The New York Times Review of The Reactionary Mind: My Response

7 Oct

A review of The Reactionary Mind appears in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. It’s by Sheri Berman, a respected political scientist at Barnard and author of an important book on the origins and triumph of social democracy. It’s a negative review—which is unfortunate and unpleasant. But beyond matters of fortune and feelings, there is substance, and that calls for at least a provisional response.

In her opening paragraph, Berman writes:

A book documenting the wreckage and continually tracing the links between right-wing ideas, policies and outcomes would be a significant contribution to public debate. Unfortunately, Corey Robin’s “Reactionary Mind” is not that book.

My goal in writing The Reactionary Mind was to understand the right—not to criticize it or to show why it’s wrong, but to get inside its head, to examine its leading ideas and bring its sense and sensibility into focus. I did not aim to “document the wreckage” of the right or to trace the linkages between its “ideas, policies, and outcomes.” Nor did I intend, as Berman later writes, to “reveal the ideology’s flaws” or to provide an account “of the right’s role in contemporary American political dysfunction.” Least of all was I trying to explain why my “own side is on balance more deserving.”

Getting Burke Right

My book is a revisionist account of the conservative tradition. Because Edmund Burke is the father of that tradition, he figures prominently. I offer a heterodox reading of his work, which cuts against a conventional wisdom about him and the right that I’ve discussed and critiqued before. Berman is under no obligation to accept my view. But instead of showing why it’s wrong, she writes as if she hasn’t read it.

According to Berman, Burke’s conservatism consists simply of a desire to preserve existing institutions, whatever they might be. She writes:

[Burke] was concerned with preserving institutions that had been tested “in terms of history, God, nature and man,” as [Samuel] Huntington once wrote. This led him to defend Whig institutions in England and democratic institutions in America, since he believed they were each anchored in their particular societies and traditions.

But if Burke sought merely to preserve existing institutions, why did he scream to high heaven that “our most salutary and most beautiful institutions yield nothing but dust and smut”? Why did he say of those tried and tested Whig institutions that “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”? Why did he declare that the “ancient divisions” between Whig and Tory, which had created and once sustained those institutions, were “nearly extinct” and wonder “if any memory of such antient divisions still exists among us”?

Why did he work so tirelessly for a total war with France when he openly admitted that war “never leaves where it found a nation”? Why did he go to such lengths to explain to an émigré that any restoration of the French monarchy, which he favored, “would be in some measure a new thing” and would “labour under something of the weakness as well as other inconveniences of a Change”?

I understand why Berman holds the view she does; it’s what we’ve all been taught. But she has just read a book in which the author shows why that view is wrong and offers an alternative account: that Burke, like conservatives more generally, responds to democratic movements against regimes of privilege by reinventing those regimes, often by borrowing from the very movements he opposes. If Berman thinks the conventional version is right, she’s under some obligation to show why mine is wrong.

Evil Idiots

Berman asserts that I “portray America’s leaders as essentially a bunch of evil idiots.” In fact, I argue the opposite, as here, on p. 17 of the book:

It has long been an axiom on the left that the defense of power and privilege is an enterprise devoid of ideas….Liberal writers have always portrayed right-wing politics as an emotional swamp rather than a movement of considered opinion….Conservatives, for their part, have tended to agree.  It was Palmerston, after all, when he was still a Tory, who first attached the epithet “stupid” to the Conservative Party….Nothing, as we shall see, could be further from the truth. Conservatism is an idea-driven praxis, and no amount of preening from the right or polemic from the left can reduce or efface the catalog of mind one finds there.

I further argue that the Bush administration and its neoconservative enablers are the inheritors of the Romantic tradition. If I thought America’s leaders were a bunch of idiots, I would not have compared Donald Rumsfeld’s memos to Thomas Carlyle’s “Mechanical Age,” Richard Perle’s sensibility to Chateaubriand’s, and David Brooks to the leading figures of the Counter-Enlightenment. Nor would I have parsed Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address through the writings of Cardinal Richelieu, Learned Hand, and Francis Bacon. The title of my book is The Reactionary Mind, not The Mindless Reactionary.

Violence, War, and National Security

Berman misconstrues my argument about national security and its relationship to conservatism.  She writes:

Robin argues that the entire concept of national security lacks any meaning or validity and is merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples. Although the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq gives unfortunate credence to such views, Robin takes his arguments too far.

