Thomas Sowell, the Alt-Right, and an Understandable Aversion to Labels

By Van Parkman

Thomas Sowell, one of the greatest conservative minds to gain prominence in the last half of the 20th century, recently said in a radio interview with Larry Elder that he did not think of himself as a conservative or a libertarian, or as belonging to any other particular political category. Instead, he asserted that he would rather reserve the freedom to call things as he sees them. I personally believe that existing under a conservative or a liberal heading does not exclude one from forming independent opinions; either a great or a horrible umpire, by reputation, may still make the claim, “I call ‘um as I see ‘um.” Being a liberal or a conservative is not about agreeing without question or qualification to every single policy or opinion that falls from the sacrosanct tree of knowledge of good and evil for the respective political category you fall into. Outside of religion there should be no such magical trees.

In point of fact, conservatism is both criticised for and partly defined by the great number of internal policy disputes. More conversation than ideology, conservatism is dynamic by nature. Prompting criticism from its opponents, conservatism is also deliberative and at times quite stubborn, as is known all too well by those of various temperaments dwelling under its banner. Political parties and affiliations by interest allow for the political relevance of priorities agreed upon by the greatest number of people through compromise on lesser priorities. Ideally these priorities find their source in opinion, research, circumstance, culture, religion, history, experience, and tradition on the right. By contrast, the left tends to entertain a few thoughts at a time, as their radar of abstract idealism grants immediate priority to the most emotionally evocative stories. Although they do not always have time to think about the stories in relation to a wider array of issues, they always have time to react. In practice this means that leftism is influenced more by popular culture, incensed rhetoric, Twitter, and Tumblr than the right has been in recent memory. This last election cycle has shown, however, that the left is losing its monopoly on reactionary politics. There are now incensed right-wing reactions to the perpetually incensed left-wing culture of reaction. There are now rigid reactions piled upon rigid reactions and those stacks of reactions are tipping over and shattering again and again, the fragmented pieces finding their way into every nook and cranny of American society.

Conversely, one might say that conservatism is the ideological equivalent to the legal checks and balances of the government itself. This analogy is built on the diversity of conservatism. Due to its hesitancy to play political games that divide society along lines of race and orientation, it doesn’t always appear diverse. But don’t judge a book by its cover: conservatism has many different voices and ideas within, and it often listens to those voices and ideas rather than using the people behind those voices as mere means to political ends. Some of these voices speak from the grave through religion or culture, having proved the relevance of their opinions over time. Because its ideas and wisdom transcend the anxiety of the now, there is no need for the clamour which accompanies the apparent diversity of the left. True diversity does not require a culturally, ethnically, or ideologically heterogeneous family in order to be heard quarreling by the neighbours each night; the only requirement for that is adolescent intolerance.

Even Thomas Sowell’s objection to being labelled is indicative of a conservative alignment. It shows that he is not dogmatically aligned with any particular ideology that promises enlightenment through adherence to universal abstractions. Clearly, Sowell does not get a self-righteous buzz from belonging to a particular group. Nor does it seem the case that he gets his kicks from being seen as the sole constituent of an elitist category beyond all other categories. His demeanor and disposition are not nearly so melodramatic. In fact, most of what Sowell believes and advocates for falls on what is broadly understood as the conservative side of political opinion. The label of “conservatism” does not describe an abstract ideology to which people subscribe after a relatively short period of indoctrination or enlightenment. The idea of conservatism stems from groups of people who became labelled as “conservative” only after centuries of approaching problems with at least a few shared cultural and political expectations and outlooks; they carried similar values, principles, and priorities rooted in a shared disposition which in turn was forged through shared cultural, political, and religious experiences.

That said, Sowell has the right to be a tad rebellious and reject labels if he so desires. As the most prominent black conservative in America, with a history of transcending labels and statuses, (which leftists, for the sake of the consistency of their narrative, need him to adhere to) his aversion to playing a game so characteristic of the far left is understandable. And perhaps there is wisdom in his aversion to being labelled. If conservatism becomes a label that is too easy to identify with or be identified by, a banner too easy to carry, or a set of dogmas too easy to adhere to, conservatism risks becoming an ideology for giddy gnostics. It ought to be, instead, based solidly within reality and on the wealth of experience which keeps cultures and minds independent of dogmatic ideology and of conveniently simplistic labels. As a substantive collection of people in the present who are in conversation with the past and future, conservatives live by a number of ideas. These ideas have slowly developed to maturity,  permeate society, and give character to a particular culture at a particular point in time. Yet now conservatism risks becoming a culture defined by the label attached to it by enemies within and without. Conservatism can be manipulated by its centralised leaders, its loudest advocates, or even its enemies who rejoice in labeling and defining it further. Driven by and easily defined by labels, it would become a conservatism flipped on its head; conservatives would be manufactured through ideological programing, rather than being born to a particular time, place, and attachments. Therefore, becoming too at ease with the label, rather than the complex combination of past events and ordered thought which led to the necessity of the category in the first place, creates the danger of transforming conservatism into a top-down leftist ideology such as Nazism or Stalinism (You’re likely thinking that Nazism is right-wing. You’re about 25% correct.). Conservatism properly understood is the opposite of that defined-by-creed-and-decree nonsense.

