liked the way I felt when I was high.” In other words, if it’s good for me, it’s good for everybody.

So what does all of this have to do with John Walker? Well, John Walker’s father has told various interviewers that he was just delighted that his son believed in something. He liked the fact that his son had “passion” for something. The fact that it was a thumb-in-the-eye to traditional Western values made him more exotic, to be sure. But that was just gravy.

You don’t turn children into responsible adults by giving them absolute freedom. You foster good character by limiting freedom, and by channeling energies into the most productive avenues. That’s what all good schools, good families, and good societies do. The Boy Scouts don’t throw a pocketknife to a kid and say, “Knock yourself out, kid. I’ll be back in a couple hours.” The cultural libertarians want to do precisely that.

Someone threw John Walker a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and said, “Knock yourself out, kid.” From there, left to his own devices, he slid down a long slope to the Taliban — because nobody had the moral courage or maturity to put him on the right path. He could just as easily have become another Columbine spree-killer, or a drug addict — or, perhaps, a fireman. But any of these, it seems, would be a surprise to his father.

It’s hip and cool to say, “Be whatever you want.” But — as in the case of the Boy Scout with the pocketknife — it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. If you tell kids they can believe in anything (and that anybody who disagrees is a bigot), you will eventually breed a bunch of kids who despise the very openness you champion.

Western civilization in general and American culture in particular are remarkably, almost uniquely, open to and tolerant of competing views and faiths. That’s wonderful. But pluralism is not, to borrow a phrase, a suicide pact. Chesterton pointed out that when a man stops believing in God, he won’t believe in nothing, he’ll believe in anything. God isn’t necessarily the issue here. But the principle is the same. Humans, especially children, very much want to believe in things. If we don’t bother to teach — or impose — certain Western values on our own people, they will embrace values that are neither open nor tolerant. Belief in “something” just isn’t good enough.


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