Tag Archives: Andrew Sullivan

A Sinking Ship? 2 politicians jump, there may be a 3rd.

5 Feb

More news on the Brooklyn/BDS controversy:

1.Yet another signatory to the Lewis Fidler letter, which threatened to punish CUNY by withholding funds, has rescinded his signature.

Today on Twitter, City Councilman Stephen Levin announced:

With Letitia James, two out of the 10 signatories have now removed themselves from the Fidler letter.

2.  I have it on a very good source that yet another member of the New York City Council who signed the letter is going to make a public statement tomorrow, distancing him/herself from its contents. Am not at liberty to say who. But that would make 3 out of 10.

3. My chair, Paisley Currah, has written a very powerful piece for The Chronicle Review, explaining his position on the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event. In addition to revealing some details that folks don’t know or have ignored, he makes an important point about the value—and limits—of the idea of balance and debate as the only model of learning and discussion:

Debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention. Focusing on one idea at a time does not entail the suppression of opposing ideas. It’s a very limited vision of education to imagine that it should take the form of a tennis match, with ideas truncated into easily digestible sound bites.

4. Katha Pollitt has a characteristically crisp evisceration of the balance=thought position:

Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism? On every campus, dozens of panels and lectures take place every week, hosted by student groups, academic departments and programs, endowed lecture series and so on. If over the course of a year every side gets its turn, why isn’t that good enough?

5. The Center for Constitutional Rights has written a lengthy, substantive letter to President Gould on this issue; it’s got some excellent context and cases.

6. This is from a few days ago, but Scott Lemieux does a hilarious send-up of the “balance” argument.

The threats to Brooklyn College’s funding over their decision to invite a world-class scholar to discuss issues of major import, as I have noted, seem to involve some ad hoc principle about “balance” that is a “principle” in the same sense as the equal protection holding in Bush v. Gore.

But, at any rate, let’s pretend that this is a serious argument for a second. I have an example of this new principle being violated! Brooklyn College President Karen Gould:

“You have asked that I state unequivocally the college’s position on the BDS movement, and I have no hesitation in doing so. As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally.”

Personally, I find this statement unobjectionable. If one were to take the newly minted Sacred Principles of Academic Balance being used to attack academic freedom at CUNY, however, Gould should be robustly criticized for expressing a view on a controversial issue on behalf of the college. Is she now obligated to issue another press release from a supporter of BDS for the sake of balance? I find these new Sacred Principles very confusing.

6. Barbara Bowen, the president of my union, which represents 25,000 professors and staff at CUNY, issued a tough call to the “progressive” politicians who asked the president to have our department withdraw its co-sponsorship: “We call on you immediately to withdraw the demands of your letter and to communicate to the Brooklyn College community your support for President Gould’s position.”

7. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough report on the controversy.

8. Andrew Sullivan had a nice link to this blog, which he quoted at length. The title of his post: “The Self-Appointed Policemen of the Israel Debate, Ctd”.

9. There are multiple petitions to sign. Make sure to sign this one, which began circulating two days ago and already has over 2000 signatures, and this one, just out from the Nation.

10. Make sure to check out this post about the massive hypocrisy of Christine Quinn.

11. It’s now been four days since my department posted our call for requests to co-sponsor other panels, representing any and all points of view. Despite the claim that we’re shutting our doors to views we don’t like, we still haven’t gotten a single request for co-sponsorship. I’m beginning to wonder whether our critics really care about balance or presenting opposing views after all.

Easy To Be Hard: Conservatism and Violence

19 Jan

This is the second post in my (very) occasional series of excerpts from The Reactionary Mind. (You can read my first, on Justice Scalia, here.) This excerpt is from chapter eleven, “Easy to Be Hard,” in which I examine the relationship between conservatism and violence. I’ve removed all the footnotes; if you want to follow them up, buy the book!

(Fun fact: an earlier version of this chapter appeared two years ago in The Chronicle Review.  It drove Jonah Goldberg crazy: “This piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education may be one of the uniformly dumbest piece [sic] of intellectual claptrap I’ve read in a good long while.”)

