Archive | September, 2011

Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism

27 Sep

Charm QuarkOn Thursday next week, the CUNY Center for the Humanities, The Nation, and the Roosevelt Institute will be hosting a public conversation about The Reactionary Mind, featuring me and Chris Hayes, host of the excellent new program Up With Chris Hayes on MSNBC.  The details are here, but if you’re feeling link-fatigue, it’ll be on Thursday, October 6, at 7 pm, in the Martin Segal Theater of the CUNY Graduate Center (365 5th Avenue, between 34th and 35th).  Make sure to get there early as seating may be limited. And if you do come, please make sure to say hello or, if we haven’t met personally, introduce yourself. And if you can, please share this information widely.

In anticipation of the event and the book’s publication, Mike Konczal asked me to do a guest post for his blog Rortybomb, which Time Magazine calls one of the top 25 financial blogs in the country. Readers of this blog probably know Mike already, since he’s become one of my must-reads for information about the economy and appears frequently in our discussions; as Paul Krugman writes

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, whose blog has become essential reading for anyone interested in financial reform…A number of people have asked for my own list of top finance/economics/whatever blogs. …I read Calculated Risk, Econbrowser, Rortybomb…

Mike also gets a ringing endorsement from James Kwak. In addition to being another major writer and commentator on all things financial, James went to the same high school I did. He was in the class behind me, but we worked together on the school newspaper. It’s been nice to run into him again in these parts.

I should add that Mike is also a genuine intellectual, interested, it seems, in virtually everything, with interesting things to say about virtually everything.

Anyway, here’s the blog I posted over at Rortybomb, which was also posted at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 blog. I’m also posting a slightly longer version of it below.

* * * * *

Long before Ron Suskind tangled with the media and the White House for telling truths or tales about the Obama administration, he was the hero of liberals. For it was Suskind, in the course of exploring the Bush presidency for the New York Times Magazine, who stumbled upon the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary conservative mind.

In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“Reality-based community” soon became one of the most cited quotes of the Bush era—a Google search yields 456,000 results; it even has its own Wikipedia page—an affirmation of everything the left ever thought about the right: that it lives in a fact-free universe, where ideological purity is more important than pragmatic solutions, that it’s revolutionary and radical rather than realistic and moderate, that it’s activist rather than accommodating, that it’s, well,…not…really…conservative.

Conservatives, at least by reputation, are supposed to be calm, reasonable, quiet, averse to the operatic, friendly to the familiar.  They don’t go looking for trouble in far-off lands. They stay home, tending their gardens, patching the roof, taking care of their children. They want to be left alone. They’re not interested in history’s adventure. They want to leave things be, even if things aren’t so great, because they know that trying to change things, particularly through politics, will only make them worse. Insofar as they are concerned with politics, it is, as William F. Buckley once said, the “politics of reality.”

That, at any rate, is how many literate conservatives understand themselves and their tradition. It’s also how many liberals who may have read Edmund Burke in college, or who are perhaps friends with these literate conservatives, understand the conservative tradition.

To wit: this recent column by Paul Krugman.

Modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the “common hazards of life” through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.

When Krugman talks about “modern conservatism,” he means anything from the last ten years of the GOP to the postwar American conservative movement as a whole. Either way, the notion is that there once was a conservatism that was different, a conservatism that looks something like what I sketched out above.

It’s a pretty common notion: modern conservatism—however it’s defined—is different from the conservatism that came before it. Here’s Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a forthcoming biography of Buckley, in his widely read The Death of Conservatism:

What we call conservatism today would have been incomprehensible to the great originator of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke….Burke’s conservatism was based not a particular set of ideological principles but rather on distrust of all ideologies…

The movement conservatives of our time seem the heirs of the French rather than the American Revolution.

Reaching a little less deeply into the well of history, Sidney Blumenthal wrote at the high tide of the Bush administration.

Bush also claimed to stand in the conservative tradition of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, Reagan sought to overturn longstanding policies of Democratic and Republican presidents alike in his pursuit of a radical and often fanciful conservatism. But when he found himself cornered by realities, Reagan the ideologue gave way to Reagan the old union negotiator prepared for compromise…

Nothing like Bush’s concerted radicalism has ever been seen before in the White House.

As soon as the afterglow of 9/11 began to fade, Andrew Sullivan also took up this argument in a series of articles and posts that culminated in his 2006 book The Conservative Soul.  Since then, he’s pursued it time and again, pillorying the conservative movement, in all its variations and iterations since the 1980s, for its rejection of Burke’s supple traditionalism, Hayek’s critique of utopianism, and more.

So powerful is this meme of conservatism-betrayed-by-conservatives that the blogger P.M. Carpenter has recently declared a ban on any use of the word in reference to the modern conservative movement. Commenting on Krugman’s column, Carpenter writes:

Why, then, do modern commentators persist in referring to modern conservatism as “conservatism”? While Krugman’s statement is perversely unimpeachable — “modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement” — it also contains a colossally unconcealed contradiction, which is way overdue for journalistic retirement.

To posit that “conservatism” is a “deeply radical movement” is to untether oneself from intelligible language and customary comprehension. By definition, conservatism is anything but deeply radical. Indeed, authentic modern conservatism arose from Edmund Burke’s revulsion of the French Revolution’s butchery of political order (such as it was), cultural tradition, social institutions, and human life; that is, modern conservatism arose in reaction to modern radicalism.

So, to Mr. Krugman et al, please cease perpetuating the contradiction. Stop calling conservative pols what they are not: conservative. They are pseudoconservatives, they are reactionaries, they are radicals, and in some instances they are merely lunatics. But they are not conservative.

I wrote The Reactionary Mind for many reasons, but one of them was to show—contra Carpenter, Sullivan, Blumenthal, Tanenhaus, Krugman, and many more—that today’s conservative is in fact conservative. She hasn’t betrayed the traditions of Burke, Disraeli, Hayek, Oakeshott, Buckley, and Reagan: she has fulfilled them.

