Sunday, April 24, 2016

Old Whine in New Bottle

The second funniest thing about today's column by Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, under the title "The Reactionary Mind", has already been pointed out by Corey Robin:
  1. Liberals think conservatives are reactionaries;
  2. conservatives are merely nostalgic for the 1950s;
  3. just as liberals are nostalgic for the golden age of unions; thus,
  4. liberals and conservatives are nostalgic for the same thing, but liberals may not know when it was and conservatives (including Ross Douthat) definitely don't know what it was like.
The first funniest thing, which Corey is evidently silent about out of modesty, is that he himself is the source for the Monsignor's headline, The Reactionary Mind being of course the title of Robin's own brilliant 2011 book, a comprehensive tour through the history of conservatism showing clearly that what unites the conservative perspective over the centuries is not some coherent set of changeless principles, but an impulse that can only be called reactionary, on the part of some ruling class that feels its power under threat from below, from the French Revolution through the Tea Party, and yearns—and conspires—for the sweetness and rightness of an old regime. Which is of course not the argument the Monsignor is making: he's going to be telling us that although we ought not to think of him as some kind of reactionary, he has a certain appreciation for those who are—he thinks they're cute.

He seems nice.
The Monsignor is trolling today, trying out a new line of argumentation for the old complaint that American college and university faculties don't have enough conservatives on the teaching staff (reactionary nostalgia for the Horse Feathers 1930s, when they were run entirely by old white men, many wearing beards, and carefully managed mass hysteria over football).

Exemplified, for instance, by the fact that practically everybody working in social psychology as an academic field is on the left, according to Jonathan Haidt, "most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination". (I mean it couldn't possibly be because the foundations of the discipline, as the empirical study of "how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others" in a social context, are intrinsically situationalist and relativistic and provide little in the way of footholds for conservatives, who believe as Thatcher said that "there is no such thing as society"*, to get a purchase on.)

And then there are the horrors of being a conservative in the academy as reported in the brand-new Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University by Jon A. Shields and Joshua M. Dunn Sr., who could only find 153 conservative and libertarian professors to interview in the 84 US colleges and universities they looked at and report, as their title indicates, how there's a virtual Jim Crow situation in the modern American professorate, where you practically have to perform in progface, as it were, to "pass" in the rigorous segregation. Or, to quote Shields and Dunn themselves, from the article Ross links to,
"Right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown," they write in a recent op-ed drawn from the book, declaring that "conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions." Many of those they interviewed expressed love for their institutions. "The university has really given me my life," a literature professor told them. "It’s a very wonderful place."
Oh wait, really? You mean it's not Jim Crow after all? It's the fifth paragraph, Ross. You're getting as lazy as Brooks.

Anyway, Ross's new shtik is to shift the complaint; it's not that there aren't enough conservatives in American intellectual life, it's that there aren't enough crazy people from the right, as opposed to the left. I mean, apparently there are some real monarchists out there in the online so-called "alt-right", though they're not too easy to distinguish from the Trumpers, but you don't see any of them on campuses:
A few true reactionaries haunt the political philosophy departments at Catholic universities and publish in paleoconservative journals. But mostly the academy has Marxists but not Falangists, Jacobins but not Jacobites, sexual and economic and ecological utopians but hardly ever a throne-and-altar Joseph de Maistre acolyte. And almost no academic who writes on, say, Thomas Carlyle or T. S. Eliot or Rudyard Kipling would admit to any sympathy for their politics.
Inorite? Why don't any of the professors back Catholic fascist dictatorship? How come you don't see any backing for the divine right of kings? In an environment where it's OK to admire such far-out deviant organizations of the left as the British Labour Party or the Union of Concerned Scientists? Isn't it a little unbalanced to regard "The Deserted Village" as normal and "The White Man's Burden" as somehow disgusting? Isn't it a little biased to reserve all our admiration for revolutionaries like Adams, Hamilton, and Madison and none for those who just see salvation in submission to King, Pope, and Hangman?