The alt-right learned everything he knows about his long absent and idealised father, Western civilisation, from the incensed derogatory labels overheard while living under the single-parent roof of leftism, Western civ’s noisy ex-wife. She was busy as always, repudiating her ex for being a white, patriarchal, oppressive racist. In reactionary rebellion against his mother, the alt-right proudly adorned himself in the labels worn by his impression of the estranged father. Never truly knowing his father, he wore those labels with adolescent pride and vitriol. Now the alt-right, having adopted the speech patterns of his mother, is obsessed with race, labels, and the systematic prioritisation of such superficial categories. The alt-right, like the left, reduces Western civilisation to a few superficial labels with neither side understanding the true importance of any civilisation. The alt-right is not conservative for the same fundamental reason that progressivism is not conservative; the alt-right is too easily defined by a simple set of beliefs and dogmas. It claims to have broadened the right’s base and to have made it relevant again. Such a broadening seems too convenient to be legitimate, and too easily achieved considering that it is gnostic and propositional in nature, with no apparent need to listen to a diverse array of voices nor any method by which to do so. The result is an idol made in the image of conservatism, whose deficiencies are blamed upon conservatism itself. The worshippers of this idol have prophets who conveniently interpret its will with fiery passion in no uncertain terms. The result is vulgarity, impropriety, and haste.

The far left, likewise, is quite dogmatic and as a result is also hypersensitive and noisy. The deplorable element within conservatism, though often headline material and a convenient political deflect, are quite a small percentage of the right-wing electoral base. Conversely, the essence of the mainstream left is constituted by the anatomical defects which produce their corresponding kin on the political right. Common emotions and sentiments are expressed as dogmas when translated into the self-righteous apathy of political abstraction so often mistaken for empathy. These dogmas are expressed in simplistic tried-and-failed policies under new names, the past futilities of which go unrecognised due to the left’s inability to detect anything beneath labels. This deficiency is shared by the alt-right. Labels are the only means by which shallow people can make sense of the world. Similarly, the alt-right grows the “conservative” base by feeding off of common emotions and circumstantial reactions. This behavior leads to immovable doctrines and policies, which stand in opposition to the traditional values, principles, and institutions of Western civilisation that conservatism is attempting to preserve. Instead of apathy through self-righteous abstraction in the guise of empathy, when the common sentiments of the alt-right are politicised they result in apathy through self-righteous abstraction in the guise of circumstantially justified fury. Both are blind “ends justify the means” approaches to political action: action which nevertheless affects human life in an objective world. This objective world is one that such shallow idealogues only observe through goggles of passive or aggressive disengagement. The former is obsessed with being or defending the victim and making the oppressors pay; the latter  is also obsessed with being or defending the victim and making the oppressors pay.  Especially where the alt-right is concerned, this new propositional, rather than dispositional, approach may be easily manipulated and magnified in the future by simply substituting one dogma or priority for another and sanctifying it with the blessing of a charismatic Führer. The alt-right relies too heavily on emotion, defends with pride the labels bequeathed to it by its opponents, and rejects the more gentile conservatism along with its self-vindicating stubbornness and cautionary elements that both the alt-right and progressives despise. If the gnostics have their way, all that will be left in America is knowledge versus knowledge and sets of dogmatic beliefs versus sets of dogmatic beliefs. That is to say, the pure subjective emotion of one perspective will be pitted against the pure subjective emotion of another perspective: but the minds of all involved are controlled and hijacked by Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil which lurks like a fungus within the best of us. Is it any wonder we are so politically divided?

In light of this, it would seem that the centuries-old leftist stratagem of drying out the mortar which stabilises our civilisation is finally coming to fruition, now raising its head in the extreme corners of politics. Progressives and alt-righters alike want the privilege of easily defining what old-hat conservatives are or should be. However, as long as we have people like Thomas Sowell with his understandable aversion to labels, we will always have a dynamic conservatism whose constituents are defined by their similar underlying dispositions rather than by labels born from shallow, predictable, and circumstantial outbursts of indignation derivative of uniform adherence to simplistic sets of dogmas.

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