Because Burke so often figures in these discussions as the touchstone of comparison, I’d like to make a novel suggestion: let’s read him. And not just a few isolated passages in his Reflections on the Revolution in France—the pages everyone who took Intro to Political Theory refers to—but his entire counterrevolutionary oeuvre, particularly his Letters on a Regicide Peace. For Carpenter is right: modern conservatism, which dates to Burke, did arise in reaction to modern radicalism. But what Carpenter doesn’t say, perhaps because he doesn’t know it, is that something funny happened on the way to the counterrevolution.

As early as the Reflections, published in 1790, Burke had voiced concern that the revolutionaries in France had tapped into the deepest currents of modern civilization, putting themselves into the driver’s seat of history, threatening to leave the defenders of the old order behind.

Burke framed the contest between the revolutionaries and the old order as a struggle between “ability”—the village lawyers and urban financiers of the bourgeoisie, who made the revolution in alliance with the mob—and “property,” the aristocrats and their clients. In such a contest, he was fairly certain who would win and why: “As ability is a vigorous and active principle, and as property is sluggish, inert, and timid, it never can be safe from the invasions of ability, unless it be, out of all proportion, predominant in the” state. Without the protection of the feudal state, property would lose.

By the time he began writing his Letters on Regicide Peace, two years before he died in 1797, Burke’s concern about the relative strength of the old order had reached a fever pitch. “In ability, in dexterity, in the distinctness of their views,” he now wrote of the revolutionaries, “the Jacobins are our superiors.”

But where initially he had located the source of the revolutionaries’ superiority in their class position, their material base in finance and commerce, Burke now saw it in their absolute indifference to their material circumstances. The strength of the Jacobins lay in their faith, their willingness to destroy and suffer anything and everything for the sake of their cause. “While you are in vain torturing your invention to assure them of your sincerity and good faith,” Burke wrote to the British officials who wished to negotiate and compromise with the French, “they have left no doubt concerning their good faith, and their sincerity towards those to whom they have they engaged their honour….They have been true and faithful to the engagement which they have made more largely.”

It was Burke’s great fear that the British elite—as well as the other monarchies of old Europe—could not summon similar reserves of ideological resolve. They were too comfortable, too assured of their possessions, too confident of their estate. Where the Jacobins had “conquered the finest parts of Europe” with an “annihilated revenue, with defaced manufactures, with a ruined commerce,” the aristocracies of Europe were drowning in the very properties Burke had once held up as the counter to revolutionary France. They didn’t just possess estates; they were possessed by their estates.

At no time has the wealth and power of Great Britain been so considerable as it is at this very perilous moment.  We have a vast interest to preserve, and we possess great means of preserving it.  But it is to be remembered that the artificer may be incumbered by his tools, and that resources may be among impediments.

They who are in possession of all they wish are languid and improvident.

In the ordinary course of human affairs, any check to population among men in ease and opulence, is less to be apprehended from what they may suffer, than from what they enjoy.  Peace is more likely to be injurious to them in that respect than war.

Because the British elite possessed so much, and were so assured of their possessions, they approached the Revolution with a prudential logic rather than a daring zeal. They were careful and calculating, cautious and prudent. They were, in short, Burkeans. Condemning Pitt and his allies, Burke wrote:

They spoke neither to the understanding nor to the heart. Cold as ice themselves, they never could kindle in our breasts a spark of that zeal, which is necessary to a conflict with an adverse zeal; much less were they made to infuse into our minds that stubborn persevering spirit, which alone is capable of bearing up against those vicissitudes of fortune which will probably occur, and those burdens which must be inevitably borne in a long war.

These “creatures of the desk” and “creatures of favour,” Burke complained, charged with defending the old orders of Europe, “had no relish for the principles of the manifestoes.”  They lacked the “generous wildness of Quixotism.”

The other negative consequence of an inheritance that’s assured, wrote Burke, was that its possessor—whether a country with an ancient constitution or an individual with a familial estate—quickly became encumbered by the weight of history and tradition. This is a seldom noted theme in Burke, for it runs counter to our stereotype of him as the tribune of long-standing wisdom and embedded prudence. But there is a deep and untapped vein in Burke’s writings of worry about, even hostility toward, individuals and institutions that are awash in history.

“Our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut,” Burke declared at the outset of his Regicide Peace.  The laws of the state, ancient and “full of reason, and of equity and justice,” were a “dead letter,” producing “no more than stubble.” Their very ancientness, he concluded, made them weak.

Our Constitution has more impediments, than helps. Its excellencies, when they come to be put to this sort of proof, may be found among its defects.

Nothing looks more awful and imposing than an ancient fortification. Its lofty embattled walls, its bold, projecting, rounded towers that pierce the sky, strike the imagination and promise inexpugnable strength. But they are the very things that make its weakness. You may as well think of opposing one of those old fortresses to the mass of artillery brought by a French irruption into the field, as to think of resisting by your old laws and your old forms the new destruction which the crops of Jacobin engineers today prepare for all such forms and all such laws.

It wasn’t just the laws and constitution that were suffering from age; individuals too steeped in their history, Burke warned, would be blind to the very newness of the threats they faced.  Prudence, in other words, the proverbial wisdom of the past made present, was not a way forward but a liability of the first order.

There was no more emblematic figure in this regard than Louis XVI, the hapless monarch who lost his head, in both senses of the word. He was by no means incompetent or malicious. He was well tutored and lettered, particularly in history. And that in the end was the problem.  “Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.”

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation—all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table—would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast.  In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

 Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

 To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe.  England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.” ““No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)

This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”

I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism—and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.

In the twentieth century, one finds a similar move in Friedrich Hayek, arguing against not the totalitarianism of Stalin but the democratic socialism of Britain and France and the liberal welfare state of the New Deal. Again, this is not a widely noted theme in discussions of Hayek, but if you want a full-throated defense of ideology and utopianism against the prudential improvisations of the proverbial conservative, you could do worse than to start with Volume 1 of his Law, Legislation, and Liberty. There, Hayek says, among other things, that the “successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concession to expediency” and that

Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.

The other reason I have dwelled so long on Burke is that though he’s often held up as the source of conservatism, I get the feeling he’s not often read.  Likewise, Hayek and the rest of the conservative canon.  Sure, someone will quote a passage here or a phrase there, but the quotations inevitably have a whiff of cliché about them—little platoons and so on—emitting that stale blast of familiarity you sense when you listen to someone go on about a text he may or may not have read during one week in college.  That, it seems to me, applies no less to the right than it does to the left. Everyone thinks they know Burke or Oakeshott or Hayek, but have they read them? In the last decade?

