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David Brooks: Better In the Original German

11 Mar

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.

Silence and Segregation: On Clarence Thomas as a Lacanian Performance Artist

14 Feb

Toward the end of his life the legendary French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would lead his seminars in almost absolute silence. Though he suffered from some kind of aphasia, Lacan’s silences are often held to signify more than silence. In keeping with his theory, they mark a presence. Silence speaks.

I thought of Lacan when I read this statement from Clarence Thomas, which Jonathan Chait flagged the other day.

My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up. Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

Thomas’s critics see this kind of talk as either outright lies or utter foolishness. Can Thomas really believe that the segregated South of his youth was less race-conscious than today? Does he really believe that not talking about race (if southerners did in fact not talk about race) signifies the absence of race consciousness?

But the immediate pairing of these two sentences in Thomas’s talk—”I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up.”—is too suggestive to leave it at that. Look carefully at what Thomas is saying: I personally desegregated a white school; we never talked about race. The juxtaposition is so jarring, it can only be read as a kind of Lacanian performance art. However unintentional or unconscious, his words signal the connection between absence and presence, silence and segregation.

If you think I’m over-reading this, remember that silence has long been a racially fraught topic for Clarence Thomas. He doesn’t ask questions during oral argument at the Supreme Court. Why? Because, he has said, he was teased when he was younger for speaking English in the Geechee/Gullah dialect of black slaves and their descendants. So he learned to keep quiet, as an undergraduate, at Yale Law School, and now on the bench. Silence was a protective mechanism against racist humiliation, a marker not of the absence of race but the presence of racism.

There’s a structural, even causal, relationship between those two sentences of Thomas. And, despite his protestations, he knows it. Somewhere, somehow.

Where Would the Tea Party Be Without Feminism?

24 Jan

In his campaign for reelection to the Senate, Lindsey Graham is facing several challengers from his right, all of whom are complaining that Graham is not conservative enough to represent the state of South Carolina.

One of Graham’s right-wing challengers is Nancy Mace. Like her fellow challengers, Mace claims the mantle of the Tea Party. Unlike her fellow challengers, she’s the first female graduate of The Citadel.

The Citadel was once an all-male military school. In 1995, Shannon Faulkner was the first woman to enroll there. Her effort was spearheaded by the Clinton Administration and the National Organization for Women. She quit after a week, citing extensive harassment at the hands of her male classmates, who danced and cheered as she drove off from the school.

While Faulkner had been pursuing her case at The Citadel, however, the Clinton Administration had been attempting to force the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) to accept women. In June 1996, it succeeded, when the Supreme Court, in United States v. Virginia, struck down VMI’s all-male admissions policy. Three days later, The Citadel gave up its battle against women cadets. That same year, Nancy Mace enrolled there, and graduated in 1999.

The VMI decision was written by feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and was joined by Court liberals John Paul Stevens, David Souter, and Stephen Breyer, as well as Court moderates Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. The sole hard-right conservative to strike down the VMI policy was Chief Justice William Rehnquist, though he did so on narrower grounds than the majority. Antonin Scalia dissented. Clarence Thomas recused himself because his son was a student at VMI.

And now we have Nancy Mace complaining that Lindsey Graham is too liberal.

Once upon a time, conservatism derived its edge, its sense of will and adversity, from the fact that many of its most illustrious leaders had been outsiders. From Benjamin Disraeli to Phyllis Schlafly, the movement  understood its work as the volition of the upstart. “I was not,” hissed Burke at the end of his life,

like his Grace of Bedford, swaddled, and rocked, and dandled into a legislator; “Nitor in adversum” is the motto for a man like me….At every step of my progress in life, (for in every step was I traversed and opposed,) and at every turnpike I met, I was obliged to show my passport, and again and again to prove my sole title to the honour of being useful to my country, by a proof that I was not wholly unacquainted with its laws, and the whole system of its interests both abroad and at home. Otherwise no rank, no toleration, even for me.

