Playfully confronting the surprises

by Henry Farrell on October 7, 2007

Scott Lemieux reads my Brooks-Burke-Oakeshott-Bush piece, and “raises me one“, by finding this “astonishing outpouring” from Brooks’ 2003 archive.

Oakeshott was epistemologically modest. … But the fog didn’t make Oakeshott timid. He believed we should cope with the complex reality around us by adventuring out into the world, by playfully confronting the surprises and the unpredictability of it all. … We can’t know how Oakeshott would have judged the decision to go to war in Iraq, but it is impossible not to see the warnings entailed in his writings. … I try to reply to these warnings. I concede that government should be limited, prudent and conservative, but only when there is something decent to conserve. Saddam sent Iraqi society spinning off so violently, prudence became imprudent. … Because of that legacy, we stink at social engineering. Our government couldn’t even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq — thank goodness, too, because any ”plan” hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality. I tell Oakeshott that the Americans and Iraqis are now involved in an Oakeshottian enterprise. They are muddling through, devising shambolic, ad hoc solutions, and learning through bumbling experience. In the building of free societies, every day feels like a mess, but every year is a step forward.

I fold. This has to be one of the most deeply and offensively stupid op-ed columns I’ve ever read. I don’t know whether even at the time Brooks was able to convince himself that these claims were true; they read to me as a self-consciously weak effort to cover up for a disaster in the making. As Scott says,

The Iraq War is a case in which Burkean conservatism (or its Foucauldian variants) has a great deal of wisdom to offer, and it’s advice is “it was an extraordinarily stupid idea.” That Brooks tried to turn this theoretical line into a _defense_ of the war tells you what you need to about him.



P O'Neill 10.07.07 at 7:44 pm

This stuff never gets old. Other times Brooks was telling us that America could never be Oakeshottian —

I know only two self-confessed Oakeshottians in Washington — Sullivan and me. And yet Oakeshott’s modesty can never be the main strain in one’s thinking, though it should always be the warning voice in the back of your mind.

Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic.

Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.

Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed.

All it took was a botched invasion of Iraq to change that.


JP Stormcrow 10.08.07 at 1:25 am

Shorter David Brooks:

I am Oakeshottian
I am a Burkean
I know what I want but
Don’t know how to get it
I’m gonna defend the conduct of war, cos
I like Iraq anarchy!


aaron_m 10.08.07 at 7:58 am

“Our government couldn’t even come up with a plan for postwar Iraq—thank goodness, too, because any ‘plan’ hatched by technocrats in Washington would have been unfit for Iraqi reality.”

If I were a technocrat in Washington serious about winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis my plan would have been to be extremely concerned with functioning water, electricity, policing, health services, roads, and to otherwise make sure that the basic shit needed to make a society livable was in place. I would propose this on the premise that when basic shit is working subsequent implementation of new political institutions have a better chance of succeeding.

But I can see now that the ‘basic shit’ plan would have been inappropriate for Iraqis.


Jeffrey Kramer 10.08.07 at 10:20 am

Like Bush, I have so deeply absorbed Oakeshottian wisdom about dogmatic rationalism. That’s why I never make shopping lists: I refuse to circumscribe the flowing river of life with the dead sandbags of written rules. And my habit of stocking up on beer and pastry when I get to the supermarket is a reflection of my philosophical hostility towards gnostic-style asceticism.

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