If nothing else, I hope my book spurs readers to go back to these texts. Not just because they’re great, which they are. But also because we’re having a conversation about modern conservatism in the dark, based on a misapprehension of the what the enterprise is and is not about. If we can get clear on these ancient texts, maybe we can get a little clearer on the contemporary practice.

So here’s my final suggestion for Andrew Sullivan, Sam Tanenhaus, and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em. Then let’s talk.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s Non-Response Response to Her Critics

26 Sep

In a blog post, Melissa Harris-Perry has responded to her critics, of which I was one, though she doesn’t mention me. In fact, she doesn’t mention any of her critics, except for Joan Walsh, which makes her response as frustrating and elusive as her original article.

Most of Harris-Perry’s post is a non-response response. One part, however, is noteworthy. In a lengthy discussion of the accusation that she didn’t prove her central charge, Harris-Perry manages to totally miss—or evade—the point.

Harris-Perry seems to think that critics like myself were asking her to prove that white liberals who were jumping ship from Obama were motivated by racial animus. To this criticism, she quite rightly responds that it is often difficult to prove racial animus and that liberals and leftists should be wary of repeating a move that’s often made by conservatives in debates about discrimination.  Such a move, she writes,

is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard.

Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism. Recall that initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made “disparate impact” a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias. In other words, a plaintiff did not need to prove that anyone was harboring racial animus in their hearts, they just needed to show that the effects of a supposedly race neutral policy actually had a discernible, disparate impact on people of color. The doctrine of disparate impact helped to clear many discriminatory housing and employment policies off the books.

I agree with most of what Harris-Perry writes here, but unfortunately for her, it actually works against her.  Because in the case of her original article, what was at issue was not whether one could explain “a racist practice or pattern” or “disparate impact” by reference to racial animus.  It was whether or not there was any racist practice or pattern, any disparate impact, at all.

What Harris-Perry’s critics were asking from her was not proof of white liberals’ racist intent or motivation; we were asking for some proof that white liberals are treating Obama any differently than they had treated Clinton or any differently than black liberals (and other non-white groups) are treating Obama.  We were asking her  to provide some shred of evidence that, when it came to white liberal support or criticism of Obama, there was in fact a “practice or pattern” of disparate treatment. Or, as I said in the comments section to my original post, some evidence that the problem she says is a problem is in fact a problem.

I don’t have an issue with ascribing racial animus in the absence of hard evidence of that animus if you can demonstrate disparate racial outcomes. But in this case, she didn’t.  Not on the first round, and not on the second.

Instead of  responding to that claim, Harris-Perry evades the issue entirely. I have no idea if this evasion is deliberate or happenstance; either way, it’s shabby.

Harris-Perry opens her response with a confession: “I make it a practice not to defend my public writings.” If this post is any indication, perhaps she should practice some more.


Update (September 27, 2 pm)

A noted constitutional law scholar writes me that Melissa Harris-Perry’s claim that “initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made ‘disparate impact’ a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias”—a claim I implicitly ceded to her in my response above—is not in fact correct.  According to this scholar, “That was not clear in the original act; the Supreme Court so interpreted it in some early 1970s decisions, then reversed course; Congress later added amendments that restored some disparate impacts jurisdiction in e.g. voting rights cases.”

Melissa Harris-Perry: Psychologist to the Stars

23 Sep

Wow, this piece from Melissa Harris-Perry is one of the more fact-free assessments of the relationship between Obama and the liberal-left that I’ve seen.

Harris-Perry contends that “a more insidious form of racism” than the traditional kind may explain white liberal dissatisfaction with Obama. Where white liberals presumably gave the much less effective Clinton a pass in 1996, Harris-Perry anticipates a defection among those very same voters in 2012. Why? Because they’ll act on their alleged “tendency…to hold African-American leaders to a higher standard than their white counterparts.”  The next election, she claims, “may be a test of another form of electoral racism.”

If old-fashioned electoral racism is the absolute unwillingness to vote for a black candidate, then liberal electoral racism is the willingness to abandon a black candidate when he is just as competent as his white predecessors.

Harris-Perry offers virtually no evidence to support this claim, except for the fact that white support for Obama has plummeted from 61 to 33 percent. Evidence of white racism?  Perhaps, though the dismal state of the economy seems an equally likely contender.  Evidence of white liberal racism? She’ll have to do better than that.

Because here’s what we do know about liberal support for Obama.  As of August 1, according to this Gallup poll, 83 percent of liberal Democrats were supporting him. Among liberals (as opposed to liberal Democrats), the numbers throughout the first half of the summer mostly hovered in the upper 70s. Then by the end of August, those numbers began inching down to 68 percent. But guess what?  They also began falling among African Americans.  In fact, according to this September Washington Post story, “Five months ago, 83 percent of African Americans held ‘strongly favorable’ views of Obama, but in a new Washington Post-ABC news poll that number has dropped to 58 percent.”  That’s why, according to this piece, Obama has made special outreach efforts to blacks: he’s worried about their dwindling support. But as the Post also goes onto explain, “That drop is similar to slipping support for Obama among all groups.”

So why is Obama’s support declining among all groups? And why didn’t it with Clinton in 1996?  Hmm. What could be different?  Perhaps the state of the economy, particularly the unemployment numbers (which appear nowhere in Harris-Perry’s piece), has something to do with it?  And, lest we forget what happened four years after 1996, so disgusted was a portion of the liberal electorate with Clinton’s compromises that they refused to vote for his vice president, opting instead for Ralph Nader.

Unlike some folks, I don’t think Harris-Perry’s problem is her tendency to cry racism. No, it’s far deeper than that. It’s her tendency to reduce political arguments to psychological motivations. Because this is hardly the first time that Harris-Perry has speculated about the underlying sources of liberal-left disgruntlement with Obama.  Back in May, she criticized Cornel West and Tavis Smiley for their critique of Obama, arguing that it was driven more by personal pique than political principle. Again, with little evidence to support her claims.  Now, she launches a similarly psychologically driven theory of white liberal-left disgruntlement, only this time the putative motivation is racism.