I don’t think, and certainly don’t argue, that national security is a meaningless concept; my claim is that it’s all too meaningful. Its central premise—the national interest—is the subject of intense contestation, in the US and elsewhere, precisely because nations are congeries of conflicting interests and values. Rather than rise above those conflicts, definitions of the national interest, and its cognate “national security,” are embedded in and reflect those conflicts.

National security is an “ambiguous symbol,” wrote international relations scholar Arnold Wolfers, which “may not have any precise meaning at all.” “May not have any precise meaning” is not the same as “lacks any meaning.” Believers often can’t pin a precise meaning on God yet God is a meaningful concept for them. Most meaningful concepts are imprecise: try coming up with an exact definition of love, friendship, or justice. Likewise, “contested” is not the same as meaningless or empty—a conflation, as H.L.A. Hart noted in his critique of Patrick Devlin, conservatives are all too liable to make.

Berman also claims that I think national security is “merely a device used by conservatives to justify violence and aggression against the world’s marginalized peoples.” But my argument in the book is something else altogether. In a nutshell: Because of its ambiguity, national security allows political actors to pursue a great variety of projects in its name: the reinforcement of gender norms, programmatic attacks on the rule of law, the accumulation of economic privileges, romantic notions of battle, and more. And because modern war, in Lukács’ words, insinuates itself into “the inner life of the nation,” various social institutions—the workplace, churches, schools, and more—get mobilized in the name of security. That allows the men and women who run these institutions to describe and defend the pursuit of their interests as contributions to the war effort.  Justifying violence and aggression is the least of it.

I devote some 30 pages to this argument, yet Berman does not address it.

Berman also fails to address the detailed evidence I produce in support of the claim that conservatives are “enlivened by” violence and that the notion of catastrophe is such that “the rules of evidence [regarding the imminent destruction of a nation] will be ignored.”

The first claim—about conservatism and violence—opens a 28-page chapter on the intimate relationship between the two. Using Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas about the Sublime and the Beautiful as my urtext, I offer as proof that conservatives are enlivened by violence the testimony of the following voices from the right: Harold Macmillan, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, Douglas MacArthur, George Santayana, Helmut von Treitschke, Michael Oakeshott, Russell Kirk, Roger Scruton, Robert Nisbet, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher, Winston Churchill, John Adams, Joseph de Maistre, Georges Sorel, Carl Schmitt, Teddy Roosevelt, John C. Calhoun, Ernst Jünger, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benito Mussolini, and a great many figures in the Bush administration.

The second claim occurs in the midst of a dense five-page discussion—via Bacon, Richelieu, Hand, Michael Walzer, Bush, and Perle—of the following phenomenon: The more terrible a threat is to a nation’s well being (e.g., thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union), the less proof that nation’s government will require of the existence of that threat in order to take action against it. Flouting the rules of evidence in situations like the run-up to the Iraq War is not accidental or peculiar; some four centuries of theoretical and legal precedent can be invoked to justify it.

Again, Berman need not agree with these claims, but she is under some obligation to suggest why they’re wrong. Instead, she simply dismisses them as “vituperation” and “invective” that make “the reader eye’s roll.”

Populism versus Elitism

The one argument of my book to which Berman does devote some time and energy concerns the relationship between populism and the right. Given her work on fascism, I had hoped to learn something from Berman’s critique. Instead, she flies past my argument in pursuit of yet another straw man.

After writing that I believe conservatism is “an inherently elitist” ideology, Berman claims that that argument cannot account for the anti-elitist dimension of conservatism and that I “explain away right-wing populism as some sort of trick” to keep the masses in their place.

The problem here is that Berman seems to believe that elitism and populism are antipodal forms, where never the twain shall meet. Perhaps that’s why she overlooks my argument that elitism and populism are the mutually reinforcing, yet tension-ridden elements of a single project.

Rather than dismiss right-wing populism, I see it and describe it repeatedly throughout the book as fundamental—not just a recent phenomenon but coterminous with the entire tradition of the right. It assumes one of three forms, none of which involves false consciousness or conspiratorial trickery:

Democratic feudalism: Giving real, not imaginary, power to members of the lower orders to wield over people beneath them. This can happen in factories (supervisors), families (husbands/fathers), and fields (overseers, slave catchers, etc.) It can also happen in certain forms of nationalism and imperialism, in which the lower orders of one society get to wield real and symbolic power over all the orders of another.

