Mark Lilla and I Exchange Words

I wrote a letter in response to Mark Lilla’s review of my book. The New York Review of Books has now published it, along with a reply from Lilla. There’s not much to say about Lilla’s reply: it’s long on attitude, short on argument. But readers can judge for themselves.


  1. JG February 5, 2012 at 11:56 pm | #

    When figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck (and now Newt Gingrich) demonize educated elites and praise the wisdom of “soccer moms” and plumbers, they mean it.

    Did Mark Lilla *really* write that? I had to read it twice before I could believe it.

    • easytolo February 6, 2012 at 12:49 am | #

      that whole last paragraph is astounding

  2. msobel February 6, 2012 at 12:09 am | #

    I think attitude is the right word. I find your work inspiring.

    • Geojos February 6, 2012 at 5:49 am | #

      Now I have to the read the book. The terms ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ in some ways have become meaningless in this country, as most conservatives adhere to a John Locke-Adam Smith view of government society and the economic system, which is at odds with the classical conservative view of human nature, history and change that Lilla notes. Hey, in many ways Obama is a Conservative, primarily in his desire not to shake up markets or go against what he believes is to the political culture. It is also true that some leaders who wore the Conservative cloth brought about reform, but it was usually to maintain order and keep the “rabble” down. What did Groucho Marx once say in movie when told the people were uprising, ” The peasants are revolting, you say . They are always revolting, but now they are rebelling.”

      The terms are very confusing to me, but I like Robin’s approach, as ideas sometimes need to be examined contextually.

  3. Rick February 6, 2012 at 10:28 am | #

    Once, a very long time ago in political years, I read a comment about the “New York Review of Themselves.” Mark Lilla is definitely one of “themselves.” Humorless, too. That is all.

    Keep up the good work, Corey!

  4. Rosa Luxembourgeoise February 6, 2012 at 10:56 am | #

    “Liberals stress the need for individual liberty, the rule of law, and stable constitutional structures, which are not revolutionary principles; does that make them reactionaries? In Robin’s eyes, perhaps it does.”

    The sentence exemplifies the attitude Lilla has consistently displayed regarding Robin’s book. It illustrates his unseemly knack for both missing the point and engaging in some odd form of contemporary liberal McCarthyism.

  5. William Neil February 6, 2012 at 11:12 am | #


    I’m glad for you that several initial hostile reviews have turned into a sustained dialogue about your book and The Right. I wondering if you could comment a bit further for those who haven’t gotten to your book yet, about the Right’s dispostion to “the free market,” which is in itself not as simple a topic as it first sounds. Where on the contemporary Right in the US today are those who are critical of the “free market,” or the broader category called “neoliberalism?”

    I recall reading in a biography of Bill Buckley that Whitaker Chambers, who was all for capitalism, therefore felt he couldn’t be a true conservative in the European 18th and 19th century meaning, because capitalism was constantly innovating, creating and destroying the productive base of society ( and to me it implies tensions in the cultural realm from those changes: think sexuality in American in response to the auto, the pill; or in fiscal matters, balanced “household budgets” in response to the credit card…)

    So who today on the Right is ready to offer us a different form of capitalism that places markets under “conservative” restraints?” I’ve written in my own work that if conservatives really wanted to defend their version of “the family,” they couldn’t have designed a more antagonistic economic realm if they had sat done and actually tried to map one out….


    • Corey Robin February 6, 2012 at 10:24 pm | #

      It’s hard for me to summarize my approach to this question b/c it occupies a great deal of space in my book. So at the risk of offering a cop-out, I’m going to offer a cop-out: read my book!

      • William Neil February 7, 2012 at 11:01 am | #

        That’s fair enough, Corey. The fact that it takes up that much space is added incentive for me to buy it.

  6. Jon Johanning February 6, 2012 at 1:16 pm | #

    It seems to me that Lilla’s main complaint is that you didn’t write the book he wanted you to write. He’s perfectly correct about that; you wrote the book you wanted to write. What he should do is write the book he wants to see written.

    It might provide very good insights, alongside yours. But they would be different insights.

  7. ezeflyer February 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm | #

    When conservatives see that people finally understand that all economic, human and environmental atrocities everywhere are attributed directly to them, they start saying that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have “lost their meaning” or “don’t apply any more”,

  8. Elias Isquith February 6, 2012 at 7:25 pm | #

    “(As for Burke, who was a genuine conservative but also an engaged politician, it’s not surprising that he sometimes disagreed with himself.)”

    Ugh. Such a cop-out.

    The last paragraph is what NYRB would read like if Martin Peretz owned it.

  9. Aleksandar Jokic February 7, 2012 at 1:50 am | #

    If Lilla is long on attitude, which attitude would it be? Unbearable lightness of pomposity perhaps! However, what I find catastrophically bad is when an academic suffers complete confusion regarding basic concepts he should be able to teach his students. In the following sentence Lilla shows that he has no understanding of what is for something to be a “claim,” “tautology” or “argument”:

    “So [Robin’s] real claim can be reduced to this: “those who react against movements of the left” react against movements of the left—which is a tautology, not an argument.”

    Let’s take them in turn. A claim is a statement that can be true or false, while an argument is a group of statements divided in two parts where one part is something claimed to be true while the other part consists of evidence offered in support of that claim. Hence, contrary to Lilla, Robin’s alleged claim cannot be at the same time also an argument. Furthermore, for something to be a tautology (a non-informative, self-repeating claim) it must not be a sentence fragment. What Lilla presents as tautology, namely, “those who react against movements of the left” does not say anything that can be true or false let alone citing itself as evidence for its truth (i.e., repeating itself). For there to be tautology Lilla would have to move the right quote some six words to the right of where it is now, to read: “those who react against movements of the left react against movements of the left.” But then you get something no one (certainly not Robin) asserted. Might it be that we can see here some dishonesty on Lilla’s part and not just a sad instance of conflating what must be the most basic concepts of critical thinking.

  10. s. wallerstein February 7, 2012 at 8:25 am | #

    This is not exactly the topic of the thread, but it seems relevant and I want to let others read it.

    Monbiot talks about studies which show that conservatives (in general) are less intelligent than progressives.

  11. ishi February 7, 2012 at 8:56 am | #

    i read the exchange in NYRB quickly, so i’ll have to reread it.

    i guess i do wonder how the explanation of conservatism as a defense of priviledge (as opposed to some sort of alienation/manufacture of consent/thomas frank view) then explains the very real priviledges and status enjoyed by many radical, liberal academics and intelligentsia. shouldnt they be conservatives, or are radicalism and liberalism actually just other names for conservatism?

  12. Danny February 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm | #

    What was Lilla even talking about? I couldn’t even make out his argument.

  13. Aaron Gavin February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | #

    Besides for the fact that I am not even sure how this is a response to your arguments, its beyond fantastical that Lilla accuses you of believing in “false consciousness” when half way up the page you mention that the lower orders often join conservative movements for real material and symbolic gains. I guess when you are famous, you don’t have to read.

  14. Ed February 21, 2012 at 8:30 am | #

    You have to love his comment about the Arab Spring, too – sensible liberals like himself wringing their hands at the thought that it might all end in despotism. What does he imagine the political dispensation to have been in Egypt, Tunisia etc. before the Arab Spring? Looked pretty like despotism to me. Who does he think represents the greatest threat to democratisation in Egypt – the young protesters in Tahrir Square or the hard-faced military men willing to shed blood and stir up communal violence in order to keep their grip on power?

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