Psychology may or may not play a role in politics. But if it does, we need evidence-based psychologists, not fact-free astrologists, to explain it to us.


Update (8:00 pm)

Through some helpful prodding from Dorian Warren in the comments section, it occurred to me that there are five facts that Harris-Perry needs to establish that she nowhere establishes.  I’d be satisfied if she could establish at least some of them, but she doesn’t establish any of them. These are the facts that need to be established:

  1. White liberals are significantly less supportive of Obama than they used to be.
  2.  The drop in white liberal support for Obama at this point is significantly greater than it was for Clinton at a comparable point (or frankly at any point) prior to his reelection.
  3. The drop in white liberal support for Obama is significantly greater than the drop in black or Latino liberal support for Obama.
  4. The differential among liberals between white and black or Latino support for Obama is significantly larger than the differential, if it existed, between white and black or Latino support for Clinton.
  5. That larger differential, if it exists, is a reflection of declining white support for Obama rather than increasing or persistent black or Latino support for Obama.

Again, I’m not asking that she establish all of these facts, but having failed to establish any of them, it’s hard to see whether or not there’s even a problem here that needs to be analyzed. In other words, as of now, Harris-Perry’s argument is a hypothesis in search of a problem rather than a problem in search of a hypothesis.


Update (September 25, 10:30 am)

Reading Orlando Patterson’s New York Times review of Touré’s new book on “post-blackness,” this passage jumped out at me:

Post-black identity, we learn, resides in the need to live with and transcend new and subtle but pervasive forms of racism: “Post-black does not mean ‘post-racial.’ ” This new racism is invisible and unknowable, always lurking in the shadows, the secret decisions of whites resulting in lost opportunities blacks never knew about or even thought possible: “There’s a sense of malevolent ghosts darting around you, screwing with you, often out of sight but never out of mind.” Even so extraordinarily successful a person as Elizabeth Alexander, the tenured Yale professor and inaugural poet, claims to be haunted by “a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don’t know half the time when people are underestimating us.”

In reading this passage, especially that powerful quote from Elizabeth Alexander, it occurred to me that perhaps Harris-Perry and the liberal left are just talking past each other. When most liberals and lefties I know criticize Obama, we are not making judgments about his capacities, intelligence, competence, or expertise. I think most of us believe that he is a preternaturally gifted politician, who managed his astonishing rise to power through a combination of savvy, eloquence, ruthlessness, ambition, smarts, vision, and skill—all the gifts, in other words, we like to see in a politician, particularly a politician on the left.

But when we assess Obama, like any other president, we’re not thinking about his skills and talents; we’re thinking about what we call his “politics” and, even more important, how his politics reflect larger forces and structures in American society: corporate power, neoliberal ideology, declining organizational capacity on the left, and so on.  We see him, often, as a symptom of those forces, not a challenge to them.  Not, again, because of any lack of intelligence or ability on his part, but because, in part, he is a product of the structure (with all its failings) we would like to see dismantled.

Reading Alexander’s quote, I wondered if Harris-Perry was viewing the liberal left’s disgruntlement through a different lens. In the mainstream media and a lot of political science—and also, I think, among a lot of citizens—there’s a tendency to view presidential performance in highly personal terms: Reagan was a successful president because he possessed great political skills, Carter was a disaster because he lacked those skills.  Again, that’s not how I or people I know approach these matters, and I’ve written about why it’s not a good way to think about these things, but I think it’s a fairly common way people approach them.

So if that’s the way you view these matters, as Harris-Perry clearly does (there’s lots of talk in her article of competence and such), then it’s no wonder, once you add the reality of racial suspicion that Elizabeth Alexander talks about above, that you’d see criticism of Obama as reflecting a deeper skepticism on the part of whites, including white progressives (who are after all members and beneficiaries of a racist society, and thus not immune to its deep codes), of the talents and abilities of the president. If your only way of understanding presidential performance is through the lens of personal ability, or if you think that’s the only way other people understand it, then it makes sense to view criticism of a president who is clearly able (more than able) as being driven by racism.

This is just a hunch about what’s going in Harris-Perry’s piece; I’ve no proof of it. But reading Elizabeth Alexander this morning did make me wonder if that might not be what’s going on here.

The Page 99 Test

22 Sep

“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” So said the English writer Ford Madox Ford.

Since 2007, the good people at Campaign for the American Reader have been applying this dictum to contemporary authors, asking them to turn to page 99 of their own books and then write about what they read. It’s called The Page 99 Test.

This week Campaign asked me to write about page 99 of The Reactionary Mind, which will be officially published on September 29 but is already available for purchase.

With my contribution, I join the esteemed company of journalists like Jeff Sharlet and Robin Wright, critics like Gerald Early, historians like Stephanie Coontz, Gary Nash, Jack Rakove, and Daniel Rodgers, and philosophers like Patricia Churchland.

Speaking of The Reactionary Mind, it’s too early for reviews, but it’s already gotten some attention.  Writing over at Talking Points Memo, the journalist Jim Sleeper, author of The Closest of Strangers, called it “richly meditative.” And it’s been the subject of a couple of very interesting posts by the blogger Elias Isquith, who says he plans to do more.  I hope to write about Elias’ posts at a later date, once they’re completed, but for now check them out.

The Reactionary Mind also got some fabulous pre-publication blurbs from some of the top scholars in American history (Joyce Appleby and Rick Perlstein), political theory (Alan Ryan) and philosophy (Anthony Appiah). You can find them all here.

My cup runneth…

Shitstorming the Bastille

19 Sep

On Saturday night, I wrote a post about a curious argument I’ve noted among a subset of liberal bloggers. On the one hand, they claim Obama is radically constrained (by Congress, the Republicans, etc.); on the other hand, they claim progressive activists and citizens are radically unconstrained. I noted that activists and citizens are far more constrained than Obama and that a chief constraint they face is the federated and decentralized nature of the American state and politics.

At least that’s what I thought my post was about.

