What Are Social Conservatives For? – 1 (Framing the Question)

In “More on the difficult relationship between human nature and sexual politics,”  follow-up to the controversial “What are women for?” James Poulos turns from a final assessment of his own position, which he characterizes as relatively “modest and circumspect,” to speculation on the fate of the entire social conservative political project:

If my claim is doomed to be met with an avalanche of contempt, it seems likely that in our lifetimes social conservatism as we know it will be mocked, despised, and shamed right out of existence. You might be deeply uncomfortable with that even if you do hope to see an America without a social conservative movement.

For Poulos, it seems, and possibly for many of his readers, a world in which his initial question regarding women cannot even be broached would be a world in which social conservatism as we know it cannot survive.

Though Poulos is likely over-dramatizing here, at least as to the status of his own article as a qualifying test case and the response to it as definitive, there may nonetheless be some truth in this conclusion.  From politically suicidal woman-related initiatives in congress, in the Republican presidential primaries, and in the states; to the death apparently by sheer exhaustion of one culture warrior, and the self-immolation of perhaps the most important one of all, with collateral damage everywhere, current events at least trace the outlines of a rout, and may even turn out to be a critical stage in one.  Seen from a different perspective, though the “woman question” may not exhaust social conservatism – in the double sense of intellectually absorbing it in its entirety, and also of politically laying waste to it – it may be unintelligible, impossible to describe at all, without reference to so-called “women’s issues.”  If so, then the woman question, in addition to being inherently a “man question,” would amount to a question of questions – not just a question on the social, cultural, or absolute and essential purpose of women or of the feminine, or on the purpose of gender roles or sexuality, nor even the possible purposes of political writing and thinking, but an onto-theological (philosophical and religious) question of a type that liberalism, broadly understood, seeks to and needs to exclude from politics, but that social conservatism understands as the very point of politics.

In addition to recalling emblematic scenes from post-modernist critical theory and its central precursors, this juxtaposition of incommensurable orientations toward political purpose itself (and therefore toward the juxtaposition itself) helps to explain a public discussion, or substitute for a discussion, with peculiar and paradoxical aspects:  Its key terms seem too esoteric for conventional polemics, yet at the same time too threateningly and immediately constitute matters of life and death.  Its key exchanges mark the absence of actual dialogue, as in Poulos vs the Avalanche, and do not and perhaps cannot constitute a discussion of the matter itself, but are instead a staging of collisions between symmetrical refusals of engagement.

The philosophically inclined blogger Ned Resnikoff seemed to be about to attack these issues, at these limits, when he gave his own Poulos-response post the amusingly recursive title “What Is the Question ‘What Are Women For?’ For?” Instead, perhaps hoping to set aside such complexities for as long as humanly possible, and quite understandably if so, he rested on an anecdote that let him associate Poulos with dismissably archaic views on gender. At the risk of overly personalizing this (non-)discussion, just like everyone else, I’ll submit my own struggle with the subject as further evidence of how intimidatingly hopeless it can seem:  Perhaps for the same reasons that Resnikoff chose to deflect rather than to dive in, and that Poulos’ efforts, especially the initial one, were widely received as obscure to the point of impenetrability, yet worthy of intense criticism (and derision), or perhaps because any question of questions always discovers and overwhelms any observer’s limitations, and in a political context seems always on the verge of politically annihilating the analyst, I have found myself constantly on the verge of publishing my own response, or of giving up, never quite sure whether I was wasting my time and energy, yet suspecting that any turning away would immediately turn into a turning toward, all over again.  As noted at the outset, current events seem to confirm that suspicion poignantly.

The substitution for and inversion of Poulos’s original question, the movement from one frame to another as traced in his two articles, may merely be convenient rather than absolutely necessary, but a re-formulation of the woman question as the social conservative question – not as a question about gender roles, nor even about the role of genders, but about a comprehensive political orientation  – can allow for progress on matters whose direct connection to “women’s issues” are not always obvious, and that we do not yet appear ready to discuss anyway.  I’ve numbered this post “1” because at this time I contemplate at least two more posts on this theme, one on social conservatism and the radical critique of modernity, the other on social conservatism in relation to social liberalism.

