Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein confronts his Creature, played by Boris Karloff, in James Whale's 1931 film, via Nitrate Diva.
Shorter David Brooks, "The Republicans' Incompetence Caucus", New York Times, October 13 2015:
I am shocked—shocked—to find that the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives has been infiltrated by a bunch of vulgar, ill-informed and ill-mannered commoners. These people don't even believe in democracy!
I know right. You let these peasants into the club and before you know it they're running around like they own the place.

See Driftglass and Steve M for the analysis of today's idiocy—and a masterful takedown by the political scientist Corey Robin (also at Crooked Timber, where there will probably be some elevated commentatoriality) of the "traditional" conservatism Brooks is talking about—which
stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible
—showing how each of the items on this list is continually contradicted by conservative thinkers from Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre at the time of the French Revolution to, well, Ronald Reagan.

I'd just like to add to that some thoughts on what this familiar formulation means, or rather the ideological work it does. Since it's obviously not to be taken at face value, since conservatives in fact may turn at any moment to outrageous intellectual arrogance (Buckley), a demand for abrupt, disruptive change (Hayek), a contempt for precedent, a violent and irresponsible rhetoric, and so on, what is it for? And why is David Brooks in particular so in love with it?

The first thing you note is that it isn't a political program; it isn't about something a community might do. It's about not doing things, and the modest, restrained style with which you refrain from doing them. At the same time it does present a kind of utopian picture, of a society that has no need to change, because everything's fine as it is: Disraeli's high-Tory Romantic fancy of old-English country life, dominated but not controlled by the generous squire and his compassionate lady beaming at their tenants every Sunday through the church service; or Tolkien's quaint Shire, whose quirky and complacent hobbits never need to ask where their six meals a day are coming from. It's a utopia that's already here, if we can only sit back and enjoy it, instead of constantly fretting about how things need to be different. That is, if we can only ignore the reality of poverty and distress all around us and pretend that all is well or that the sufferers are to blame for their suffering—perhaps they'll be inspired by the example to pull themselves up by the bootstraps (isn't it clarifying how that favorite metaphor, if you visualize it, is a physical impossibility?).

Political conservatism, the thinking originated by Burke and Maistre, developed in the wake of the French Revolution—not the Terror of 1793-94 but the abolition of aristocratic dominance in October 1789, when the First and Second Estates, the lords temporal and spiritual of France, folded themselves into the Constituent Assembly, and accepted the supreme power of the People (Burke's Reflections on the Late Revolution... was published in the fall of 1790). It was above all about the distribution of political power, and the thesis that it ought to stay the same as it was, or as it recently had been: that the ruling class should continue to rule and the lower orders keep their heads down.

But the reason somebody needed to make the case was that things were in fact rapidly changing, not just in France but in the Hapsburg domains, for example, and in England and Scotland too. Ordinary people didn't necessarily have a vote, but public opinion did increasingly have an influence; Earls bumped shoulders with teachers and journalists and artisans at Masonic lodge meetings, aristocracies of birth were losing power everywhere to aristocracies of industrial and capital wealth, and opinions of all sorts were exploding in an uncontrollable press.

Conservatism is a reaction to democracy, when a ruling class is forced by circumstance to defend its unequal status—to justify its power to those who could take it away. The paradox is that it doesn't, at this point, really have the power—it has to beg for it. It must persuade the masses not to exercise their power but trust the gentry to do it for them. This is what that hobbittopian imagery is all about, the happy lives of those who submit to being controlled by their betters.

At the same time, people aren't going to continue to vote against their own interests to keep you ruling over them unless you've got some way of disguising what you're doing; you can't simply expect them not to notice that they're not actually getting six meals a day and you have all the money. You have to provide them with an interest to be voting for, and this is generally done in conservative thinking through fear: of Jacobin mobs with pitchforks, conspiring Freemasons and Illuminati and Jesuits and olive-skinned immigrants, vicious Jews and maddened blacks and castrating feminists.

And you've got to be very careful about how your voters involve themselves in the distribution of power. What's happened in the Republican party is that its anxiety-ridden middle-aged white male voters, after decades of being told that the party represents them, have found out that they are the party, and they're misbehaving. They didn't want to sit around the pub in Hobbiton after all, they wanted to get out and kick ass and punish those people the party has used as bogeymen, and the party itself for not exacting enough punishment. Richard Nixon's Creature has turned out to have consciousness, and a will of its own, and it's dangerous. It'd be funny, if it wasn't so terrible.

Under the sign of the Green Dragon, Hobbiton. Via
Update: A later Driftglass references Krugman coming out and naming Brooks for the first time, and Krugman references Corey Robin (linked above) so I feel a little like a bartender at a very fancy party.

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