Upside-down populism: Get the lower orders to identify with the higher orders, not through deception but through an emphasis on the one experience they share: loss. When the higher orders are toppled by a revolution, they become victims and thereby join the ranks of a common humanity: their losses are real, and as Burke realized, this can make them formidable claimants on the masses’ attention and sympathy.

Outsider politics: Because the conservative defense of privilege occurs in the wake of a democratic challenge, it must develop a new ruling class and “a new old regime,” in which the truly excellent—not the lazy inheritors of privilege but the very best men—rule. These men often hail from outside the traditional precincts of power, proving their mettle in one of three places: at the barricades of the counterrevolution, on the battlefield, and in the marketplace.

Yes, Palin—like Bush, Reagan, Nixon, and Agnew before her—makes much of her opposition to “liberal elites” in the Ivy League and the culture industries. That sort of rhetoric has been the hallmark of the American (and European) right throughout the twentieth century. But as virtually every historian of the American right has shown, right-wing anti-elitism has seldom been leveled, in policy or practice, at the real sources and centers of power and privilege in America. Quite the opposite: it often has cheered an upward transfer of resources. Indeed, can Berman cite one proposal of the McCain-Palin ticket that would have undermined the power of elites? Is she aware that many members of the Tea Party would like to repeal the 17th Amendment, which provides for the direct and popular election of senators? That they harbor, as empirical political scientists who’ve studied the Tea Party demonstrate, an unusually high degree of animus against racial minorities and immigrants?

Politic

For all of Berman’s insistence that my book is politically driven—The Reactionary Mind replicates the “breathless Manichean attitude” of Ann Coulter; it’s “a diatribe that preaches to the converted”—her main complaint seems to be that it is not politic enough. It’s not diplomatic or tactful; it doesn’t talk to “the people” the way a politician should.

The left’s central challenge, accordingly, is how to address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so.

It’s an odd responsibility to assign to a work of scholarship: that it “connect with the people,” “reach out to ordinary citizens,” and “get credit for doing so.” Instead of marketing a palatable worldview, I was aiming to offer a fresh sense of an intellectual tradition. I also hoped that, if my argument were truly fresh, it might stir up an argument or two. While Berman’s review is, frankly, not the sort of argument I’d hoped for, I look forward to the dust-ups to come.

47 Responses to “The New York Times Review of The Reactionary Mind: My Response”

  1. easytolo October 7, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    I haven’t read the book yet (just bought it today) but I’ve read your work on this site and heard you talk about the book with Doug Henwood, and so I think I have a general idea of your thesis and some of your arguments, and I have to say it really seems like Berman didn’t read a word of it.

    • anonymous@anonymousmail.com October 10, 2011 at 1:32 am #

      I agree that Berman didn’t seriously read the book… I haven’t read the book either, just Corey’s synopsis of it, but even I could tell that she was ignoring and mis-stating his premises.

      For example, Berman tries to make much of the fact that so-called “populist” conservatives like Sarah Palin or Ann Coulter are not part of an elite.

      But so what? That’s irrelevant.

      Ms. Berman, do you think that

      A) Palin or Coulter actively OPPOSE the corporate elite’s stranglehold over our so-called democracy?

      A) Palin or Coulter actively SUPPORT the corporate elite’s stranglehold over our so-called democracy?

      • anonymous@anonymousmail.com October 10, 2011 at 1:54 am #

        Sheri Berman: the 20th century’s most successful right-wing movements, Fascism and National Socialism, which had mass and cross-class appeal and were real (if perverted) responses to genuine societal grievances and problems. They were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power.

        Ms. Berman, history shows that both Fascism and National Socialism were successful in achieving power BECAUSE OF the enthusiastic support of elites such as the Catholic Church, and the wealthy industrialists of theIr day.

        The “mass and cross-class appeal” appeal of Fascism and National Socialism were achieved directly BECAUSE of the generous financial sponsorship which they received from the wealthy industrialists, in the exact same way today’s Koch brothers sponsor the faux “populism” of today’s Tea Party.

        If the Tea Party were to actually threaten corporate interests, the sponsorship of people like the Koch brothers’ and Rupert Murdoch would disappear in a heartbeat, and you’d never hear the words “Tea Party” on Fox News ever again.

      • Corey Robin October 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

        Good questions!