9 comments on “What Are Social Conservatives For? – 1 (Framing the Question)

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  1. I don’t know if it will help you regarding the dilemma of whether or not you are wasting your time with this issue or whether it makes sense to move from one frame to another, etc, but my question about it is why would any even somewhat intelligent person willfully question things in that way? Is that what you’re asking too? And really? Does social conservatism really rest on the right to ask that stupid of a question? If so, I say let it die. And while I understand that social conservatism itself means having never to say you’ll change, doesn’t even a group defined by its disinterest in change have to accept some standard of human intelligence? If you have to ask what women are for–if that question must be asked by you–then why not also have to be able to ask what Jews are for, and what kings are for, and what Eskimos are for, and what Russians are for, and Africans are for, and what fantasy humans in sci-fi movies are for? I would say that if this group is really defined by its right to be stupid, then what we are losing if it dies is not the social conservative movement, but the social stupidity movement. I want conservatives to exist. I see a point in conservatism. I don’t see the point in willful stupidity. Do you?

    • Sure, I see the point in willful stupidity. I’m a firm believer in a statement I’m sure I’ve quoted to you many times before, “If stupidity didn’t serve a purpose, there wouldn’t be so much of it.”

      Still, your response is making me think I may need to add a fourth post, or a post/note/digression, on interpreting the original question. I’ve written about 1,000 words on that, think I might need 1,000 more, and extensive re-consideration, but that it wasn’t really essential to the argument I wanted to make… and I need to get back to other (real world) work, too. I’ll just say here that, if someone wrote a piece entitled, “What are rich assholes for?” or “What are white men for?” or “What is America for?” or “What are dogs for?” or “What are beautiful sunsets for?” I think you’d probably recognize the same philosophical-moral issue: All living beings and and in a different but overlapping way all natural things and anything existent or imagined can also be seen as requiring no justification in terms of some presumably instrumental or objective use. Yet you’d be willing to play along: Maybe the guy asking “what are kitty-kats for?” will have some quaint little story about the puddy-tat that saved his life… When a man asks “What are women for?” at a rightwing website, you’re much less willing to give him in any space: You assume he’s going to end up saying something like “to have my (our) babies, sexually satisfy me (us), fix me (us) dinner, mind the kids, and iron my (our) shirt(s).” Ditto and potentially worse in other contexts. On the other hand, if a feminist asks “What are women for?” you’ll give her every chance either to embrace the morally idealistic “ends in themselves” view, or to explore some version of essentialism a bit more tolerable than the speech Linda Hamilton gives in Terminator 2 about women giving birth and thus having a truer connection to the sources and value of life. Or you might even beging by wondering or assuming that she was going to investigate the question “What are women in favor of?”

      My own view – which in a way is irrelevant to the discussion that I’m actually interested in and that I feel somewhat qualified to carry forward – is that objectifying each other, in relation to gender roles as well as other roles, is an inevitable aspect of real life until the end of time, and that it’s conceivable that our comfort with the “ends in themselves alone” position has more to do with our sense of relative security and abundance in a possibly already overpopulated world.

      • I agree that stupidity is an inevitable aspect of real life. There’s seems to be more of it now than ever–by leaps and bounds. The morning yoginis were going off the other day…”I can’t believe it’s 2012 and we’re still in public debate about our right to choose.” They were shaking their heads at all the stupidity. I’ve been doing the same more and more. But the question here is whether this subject is worthy of your time. I’m willing to read anything you write. Better this than nothing. Slingblade voice: I like the way you write, boy. But so far, I’m leaning toward the negation points that you raised against this endeavor in this first installment. Of course, the other thing I like is here is that it won’t discourage you. It might even encourage you, which is good on a level of writing.

  2. I’veseen variousconservative pundits/functionaries decry the recent focus on the contraceptive et al issue and say the R candidates are talking about the economy but no one is listening.

    As you note, it’s aboutcomprehensive political orientation ie money (the economy) and power, the onto and theo respectively.

    It’s kinda late for me, maybe moretomorrow. Anybody miss me?

    • Miss you so much it make me wanna cry! (Figgered you just had wisened up about these doings, but were too kind to say so!)

      I look forward to further comments. I meant it about having future installments scoped out (actually almost ready to go), but felt they might be easier to absorb, and for me to work out to a reasonable standard, piece by piece. But if one of y’all sends me in a different direction or clues me into something that needs clarifying, or has anything else to add to the discussion, that’d be great.

      • You could explain why someone would need to frame the question so stupidly. What are women for? Is that really a serious question? I thought for a second after my first comment that maybe I had taken seriously something that you were actually just spoofing. Maybe I am. It just seems so bizarre to me that someone would need to think of things like that. Is the guy insane? I guess I should have googled Poulus right from the start but that’s hard for ADD man.

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