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Donner Party Conservatism

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Corey Robin:

And here we come to Ground Zero of conservative commitment. The conservative believes in excellence, as Douthat says, but it is a vision of excellence defined as and dependent on “overcoming.” It’s a vision that abhors the easy path of acceptance, of tolerating human frailty and need, not because that path is wrong but because it is easy.  Or, to put it differently, it’s wrong precisely because it is easy. And though that vision often claims Aristotle as its inspiration, its true sources are Nietzschean.

The conservative believes the excellent person is a kind of mountain climber, a moral athlete who is constantly overcoming or trying to overcome his limits, pushing himself ever higher and higher.  When it comes to sex, he’s not unlike the Foucauldian transgressor, that sexual athlete of novelty and experiment: but where Foucault believes that taboos against sex are all too easily reached (that’s why, if we are to attain the peaks of experience, we have to move beyond those limits), the conservative’s remain out of reach. The value of a rule lies in its difficulty and potential unattainability, the ardor of the struggle it imposes upon us. We might call this ethic the ardor of adversity.*

Very much so, yes. And it gives us another opportunity to revisit Holbo’s classic David Frum essay:

“Contemporary conservatives still value that old American character. William Bennett in his lectures reads admiringly from an account of the Donner party written by a survivor that tells the story in spare, stoic style. He puts the letter down and asks incredulously, “Where did those people go?” But if you believe that early Americans possessed a fortitude that present-day Americans lack, and if you think the loss is an important one, then you have to think hard about why that fortitude disappeared. Merely exhorting Americans to show more fortitude is going to have about as much effect on them as a lecture from the student council president on school spirit. Reorganizing the method by which they select and finance their schools won’t do it either, and neither will the line-item veto, or discharge petitions, or entrusting Congress with the power to deny individual NEA grants, or court decisions strinking down any and all acts of politically correct tyranny emanating from the offices of America’s deans of students – worthwhile though each and every one of those things may be. It is socials that form character, as another conservative hero, Alexis de Tocqueville, demonstrated, and if our characters are now less virtuous than formerly, we must identify in what way our social conditions have changed in order to understand why.

Of course there have been hundreds of such changes – never mind since the Donner party’s day, just since 1945 … But the expansion of government is the only one we can do anything about.

All of these changes have had the same effect: the emancipation of the individual appetite from restrictions imposed on it by limited resources, or religious dread, or community disapproval, or the risk of disease or personal catastophe.” (p. 202-3)

Words fail me; links not much better. The Donner party? Where did all these people go? Into each other, to a dismaying extent. A passage from one of those moving, stoical diary entries:

“…Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would commence on Milt and eat him. I don’t think she has done so yet, [but] it is distresing. The Donno[r]s told the California folks that they [would] commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have [cannibalized] …ere this time.”

The stoical endurance of the Donner party in the face of almost unimaginable suffering is indeed moving. The perseverance of the survivors is a lasting testament to the endurance of the human spirit. (On the other hand, the deaths of all who stoically refused to cannibalize their fellows might be deemed an equal, perhaps a greater testament.) But it is by no means obvious – some further demonstration would seem in order – that lawmakers and formulators of public policy should therefore make concerted efforts to emulate the Donner’s dire circumstances. What will the bumper-stickers say? “It’s the economy, stupid! We need to bury it under ten to twelve feet of snow so that we will be forced to cannibalize the dead and generally be objects of moral edification to future generations.”

I think we are beginning to see why Frum feels that his philosophy may be a loser come election time. I think the Donner party – who, be it noted, set out seeking economic prosperity in the West, not snow and starvation – would not vote Republican on the strength of William Bennett’s comfortable edification at the spectacle of their abject misery. (“Let’s start with the fat one over there in the corner, playing the slots. We can eat off him for a week. See how he likes it.”)

To put what is surely rather an obvious point yet another way: if the Donner party is really what you want, the policy riddle (how to reproduce these conditions, since the Donner party was not political, per se?) already has an answer: Stalinism.

…Warren Terra in comments:

I had heard the term “Donner Party Conservatism” before, but it had never occurred to me that it reflected actual sentiments from a famous Conservative Thought Leader in praise of the Donner party – I assumed it was just an insult hurled at the party that professes to represent some sort of Conservative ideals, and that in reality so well recapitulates the experience of the Donner Party.

Think of it: a bunch of god-fearing but frankly ignorant buffoons were sold promises of wealth and opportunity if only they’d pledge themselves to a grand venture. They were then taken advantage of by profiteers who badly outfitted them for the undertaking, and were literally misguided, as in sent along the wrong path, at the wrong time. When they became trapped, the few survivors made it by eating their own; others more principled or more circumspect did not – or were perhaps slain to be food. It’s like the George W Bush administration, plus literal cannibalism. It is, in short, what the Conservatives deliver, but not what they claim to seek. Except, apparently, Bill Bennett.

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