        I didn’t want to get too into this, but I did want to point out that both Hitler and Mussolini came together b/c of the explicit cooperation/requests of the elite de elites in their respective countries. Contrary to popular myth, Hitler did not win his way into power through the vote: in the last free election a majority of the country voted against the Nazis; it was Hindenburg’s and other’s collusion and cooperation with Hitler that made the difference. Nor did Mussolini march on Rome, as myth would have it; he was given the keys to the city by Victor Emmanuel III.

  2. Owen White October 8, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    I was particularly struck by this phrase in Berman’s review: Despite what Robin claims, the problems of advanced industrial democracies today are not all caused by elite cabals hellbent on keeping the lower orders in their place.

    In the few days before reading that review, I had listened to your interview with Henwood in which he mentioned the outlandishly embrace-the-stereotype rituals of the Party of the Right at Yale, and I reread Easton on the Gang of Five (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/e/easton-gang.html), and then I read the Meyer article on Art Pope (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer). Of course, none of that (or any other of the mounting evidence of elite cabal domination) suggests that all problems in advanced industrial democracies are caused by elite cabals. But when considering the question of who is framing the debates over political, economic, and social questions, it seems odd to go with populism against a cabal thesis. Berman’s ability to divorce a Palinesque populism from the machinations of cabals requires a remarkable faith in Americans, of all people, being able to sustain a populism that is not easily manipulated by people who have well defined agendas, loads of cash, and an ideological army which includes Jeezus, MILF politicians, and a legion of loudest radio voices — as if we can have those things and at the same time have a truly spontaneous populism that is at heart independent of its would be masters who currently finance the show and provide all of the ideological idioms. Whew. I mean, I know it’s now in vogue (in both the right and much of the left) to trash talk anything that even hints of suggesting a “false consciousness” in these conservative populisms, but I would think that pointing to the presence of a well financed and intellectually composed group that pretty clearly sees itself as a cabal and is about the business of doing the sorts of things cabals do would at least indicate that it is pretty damn plausible that those elite are not to be cleanly contrasted with the machinations surrounding the populist side of things.

    I look forward to reading your book.

  3. donald October 8, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Thank God for the internet. In the old days you’d have to figure out how to compress this piece into (at most) three short paragraphs. Well, you’ll still have to do that if you want to respond in the dead tree edition, but at least interested people can read the longer version here.

  4. Jason Kosnoski October 8, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Corey,

    I read the book and read the review. The review is truly horrible. And because it does seem to avoid the main argument, one must ask oneself with whom or what the author was actually arguing.

    First of all, to say that you argue that conservatism is some type of cabal or conspiracy US misses the main way that you want to use the concept of hierarchy. Modern conservatism is not (primarily) a hierarchy of the puppet masters in an oak-paneled room variety. You argue that conservatism is maintained by the acts of both elites and not elites who wish to rule little hierarchical realms in their daily lives and more immediate environments. How could she miss this? How could she buy into the Palin populism, anti-authoritarian argument?

    The thing that really seems to irk her is the tone she perceives in your writing. In your response, I think you cut yourself a bit short in saying that you simply want to get to the bottom of conservatism and start a few conversations. In addition to the strong analysis, the book uses strong language and attempts to criticize right wingers for believing things that diverge quite remarkably from what they say they believe. They are hypocrites and you call them out on this, quite forcefully. This is an important and political (not simply analytic) thing to do.

    This seems to upset Berman’s sense of academic decorum. (The Coulter comparison is ludicrous. It is the exact type of “cheap shot” she accuses you of taking and she should apologize) But, the thing is, demands for liberal, tolerant, staid rhetoric are often predicated upon the author’s sense of security and elite position within a hierarchy. Too often I see people who do not face the full brunt of conservative aggression demand that politics be played according to rules that conservatives do not recognize. Barnard does not face constant cuts and threats to academic freedom by institutions such as the Republican controlled Michigan Legislature or the Mackinac Center (the Heritage foundation of Michigan) like we do at University of Michigan—Flint (where I teach). And if they did, Barnard’s zillion dollar endowment can buy a team of lawyers that can put up a much stronger defense than anything my little regional university could deploy. So within her little fiefdom, Berman is safe, protected lord, and thus possesses the latitude to call for niceness, dispassionate analysis, and whatever else her position affords her. Arguments such as yours–overtly political arguments that forcefully criticize ideologies and individuals–upset the divide between academia and politics, where those in academia get to say what they want to say as long as they keep it to themselves and say it in a way that no one else understands. Creative amalgamations of academic analysis and political criticism are what institutions such as mine, and the left in general, need to survive and thrive, but they obviously upset those who benefit most from the divide.