 

I enjoy wars. Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.

—Harold Macmillan

Despite the support among self-identified conservative voters and politicians for the death penalty, torture, and war, intellectuals on the right often deny any affinity between conservatism and violence. “Conservatives,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “hate war.”

Their domestic politics is rooted in a loathing of civil wars and violence, and they know that freedom is always the first casualty of international warfare. When countries go to war, their governments invariably get bigger and stronger, individual liberties are whittled away, and societies which once enjoyed the pluralist cacophony of freedom have to be marshaled into a single, collective note to face down an external foe. A state of permanent warfare—as George Orwell saw—is a virtual invitation to domestic tyranny.

Channeling a tradition of skepticism from Oakeshott to Hume, the conservative identifies limited government as the extent of his faith, the rule of law his one requirement for the pursuit of happiness. Pragmatic and adaptive, disposed rather than committed, such a sensibility—and it is a sensibility, the conservative insists, not an ideology—is not interested in violence. His endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. Unlike his friends on the left—conservative that he is, he values friendship more than agreement—he knows we live and love in the midst of great evil. This evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record of conservatism—not only as a political practice, which is not my primary concern here, but as a theoretical tradition—suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened or vexed by violence, the conservative has been enlivened by it. I don’t mean in a personal sense, though many a conservative, like Harold Macmillan quoted above or Winston Churchill quoted below, has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. My concern is with ideas and argument rather than character or psychology. Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly—“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” as Douglas MacArthur once put it —or laboriously, as in the case of Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace….However, it is not worth the trouble to discuss this matter further; the living God will see to it that war constantly returns as a dreadful medicine for the human race.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: war is life, peace is death.

This belief can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. There Burke develops a view of the self desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort provided by pain and danger, which Burke associates with the sublime. The sublime is most readily found in two political forms: hierarchy and violence. But for reasons that shall become clear, the conservative—again, consistent with Burke’s arguments—often favors the latter over the former. Rule may be sublime, but violence is more sublime. Most sublime of all is when the two are fused, when violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination and rule. But as Burke warned, it’s always best to enjoy pain and danger at a remove. Distance and obscurity enhance sublimity; nearness and illumination diminish it. Counterrevolutionary violence may be the Everest of conservative experience, but one should view it from afar. Get too close to the mountaintop, and the air becomes thin, the view clouded. At the end of every discourse on violence, then, lies a waiting disappointment.

Another prize! And other news of the blog and the book

5 Jan

Clio Awards 2011 - writerThe blog has won another award!  Cliopatra, the history blog at the History News Network, has awarded me its “Best Writer” award.  Here’s what the judges said:

Corey Robin’s new blog, CoreyRobin.com, has rapidly become a *tour de force*. Robin joins battle with contemporary issues by way of a deep engagement with the history of political thought. Although he is a passionate partisan of the left, he takes conservative thinkers seriously. Several of them have returned the favor, including Andrew Sullivan, who regularly uses Robin’s provocative posts as a launching pad for his own blogging, and Bruce Bartlett, who recently debated Robin at CoreyRobin.com. All that, and Robin’s words sparkle with a crafty combination of intelligence and wit. He is the quintessential public intellectual for the digital age.

Having majored in history as an undergraduate—my teachers included John Murrin, Lawrence Stone, Arno Mayer, Robert Darnton, James McPherson, and Reid Mitchell—and having always envied the ironic humanism of the historian’s craft (and wished we had more of it in political science, along with a greater sensitivity to time and historical context), I’m especially grateful to have won this recognition from the top blog in the historical profession.

This is the second prize this blog has won; the first was the 3 Quarks Daily 3rd prize (“Charm Quark”) for “best writing in politics and social science.”