Nowadays, we get stuff like this:

In the summer of 1996, The Citadel opened its doors to women and Nancy took a bold step—she simply hopped in her car and drove to The Citadel to pick up an application. The next day, she submitted it.

A few days later, Nancy was accepted as one of the first women ever to enter the Citadel’s ranks as a “knob.” Nancy took the plunge and joined the Corps of Cadets, eager to follow in her father’s footsteps.

That doesn’t bode well for the movement.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

15 Jan

I just heard Ari Shapiro report on NPR about an effort in Britain to “modernize” the aristocracy by allowing women of the nobility to inherit the titles and estates of their fathers. Current British law requires that all heirs to titles and estates be male. No one on the show mentioned the most obvious step to modernity: abolish the titled aristocracy altogether.

There was a time when the battle against sexism and the battle against the aristocracy were thought to be one and the same. No more. As Lady Liza Campbell, one of the aggrieved heiresses-in-waiting, told Shapiro:

Nowhere should girls be born less than their brother. Yes, it’s the aristocracy. You may want to hold a peg over your nose. But it’s still sexism. You can be an atheist and support the idea of women bishops, I think.

It’s easy to pooh-pooh and laugh at this sort of talk, but as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, one of the chief ways that the right defends against the left, and preserves its privileges more generally, is to borrow the tropes and tactics, the memes and methods, of the left. Sometimes, as I said in the book, this act of borrowing is self-conscious and strategic; other times, it happens un-self-consciously, with the defenders of privilege coming under the influence of their antagonists, without even realizing it. This current case seems to be a bit of both.

As if to prove my point, Campbell tells Shapiro at the end of the report that if she and her comrades are not able to change the law in Parliament, they will take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. The British aristocracy pressing its case before an international human rights tribunal. Edmund Burke, meet Tom Paine.

Indeed, Campbell’s comment reminded me of that moment in Burke where he drops all talk of little platoons and local tradition and starts insisting that the aristocracy and the counterrevolution reinvent themselves as “citizens” of Europe. So “sympathetic with the adversity or the happiness of mankind” should counterrevolutionary Britain be, he writes in the Letters on a Regicide Peace, that “nothing in human foreign affairs,” and certainly nothing in revolutionary France, would be “foreign to her.” Were the counterrevolution to think this way, he sighs dreamily, “no citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” And the aristocracy might just have a fighting chance of preserving itself.

Aristocrats of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your…shame.

David Brooks Says

18 Dec

Matt Yglesias has an excellent post on the most recent column of David Brooks.

David Brooks says:

We are in the middle of…a dangerous level of family breakdown.

David Brooks says:

It’s wrong to describe an America in which the salt of the earth common people are preyed upon by this or that nefarious elite. It’s wrong to tell the familiar underdog morality tale in which the problems of the masses are caused by the elites. The truth is, members of the upper tribe have made themselves phenomenally productive. They may mimic bohemian manners, but they have returned to 1950s traditionalist values and practices. They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids. Members of the lower tribe work hard and dream big, but are more removed from traditional bourgeois norms. They live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive.

David Brooks says:

I’d say today’s meritocratic elites achieve and preserve their status not mainly by being corrupt but mainly by being ambitious and disciplined. They raise their kids in organized families.

David Brooks says:

It’s not enough just to have economic growth policies. The country also needs to rebuild orderly communities. This requires bourgeois paternalism: Building organizations and structures that induce people to behave responsibly rather than irresponsibly and, yes, sometimes using government to do so.

David Brooks is getting divorced.

Socialism would mean…

12 Nov

A student of mine, who’s writing her masters’ thesis on the relationship between the Tories and Burke, found this brilliant campaign poster from 1929.

Tory Party poster, 1929

Tory Party poster, 1929

 

Burke in Debt

24 Oct

Some day someone should write an essay on the struggles of Edmund Burke in his final years to overcome his considerable debts—some £30,000—by securing a peerage and a pension from the Crown.