I went to sleep, checked in on the blog the next morning, and then went apple-picking with my daughter and some friends in upstate New York. I got back Sunday night to find that I had unleashed a shitstorm on the Twittersphere.  Only it wasn’t about any of the points I note above. It was about a single sentence at the end of my post: “The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend.”

That was a sentence I myself had tweeted, but rather than grapple with the point it was making, the twitterati decided to school me in French history. My chief tutor was a young journalist and blogger named Adam Serwer. He’s a sharp writer whose work I’ve been happily following and admiring for about a year, first at the American Prospect and now at Mother Jones. As far as I know, French history is not one of his areas of expertise. But he’s a smart fellow, with a great deal of confidence in his smarts, and so saw fit to instruct me in the basics.

In a series of tweets to me and others, he noted the following (these are reproduced verbatim):

really? the storming of the bastille and the russian revolution are examples of a LACK of institutional barriers? [After my Bastille comment, I had written the following two sentences: "That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations."]

absolute monarchy = kind of a big institutional obstacle

why is it that it took “hundreds of years” for labor to get a weekend, but prior centuries in Russia and France don’t count?

and yet! 100 years to get a weekend still seems like not a lot of time compared to how long france and russia were autocracies

so just so we’re clear, you understand that French monarchy existed for centuries before the storming of the bastille right?

maybe I misunderstood. It’s just that the guy you’re defending seems to think French monarch was ended in four hours

the historical analogy at the end is really ridiculous.

well thats the other thing. Labor’s results compared to French/Russian revolution also far more desirable

Oh my.  Not since I took Robert Darnton‘s course on 18th century France have I received such an energetic critique of my views on French history. If only Serwer were as close a reader of me or of that history.

If I’m understanding his tweets correctly, Serwer’s objection goes something like this: The French monarchy existed for centuries. That demonstrates not only its absolutism but also its resistance to fundamental challenges from below. It didn’t take the French masses four hours to get rid of the monarchy; it took them four, seven, ten (I’m not sure, for Serwer, what the statute of limitations on feudalism is) centuries—and another century and half to establish anything like a decent democracy. So which country faces the greater institutional obstacles, Serwer asks rhetorically: France or the United States?

Serwer’s objection might have some force if the French people did indeed spend all those centuries organizing for the overthrow of the Old Regime. But they didn’t. (In fact, it’s not clear that when they did finally overthrow the Old Regime that they even knew they were doing that.) I’m not quite sure how one builds a case for the monarchy’s centuries-long resistance to the movement for its overthrow in the absence of any movement for its overthrow, but I’m all ears.

The demand for a shorter day and work week, by contrast, was a consistent and focused demand of American workers—as well as their European counterparts—from about the 1830s onwards. And in 1937, they got it.

One of the reasons the French masses did not work for centuries for the overthrow of what Serwer calls “absolute monarchy” is, as any intro European history student will tell you, that absolutism didn’t come into theory, must less practice, until the 17th century.

(Though my colleague David Troyansky, who’s a French historian, tells me there’s some evidence of a centralizing project, not called absolutism, as early as the 16th century, but it was a negotiated process, involving and incorporating many local players, and hardly a simple imposition from on high.)

Absolutism was a project of early modern theorists like Hobbes and Bodin and Bossuet and of monarchs like Louis XIV, who ruled France from the second half of the seventeenth century through 1715.  A project, not an achievement. For while Louis XIV was more successful at that project than most, his successors in France were not. Who, after all, does Serwer think agreed to convene the Estates General? And why does he think Louis XVI did it? Because he was so strong?

What the early modern monarchs did manage to achieve—and it was, again contra Serwer, fairly late in the game that they achieved it—was to amass the symbols, if not always the substance, of the French state in their person. Against the fractures of feudalism, they provided their subjects with a remarkable lesson in the potency of condensation, of the importance of giving definite shape and centralized form to dispersed modes of power.

So when the revolutionaries in the Estates General set out to act, one of their first orders of business was to convert themselves into a National Assembly. And when the revolutionaries in the street managed to take the person of the king—as well as Paris—captive, they were in a position to act with remarkable dispatch. Not to bring democracy or workers’ rights into being, as Serwer and some of my other readers wrongly assume me to be saying, but to overthrow feudalism.

So, yes, Mr. Serwer, the French did take the Bastille in 4 hours—that is, in fact, true—and when they finally decided to overthrow the Old Regime, they managed to do it fairly quickly. And one of the reasons they were able to do it so quickly is that there was a locus of symbolic power in France, and an imperfectly yet steadily centralizing state apparatus, that provided them with the levers and instruments to achieve that transformation.

In the United States, activists have often wanted but seldom had those levers and instruments. Not for lack of trying: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the entire history of American social movements has been about trying to bring the power of a—often sadly non-existent—centralized state apparatus to bear on private regimes of power (on the plantation, in the family, and in the workplace), to use a decentralized, federated national state to break the back of private autocracies. In the process, these activists have managed, on occasion, to centralize the national state, but only rarely and often imperfectly.

The overwhelming trend has been one of resistance to those attempts.  And the reason that trend has been so successful is that the American state is not nearly as unified or centralized—not by accident or because of the vagaries of history but by constitutional design—as other states.  This kind of programmatic decentralization gives local elites, with all their ideological legitimacy, economic power, and coercive power, an automatic and tremendous advantage. And even when local or state-level activists manage by some small miracle to achieve victory, they are immediately confronted by a sea of hostile forces around them, in nearby states and the federal court system—not to mention federal armies—that often overturn their victories.

So if we simply imagine some of the labor wars in copper country of Colorado, or in West Virginia’s coal country, we see a level of violence and Jacobin ferocity that certainly parallels that of the revolutionary street fighting in Paris.  But what we don’t see is the demonstration effect that revolutionary Paris had throughout the French countryside.  Nor do we see, except rarely, a national state that would be able to take those local victories (more often defeats) and turn them into national achievements.

So that’s why, to bring this all back to where we began, I get a little impatient when liberal bloggers tell citizens and activists, as Matt Yglesias did recently, that activists can “in principle force their way onto the agenda if there [is] enough will and organization.” I believe in will and organization, but as none other than Adam Serwer noted in his response to Yglesias, those activists will often by “thwarted by structural forces beyond their control.” Precisely.