    Of course, this is the argument of your book, that the establishment and protection little daily hierarchies represents a powerful motivator in conservative ideology. What Berman’s response suggests is that the desire to protect hierarchy can also subtly motivate the politics of elite liberals. She wants to preserve her beautiful little castle—forget the rest of us outside the moat who have to beat back the barbarians every day.

    Anyway, even if you didn’t mean to criticize and only analyze, I appreciate the book and think it represents both a powerful argument and an important political intervention.

    • Corey Robin October 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

      On the whole, I do try to avoid the kind of rhetoric she accuses me of, if only b/c I think it distracts from the argument I try to make. I make no secret of my disagreement with conservatism, but to me, that’s the least interesting thing. Other people do a much better job of critiquing certain kinds of conservative arguments; I honestly did see my task of just trying to get straight on what the deeper worldview entails.

      • NWLefty (@NWLefty1) November 3, 2011 at 11:21 am #

        She should read Matt Taibbi if she wants to get some forceful rhetoric from the left. Of course his language would free her from the obligation to evaluate his arguments. Kinda what she was doing to you.

    • PF October 10, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

      This all seems like quite a stretch. But it is rather puzzling that Berman would agree to carry out NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus’s bidding — in effect, if not in conscious intention. Berman is certainly a scholar with deep sympathy for social democracy, so why put oneself in a position to help out a political opponent (the affable but nonetheless neoconservative Tanenhaus)? Just off the top of my head, why not write a reasonable, negative (rather than spiteful and lazy) review of Robin’s book in some publication which fosters genuine intra-leftist/liberal debate?

  5. stephenkmacksd October 8, 2011 at 12:55 pm #

    Mr. Robin,
    Thank you for very thoughtful and revelatory comments on the review of your book in the NYT. I believe and practice polemical commentary, but in some cases a more reasoned form of discourse is more to the point; your generous essay demonstrates without a doubt the vitality of that approach. I will definitely purchase your book on the strength of this essay, which provides a view of your intellectual approach. Look forward to reading your book.
    Best regards,
    StephenKMackSD

  6. ed norton October 8, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    I attended your CUNY talk a few nights ago. And while I appreciate the effort to read “Conservatism” back through to Burke, especially when it comes to bringing out its core reactionary politics to democracy, I think its history is less linear than you seem to suggest.

    • Corey Robin October 10, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

      Take a look at the book; I think you’ll see that there is no linear argument. As I say, conservatism is a “historical improvisation on a persistent theme.” That makes for lots of interesting developments along the way.

  7. V. Brandt October 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm #

    Corey,

    I was astonished by Berman’s review. Not only did she fail to engage the arguments of your book, but she completely misread its tone. I detect no “diatribe,” “Manicheanism,” “exaggeration,” “invective,” “cheap shots” or “ad hominem” in your work. I do, however, find many of these qualities in Berman’s piece. Since you have so capably responded to her review—bravo, by the way, for doing so with such equanimity—I’d like to try to understand why she might have missed the boat so completely. My short answer is that Berman seems to suffer a profound lack of curiosity; the slightly longer version is that she instantiates the very kind elitism that gives liberals a bad name.

    Berman’s opening paragraph sets out her view that the right is to blame for much that is wrong in contemporary American politics: conspiracy theories, anti-intellectualism, and demonization of opponents have created an environment in which “epithets have replaced arguments, a sense of common destiny seems lacking among citizens and compromise has become almost impossible.” She would like to read a book that documents this “wreckage” and traces the connections between right-wing ideas and outcomes. A book, in other words, that would prove with facts what she already believes in principle. She is a convert in want of a preacher.

    Nowhere in the review does one sense that Berman wants to _understand_ the right. The only curiosity she evinces concerns why the masses are so easily misled by “populist demagogues” ; her only interest is in the pragmatic question of how we can reach, teach, and convince the conservative Other. She wanted you to explain “why [our] own side is more deserving” because the left “needs to …persuade a broad audience…” She states that the left must “address the public’s real needs and get credit for doing so,” and “reach out to ordinary citizens, to address them in ways that resonate with their most basic problems and concerns.” There is something patronizing in the way she separates “the left” from “the people,” as if she believes the left to be an elite that must somehow manage the masses. Of course, it is also patronizing to lecture an author about a book he didn’t write, and it is just plain silly to think that another book connecting right-wing ideology to its outcomes is all we need. The problem is not lack of evidence; it is lack of relevance.

