Rimbaud Conservatism

All this talk of arming teachers and training children to rush psychopaths who are outfitted with machine guns semi-automatic weapons reminds me of a moment in high school.

But first, a recap.

In the wake of the Newtown killings, writers on the right have suggested we should teach children to turn on their assailants, rushing them en masse. Here’s Megan McArdle writing in The Daily Beast:

I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once.

McArdle is a libertarian. You know, the type who believes you can’t derive Rawlsian-style social justice from self-interested premises—that shit would never work—but that you can adduce from those very same premises a mass death instinct of the sort that powered the Red Army to victory against the Nazis. When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.

And here’s Charlotte Allen—about whom the less said, the better—writing in National Review Online:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. The principal, Dawn Hochsprung, seemed to have performed bravely. According to reports, she activated the school’s public-address system and also lunged at Lanza, before he shot her to death. Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them into closets or bathrooms. But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.

As Amy Davidson of the New Yorker observed in response:

One image that comes to mind is the soldiers sent to die in outmoded frontal assaults against machine-gun embankments in the First World War….

As the mother of a twelve-year-old who might be described as husky, or at least big for his age, I do teach him that he has an extra responsibility to, for example, stand up for littler kids who are bullied—to never be a bystander. But I greatly resent the idea that he should throw himself in front of a bullet because a grown congressman isn’t brave enough to throw an N.R.A. lobbyist out of his office.

The World War I reference is apt. There is something bloodcurdling about grownups speaking so blithely about sending children off to their deaths. As if these kids don’t have a future of their own, as if they are all to be sacrificed on the altar of whatever K Street Moloch the right happens to be worshiping at this particular hour.

Which brings me to my story. In my junior year of high school, ABC televised a film, The Day After, about what the world would look like after a nuclear war. This was a time, some of you might recall, when talk of “nuclear winter” was all the rage. One of the strongest memories I have of the film was of its depiction of that winter. Dust and debris were everywhere; they looked like snow flakes of death, made to match the color of Jason Robards’ hair.

After the film was aired, Ted Koppel convened a panel of worthies—Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, Elie Wiesel, Carl Sagan, and William F. Buckley—to debate its implications. I can’t remember much of what was said, but one comment from Buckley has stayed with me all these years (see 2:45 in this video link).

In response to a provocation from Wiesel—who asked how it was possible for his co-panelists even to talk about a nuclear war, as if such a war could be fought and won (one wonders where Wiesel had been all those years)—Buckley said:

I think we do have to talk about it. Dr. Kissinger, twenty-five years ago, got hell for consenting to talk about it. So did Herman Kahn. The fact of the matter is here we are talking about all the tensions we’re going to be living on, fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. Well, the implied assumption is we’re going to be alive fifteen years from now, twenty years from now. That’s pretty good news, isn’t it?

Someone else on the panel, perhaps Scowcroft, muttered an encouraging “yep,” and Buckley went on. Until Koppel broke in:

Fifteen years may be pretty good news to men of your generation and mine. I suspect that some of our children might regard that as a rather limited life span.

The conservative imagination is supposed to prize longevity and continuity. It is the wisdom of old men. Yet here we have its most genteel modern tribune sounding like Edna St. Vincent Millay, happily mooting his own extinction and that of his child, declaring the shelf life of civilization to be little more than the life span of a reckless teenager. This is not Rambo conservatism but Rimbaud conservatism, betraying less a disregard for death than an insufficient regard for life.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I reject the notion that there has been some kind of downward trajectory on the American right since Buckley (or Burke, for that matter). What we hear from the Allen’s and McArdle’s of today is no different from what we heard from the Buckley’s of yesterday. The right has always been interested in violence and death. It has seldom been a country for old men—except the old men, and apparently women, who dream of the slaughter of young children.


  1. SpongeDan December 22, 2012 at 2:15 am | #

    All those who follow modern ideologies that deny the Social Kingship of Jesus Christ will inevitably choose to sacrifice those that are the weakest and most vulnerable in society (i.e. children), whether it be “conservatives” glorifying drone strikes or “progressives” lauding the murder of the unborn. Ultimately the bottom line for both is power rather than what it should be: Charity.

    “Everywhere outside of Christianity the child is automatically sacrificed.”
    -Hans Urs von Balthasar

    • Cade DeBois (@lifepostepic) December 22, 2012 at 10:54 am | #

      I am pretty sure protecting priests who sexually assault minors over their victims counts as the child being automatically sacrificed. Of course, being chased out of my grad theology program for being the evil woman who dared to confront a godly seminarian for looking at kiddie porn sites on the grad theology library’s computers, I suppose you can say I just have an axe to grind with the Church, especially since I am so evil that I “murdered” my “unborn child” because it was going to rupture my uterus before it was even 8 weeks old. Had I only died from internal bleeding like your Christian Jesus god wanted I would have never caused that pedophile seminarian (now a priest! Like the word of woman means anything to a seminarian vocation director!) so much trouble, or be here to point out your asinine, self-serving denial of reality.

