Smells Like Mean Spirit: Conservatism Past and Present

From the New York Times:

“Today, conservatism is much more meanspirited, angry, not optimistic and much more viscerally divisive,” said Matthew Dowd, a former top strategist for President George W. Bush.

From The Wayback Machine:

In the vast domain of living things, there reigns an obvious violence, a kind of prescribed rage that arms all creatures to their common doom….There is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another. Above all these numerous animal species is placed man, whose destructive hand spares nothing that lives. He kills to nourish himself, he kills to clothe himself, he kills to adorn himself, he kills to attack, he kills to defend himself, he kills to instruct himself, he kills to amuse himself, he kills to kill….His tables are covered with corpses. (Joseph de Maistre, St Petersburg Dialogues)



  1. Charles Joseph September 13, 2015 at 1:47 pm | #

    “Rabbi Chanina the deputy [High] Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government (lit., monarchy), for if not for its fear, a person would swallow his fellow live.”

  2. ron bruno September 13, 2015 at 2:34 pm | #

    From NYT:

    “Despite the country’s challenges, there are signs of improvement: Job growth is up, unemployment is down, and the economy is in vastly better shape than it was eight years ago.”

    This quote embodies the disconnect between official statistics and the perception of the public at large. It fuels the anxiety that conservatives and liberals alike are feeling and explains why Bernie Sanders is currently leading Democratic polls. Mocking and disregarding the perceptions of average Americans only fuels the anxiety and transforms it into anger. Thus the Trump and Sanders candidacies are resonating with voters. There is just as much mean-spirited rhetoric on the left as on the right. It would be prudent for both sides to acknowledge that lofty rhetoric is not going to assuage the concerns of angry voters. It’s still about the economy and it’s not as rosy as the numbers suggest.

    • Dan Knauss September 14, 2015 at 9:35 am | #

      Are you suggesting Sanders is a “leftist” version of Trump who uses “mean-spirited rhetoric to appeal to “average Americans” who are disconnected from the truth of “official statistics?”

      I wouldn’t call a social democrat a “leftist,” and Sanders has a long practice of not engaging in ad hominem with opponents. His campaign makes heavy use of official statistics, such as the historical shift in tax burdens to the middle class on down and radically diminished distribution of wealth. These are not chimerical grievances.

    • CD September 15, 2015 at 3:26 pm | #

      1. I’m not following Sanders closely. Can you provide examples of “mean-spirited rhetoric” by Sanders?

      2. You’re disdaining official statistics, yet you claim to speak about “the public at large.” On what basis?

      3. Where does “mocking and disregarding” come from? Suppose you and I have a disagreement about economic conditions. Is that fact that I disagree with you mockery?

  3. jonnybutter September 13, 2015 at 2:40 pm | #

    In the vast domain of living things, there reigns an obvious violence, a kind of prescribed rage that arms all creatures to their common doom….There is no instant of time when some living thing is not being devoured by another.

    de Maistre is just eye-popping to read – every time.

    I wish I could read this quote in French – oh, sorry, The French – because I’d like to taste the exact flavor of de Maistre’s rhetoric. That he luxuriates in violence and blood is clear. What the rest looks like to me in this translation is that his whole ‘argument’ rests on supreme attention being paid to something which is ‘obvious’. There’s something fishy about that from a rational point of view. He then anthropomorphizes natural violence by calling it ‘rage’ (but hedges by calling it ‘a *kind* of rage’); he then shows nothing but suggests much by saying that ‘there is no instant of time’ during which there is no violence in nature.

    After anthropomorphizing natural, survival-violence, he does the converse and, by implication, animalizes (‘faunamorphizes’?) what humans do – namely, to kill for the hell of it. You read it and by the end your head is floating a little, and the one word on your mind is, ‘Waaahuhwaa..?’

    Conservatives know that the most effective lies have elements of truth in them, and that it doesn’t matter so much how incoherently you mash stuff together so long as you keep the blood boiling. de Maistre is special though. First of all, he is ridiculous – he sounds like The Devil in a CS Lewis book; and also, he has such an singular gusto for murder and death and torture – and by extension, for suicide (another thing animals don’t do).

    I’d never read any de Maistre before Corey’s RM. He’s always just stunning to me. I’m certainly glad he felt free to say exactly what he thought (“um..tell us how you REALLY feel, Joseph!”). I wish other conservatives did too.

    • G Hiatt September 14, 2015 at 4:11 pm | #

      You should check out Hans-Herman Hoppe (living) or George Fitzhugh (dead).

      • jonnybutter September 14, 2015 at 9:02 pm | #

        Wow, Hoppe is really a freak. Insert line here about ‘precious bodily fluids’.

        But he doesn’t luxuriate in blood and death and torture (and suicide). de Maistre, at least in the familiar passages, doesn’t really fck around with a bunch of theoretical justifications. He cuts right to it.