    In short, Berman is frustrated by your failure to offer pithy debating points to the left, and her complacency is rattled by your taking conservative thought seriously and showing that folks from Kansas have legitimate reasons for interpreting their experience the way they do. It is not you but Berman who holds members of the right in low regard and thinks the hoi polloi deceived as to their own interests. This is intellectual laziness and smug self-satisfaction of the highest order. It also is a kind of elitism that blinkers many on the left. I’d like to take Jason Kosnoski’s point about academic decorum a step farther, and claim that what is violated is Berman’s sense of *liberal* decorum.

    From the first paragraph it is clear that Berman thinks a healthy polity is one of vibrant argument, a sense of shared destiny, and compromise. This is a very classical liberal conception of politics—a conception that she shares with our current President, who is so devoted to procedure (bipartisanship, etc.) that he is loath to articulate any normative vision of what those procedures should be aiming for. Even the questions Berman wishes you’d asked betray this preference for means over ends: she wants to know “why are mass protests railing against tax increases rather than demanding a more progressive and activist government?” (Tax increases are something concrete; activist government is an attitude. Moreover, as your book argues, conservatives are profoundly activist, cf. the Supreme Court.) Berman, like Obama, represents a particular kind of liberalism that valorizes the “rational” above the “emotional” and places its faith in expertise to guide us to a proper utility-maximizing solution; they favor dispassionate discussion and debate, are allergic to forceful claims, and expect compromise amongst a variety of diverging perspectives. They are, as Obama has clearly proven, slow to learn that conservatives neither play by these rules nor view compromise as success. (In this respect they are much like climate scientists, who, though convinced we’re standing at an ecological precipice, couch every statement in mays and mights and probabilities, not understanding the difference between speaking a shared language among scientists and communicating in public.)

    It is this vein of liberalism that the right decry as airily intellectual, elitist and effete. And, I would argue, it’s why the left keeps losing.

    • Corey Robin October 10, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

      This is all very well said. I didn’t want to make my response a review of the review — or a critique of Berman’s worldview — but had I, these would definitely have been among my points.

      • V. Brandt October 10, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

        You were quite right to limit yourself to what substance there was. Because you took the high road, though, I felt that someone else needed to probe some of the assumptions that seemed to underlie her critique. (So I volunteered.)

  8. Clarissa October 9, 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read The Reactionary Mind but after this New York Times review and your brilliant response to it I realized I need to read the book. The Reactionary Mind sounds fascinating.

  9. Paul Rosenberg October 10, 2011 at 12:20 am #

    I haven’t read your book yet, but on the basis of this post & other writings I’ve seen the last week or so, I’d characterize what your up to as presenting a dialectical account of conservatism–as in “Burke, like conservatives more generally, responds to democratic movements against regimes of privilege by reinventing those regimes, often by borrowing from the very movements he opposes.”

    Berman, for whatever reason, simply doesn’t seem to get dialectical processes. A lot of people don’t, and they tend to translate dialectical acocunts into less complicated ones. Because their explanations are simpler than the texts they’re interpreting they can’t see what they are missing. And when the explanation doesn’t make sense to them, they project the misunderstanding back onto the origianl text .

    This is at least one major thing I see going on in this very misguided review.

  10. anonymous@anonymousmail.com October 10, 2011 at 10:36 am #

    I’m going to go out on a limb here, and speculate that what Sheri Berman was trying, but failing, to express with her pointless talk about “elites” was her disagreement with Corey Robin’s central theses:

    1) What commonly pass for conservative ideas are, upon closer examination, nothing more than reaction against liberal ideas.

    2) This is demonstrably true of conservative ideas ever since the days of Edmund Burke.

    ************

    If I am either mis-stating Corey’s ideas, or creating a ‘straw man’ version of Berman’s argument against them, I’m sure other posters to correct me…

  11. Non-reactionary mind October 10, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Having read excerpts of your book on Amazon.com, Corey, I’ll say this…

    …it’s as if Sheri Berman attended a concert by the New York Philharmonic…

    …and then criticized the band for its total failure to play the Beer Barrel Polka.