      • Raymond December 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm | #

        wonderfully stated!

    • YankeeFrank December 23, 2012 at 6:10 am | #

      I don’t know who Hans Urs von Bathhouse is, but he is blinded by his christianity worship if he thinks christians don’t sacrifice children. I’d say christians have sacrificed more children than any other religious group in history: from the Victorian era (I’m starting late) when the poverty of children was treated as their own personal moral failing, to the incessant money-wars of the past century or two where 18-21 year old children and younger were sacrificed on the altar of bond payments and “war debts”, to the current bloodthirsty all-out finance-war that is ongoing in the west and is pushing an entire generation of young people into dead-end or no jobs and no future prospects so that investors in banks may be sure to take no losses, these christian nations are the most brutal and vicious — against their own people and the “others” who just happen to live south, east, north or west of their own state borders, in the entire history of the world.

      As they say, Jesus was way cool. But christianity is most assuredly not Jesus. There is less in common between Jesus and christianity than there is between justice and the law in US society.

      The Nuns on the Bus, Social Justice Catholics and Jesuit Catholics, are to be lauded as some of the world’s foremost humanitarians. And yet the catholic church as an entity rather despises these groups and is incessant in cutting their funding and undoing their good works. But I don’t think you were talking about the Social Justice Movement in your comment.

      Oh, and I don’t know anyone who “lauds” abortions, but again, as a christian you seem to enjoy sacrificing children for your religious “beliefs” when you ensure that unwanted children are brought into the world to suffer. Go pee on some other post, you silly fellow.

  2. Agog December 22, 2012 at 6:44 am | #

    Oh yes – another example of rightists’ inability to think adequately beyond their own narrow horizons. It scares me to reflect on how much pessimistic talk about future global decline, about needing to live within our (diminishing) collective means, is just a projection of individuals’ anxieties about retirement, decline, and demise. Which ISTM is very much related to these issues (if slightly tangential, sorry!).

  3. normanbirnbaum December 22, 2012 at 8:01 am | #

    The struggle over firearms suggests that fears of impotency if not the actual dysfunction must trouble many American males. Meanwhile, Corey refers to the film The Day After, which evoked stern protests when (I think) ABC produced it, on the grounds that it would weaken the will of the nation to confront the Communist enemy. It was produced by Nick Meyers who had written the screenplay for the splendid film on Sherlock Holmes’ visit to the young psychiatrist Freud in Vienna, The Seven Percent Solution. Nick had a favourable background, he was the son of a very cultivated New York psychoanalyst and the family summered several doors down from Norman Mailer’s Provincetown waterside house. Those were the days despite the serial imbecilities of the Cold War….or perhaps because of it. I am doing this from memory but I think that ABC made amends by producing an absurd film of the US occupied by UN troops termed Special Services so their tanks and vehicles had the inscription UNSS. It seems that the US had lost a war with Cuba et al. There was a resistance movement but the Capitol was nonetheless destroyed in a plot designed by sinister Russian elements in the occupationWhether the occupation film seemed more credible to viewers than the one on nuclear war I do not know…..happy holiday to all Norman Birnbaum….

  4. OccasionalObserver December 22, 2012 at 9:36 am | #

    At this rate 2nd amendment fanatics will be proposing annual auditorium screenings of “United 93” the way they used to do with “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (at least in 1960’s Brooklyn). Libertarian selective blindness to collective action proposals is nothing new. Just lay their practical positions on unions and antitrust side by side. As for Rawls, the problem of 2nd amendment libertarians with the original position may be that it is a gun-free zone. If so, there is room for philosophical compromise: allow concealed carry in the OP provided no one knows if their gun is loaded. For this too there are movies.

  5. Elizabeth Donahue December 22, 2012 at 10:15 am | #

    Yeah gurl!

    Sent from a wobbly – possibly broken North Korean satellite

  6. Scott Preston December 22, 2012 at 10:26 am | #

    The right has always been interested in violence and death.

    Nihilism, in other words. Perhaps even despite themselves, but nonetheless justified as “creative destruction”, or at least a perverse rendering of this. Doesn’t it share something in common, nonetheless, with Trotsky, Bakunin, and Sorel?