  4. jonnybutter September 13, 2015 at 2:45 pm | #

    There is just as much mean-spirited rhetoric on the left as on the right

    Speaking of ‘incoherent’

    • RickM September 13, 2015 at 7:18 pm | #

      Yeah, I hear this all the time. I suppose if you wade through the fever swamps, if they still exist, populated by Trots in little round glasses, Bordigists, unregenerate Maoists, this may be true. But I cannot remember a leader of “my” side recently (i.e., the past 40 years) calling a retiring Associate Justice of the Supreme a “goat-fucking child molester.” And I certainly don’t remember anyone on my side who ever said anything similar and then retained his or her status as a leader, but I’m only in my late-50s. Last I looked, Erick Erickson was still a thing. But I confess to not looking very hard to determine this.

  5. G Hiatt September 14, 2015 at 4:23 pm | #

    “Punishment is an active ruler; he is the true manager of public affairs…Punishment governs all mankind; punishment alone preserves them; punishment wakes, while their guards are asleep….The whole race of men is kept in order by punishment.” – Joseph de Maistre

    Yes, mean-spirited and pessimistic. Conservatives, reactionaries, neo-reactionaries and libertarians are united in one thing – their disdain of “the mob”.

    They simply can’t imagine “the mob” doing anything right. They can’t comprehend “progress” because, being pessimists, they don’t believe “the mob” can progress. Laws that attempt to help “the mob” better themselves (universal education, universal voting rights) are futile because “the mob” is comprised of “brutes, dullards and fools” who can never really better themselves. They look at “the mob” and they see parasites.

    “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.” — Ludwig von Mises to Ayn Rand

    “The call of ‘equality’ is a siren song that can only mean the destruction of all that we cherish as being human.” – Rothbard

    Rothbard really seemed to dislike women; he blamed almost everything he disliked on ‘meddling women’. He REALLY didn’t like Jewish women who “agitated” with the help of money raised from “top Jewish financiers”.

    Of course…”The dominant tradition of all these meddlesome women is lesbianism”.

    *clutches pearls

  6. Farrell September 14, 2015 at 11:07 pm | #

    There many more gems you could use. Perhaps a Crooked Timber post on this topic is in order?

    Houston Stewart Chamberlain: “This work of Teutonism is beyond question the greatest that has hitherto been accomplished by man. It was achieved, not by the delusion of “humanitarian” impulses, but by sound, selfish power; not by contentedness with little, but by insatiable ravenous hunger. . . from the earliest times down to the present day we see the Teutons, to make room for themselves, slaughtering whole tribes and races, or slowly killing them by systematic demoralization. Everyone must admit that in the very places where they were most cruel — as for instance, the Anglo-Saxons in England, the German Order in Prussia — they laid by this very means the surest foundation of what is highest and most moral.”

    Oswald Spengler: “like France in 1793, we will have to live through this misfortune to the very end; we need a good castigation, the likes of which will make the four years of war seem harmless in comparison, until the time has come for the small group that was called to leadership in 1813 and in 1870 alike: the Prussian nobles and the Prussian civil servants, the thousands of our technicians, apprentices, craftsmen, workers with Prussian instincts; until, above all, the terror also generates such indignation and despair that a dictatorship, something Napoleonic, is generally perceived as the salvation. But then blood must flow, the more the better.”

  7. Farrell September 14, 2015 at 11:16 pm | #


    Paul de Lagarde: “One would need a heart as hard as crocodile hide not to feel sorry for the poor exploited Germans and–which is identical–not to hate the Jews and despise those who–out of humanity!–defend these Jews or who are too cowardly to trample this usurious vermin to death. With trichinae and bacilli one does not negotiate, nor are trichinae and
    bacilli to be educated; they are exterminated as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”

  8. LFC September 16, 2015 at 12:55 pm | #

    I wish I could read this quote in French

    For the heck of it I searched on “les soirees de Saint Petersbourg” (sorry, I’m leaving out the accents), and a complete digitized version of a 19th-cent. edition comes up. Before I could get to the text itself, there was a long publisher’s preface, praising de Maistre in extravagant terms, which I glanced at. The one sentence that sticks from that perusal of the preface is (in my rough translation): “Never has the contemptible philosophy of the eighteenth century encountered a more formidable adversary.” Anyway, I decided not to search in the text itself for the “in the vast domain of living things” passage, b.c it wd have taken me too long given that I’d first have to translate a piece of it back into French (assuming the control-F function would even have worked). But it probably does sound better, or more sonorous at any rate, in the original.

    • jonnybutter September 16, 2015 at 9:29 pm | #

      I think we get the idea very well in translation, but – yeah, I think an outrageous rhetoric like this is good to read in the original, just to get the full flavor. Maybe I’ll puzzle it out word by word if I can find the quote.

      Metal bands (and HBO-type original series) devote their lives and fortunes to being ‘darker than thou’ and all that, but Maistre is so much darker than any of that stuff, and it seems effortless for him.

  9. jonnybutter September 18, 2015 at 9:09 am | #

    …more viscerally divisive..

    Ha ha ha. ‘Viscerally’ is becoming like ‘literally’ – figurative. Maistre knew what ‘visceral’ means. dem bones

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