Swords Do Furnish A Room

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The idea that political preferences are rooted in aesthetic preferences is ultimately pernicious, I think – but sometimes it’s hard to resist. Here, for instance, we have Will Wilkinson, rebutting a Virtue-boosting, libertarian-hating argument for the candidacy of John McCain:

I am more and more coming to the conclusion that National Greatness Conservatism, like all quasi-fascist movements, is based on a weird romantic teenager’s fantasies about what it means to be a grown up. The fundamental moral decency of liberal individualism seems, to the unserious mind that thinks itself serious, completely insipid next to very exciting big boy ideas about shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue, and (most of all) power. And reading Aristotle in Greek.

I sometimes think that liberal individualism is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best modernist design — spare, elegant, functional — but hard to grasp or truly appreciate without a cultivated sense of style, without a little discerning maturity. National Greatness Conservatism is like a grotesque wood-paneled den stuffed with animal heads, mounted swords, garish carpets, and a giant roaring fire. Only the most vulgar tuck in next to that fire, light a fat cigar, and think they’ve really got it all figured out. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much the kind of thing you get at the Committee for Social Thought. If you declaim the importance of virtue loudly enough, you don’t have to actually think.

Allowing for a certain amount of deck-stacking on Will’s part (I’d prefer that the carpets not be too garish, obviously, and I don’t care much for taxidermy), the den with the roaring fire sounds awfully homey and appealing, while even “the best modernist design” often seems to me essentially chilly and faintly inhuman, and thus better admired from afar than actually inhabited. As Will says, this preference almost certainly reflects my lack of “discerning maturity” and my failure to “cultivate” my sense of style. There is, though, the vanishingly small possibility that certain forms of modernist design, like the stringent libertarianism that Will compares them to, emerge from an impatience with, well, actual human beings – with their abiding messiness and irrationality, with their particularist loyalties and romantic attachments and juvenile yearnings for solidarity, for heroism, for transcendence. Rational, mature beings, after all, would be perfectly happy living in the spare, elegant functionality of, say, an enormous housing project; only reactionaries and adolescents would cling to the clutter and disorder and, yes, the outright tastelessness of the old ethnic neighborhoods, where worse monstrosities than wood-paneled dens abounded.

But perhaps I’m pushing the analogy too far.

To leave aesthetics behind for a moment, the real problem with the “Virtue and national greatness” theory of politics isn’t so much that it’s more impressed by John McCain’s wartime heroism than by Will Wilkinson’s “discerning maturity” about what really matters in life. It's that it frequently seems to confuse the virtues necessary for battlefield valor with those necessary for governance - and worse, that it sometimes seems tempted to make a national policy out of the pursuit of wartime heroism, or at least the contexts (i.e. near-perpetual warfare) in which such heroism can be attained.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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