More blog stuff

That Ron Paul post I wrote is getting a lot of attention and generating lots of discussion. Not only on the comments thread, which you should definitely check out, but on a Daily Kos post by David Mizner, the progressive writer and activist; in this Glenn Greenwald post; this Digby post; this rethink from Elias Isquith; and this acidulous—I’ve always wanted to use that word!—squib from Freddie DeBoer, whose blog you should also check out.  It’s also just been reposted at Al Jazeera English, where I suspect it will generate even more discussion.  And on Twitter, well, all hell has broken loose.  This is just one of the many tweets I received in response to the post: “your article is wrong on all accounts your a shill just regurgitating what the lame stream media keep feeding the Americ. public”.  There you go.

Interviews

In addition to that appearance on “Up With Chris Hayes“—someone just alerted me to the eye roll, caught on tape at 16:20, that I did in response to the foolish claim of one of the conservative guests that Prussian aristocrats opposed Hitler—there’s a really good, if I do say so myself, two-part interview that Philip Pilkington did with me over at nakedcapitalism.com.  Part I is here, Part II is here. Thanks to Phil’s excellent questions, I manage to talk about some thing that aren’t in the book or that I haven’t discussed much in public: how I came to write the book, Burke’s thoughts on theater and costumes, the future of the GOP, and more.

Reviews/Commentaries

Back in November, there was a mixed but generally positive review of the book in Times Higher Education. The reviewer—Joanna Bourke, a cultural historian (whose book on fear, in fact, I negatively reviewed in the New Statesman a long time ago)—said, “This little book will continue to spark controversy, but that is not the reason to read it: it is a witty, erudite and opinionated account of one of the most significant movements of our times.”

John Quiggin, an Australian economist who actually knows something about political theory, did a nice post on the book, on his blog and at Crooked Timber. Lots of comments on both.

There’s also Mark Lilla’s review in the New York Review of Books. As I said in a previous post, I’ll be responding in due course, so I won’t say anything here. But in the meantime, as one young intellectual historian put it on a blog, “Bashing Lilla’s review of Robin’s book seems to be the newest internet meme.” He’s not kidding. Political theorist Alex Gourevitch weighed in at Jacobin; Henry Farrell, a political scientist with a strong interest in theory, at Crooked Timber; and intellectual historian Andrew Hartman at U.S. Intellectual History. There’s also been some further commentary on—or inspired—by the review, positive and negative, from Ben Alpers, Andrew Sullivan, Daniel Larison, Matt Yglesias, 3 Quarks Daily, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose interesting post prompted this response from me.  According to intellectual historian Tim Lacy, “I’m wondering if Robin’s book won’t also become something of an instant classic. I say this because you don’t attract high-profile ire from the likes of Mark Lilla unless you hit a nerve.” Here’s hoping.

And last, some further mentions of the book, in passing, from Andrew Sullivan, and, more substantively, from Paul Rosenberg.

Reality Bites: Andrew Sullivan’s Utopian Conservatism

1 Dec

In a nice post about Peter Viereck, a mid-century American conservative who the New Yorker rightly rescued from obscurity a few years back, Andrew Sullivan makes the following observation:

…there is a distinctive conservative strain of non-violence, pragmatism, restraint and limited government that is at peace with the New Deal. How else to expain Eisenhower or the first Bush or Reagan in some moods?

Equally, there has been a long tradition of the kind of conservatism that is ascendant today: relishing violence and war, ideological, revanchist and in favor of limiting government but not of limiting other forces inimical to liberty, like rentier classes, or a fusion of corporate interests and legislation.

As some of you know, I’ve been poking at Sullivan about this distinction for some time. In a nutshell: my argument is that the second tradition Sullivan cites is what conservatism is all about; his argument is that any account of conservatism ought to include the first tradition as well.

Sullivan doesn’t dismiss my argument:

Viereck preceded [William F.] Buckley and was almost instantly de-legitimized in a manner that the “conservative movement” (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has become quite adept at (see: Sullivan, Bartlett, Frum et al.) What Viereck reveals is that in some ways, the new leftist critiques of conservatism (like Corey Robin’s stimulating, if uneven, series of essays) have a point.

He just thinks, as he’s argued before, that my argument is incomplete.