    Man is neither angel nor beast, and the unfortunate thing is that he who would play the angel plays the beast

    – Blaise Pascal, Pensées

    He who goes to fight monsters best see to it that he does not become the monster himself. And if you stare into the abyss the abyss also stares into you

    . — Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

    Ironic reversal. But isn’t that another way of suggesting the breakdown of dialectical reason? We call it today by different names, but it seems to signify the same decadence — revenge effect, blowback, perverse outcome, unintended consequence, reversal of fortune, enantiodromia, coincidentia oppositorum or just plain old “dark Satanic mill” as mental tautology.

    • Scott Preston December 22, 2012 at 10:50 am | #

      By the by… one reason to mistrust all English translations of Nietzsche, which seem quite perverse (and perhaps autobiographical of the translator himself in their perversity). Take the following,

      He who goes to fight monsters best see to it that he does not become the monster himself. And if you stare into the abyss the abyss also stares into you.

      You will find this often quoted in translation as

      He who goes to fight monsters best see to it that he does not become a monster himself. And if you stare into the abyss the abyss also stares back at you.

      Never throw your pearls before swine or vulgar minds. These are less “errors” than corruptions — perhaps deliberate ones. The German does not say “a monster”, it says “the monster” (zum Ungeheuer) and it does not say that the abyss stares “at you”, but in dich hinein — into you.

      Right there is, I think, the entire problem of “Nietzsche interpretation” — the corruption and distortion of his thought and the misrepresentation of his actual thinking process. These two distortions alone are, to my mind, sufficient to make the rest of Nietzsche impenetrable. And I believe these corruptions, which are so ubiquitous, arise from deep spiritual cowardice — autobiographical and not as innocent mistakes of translation.

      • e scott December 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm | #

        so are you saying Nietzsche regards monsters and the abyss as components of human nature, that battling them is self examination, though they also have independent personality, because Nietzsche characterizing the abyss staring and the monster transubstantiating

      • Scott Preston December 24, 2012 at 3:32 pm | #

        so are you saying Nietzsche regards monsters and the abyss as components of human nature, that battling them is self examination

        The “monster” is what Jung called “the Shadow”, what Stevenson called “Mr. Hyde”. Yes, I am saying that. Otherwise, there is no meaningful content to Nietzsche’s saying “In times of peace a warrior goes to war against himself.” What, in himself, does the warrior go to war with then?

        It is not actually the “abyss” (or the abysmal) or the Shadow that the warrior goes to war with. It is, rather, his own cowardice and fear in the face of these. These are the things that must be faced and confronted.

        A lesson for our times, given current events.

  7. Stephen Zielinski December 22, 2012 at 10:41 am | #

    Bad results always follow from the politics of persons without compassion. They might, in the best cases, be aware of a “generalized other” worthy of respect. But they neither see nor hear the “concrete other” at all.

    America’s conservatism want the world to adjust to their absolutist positions. It would help some if they actually got some things right.

  8. Paul H. Rosenberg December 22, 2012 at 11:10 am | #

    This — “When it comes to public goods, libertarians think we’re all free riders; in the face of crazed killers, we’re all comrades.” — captures the libertarian spirit perfectly. “Spirit” in the sense of absinthe, perhaps. But spirit, nonetheless.

  9. troy grant December 22, 2012 at 11:52 am | #

    While the eternal gun problem is being resolved, we need to protect our kids. Maybe libs and cons can get together on arming adults with non-lethal weapons like bear spray, stun guns, etc.

  10. BillR December 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm | #

    George Mosse, who observed rise of the Nazis as a gay Jewish teenager in Berlin did revealing investigation into how central a “cult of the Fallen” was to the right-wing worldview. The semi-official National Anthem of Germany during the Third Reich was named after a “fallen” Nazi. Other quasi-Fascist leaders like Franco and Salazar were also into such cults big time (Franco who was clinically dead was taken off life support on November 20 to coincide with the death of another Fascist “martyr”). Perhaps the most ideologically racially oriented state left in the world today is also “a necrophilic nation, obsessed and possessed by death.”

  11. Seth Edenbaum December 22, 2012 at 1:21 pm | #

    And for the umpteenth time, I’ll remind liberals that the rule of law is a conservative idea and that one of the leaders of the ACLU through the cold war, who did not soften his stance during he McCarthy era, described the ACLU as a “conservative organization”.

    The pathological desire of liberals not just to be aware but to be right: to be pure. When liberals hear the phrase “liberal fascism” they think of Jonah Goldberg. When I hear it I think of Foucault.

    • Scott Preston December 22, 2012 at 1:50 pm | #

      But are conservatives conservationist? No. A non-conserving conservatism is just as much a reactionary nihilism as an illiberal liberalism.

      Do I really need to repeat it? “He who goes to fight monsters best see to it that he does not become the monster himself.”