    • Corey Robin October 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

      Were we on FB, I’d hit “like”!

  12. Ranjit Suresh October 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

    It’s remarkable how far you go out of your way to explain right-wing populism as not merely false consciousness in action but the result of individuals seeking to defend their little fiefdoms and estates in society. Did Berman read, for instance, your chapter discussing Southern antebellum society and the arguments of pro-slavery politicians like John C. Calhoun? Did she note how much you conceded, in a tone of civility if you will, to conservatives who have a sincere emotional attachment to the the relations of master and subordinate that transcends mere economic interest? And how you drew parallels between this romantic ideal of slavery and other forms of domination, such as patriarchy and the old regimes threatened by the extension of democracy in the time of Burke and Adams?

    The boldness of your argument is that Burkean conservatives, Southern apologists, and Tea Party activists are quite in keeping what you say about libertarianism: “When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.” The people who protest for lower taxes do not want to dissolve society into a warring bundle of atomized individuals. Instead, they want to defend the prerogatives of their private estates of the family and the company against infringements made on behalf of subordinate groups like workers and minorities. This is why conservatives promote home education and school vouchers, for example. They turn education from a public good into a collection of privately owned estates, whether small in the case of home schooling, or large, with government subsidized private schools.

  13. Lucy Silver January 3, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    I have ordered Corey Robin’s book. In my “heart,”, I know he is “right.” Conservatives want to keep those under them from gaining ground. I am still coping with what I intuit, and what is the greatest argument to Mr. Robins: There must be more than one kind of Conservaive. Social conservatives want to limit movements of gender/race/etc. Fiscal conservatives want to limit access to power/money/wealth. They are not necessarially congruent. I believe that was Romney’s problem: he was a fiscal conservative, but became false/uncomfortable on the social conservative issues. Ane there is the thinker who holds that the past contains truths and validities that remain constant throughout time and should not be discarded.

    Just a rehash of what hs been said, of course, but the issue is truly complex and multifacited.

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  1. How do we understand “The Reactionary Mind”? By reading that new book—and ignoring the NYTimes’ absurd review :: News From Underground - October 8, 2011

    […] Read more. Related Posts:Eric Boehlert rightly slams NYT Book ReviewAnother Salon reader calls it quitsA new book full of hard and necessary truths about the Vietnam war (Nick Turse)Jeff Sharlet & Damon Linker (w/ MCM) to speak in NYC on 11/2!Janine Wedel to speak about her book, “Shadow Elite,” 3/22 in NYC!Powered by Contextual Related Posts October 8, 2011   //   General   //   No Comments   //   […]

  2. What is Conservatism? Probably not what you think. « The Center for the Humanities - October 10, 2011

    […] This will no doubt upset those on the liberal/left who read conservatism as a strictly emotional, instinctive or even downright stupid political movement. In fact, Robin knows to expect some backlash when he writes, on page 17, that “The notion that conservative ideas are a mode of counterrevolutionary practice is likely to raise some eyebrows, even hackles.” Indeed the backlash has already begun. To get a taste, check out Sheri Berman’s piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. (you can read Robin’s response here). […]

  3. Conservatism & The Reactionary Mind: some thoughts « Marmalade - October 12, 2011

    […] Times Book Review. Her review is negative and I sensed it wasn’t fair. I was glad to see that Corey Robin responded to the review in a way that was intellectually fair. In checking out some other web search results, I found a […]

  4. Links, 10/14/11 | Rortybomb - October 14, 2011

    […] Corey Robin responds to what a terrible New York Times review of his book.  Awful review, clear the reader didn’t engage (or perhaps fully read) the book. […]

  5. A Last Word on My Exchange with Sheri Berman « Corey Robin - October 15, 2011

    […] Berman has written a response to my response of her New York Times review of my book. It doesn’t add anything new to the conversation, and I […]

  6. Links 10/17/11 | Mike the Mad Biologist - October 17, 2011

    […] The New York Times Review of The Reactionary Mind: My Response David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst* Protest Infrastructure: How Much Trouble Are Protesters, Really? The most clueless political column ever—I think this Easterbrook dude has the journalistic equivalent of “tenure” (Easterbrook has been a dope for a very long time) Mainers Ask “What Side” Sens. Snowe And Collins Are On Say Anything, Cain Version South Korea Fights Test-Prep Obsession, as the US Creates More Tests How the Media Help Republicans Escape Blame for Obstructionism Advertisement Eco World Content From Across The Internet. Featured on EcoPressed Investors enamored with rooftop solar Share this:TwitterFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Lotsa Links. Bookmark the permalink. ← With ‘Progressive’ Wisdom Like This, Our Economy Is Doomed: Thoughts on Apple’s Future, and Development Versus Production […]