Sullivan admits that Viereck was a minority voice on the right, famously excommunicated by National Review for “passing off his unexceptionably Liberal sentiments as conservatism”: Viereck argued that conservatives should support the New Deal and labor unions, and opposed McCarthyism and favored the Democrats.  Sullivan clearly sees himself (as well as fellow fugitives David Frum and Bruce Bartlett) in a similar light: as a lonely heretic on the right, trying to bring some moderation to the movement. That made Viereck homeless in the 1950s, and it’s what makes Sullivan homeless today.

There’s just one problem with this story: conservatives aren’t supposed to be homeless, they aren’t supposed to be fugitives. Theirs, as Bill Buckley liked to say, is “the politics of reality.” Indeed, just yesterday, Sullivan said the same thing: “I believe conservatism is about facing reality.” But if your position proves time and again to be a chimera—as the great historian of British conservatism John Ramsden has written, with the exception of Robert Peel and Stanley Baldwin, no Tory leader has ever pursued a Burkean program of preservation through reform, and even Peel could not persuade his party to follow him—at what point does it run the risk of quitting the field of politics altogether and retiring to the reliquary of pure theory and idle speculation?

Back in the heyday of Cold War polemics, there was a phrase tossed around on the left—alternatively, “actually existing socialism” or “real socialism”—intended to signify the gap between Marxist ideal and communist reality. It was used sincerely and ironically, by defenders and detractors of the Soviet experiment alike. But in the hands of a certain type of Marxist purist, it came down to this: yes, the Soviet Union is a disaster, but once we have a true socialist society, all will be peace, love, and understanding. I’m simplifying and exaggerating, but you get the point.

Sullivan’s conservatism, like Viereck’s and others’, often has the same flavor. But where purists of the left have nothing to apologize for or be embarrassed about—theirs, after all, is a self-professed politics of utopia—conservatives of the Sullivan variety have some explaining to do.  For by their own definition and identification, they have excluded themselves from that family of political impossibility. Theirs, to repeat, is a politics of reality, not utopia.

Utopia, it’s often been remarked, has a literal meaning in the original Greek is a word with Greek roots that mean “no place.” I would submit that if you have to reach back more than a half-century to Eisenhower (the notion of Reagan or Bush I being at peace with the New Deal is hard to square with any narrative of American history I’m familiar with) to find a place on the right for your political ideal, then your politics are as utopian as that of the most radical leftist, who, after all, also believes that his Promised Land is a mere half-century out of reach.

Update (December 3, 8:15 pm)

Bruce Bartlett, who was one of Ronald Reagan’s top policy advisers and served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Bush I, has weighed in on the comments section. I urge you to read his thoughts on all this.

Update (December 3, 11 pm)

Just to give you another example of the right’s utopianism, this is from Ross Douthat’s column today. We’ve talked about Douthat before, how his views on sex betray an agonistic desire for self-overcoming. Here he is today, in a piece titled “The Decadent Left” (the right, as I argue in my book, is obsessed with decadence), talking about how much he appreciates Occupy Wall Street; unlike self-interested and narrow groups like unions, says Douthat, OWS fights for something larger than itself. The right is infatuated with the politics of impossibility, even when—particularly when—it comes from the left.

Better a protest movement that casts itself (however quixotically) as the defender of “the 99 percent” than a protest movement that just represents Democratic interest groups. And better a left that flirts with utopianism than a left that adheres to the dictum attributed to Leonid Brezhnev during the Prague Spring: “Don’t talk to me about ‘socialism.’ What we have, we hold.”

News of the Book

26 Oct

It’s been a while since my last round-up of news about The Reactionary Mind. Here’s what you missed:

Reviews

Two reviews of the book have recently appeared. In The American Conservative, John Derbyshire—the British-born conservative who also happens to be a contributing editor at National Review—didn’t agree with or like the book. But he did have this to say (alas, the review’s behind the firewall):

On the positive side, The Reactionary Mind at least does not snarl or sputter. It is a thoughtful, even-tempered sort of book. The old maid tendency that dominates liberal polemic in the U.S.—the shrieking, clutching at skirts, and jumping up on kitchen chairs that one gets from a Joe Nocera, a Maureen Dowd, or a Keith Olbermann—is quite absent. For this relief much thanks. Nor is the book as immaculately humor-free as most leftist productions.