Throughout his career, Burke’s financial state had been precarious. Much to his embarrassment, he was periodically forced to rely upon well timed gifts and loans from his wealthier friends and patrons.

So terrified was he of dying in a debtor’s prison that he struggled in his retirement to learn Italian. His hope, claimed one of the many visitors at his estate, was to flee England and “end his days with tollerable Ease in Italy.” (He also floated, apparently, the possibility of fleeing to Portugal or America.) “I cannot quite reconcile my mind to a prison,” he  told a friend.

Thanks to the interventions of his well connected friends, Burke secured from Pitt in August 1795 two annuities that would wipe out his debts and a pension that, along with an additional pension and the income from his estate, would enable him and his wife to live in comfort into their old age.

Three months later, when Burke took up his pen against a proposal for the government to subsidize the wages of farm laborers during bad harvest years (so that they could sustain themselves and their families), he wrote, “To provide for us in our necessities is not in the power of government.”

The Moderate and the McCarthyite: The Case of Robert Taft

23 Oct

In the New York Times today, John G. Taft, who is the grandson of Robert Taft, makes his contribution to the growing “Oh, conservatives used to be so moderate, now they’re just radicals and crazies” literature that The Reactionary Mind was supposed to consign to the dustbin of history. (You can see how successful I’ve been.)

Having written about and against this thesis of conservatism’s Golden Age so many times, I don’t think it’s useful for me to rehearse my critique here. Instead, I’ll focus on one important tidbit of Taft’s argument, in the hope that a little micro-history about his grandfather might serve to correct our macro-history of conservatism.

Here’s what Taft says:

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party.

According to Taft, McCarthy’s “anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked” and it was ultimately forces like his grandfather who put that crusade in check.

Let’s turn to the Wayback Machine, shall we?

First, it’s important to remember that in 1946, the year McCarthy was elected to the Senate, Taft was the leader of the conservative Senate Republicans who were eager to use redbaiting to help Republicans get elected. Taft had no compunction about claiming that the legislative agenda of Democrats in Congress “bordered on Communism.” That kind of talk helped put the entire Congress back in Republican hands for the first time since 1930. So forceful—and out there, ideologically speaking—was Taft’s leadership that after the election the New Republic editorialized that “Congress…now consists of the House, the Senate, and Bob Taft.”

Second, Taft was the author of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, one of the most infamous rollbacks in twentieth century American history. (Far from being a genteel defender or “steward” of tradition, as Taft the grandson suggests, Taft the grandfather aggressively sought to counter the New Deal. When he ran against Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952, Taft was the candidate of domestic rollback, not accommodation, including rollback of such policies as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which required companies receiving government contracts not to discriminate on the basis of race.)

Among Taft-Hartley’s many provisions was the prohibition of closed or union shops, which paved the way for states to pass “right to work” laws and other anti-union legislation of the sort that we’ve seen many right-wing state legislators pushing since 2010—particularly in those states where both elected branches of government were suddenly in the hands of the Republicans, thanks in no small part to support from the Tea Party.

In addition, the anticommunist provision of Taft-Hartley was one of the more potent pieces of legislation contributing to the developing atmosphere of Cold War hysteria around communism. That provision mandated that all unions seeking the protections of the Wagner Act had to have their leaders take an oath affirming that they were neither members nor supporters of the Communist Party or any other organization seeking the overthrow of the United States government. That provision provoked a wave of red-baiting and red-hunting within and around the labor movement, which proved to be a kind of social corollary to what the government was doing in and around the executive branch.

Taft was not the opponent or even just the helpmate of this repression; he was a leading agent of it. More than three years before anyone outside of Wisconsin had even heard of Joseph McCarthy.

But on the question of McCarthy himself, the record is clear: Taft did not merely “allow” the man and the ism to dominate; Taft actively coddled, encouraged, and supported him and it at every turn.

