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Wife Beating: Theory & Practice
Sat Feb 10, 2018 10:29am

Anyway, I bring this up because among the greatest examples of question-begging in everyday use is the phrase “When did you stop beating your wife?”

This sort of rhetorical trick is a mainstay of political debates. They come up in every contentious confirmation hearing. They also show up in any number of policy debates. For instance, gun-control advocates assume that if Republicans oppose “gun free” workplace rules, it’s because they think gunplay at work is okay — and not because such laws don’t work on people keen on shooting up their office. It’s axiomatic: If someone won’t heed laws against murder, they probably won’t be deterred by a sign that says they could be fined if you bring your Smith & Wesson to work.

So why did I bring this up? Oh right, because I think we are in a remarkable moment. Many supporters of the Trump administration argue that one of its great benefits is that it eschews the abstractions of the ideologues in favor of concrete practicalities. “Spare me your lofty arguments about free trade, Ye Sophisters and Calculators!” “You can keep your ‘principles’; we’re getting things done!” And to be fair, there are times when this is a good argument — and a better one than I would have foreseen.

But if we’re going to talk about leaving the realm of Platonic ideals and talk about the need for concrete practicalities, I think we should at least take a moment and acknowledge that, for the first time in living memory, the phrase “When did you stop beating your wife?” has been plucked from the ether of rhetorical abstraction and rendered an utterly pragmatic query. For that is just one of the many questions John Kelly or Don McGahn should have asked Robert Porter.

And they probably did! They just took Porter’s denials at face value and didn’t bother to credit the accusers, the FBI background checks, or common sense. I mean, the thing about the “When did you stop beating your wife (or wives)?” question is that the person being asked will deny it — even if he actually beats his wives.

I have no doubt that Porter was good at his job. One hears reports about how he was a stabilizing presence in the White House and a reliable ally of the Gang of Grown-Ups in the West Wing. But it tells you something about the bunker mentality inside the White House that these allegations were simply too bad to check.


A few paragraphs ago, around the time I referenced how one of the great defenses of the Trump administration is its practicality and rejection of abstract theory and ideology, I lit a cigar (Sobremesa Imperiales, if you must know). But that’s not important right now. As anyone who’s read me over the years knows, I am a passionate defender of ideology (my last book was an extended apologia for ideology and my next one is even more so). Part of my defense of ideology is that much of it isn’t abstract theory (though some is).

Saying “something is an abstraction” isn’t the same thing as calling it a fiction. Pure mathematics is an abstraction, but it ain’t fiction. Applied mathematics takes principles found in pure mathematics and applies them to real-world stuff, such as engineering. A perfect triangle exists only in the abstract. But what we learn from the Platonic ideal of the triangle has all sorts of real-world applications — and vice versa. My hunch is that humans figured out how to make fulcrums long before anyone dabbled in geometry.

One of the things I love about conservatism and classical liberalism is that they pan the river of time for the gold of principles amidst the soil of lived existence. These principles don’t always sparkle. Sometimes they are invisible to us, encased in mundane traditions and habits that we take as simple rules. Different thinkers (Burke, Chesterton, Hayek, Polyani, et al.) have different terms for different kinds of knowledge that cannot be simply conveyed with words, such as “tacit,” “hidden,” or “embedded” knowledge. “Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States” is explicit knowledge. How to throw a curveball involves a lot of tacit knowledge; all the variables that go into the price of a loaf of bed is embedded knowledge; all of the arguments that go into why good manners are valuable is hidden knowledge. The point isn’t that we can’t know some of the factors — the way to hold the ball, the cost of wheat, how to defuse social conflict — that go into these things, it’s just that we can’t know all of them.

As I write at length in Suicide of the West, it took hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error to come up with the ideas bound up in liberal democratic capitalism and modernity. We have no conception of all the trial and error that went into food preparation, monogamy, democracy, written languages, or human rights. We inherited those hard-earned lessons of the past. To be sure, there was a feedback loop with higher, more abstract, thinking. God is an abstraction, and so are concepts such as natural rights and the innate worth of the individual. But we refined both the abstractions and the practicality against each other like a blade and whetting stone. We justify practicalities by appealing to abstractions and vice versa all the time (and sometimes this involves a lot of question-begging, which can raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions).

And what did we do? We bound a bunch of these principles and lessons and made them into an ideology. For our political ideology, we didn’t include the stuff about food preparation (though if you look closely enough you can find some overlap, hence the political campaign-mounting to make Tide pods look less delicious) but in the realms of law, economics, governance, etc., the supposedly abstract ideology that underlies Western civilization — on most of the left and most of the right and everywhere in between — is the greatest achievement of practicality in all of human history.

If you don’t like the word “ideology,” fine. Call it a “worldview” or, if you want to get fancy, Weltanschauung, which just means the same thing in German. “I know conservatives who say yes to Weltanschauung and no to ideology,” Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once observed, “but they seem incapable of distinguishing between them (not surprisingly, because there is no distinction).”

The benefit of ideology is that it provides time-tested rules to rely upon during the inevitable chaos of everyday life. It operates in much the same way morality does. Morality gives you rules of thumb that prevents you from making bad decisions. Children ask, “Why can’t I steal that pack of gum or cheat on my test if I can get away with it?” When we answer, we leave abstract concepts of good and evil or right and wrong out of it. We tell them that, if you do what’s right, it won’t matter whether you may or may not get caught.

In politics, the worry is very often not that the government will knowingly do wrong but that it will take the shortest path to doing what it thinks is right. This is what Michael Oakeshott called “politics as the crow flies.” Conservative ideology, rightly understood, is the political conscience that counsels against such expedience. “What is conservatism,” Lincoln asked, “if not adherence on the old and tried against the new and untried?”


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