After citing one sentence from the book, he also writes this:

That’s as close to a sneer as Robin gets. I feel sure that if trapped on a desert island with the man, I should soon commit suicide; but he really seems to harbor very little malice.

Writing in The Daily—Rupert Murdoch’s latest venture in the world of new media—Thomas Meaney gives a decent account of the book’s arguments and offers some intelligent criticism of its main thesis. He also says:

“The Reactionary Mind” demands to be taken seriously by conservatives, and it helps that it’s written with panache. The series of scholarly strikes Robin makes against conventional wisdom are often exhilarating.

This isn’t quite a review, but the editors of n+1 did a little roundtable on what they’ve been reading, almost all of it for and about Occupy Wall Street. Here’s the list of recommendations they come up with:

We recommend Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind, the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

Good company, I’d say. For more on what they have to say about The Reactionary Mind, read here.

Interviews

Those of you who never made it to that to interview Chris Hayes did with me—or weren’t able to get into the door—can now watch it in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Forgive the theatrical hand gestures. Mine, that is.

Michael Medved, the right-wing talk radio host, interviewed me on October 21. Sadly, if you want to listen to it, I think you have to buy the podcast.

Sasha Lilley, who interviewed me over the summer about my book on fear, interviewed about The Reactionary Mind as part of KPFA’s Fall Fund Drive. Here’s a shortened version of the interview—the full one will be broadcast later—interspersed with some very sweet hucksterism from Lilley for the book (which was being given away to callers who made donations).

Radio National in Australia did a meaty segment on the Tea Party, for which I gave a lengthy interview.

Philadelphia Weekly did a probing piece on Occupy Wall Street, in which I’m also featured as an interview.

Blogs

The book continues to get a lot of discussion in the blogosphere.  Andrew Sullivan featured it here, here, here, and here; I responded here. Digby featured it here and here (and make sure to read the comments). The Volokh Conspiracy discussed it, sort of, here.

Scott Lemieux, my go-to guide for all things constitutional, took issue with my discussion of Scalia here.

For the last couple of weeks, Howie Klein has been burning up the internet with almost daily blogs about the book, in which he takes a quote from the book and some headline from the news, and spins something entirely fresh from it all.  These links are just a smattering, but you can check all of them out (I think) here.

Richard Seymour, whose blog Leninology (and books) cannot be recommended highly enough, wrote a fascinating post, putting my book into dialogue with Dominic Losurdo’s Liberalism (also make sure to read the comments there; always smart and snappy).

Two other blogs are worth checking out. In one, a blogger at Balloon Juice responds to my post about Ross Douthat, which takes up a theme in my book, and a weird and wonderful discussion ensues. And Marcy Wheeler added some interesting addenda to my discussion yesterday of Fear, American Style (and again, make sure to read the comments section).

Reactionary News

Every day, I come across some little tidbit in the news—often something that gets virtually no attention and goes unremarked—that illustrates some angle of my book.  Here are just three.

A Republican congressman from Iowa looks back fondly on the eighteenth century, when only white male property owners could vote.

A boss in Iowa—seriously, WTF is wrong with Iowa?—ran a contest among his employees called “Guess the Next Cashier Who Will Be Fired.” According to his instructions, the contest would be run like so:

To win our game, write on a piece of paper the name of the next cashier you believe will be fired. Write their name [the person who will be fired], today’s date, today’s time, and your name. Seal it in an envelope and give it to the manager to put in my envelope.

Iowa gets a reprieve in this story: seems like Alabama has revived the days of slavery, only this time it’s undocumented immigrants under the yoke. More democratic feudalism.

To Play the Part of a Lord: A Reply to Andrew Sullivan about Conservatism

17 Oct

Andrew Sullivan—whose views on conservatism I take very seriously (one of the main arguments of my book is inspired by and aimed at his writing)—has linked to Sheri Berman’s response to my critique and identified one paragraph in particular as the “money quote.” If these are Sullivan’s apprehensions, they merit a response. If this paragraph is the crux of concern, it can be dispatched fairly easily.