As early as March 23, 1950—four weeks after McCarthy’s famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia—Taft gave McCarthy his firm support, telling McCarthy, “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another.” And added, for good measure, “Keep it up, Joe.”

When Truman attacked McCarthy’s speech—no amateur when it came to red-baiting, Truman called McCarthy “the greatest asset the Kremlin has”—Taft responded in kind, accusing Truman of being “bitter and prejudiced” and of “libeling” McCarthy, who was “a fighting Marine.” (Asked whether he had indeed libeled McCarthy, Truman responded, “Do you think that is possible?”)

While the Tydings Committee conducted its hearings about Communists in the State Department, Taft denounced the hearings as a “farce” and a “whitewash,” and pushed for even more aggressive inquisitions into subversion of the executive branch. As late as 1952 Taft would be harping on the issue of Communists in the State Department. He claimed that Dean Acheson had welcomed the Communist takeover of China because “in the State Department there’s been a strong Communist sympathy, as far as the Chinese Communists are concerned.” Sensing a major political opportunity in the coming presidential election of 1952, Taft said, “The only way to get rid of Communists in the State Department is to change the head of the government.”

In 1951, however, Taft pulled back —after it seemed that McCarthy had gone too far, accusing George Marshall on the Senate floor of aiding the Communist cause. That was in June. In October, after temporizing for months in response to a wave of negative publicity, Taft inched away from the senator from Wisconsin. He said:

I don’t think one who overstates his case helps his own case.

There are certain points on which I wouldn’t agree with McCarthy. His extreme attack against General Marshall is one of the things on which I cannot agree.

But within weeks, Taft reversed course. In response to a wave of letters from complaining fans of McCarthy, Taft issued a correction in which he downplayed his disagreements with McCarthy (“I often disagree with other Republican senators”) and reaffirmed his support: “Broadly speaking, I approve of Senator McCarthy’s program.”

Just in case there was any doubt about that, Taft personally endorsed McCarthy’s reelection bid during the Wisconsin primary of 1952, claiming that “Senator McCarthy has dramatized the fight to exclude Communists from the State Department. I think he did a great job in undertaking that goal.” He even campaigned for McCarthy—despite the fact that McCarthy never returned the favor by endorsing Taft.

And on at least one occasion (there might have been more), Taft quietly passed information to McCarthy about possible subversion in the State Department, suggesting to McCarthy that one employee deserved “special attention.”

By the time McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954—not because of Robert Joseph Welch’s eloquent pleas but because he had turned on the Republican leadership and the Eisenhower administration, who no longer needed him—Taft had been dead sixteen months.

This was the man they once called “Mr. Conservative” who is now being held up as the paragon of moderation. To paraphrase Woody Allen: a moderate Republican is a right-wing reactionary plus time.

Update (6:30 pm)

I should clarify that this post is not meant to pin the entire blame for McCarthyism or the larger atmosphere of redbaiting on conservatives. Not by a long shot: liberals and Democrats more than contributed their fair share, as I argue in my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. I just wanted to set the record straight here regarding the GOP.

Nozick: Libertarians are “filled…with resentment at other freer ways of being”

15 Oct

I don’t know how I missed this the previous times I read Nozick, but John Holbo—in a terrific paper on liberalism, conservatism, and ideal theory, which is due to appear in a forthcoming volume of Nomos—points me to this revealing line from Nozick’s preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This is how Nozick characterizes his libertarian comrades:

Many of the people who take a similar position [as Nozick's] are…filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being.

From his lips to your ears.

Or, as I wrote in The Reactionary Mind:

Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force—the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not.

Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.

Same As It Ever Was

11 Oct

“The Administration…can gain the leeway on the domestic front…only by combatting the radical Right rather than seeking itself to move onto rightist ground — an illusory operation since the Right can always go still further right and will.”

—David Riesman, “The Cold War and the West: Answers Given in a Partisan Review Symposium” (1962) (h/t Marilyn Young)

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