When it comes to the long-running feud between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives, sometimes I feel like James Burke, whose “Connections” TV series followed chains of causality in surprising directions. At other times, I feel like Michael Corleone in Godfather III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
All I intended to do was to praise Angelo Codevilla’s excellent 12,000-word article on the contemporary American ruling class. But a commenter on my blog pointed out that Codevilla is considered a Straussian — a disciple of the late philosopher Leo Strauss — and next thing I knew, I was rehashing some very old arguments about conservatism and the nature of the American founding.
This can be traced back to an interminable dispute that another Straussian, Harry Jaffa, had from the 1960s onward with Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, and Mel Bradford, a battle subsequently continued on other grounds against William Rehnquist, Robert Bork and Lino Graglia. In the mid-1970s, in an attack on Kendall, Jaffa published an article, “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” the very title of which served to mark him as a latter-day Jacobin in the eyes of many conservatives influenced by Edmund Burke. (“Believe me, Sir, those who attempt to level never equalise. In all societies consisting of various descriptions of citizens, some description must be uppermost. The Levellers, therefore, only change and pervert the natural order of things,” etc. — Reflections on the Revolution in France.)
Jaffa has the obnoxious habit of denouncing as “nihilists” all who dispute his particular philosophy, which can best be described as an eclectic (or, perhaps some would say, peculiar) stew of Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Abraham Lincoln. Considering that both Kendall and Meyer were close associates of William F. Buckley Jr., it is difficult to understand why their antagonist Jaffa was embraced by Buckley, but he was.
Jaffa-ism has been enshrined at the Claremont Institute, where Jaffa is a distinguished fellow and Codevilla holds the title of senior fellow, which fact led me into this Straussian time-warp. And this is where Conor Friedersdorf pops up. In explaining Jaffa’s error, I wrote:
Let me cite just one example of the fundamental problem with Jaffa-ism: Jaffa has argued against gay rights. Yet if equality is, as Jaffa insists, a conservative principle, why shouldn’t this principle apply to homosexuals?
This is the kind of problem that Kendall and others foresaw, and Jaffa clearly did not: Equality is a ravening wolf (cf., Matthew 7:15) with a boundless appetite, and there is no telling what future use might be made of such a “principle,” which is most certainly not conservative.
Now, go back to my argument with Friedersdorf over gay marriage in January 2009:
Friedersdorf says, “my support for gay marriage is so inextricably tied to my conservatism.” And the only wonder is that Willmoore Kendall, Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver didn’t beat him to it.
If it is still permissible to disagree that conservatism “inextricably” requires what Friedersdorf says it does, how did we get here? The answer can be boiled down to one word, equality.
Are men and women equal in the fullest sense of the word? If so, then equality implies fungibility — the two things are interchangeable and one may be substituted for the other in any circumstance whatsoever. (La mort à la différence!) Therefore, it is of no consequence whether I marry a woman or a man.
If equality is, as Jaffa says, a conservative principle, then Friedersdorf’s argument is conservative and Jaffa’s opposition to gay rights is perhaps not “nihilism,” but at least easy to dismiss as just so much moralistic special pleading: Equality is the summum bonum, except when it’s not.
As Bradford said, “Equality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself — Equality, with the capital “E” — is the antonym of every legitimate conservative principle.” The safe harbor of conservatism is limited government, not egalitarian fanaticism.
You may thank (or blame) Regent University Law Professor David Wagner — proprietor of the Ninomania blog — for the single blog comment that prompted this discourse.