The paragraph in question makes two claims; I’ve divided my response accordingly.

 

Claim 1: “If conservatism is always about the submission and subjugation of the lower orders, then any popular support for such movements must—by definition—be misguided, misinformed, or the result of trickery.”

This claim rests upon two mistaken assumptions:

  1. The lower orders are a cohesive unit, without divisions and inequalities among them.
  2. There are no groups outside the polity in whose governance the lower orders might participate and from whose governance they might benefit.

If you believe these claims, it makes some sense to think that a movement in favor of subjugating the lower orders could only gain their support through deception and illusion. After all, what could the ruling classes possibly have to offer those orders other than their subjugation, which no rational person could want?

Frederick DouglassI say only “some sense” because it’s perfectly plausible that men and women on the bottom of society might embrace or accept the rule of their superiors in part because they believe their superiors are better and/or because they derive some benefit—material and immaterial—from being governed by them. As Frederick Douglass noted of his early years under slavery, many slaves “seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was transferable to themselves.” Much to his horror, slaves would argue among themselves as to who had the finer master. “It was considered as being bad enough to be a slave; but to be a poor man’s slave was deemed a disgrace indeed.”

Douglass’s second observation is doubly important, for it reveals what a believer in this simple model of a homogeneous lower order can’t quite see: no matter how abject a class may be it can always find ways to invent hierarchies within itself, ever more infinitesimal gradations of rank that members of that class will struggle to ascend. And if it can’t accomplish this task on its own, the ruling classes will be only too happy to assist. Either way, that little ladder of ascendant privilege is what the ruling classes have to offer the lower orders in exchange for their submission. Again, Douglass:

Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm. It was associated in their minds with greatness. A representative could not be prouder of his election to a seat in the American Congress, than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for.

Douglass, of course, is talking about chattel slavery, a system of immense coercion and violence, and not conservatism or even the defense of slavery, in which a not insignificant portion of American conservatism played a part. Even so, his insight stands as a rebuke to the simple view that the only way to conscript the lower orders in projects of subordination and subjugation is through trickery. Not so: the more successful forms of subjugation involve a multiplication of ranks and privileges, particularly among the lower orders, from which those orders receive benefits material and immaterial, real and symbolic.

This insight applies to black slaves, as Douglass shows, but also and more tellingly to their white overlords: what is the history of slavery and white supremacy in this country if not the granting of petty power and privilege to poor whites over blacks, privileges and powers that non-elite whites had perfectly intelligible reasons to hold onto—and that helped maintain the most elite forms of privilege?

In the altogether different setting of the modern American workplace—I trust no one will take me to be arguing that slavery and the contemporary workplace are the same—we see a similar multiplication of supervisory ranks and privileges, which is almost unparalleled among advanced industrial economies. One of the functions of this proliferation is that in addition to offering men and women on the bottom rungs a more proximate opportunity for advancement to rule, it reinforces the unequal distribution of power in the workplace and beyond.

There is a reason Marx welcomed the stark divide in modern societies between capital and labor: he thought it would finally put an end to that “complicated arrangement of society into various orders,” that “manifold gradation of social rank” that had previously kept the oppressed divided.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms: Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into the two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

At last, the subjugated classes would cease to bicker among themselves and take aim not at their immediate or apparent tormentors but at their true lords and governors. Where else would they have to look?

As it turns out, a great many places. For even on those rare occasions when unity is achieved among the lower orders, their attentions can always be redirected at—or wander to—other groups more despised and disdained than themselves: other races (the famous wages of whiteness); other nations, in the case of imperialism; or the unwanted representatives of those nations at home, in the case of undocumented immigrants.

This endless proliferation of rank hearkens back to late feudalism, only this time the proliferation occurs at the bottom rather than at the top. It offers real, not imaginary, benefits to the lower orders: like their betters, they get to govern an individual (the supervisor and his worker, the husband and his wife) or an entire group or nation (in the form of racism, fascism, imperialism). It is for that reason that I call this “democratic feudalism”: it gives the masses a genuine opportunity to play the part of a lord.