    • yankeefrank December 23, 2012 at 6:45 am | #

      You are erasing the actual roots and history of the ACLU with your little rant. The ACLU was created to defend the labor movement from conservative, right wing capitalists. It has lost that mission over time, which is no mystery given the way capital has overwhelmed everything in our society and become a cancerous scourge.

      And who doesn’t want to be right, as in correct? You assign it as a pathology. Purity is a conservative fascination as much or more than a liberal one. And conservatives don’t only desire ideological purity. They also desire racial purity, cultural purity etc. Ugly stuff.

      The recent, lame attacks by conservatives reflecting their own ideological and emotional weaknesses onto liberals is not gaining traction anywhere but among the converted. You might as well give it up. Its dishonest to the core, and makes you look like ranting lunatics. Perhaps the last is a feature not a bug to you as the most reactionary and conservative leaders, historically, are also the biggest ranters.

      I’d also like to comment, with regard to the late, unlamented wanker William Buckley Jr, the man was more interested in coming off as ironic, arch, laconic and witty than he ever was in being correct or human. The man was a wannabe aristocrat — nurturing his above-it-all pose was his life’s work. The great segment of his stupid tv show, when Noam Chomsky hands him his ignorance on a platter and shows him for the intellectual lightweight he actually was, is timeless and hilarious.

      Oh, and I want to shout out that note on compassion from a commenter above. Compassion should be the first virtue in, at least domestic, politics. It is not because the right wing is vicious and violent and paints compassion as weakness and “unrealistic” when in fact it is the selfishness and greed they promote that is most unrealistic for a successful future. The squirrelly, frightened mind of the conservative is a fright to behold, and is a surer source of our future misery than global warming, war, pestilence, resource depletion and toxic pollution.

      • Seth Edenbaum December 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm | #

        When the ACLU was more principled than it is today, it refused to take sides in 2nd Amendment debates.

      • Senescent December 24, 2012 at 10:10 pm | #

        I think the distinction is closer to “Leftists would rather be right; rightists would rather be victorious.” I used to be more the former, but’ve been moving towards the latter. After all, how many divisions has the truth?

  12. Glenn December 22, 2012 at 2:29 pm | #


    1579, from Fr. infantrie, from older It., Sp. infanteria “foot soldiers, force composed of those too inexperienced or low in rank for cavalry,” from infante “foot soldier,” originally “a youth,” from L. infantem (see infant).

    Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
    Cite This Source

    The conservative ideation of an attack on evil by a collection of infants.

    Just like in the “good” old days.

    • Scott Preston December 22, 2012 at 3:05 pm | #

      Even more in depth: infans meaning speechless or without speech. In other terms, “infantry” are those expected to obey commands, but not to reply. “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die” — speechlessness. This is the ideal of dictatorship, of course — a speechless mass that follows, but does not itself have “free speech”. It merely obeys the commandments — the “cog in the machine” is something speechless.

      The ideal of the global machine.

  13. Lawrence Houghteling December 22, 2012 at 3:03 pm | #

    From Rimbaud:

    “I’m intact, and I don’t give a damn!”

  14. Mitchell Freedman December 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm | #

    In his book of essays, entitled “Republican Party Reptile,” P.J. O’Rouke wrote a short piece called “Just one of those days,” which posits an American city as if it was Beirut starting in the 1970s, where nearly everyone is armed. He meant to raise an arched eyebrow at his fellow gun fan conservatives, and let on more than his initial sarcasm and parody intended.

  15. neretva'43 December 23, 2012 at 9:29 am | #

    It was an Interesting read, thanks.

    The other day I was researching something about Spanish Civil War and stumbled upon this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/José_Millán_Astray.

    His motto was: “¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”).

    His opponent was Miguel de Unamuno:

    “This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will succeed, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.”

    Small article but fascinating read to me. Even today Spain is the most conservative the Western county.

    By reading your article and watching that clip, my comment is “there is nothing new under the sun”. Fascism is on the march.

  16. John Pacella December 28, 2012 at 2:01 pm | #

    Interesting article. However, I have a different take on McArdle. Hasn’t she created the “rush the shooter” solution as a fictional extreme in order to illustrate the absurdity of previous comprehensive “solutions”, the overall inevitability of evil acts, and (paradoxically) the real value of even modest, incremental steps to mitigate this intractable situation?

    “Would Lanza really have been gang-rushed by fast-thinking primary school students if he stopped to reload?”

    “Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things..” (restrictions on magazine capacity, everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun) “…would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.”

    “But I doubt we’re going to tell people to gang rush mass shooters, because that would involve admitting that there is no mental health service or “reasonable gun control” which is going to prevent all of these attacks. Which is to say, admitting that we have no box big enough to completely contain evil.”

Leave a Reply