To say nothing of those sexual utopians, for goodness sake, though the only committed "sexual utopian" Dr. Google has found out anything about is one F. Roger Devlin, who proposes a kind of general strike against the feminist-bureaucrats:
We have arrived at a rare historical moment when we men have the upper hand in the battle of the sexes. Much depends upon the use we make of it. The only thing still propping up the present feminist-bureaucratic regime is the continued willingness of many of the hated “heterosexual white males” to live according to the old rules: not only to work, save, pay taxes, and obey the law, but also to sire and raise children. Once we stop doing these things, the whole system of patronage and parasitism collapses....
But to achieve specific policy objectives that might be seen as more on the reactionary side than otherwise, such as:
The date rape issue can be solved overnight by restoring shotgun marriage—but with the shotgun at the woman’s back. The “victim” should be told to get into the kitchen and fix supper for her new lord and master. Not exactly a match made in heaven, but at least the baby will have both a father and a mother. Furthermore, after the birth of her child, the woman will have more important things to worry about than whether the act by which she conceived it accorded with some feminist professor’s newfangled notion of “true consent.” Childbirth has always been the best remedy for female narcissism.
Remember the caveman days? Sweet!

Of course, Ross acknowledges, reactionary thinking isn't always entirely proper:
Those politics were frequently racist and anti-Semitic, the reactionary style gave aid and comfort not only to fascism but to Hitler, and in the American context the closest thing to a reactionary order was the slave-owning aristocracy of the South.
But let's not ignore the good side! Reactionaries do make assumptions that sometimes correspond to the truth! At least Ross thinks they do!
Reactionary assumptions about human nature — the intractability of tribe and culture, the fragility of order, the evils that come in with capital-P Progress, the inevitable return of hierarchy, the ease of intellectual and aesthetic decline, the poverty of modern substitutes for family and patria and religion — are not always vindicated. But sometimes? Yes, sometimes. Often? Maybe even often.
If you just subtract the racism and anti-Semitism and keep the assumptions that might sometimes be valid—maybe even often, Ross thinks!—what's not to like? That's just how science works, right? (Spoiler: No.)

The primary joke here being, I think, that if you do that job, if you really try to pull the unacceptable filth out and reduce it to some kind of decent, general, neutrally philosophical set of points, what you get is so much evidence that Robin's Reactionary Mind has it more or less exactly right.

I mean, if that's reactionary thinking, the response of the intellectual who identifies with the ruling class in a time of emancipatory change, in all its contradictions, with the claims that ethnic or cultural divisions can never be overcome, except they are always getting overcome by inadequate "modern substitutes"; that humanity could revert to Hobbesian chaos at any moment, so be afraid, but at the same time it won't because submission to hierarchy is natural and inevitable; and that our intellectual and artistic train of thought keeps degenerating and yet the Monsignor keeps being able to judge it critically (and you should listen to him rather than, I don't know, Rousseau or Shelley)—

If that's reactionary thinking, then it isn't some kind of weird rightmost end of the conservative spectrum, it's the fundamental material of which conservatism is built.

Robin quoting there from James Fitzjames Stephens, coming off a stint (1869-72) with the Indian Civil Service, in his 1873 book Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, written in reaction to the progressive views of John Stuart Mill.

Update: Susan goes big, covers a lot of the material I missed.

*That is,
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. (Interview in Women's Own magazine, 23 September 1987)
society as such does not exist except as a concept. Society is made up of people. It is people who have duties and beliefs and resolve. It is people who get things done. [Margaret Thatcher] prefers to think in terms of the acts of individuals and families as the real sinews of society rather than of society as an abstract concept. Her approach to society reflects her fundamental belief in personal responsibility and choice. To leave things to ‘society’ is to run away from the real decisions, practical responsibility and effective action.” (clarifying statement from the Prime Minister's office, 10 July 1988)

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