Again, there’s no secrecy or trickery about this; these kinds of arguments are openly made and happily embraced. They are the words and promises of—and to—men and women who sincerely believe the world to be divided into greater and lesser beings and whose only hope is that they themselves are not among the latter.

John AdamsTo that extent, they call to mind John Adams’ observation in his Discourses on Davila that even the lowliest man can be persuaded to accept the rule of his superiors so long as he is assured of an audience of lessers.

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay, the common beggars in the streets…court a set of admirers and plume themselves upon that superiority which they have or fancy they have over some others. There must be one, indeed, who is the last and the lowest of the human species. But there is no risk in asserting that there is no one who believes and will acknowledge himself to be the man….When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman, or child, he must be respected in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal. In this “who will love me then?” there is a key to the human heart, to the history of human life and manners, and to the rise and fall of empires.

This, my economist friends tell me, is what folks in the biz call the “last-place aversion,” which can help us understand popular opposition to a great many programs and policies that might benefit the lower orders—or that might at least bring to heel the higher orders. Whether the economists’ is an accurate description of human psychology or not—my book is a theoretical inquiry into conservatism’s moral arguments and political vision, not an empirical statement about the motivations that might lead people to believe in it—it mirrors one of the critical assumptions of the conservative tradition about how one might go about making privilege popular.

 

Claim 2: “Robin’s flawed definition of conservatism flatters and consoles the Left rather than forcing it to confront its true dilemma….One need not, therefore, fully engage the rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment felt by the many who hold conservative and right-wing ideas. But if one instead accepts that such rage, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment are real, then the question becomes: why in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has it found its home so often on the right rather than the left? This is a question that The Reactionary Mind leads directly to; it is not one that Robin—or the Left more generally—can or should avoid.”

T.S. EliotThough I didn’t set out to answer this question about the success of the right or failure of left, my book does address it. The Reactionary Mind reflects my conviction that the left ought to take more seriously the ideas of the right—not the potted wisdom of undergraduate curricula or cheap punditry but the most searching texts and tomes of the conservative canon. For in those texts one will find the rage, the disfranchisement, the sense of exclusion and victimhood that has been all too real on the right—in both its elite and popular forms—and that, as my book argues, has been one of the keys to its success. (In the founding statement of National Review, Bill Buckley complained that he and his brethren were “out of place.” But that, he went onto note, made them “just about the hottest thing in town.”) One of the epigraphs in The Reactionary Mind comes from T.S. Eliot’s essay “The Literature of Politics,” and it expresses well the animating spirit of my approach:

A political party may find that it has had a history, before it is fully aware of or agreed upon its own permanent tenets; it may have arrived at its actual formation through a succession of metamorphoses and adaptations, during which some issues have been superannuated and new issues have arisen. What its fundamental tenets are, will probably be found only by careful examination of its behaviour throughout its history and by examination of what its more thoughtful and philosophical minds have said on its behalf; and only accurate historical knowledge and judicious analysis will be able to discriminate between the permanent and the transitory; between those doctrines and principles which it must ever, and in all circumstances, maintain, or manifest itself a fraud, and those called forth by special circumstances, which are only intelligible and justifiable in the light of these circumstances.

My book doesn’t draw any explicit conclusions for the left—in part because that wasn’t its point—but readers interested in what those conclusions might be can read what I’ve written  here and here.

I’m eager to have a conversation about what this all means for the left, but before we do, we have to get clear about the right. I hope readers will engage with the book’s arguments—its actual arguments— and, ideally, read some of the conservative canon for themselves. Once they do, we can have a great discussion—one that I especially look forward to with Sullivan himself.

Baubles, Bangles, and Tweets: Reactions to The Reactionary Mind

1 Oct

 

On Thursday, September 29, The Reactionary Mind was officially launched.  Because of Rosh Hashanah—Shanah Tovah to all of you!—I haven’t been able to keep up with the whirlwind of commentary and activity around the book.  With time, I hope to have lengthier, more substantive responses to the thought-provoking reactions I’ve read.  But in the meantime, I just wanted to give you all a quick roundup and a reminder.