Just a quick shout-out and thanks to David Troyansky and French historian Kieko Matteson, who kindly read through this post and pointed out some errors. Needless to say, any errors that remain are entirely my own.


Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I got notice that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who really kicked off this whole argument, had responded to my original post. It’s kind of a strange response that labors under the belief that I think history is bunk. That belief is apparently evidenced by my question to Coates, “I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?” (As one of Coates’s reader correctly notes, the title is actually Battle Cry of Freedom. Oy, I hate making those kinds of errors.)

In response to that question, Coates writes:

The subtext of that critique is that the notion that the stories of the past have no real import on the struggles of the present. Perhaps more generously, addressing history doesn’t really address the struggle. In either case, I disagree.

That’s some subtext. How about we look at the actual text instead? In my post, I noted that Coates doesn’t seem to have a clue about what’s going on in the progressive activist world, and I suggested that rather than expound on a book that’s nearly a quarter-century old,  he should get his facts straight about the present. Personally, I don’t think those two tasks  need be at odds, but since he’s clearly failing at the one, I figured that his (not mine or someone else’s) analysis of the present would, at this point, probably be better enhanced by an accurate picture of that present than by further reading in the past.

I did find it amusing to be accused of indifference to history—my post concludes on a historical comparison and an argument about the historical constraints on American activism, going back to the Founding era—and even a one-second glance at my bio would tell you that I’m a historically trained and oriented political scientist. (The sub-title of my first book is “The History of a Political Idea.”) I guess for Coates that’s the kind of research that needs to fall by the wayside in favor of his forays into the past.

After treating me to a dutiful lecture on the virtues of historical knowledge, Coates concludes thus:

Finally, I think it’s important to be able to intelligently evaluate politicians who enlist the past in their causes, as they so often do. In the matter of hippie-punching, I couldn’t help but notice that Robin agrees. I don’t want to sound ungracious, but I noticed in his agreement, he skipped past the historical foundation and went for the present conclusion. I take that as my failure, as a progressive, to duly emphasize and elucidate the history.


Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mr. Coates. It wasn’t your failure to duly emphasize and elucidate the history that led me to ignore it in favor of what you wrote about the present. It was that I actually happen to already know that history, and felt it wasn’t your rehashing of it, so much as your analysis of the present, that was worthy of remark.

If Everybody’s Working for the Weekend, How Come It Took This Country So Goddamn Long to Get One?

18 Sep

Ta-Nehisi CoatesTa-Nehisi Coates went after liberals the other day for being too whiny. Those who complain about the compromises and capitulations of Obama—”Team Commie,” as he calls them—have only themselves to blame. They haven’t done the hard work of organizing citizens to put pressure on the pols in Washington, particularly conservative Democrats resisting Obama’s jobs program.

I was a little puzzled by this post. Its hectoring tone (“being taken seriously involves actual work”) sounds a lot like the one Obama uses when he attacks “griping and groaning” liberals—a tone ably skewered by none other than Ta-Nehisi Coates in a New York Times op-ed, which I wrote about in an earlier post.

It’s also not clear who exactly Coates is talking about here. Most of the liberals and leftists I know who criticize Obama spend their lives working to elect more progressive politicians, not only in Congress but throughout the country. They know full well that if things are going to change, it’s not going to come from Obama or the Democratic Party but from social movements and grassroots activism.

If he’s at all uncertain about this, Coates might want to speak to some of my union friends in New Haven, who’ve spent the better part of a year organizing a slate of progressives to take over the Board of Aldermen from crappy incumbents. I realize this is a far cry from the aerial heights of DC, but if you want to put pressure on the top, you have to have people turning the screws at the bottom.

Here’s how you build that infrastructure of change (I’m just talking about the electoral path; as any activist knows, there are lots of other equally important paths). First you get a progressive Board of Aldermen in New Haven. Then you get a lock on the state legislature in Connecticut. From there you take it to the state congressional delegation, until finally you’ve kicked the shit out of Joe Lieberman and got two fairly liberal senators in Congress—or at least two senators who feel themselves beholden to your power. And you do that in every state. It doesn’t always work, of course—Lieberman’s still in the Senate—but that’s how it’s done.

Coates gets the principle: “People who talk of primarying Obama need to pick smaller targets–and thus elicit bigger results.” He just happens to believe he’s the only one who does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t get 100 emails or FB posts, linking me to yet another story of on-the-ground activism: sometimes the activism is electoral, sometimes it’s legislative (phone banks to call your congressman, buses to Washington to meet with a senator, that kind of thing), sometimes it’s more raucous: workers occupying state legislatures in protest of some bill, citizens marching on banks, longshoremen shutting down ports, and so on.  This is just the stuff of daily conversation among progressives, the Talk of the Town of the left.

Could there be more of this? Absolutely. But that Coates doesn’t know, or at least doesn’t speak, about even these stories is telling.  Of not just failure on his part, though it is that. I mean, seriously, the dude is a journalist. How hard is it, before he picks up a pen, to pick up a phone and ask someone in the labor movement or a grassroots organization what they’re doing?

But Coates’s silence is also indicative of a bigger problem confronting the left: the shroud of media indifference under which it labors. Most of the stories that come across my transom are never reported in the New York Times or magazines like the Atlantic where Coates works. Not because activists haven’t tried to get the media’s attention but because Coates’s colleagues simply don’t care about them, and if they do care, probably don’t like them very much. Far more interesting to talk about the Tea Party and right-wing activism than to talk about activism on the left.

If each of us is going to put our shoulder to the wheel, why doesn’t Coates start with himself?  Not with a harangue about how we fail to realize that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t happen because “Martin Luther King was a really nice guy.” (The one orbit of the political universe where you can be sure the origins of the Civil Rights Movement are properly understood is on the left.)  But by challenging his colleagues at his magazine to report more on these stories, and by challenging himself to do the same. I mean, seriously, do we really need yet another post about Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom?

Media silence and indifference is just one of many constraints the left faces when it tries to change things. I hope to say more about those constraints in a later post.  Some of them are obvious: the money power on the right; the barriers against union organizing, about which I’ve written; the corporate funding base for non-profits that is hostile to campaigns for economic democracy; the obstacles to voter registration and turnout (Coates blithely recommends more voter-registration, seemingly unaware of the right’s massive campaign to make voting nearly impossible for a great many citizens). Some of them are less obvious.