  7. The World’s most Biggest liar is UMNO and MCA « Suara Keadilan Malaysia - October 25, 2011

    […] wing populism, a more sophisticated view than Piven’s, which he summarised succinctly in  his response to a deeply wrong-headed review in the New York Times. Right wing populism “assumes one of […]

  8. News of the Book « Corey Robin - October 26, 2011

    […] Despite the venues—one a Murdoch publication, the other a right-wing magazine—neither review seems to think The Reactionary Mind is a diatribe or polemic. […]

  9. OWS: Fighting the politics of illusion - October 27, 2011

    […] wing populism, a more sophisticated view than Piven’s, which he summarised succinctly in his response to a deeply wrong-headed review in the New York Times. Right wing populism “assumes one of three […]

  10. When the Right Hand Doesn’t Know What the Right Hand is Doing « Corey Robin - November 3, 2011

    […] I know I’ve complained a bit about reviewers not reading my book. But editors not reading the reviews they run in their […]

  11. Zero Gov - Anti-Government, Pro-Liberty » Blog Archive » The History You Don’t Know: Ten Questions for Jeff Riggenbach - December 15, 2011

    […] with the view of conservatism Rothbard presented all those years ago in “Left & Right.”  Robin’s view is also instructive and […]

  12. Fight Club, or That’s the Year That Was « Corey Robin - December 26, 2011

    […] Sometimes, my exchanges with the right have been edifying; other times, not so much. I’ve disagreed with critics of my views on the right. I’ve talked about Anne Coulter, Sam’s Club […]

  13. Check out BC pol sci prof Corey Robin’s blog | Brooklyn College MA in Political Science and International Affairs - December 29, 2011

    […] Sometimes, my exchanges with the right have been edifying; other times, not so much. I’ve disagreed with critics of my views on the right. I’ve talked about Anne Coulter, Sam’s Club Republicanism, […]

  14. Quiggin on Robin h/t Leiter « The Lure - January 5, 2012

    […] — real conservatism, as espoused by able conservatives (Oakeshott, Hayek, etc.) — as, e.g., “an idea driven praxis,” which suggests that he thinks there is a real conservative […]

  15. The New York Times Takes Up The Reactionary Mind…Again « Corey Robin - February 1, 2012

    […] pleased by his framing of the issue.  What it signifies is that we may at last be having the debate I was hoping to have about the meaning of conservatism and what the disagreement between the right and left is really […]

  16. The Reactionary & Reckless Minds « the surface of things - February 1, 2012

    […] I miss this? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  17. Dissecting Romney’s Statement: What Are Problems the Middle-Class Has That the Poor Don’t? | Rortybomb - February 2, 2012

    […] is very important for the regulatory state and that democratic feudalism and upside-down populism is very relevant to Corey Robin’s new book on the conservative movement, and move on to the next […]

  18. I Think Everyone Who Receives Even a Single Tax Dollar Should Have to Pee in a Cup | Mike the Mad Biologist - February 4, 2012

    […] is very important for the regulatory state and that democratic feudalism and upside-down populism is very relevant to Corey Robin’s new book on the conservative movement, and move on to the next […]

  19. Isn’t It Romantic? Burke, Maistre, and Conservatism « Corey Robin - March 3, 2012

    […] Over at The American Conservative, political theorist Sam Goldman offers a thoughtful response to The Reactionary Mind. Among its many virtues, Goldman’s post manages to get my argument right. As we’ve seen, that can be something of a challenge for some reviewers. […]

  20. I am not a racist. I just hate democracy. | Corey Robin - March 14, 2013

    […] and their structuring presence on the right. That book, just out in paperback, got panned by the New York Times Book Review, of which Tanenhaus is the editor. Thus advanceth the dialectic. But I […]

  21. I am not a racist. I just don’t like democracy. - Unofficial Network - March 14, 2013

    […] and their structuring presence on the right. That book, just out in paperback, got panned by the New York Times Book Review, of which Tanenhaus is the editor. Thus advanceth the dialectic. But I […]

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