First, the reminder: I’m doing a public conversation with Chris Hayes over at the CUNY Graduate Center on Thursday, October 6, at 7 pm.  Details here. Come early; seating may be tight.

Onto the reactions.

Interviews

Salon interviewed me about the book and contemporary conservatism more generally. Salt Lake City’s NPR station did an interview with me. Doug Henwood interviewed me for his show, which airs on KPFA in Berkeley.  This week,  I’m going to be interviewed for the C-SPAN Book TV show After Words; once I get a link, I’ll post it.

Blogs

Thanks to that guest post I did over at Mike Konczal’s Rortybomb, which you might have read here on the blog, the book has gotten the attention of some heavy-hitters in the blogosphere, with combined readerships of, well, a lot of people.

Andrew Sullivan, whose writings have served as an immensely useful provocation to me throughout the decade, offered a thoughtful response.

Digby’s forensic analyses of the Democrats and the Republicans have been keeping me sane for the last half-decade or so.  She also responded, twice, with some very nice shout-outs for the book.

Everyone’s saying that Robin’s new book on this very subject, The Reactionary Mind is awesome.

We’ve been mulling this over for some time and I still don’t have adequate answer to the problem. But I think I might be edging toward some insight in reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. I’ll keep you posted.

You should also check out the comments on both of Digby’s posts and on the guest post I did for Mike as well.

James Kwak also offered some reflections on the book. His post then got picked up by Truthout, guaranteeing an even wider audience of readers.

Elias Isquith did yet another post on the book, the fourth of a series of fascinating posts in which Isquith takes up a particular theme of the book and applies it to some contemporary issue, whether it be the death penalty or the GOP’s obsession with cunnilingus (I’m not kidding). I’ve really enjoyed watching him work his way through the book, and seeing what he does with it.  I think you will too.

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Scott Lemieux used The Reactionary Mind to launch a lengthy discussion of David Brooks and college sports.  Some of you know how I feel about sports, of any kind, but I’ll take the props however I can get ‘em.

Tweets

But by far, my favorite piece of news:  Don’t know if you’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests, but they’ve slowly begun to capture the imagination of America and the world. Apparently, they have a library down there.  Charles Petersen, who copy edited the book, tweeted over the holiday that “@CoreyRobin ‘The Reactionary Mind’ at the #occupywallstreet library.” Caleb Crain, who writes lovely essays for the New Yorker, tweeted “Also spotted in the @occupywallst library: John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, @CoreyRobin.”  Couldn’t ask to be in better company. And here’s the photodocumentary evidence:

The Reactionary Mind at Occupy Wall Street

Speaking of tweets, I did catch this one, from the formidable Brad DeLong, just before the holiday: “Finished reading The Reactionary Mind : Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin.” Would love to hear what he thinks…

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.

When Conservatives Read Conservatives

3 Jul

Andrew SullivanA few weeks ago Andrew Sullivan complained—and not for the first time—that contemporary conservatism has grown too ideological and fundamentalist, abandoning the tradition of Burke and Hayek. You know, the tradition of prudence and restraint that abjures fanaticism and counsels moderation, that eschews the grand designs of the left in favor of the evolutionary, piecemeal reforms of the right.

Friedrich HayekYou know, that tradition that says this:

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 61)

And this:

“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.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 65)

Edmund BurkeAnd this:

“Acquiescence will not do.  There must be zeal.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 104)

And this:

“Distemper is still the madness of the wise, which is better than the sobriety of fools.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 142)

And this:

“Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 185)

And this:

“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 216)

Cherry-picking, you’ll say. Perhaps, but from where I sit, there’s an entire orchard waiting to be harvested.

Conservatives like Sullivan—and a great many other writers, on the right and the left—like to invoke the great and the good of the conservative past against the yahoos and yobs of the conservative present. But if you actually read the canon, you’ll see that the distance between the grand old texts and the Grand Old Party ain’t so, um, grand.

So here’s an idea for Sullivan and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em.

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