But anyone who knows anything about organizing knows, first, that it’s far more difficult than anyone who’s never organized realizes, and, second, that anyone who’s never organized—i.e., most people—hasn’t a clue as to just how hard it is.

And here we come to the final irony of this discussion. As Coates admits, his post was inspired by a series of posts from Matt Yglesias, who has spent the last however many months explaining to the rest of us that presidents are not all-powerful; they confront a ginormous apparatus of resistance in Congress, the courts, the states, and elsewhere.

Yet somehow, in the view of Yglesias and Coates, the left has a virtually Jacobin capacity to change the world: if we will it, it will be.  This is how Yglesias puts it, in a statement Coates quotes approvingly:

If you’re a progressive and you feel that the political system isn’t doing what you want, it’s misguided to look at this as a personal failure of elected officials. It’s, if anything, a personal failure of you and people like you. Justice and equality doesn’t just happen because it’s nice, people need to make it happen. If it’s not happening, then its advocates are failing.

Think about that last sentence: if justice and equality are not happening, it’s not because liberals and progressives face all sorts of roadblocks to making it happen; it’s that they’re simply not doing their job. They’re talking to each other on the interwebs instead of getting out there and doing the hard work.

Reading these two, you get a rather remarkable picture of the political universe. If Obama makes a call to a conservative Democratic senator from Delaware, it’ll go nowhere. But if little old Mrs. Murdle from Wilmington, quietly getting by on her Social Security, makes a call to her senator, mountains will move.

(I’m not being facetious here; Yglesias really does recommend calling your elected official as one of the two key things you can do to make change; the other is to argue with moderates and conservatives and apolitical folks who don’t support progressive policies. For the record, I’ve been doing both for years, probably for almost as long as Yglesias has been alive. But the fact that I and my comrades are supposedly not doing these things  is “the most underrated prop of conservative dominance in the United States.” )

Of course, it’s not enough for Mrs Murdle—or me—to call my congresswoman or senator; at a minimum, I have to do it with thousands of other men and women. Not just in the 11th congressional district in New York where I live but in at least 217 other congressional districts throughout the country and in at least 26 states (or 31 if you now accept the filibuster-proof requirement that seems to be de rigueur in the Senate).

Effective citizen action, in other words, has to be, at a minimum, concerted.  And guess what:  all those veto points against presidential action that Yglesias and his ilk love to cite apply ten thousand times more to social movements and concerted citizen action. Not by accident—and not because we’re apathetic or clueless—but by design.

Remember the Federalist Papers you read in college? It wasn’t the presidency that Madison and Hamilton wanted to constrain (quite the opposite, in fact.) It was the Congress, especially the House, and behind the Congress the people acting in their collective capacity. That’s what the American system was set up primarily to check. As Madison put in Federalist 10, a large republic is better than a small one because

you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other….communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

So that’s the basic institutional design. And again, it affects ordinary citizens far more than it does presidents.

I’m not saying it’s impossible; it’s just difficult. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but it does mean that writers who show such tender regard for the constraints facing a president should be a little more sensitive to the constraints facing progressives. And perhaps be more attentive to those constraints in their writing and avoid issuing injunctions that we just need to work harder.

The most remarkable feature about American politics is not, as many critics throughout the years have had it, that more change doesn’t happen here; it’s that any change happens at all. I mean, think about it: The French took the Bastille in four hours; it took American workers 100 years to get a goddamn weekend. That’s not because American workers are less radical or their leaders less militant; it’s because the levers of political power that ordinary citizens can use here are so diffuse. Radicals in Russia seized a block of Petrograd one day and brought down tsarism the next; their American counterparts have had to labor in every hamlet, county, city, and state to engineer much less dramatic transformations.

Failure is the American activist’s daily bread; always has been. And if you think, Messrs. Coates and Yglesias, that’s due to a lack of will or hard work on the left, I suggest you think again.

Update (9/18, 9:30 am)

Re failure and American activism, I forgot (failed?) to mention the single best book on that theme: Eve Weinbaum’s To Move A Mountain.  Check it out.

The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex

13 Sep

Ross DouthatRoss Douthat, the conservative New York Times columnist, and Dan Savage, the liberal sex columnist, recently had a Bloggingheads conversation about sex, lies, and videotape. It’s a fascinating discussion, mostly because of what it reveals about the conservative mind and its attitude toward sex.

Toward the end of the conversation (48:16 in the video link above), Savage poses a hypothetical to Douthat: Imagine a couple in which one partner—for the sake of simplicity, let’s say it’s the husband—is a foot fetishist. His wife is physically repulsed by his fetish—feet gross her out—but she wants him to be happy. So she sends him to a professional, who can satisfy his fetish without involving her. Savage asks Douthat: What’s so wrong with this?

I’ll get to Douthat’s response in a second, but first, let’s note the fact that this conversation is happening at all. We often think of the conservative, particularly the social conservative, as someone who puts his head in the sand or fingers in his ears, refusing to listen to or participate in the conversation around him. Watching Douthat’s body language in response to Savage’s language language—how visibly uncomfortable he is with all the dirty talk being visited upon him—only confirms that stereotype. (Though after a while, Douthat gets into the Savage swing of things, even saying at one point that he thinks the husband who goes to the professional “is doing something less impressive than than the guy who locks his dick up.” With a mouth like that, perhaps Savage should consider hiring him as a guest columnist?)

But it’s important to remember that Douthat is having this conversation at all, as have conservatives since the Sexual Revolution. In my book, I offer an early example of this conversation from the mid-70s—Beverly and Tim LaHaye’s The Act of Marriage, which Susan Faludi rightly called “the evangelical equivalent of The Joy of Sex”—when the Christian Right was forced into the fray of sexual liberation and sought to harness its tropes to the institution of traditional marriage. The result was some fairly bawdy Godly talk.

The LaHayes claimed that “women are much too passive in lovemaking.” God, the LaHayes told their female readers, “placed [your clitoris] there for your enjoyment.” They also complained that “some husbands are carryovers from the Dark Ages, like the one who told his frustrated wife, ‘Nice girls aren’t supposed to climax.’ Today’s wife knows better.”

