Tag Archives: Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat Channels Georges Sorel

3 Dec

Ross Douthat, writing in today’s New York Times (“The Decadent Left“):

Yes, Occupy Wall Street was dreamed up in part by flakes and populated in part by fantasists. But to the extent that the movement briefly captured the public’s imagination, it was because it seemed to be doing what a decent left would exist to do: criticizing entrenched power, championing the common good and speaking for the many rather than the few.

The union rallies and the Keystone demonstrations, by contrast, represented what you might call the decadent left, which fights for narrow interest groups rather than for the public as a whole.

Whatever your politics, there’s arguably more to admire in the ragtag theatricality of Occupy Wall Street than in that sort of self-righteous defense of the status quo. Even if it has failed to embrace plausible solutions, O.W.S. at least picked a deserving target — what National Review’s Reihan Salam describes as the “moral rupture” created by Wall Street’s and Washington’s betrayal of the public trust.

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.”

Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence (1908):

The whole of classical history is dominated by the idea of war conceived heroically: in their origin, the institutions of the Greek republics had as their basis the organisation of armies of citizens; Greek art reached its apex in the citadels; philosophers conceived of no other possible form of education than that which fostered in youth the heroic tradition…social Utopias were created with a view to maintaining a nucleus of homeric warriors in the cities, etc. In our own times, the wars of Liberty have been scarcely less fruitful in ideas than those of the ancient Greeks.

There is another aspect of war which does not possess this character of nobility, and on which the pacificists always dwell.The object of war is no longer war itself; its object is to allow politicians to satisfy their ambitions:

The syndicalist general strike presents a very great number of analogies with the first conception of war: the proletariat organises itself for battle, separating itself distinctly from the other parts of the nation, and regarding itself as the great motive power of history, all other social considerations being subordinated to that of combat; it is very clearly conscious of the glory which will be attached to its historical rôle and of the heroism of its militant attitude; it longs for the final contest in which it will give proof of the whole measure of its valour. Pursuing no conquest, it has no need to make plans for utilising its victories…

This conception of the general strike manifests in the clearest manner its indifference to the material profits of conquest…

Politicians adopt the other point of view; they argue about social conflicts in exactly the same manner as diplomats argue about international affairs; all the actual fighting apparatus interests them very little; they see in the combatants nothing but instruments.

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.

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

13 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as the Supremes put it more simply:

* * * * *

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

Update (9:30 pm)

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

Sam’s Club Republicanism Died Because It Never Had a Life to Live

15 Aug

National Review on Tim PawlentyNow that Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy is dead, the media is performing an autopsy on “Sam’s Club Republicanism.”

That’s the notion—made famous by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in a 2005 Weekly Standard article, which they later turned into a book—that the GOP needs to reconnect with the working-class and independent voters who made it a majority party under Nixon and Reagan. These voters are conservative, but they’re worried about paying their bills and making ends meet. They’re not opposed to government: they just want it to do something for them, as opposed to for the rich. As Pawlenty put it in 2002, the GOP needs “to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.” Thus was an idea—that’s conservative for branding strategy—born.

Sam’s Club Republicanism often gets touted as the brainchild of “a group of young conservative intellectuals,” but it was never more than a marketing ploy. And hardly a new one. Before the Sam’s Club Republican, there was the Reagan Democrat, the Silent Majority, or, going way back, William Graham Sumner’s Forgotten Man.

It’s not that there is no such thing as conservative ideas; I’ve written a whole book about them. It’s just that conservative ideas are born out of social cataclysms—the French Revolution, abolition, the Russian Revolution, the New Deal, the 1960s—in which people with power lose power. Real concrete power: over peasants, slaves, workers, blacks, wives. Conservatism, strange as it may sound, is the voice of the dispossessed: the aristocrats, masters, employers, whites, and husbands who’ve had their power taken away from them and want it back.

Sam’s Club Republicanism is not a response to that kind of loss.  Nor is it a response, ultimately, to the travails of the working class. What it is a response to is the waning position of the GOP. As Douthat and Salam made clear in their original article, their concern is “the long-term political viability of the Republican party.”

But a larger problem is that even the more idealistic aspects of the GOP program–Bush’s vision of an “ownership society,” the pursuit of a politically risky Social Security privatization plan–have been ill-suited to the present political climate, and to the mood of the American people. It’s not just that the American people have shown little appetite of late for dramatically shrinking the scope of the federal government, or taking more economic responsibility into their own hands–it’s that there’s shrinking support for such goals among reliable Republican voters.

Or as Matt Continetti put it in a 2007 Weekly Standard follow-up piece:

Behind all this new thinking [Sam's Club Republicanism] lies a political reality. Independents are moving rapidly away from the Republican party. According to the National Exit Poll, Republicans lost independent voters by a staggering 18 points in 2006. A recent Pew survey reveals Democrats have a 15-point advantage over Republicans when voters are asked the party with which they identify.

That may be fine as electoral diagnosis, but it’s not the stuff from which conservative ideas are made. And without ideas, as every young conservative will tell you, the movement is nothing.

With Pawlenty out of the race, the various proponents of Sam’s Club Republicanism are now wondering what went wrong. The early consensus seems to be that Pawlenty was never true to Sam’s Club ideals. Referring to a National Review writer who once touted Pawlenty’s potential Sam’s Club street cred, Salam tweeted today, “I have to say, @timpawlenty could have gone much further if he had run according to the @RameshPonnuru playbook.”

But if Sam’s was a club even its founder never wanted to be a member of, perhaps it’s time the Mad Men of the GOP got themselves a brand new brand.

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