Robbie GeorgeMore recently, Robbie George, Princeton’s arch-conservative philosopher of sex and the single gal, told the New York Times Magazine that he’s been forced by the challenge of gay marriage to engage in all sorts of naughty talk about what constitutes good sex in a marriage.  Much to the horror of his ever-so traditional Catholic mother.

His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, taught her children “some pretty firm ideas about sexual morality,” George told me, and then he begged me not to repeat some of his more recent arguments on the subject. “Mom, I have got to explain!” George said, raising his voice to imitate first himself and then his mother: “ ‘George’s opposition to sodomy! What are you doing talking about sodomy? You shouldn’t even know what that is! Why do people have to know your views about that?’

If my book accomplishes nothing else, I hope it disabuses us of our notion that conservatism is somehow the great Refusenik of modernity. It’s not. From its beginning, conservatism has participated in all the great conversations of modernity—often, to be sure, against its will. But even when it takes an antagonistic stance toward modern developments, conservatism is forced, by the very fact of its participation in the broader culture, to incorporate modern sensibilities and sensitivities (e.g., Beverly and Tim LaHaye instructing husbands in the ways and means of the clitoris).

There’s actually no better example of the right’s modernity than Douthat’s response to Savage’s challenge. After Savage pummels him repeatedly, asking why it’s better for the husband to repress his fetish than for the wife to grant him a reprieve outside the bedroom, Douthat says of the latter (at 51:40 in the above link):

Dan, I think it’s a sadder and more squalid and more depressing form of self-sacrifice than the guy who figures out how to live with not getting his rocks off over his foot fetish.  And there is a value judgment and I’m not going to be able to prove it to you, you’re right. [Pause and then cross talk.] And some of this comes down to a worldview…

One of the great rallying points of the modern American right has been that it stands for firm, objective, demonstrable principles of right and wrong, of good and evil, over the relativism and situational ethics, the general culture of permissive tolerance, that one finds on the left. This has been a cry not only among politicos and pundits but also among serious philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and historians like Gertrude Himmelfarb.

David BrooksJust this morning, we got a healthy dose of it from David Brooks. Summarizing a new study that shows that young people don’t have a clear sense of morality, Brooks concludes:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

As proof, Brooks cites some comments from a few youngsters:

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”

But now listen to Douthat, the New York Times‘s resident court philosopher of the right, and tell me if you hear anything that different. Yes, he’s saying he believes it’s better to satisfy, or repress, one’s sexual needs within the confines of a marriage, but he also acknowledges that that is  “a value judgment,” that he can’t persuade someone of a different view of the value of that judgment, and that it reflects his broader worldview, which Savage doesn’t share.

That’s a far far cry from the medieval Thomist, or even today’s neo-Thomist, who believes that reason can provide a yardstick of right and wrong, good and evil, and that it can adjudicate moral disputes between rival traditions. It’s also a far cry from Brooks’ appeal to a shared tradition, authority, and like.

When the right’s back is pushed up against the wall, it’s often forced not only to acknowledge the pluralism of modern life and intractability of moral conflict, but also to ground its claims on its own feelings and preferences, its un-argued and self-confessedly arbitrary and idiosyncratic belief system. (Douthat even admits in a later exchange with Savage, which I discuss below, that he knows he sounds “absurd.”) The right might claim that its beliefs are better, but it has no grounds, as Douthat admits, for assuming that you would agree with that or persuading you of that. (You can find a similar version of that argument in Patrick Devlin‘s classic defense of traditional morality The Enforcement of Morals, which was probably the opening salvo of the modern culture wars.)

There’s a final point I want to extract from this exchange. Toward the end, Douthat gets his mojo back and starts pressing his argument for repression. After Savage makes the case that repression is destabilizing—an interesting claim in itself that challenges our standard left-right distinction; the left is supposed to stand for liberation, while the right is supposed to stand for order, no? Well, no, as it turns out—Douthat defends repression not on the grounds that it is stabilizing but because “the nature of human excellence depends on—this, I, sound absurd—overcoming impulses for the sake of your partner, your children, the people you love.”

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.

Michel FoucaultThe 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.*

Liberals and leftists often miss this ardor of adversity, and it’s a critical error because it overlooks just how romantic and impassioned, how fervid and fervent, conservative morality, not just about sex but about a great many matters, actually is.  And that is part of conservatism’s appeal. Savage in fact commits that very error when he says that Douthat’s vision of marriage eliminates the element of “adventure.” Not so. Douthat’s vision is profoundly adventurous—it’s the adventure of ascent, of trying to reach a summit of moral excellence that you probably cannot reach. It’s an adventure filled with risk—the risk of failure, of shame, of the self-loathing and castigation that comes with that failure and shame—and it’s one that the conservative, no matter how terrified he might be of that risk, is loathe to give up. No matter the cost: for if he were to give up on it, all that’d be left for him is the culture of mediocrity, of complacence and compliance, which defines for the conservative the liberal worldview.

That’s what connects the neoconservative, with his vision of warrior excellence, to the libertarian, with his vision of economic excellence, to the moral traditionalist. All three elements of what has been called the conservative three-legged stool—the warrior, the capitalist, the priest—subscribe to the dictum offered by E.M. Forster in A Passage to India:

The aims of battle and the fruits of conquest are never the same. The latter have their value and only the saint rejects them, but their hint of immortality vanishes as soon as they are held in the hand.

Or, as the Supremes put it more simply:

* * * * *

*I recognize that Douthat is saying here that it is for the sake of the partner and children that we have to overcome our impulses, but the trope of overcoming appears too often in the conservative canon to put too much emphasis on that qualifier. Furthermore, the point is that the husband will demonstrate his excellence by overcoming himself for the sake of something outside himself. That, it seems to me, is the point.

Update (9:30 pm)

After I posted this, I was reminded by a friend of this excellent article on Dan Savage by Mark Oppenheimer that kicked this whole conversation off. Oppenheimer gives us a masterful exposition of Savage’s extraordinarily adroit mind, which is on sharp display in that exchange with Douthat. Check it out.


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