Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Unbearable Whiteness of Chicory

Belgian endive.
One of the conservative voices I know of who can write a truly decent paragraph and show some genuine human feeling, at the same time, is Anne Applebaum, an American journalist married to the Polish politician Radosław Sikorski, who had a beautiful, colossally sad essay ("A Warning From Europe") in last month's Atlantic about crazy nationalism as it's expressing itself in Central Europe at the moment, particularly in Poland and Hungary, which is in some ways scarier, if only because of its echoes of a familiar 1930s and 40s, than the comical goings-on in Trumpy America or the infuriating stupidity of Brexit Britain—if you think I'm crazy to keep associating conspiracy theories about George Soros with traditional Protocols-of-the-Elders anti-Semitism, you just need to be looking at the anti-Soros propaganda coming from Soros's native Hungary, where they make it very explicit (and where Trump adviser Dr. Sebastian Gorka, member of a "Historical Order of Vitéz" reviving the Nazi-run Order of Vitéz of the interbellum era, got his doctorate at the sadly decayed Corvinus University). In Poland especially, where the Velvet Revolutions of 1989 took a particularly legitimate conservative form,  Catholic, under the influence of John Paul II and union leader Lech Wałęsa, Applebaum describes a wrenching split between what I almost want to call leftist conservatives, the European-minded, artistically and philosophically sophisticated, conservative mainly in a kind of sweet upper-class cluelessness that really doesn't mean any harm, and the ruthlessly careerist nationalists of the Kaczyński faction, dividing families and marriages, and wrecking friendships she herself has had for decades, but worse than that is the damage that the nationalists are industriously making.

So here's David F. Brooks to supply the tl;dr on that ("The Rise of the Resentniks") by way of applying it to the Americans and, presumably, soak up some of that pity I can't help feeling for the Sikorski-Applebaums of the world:
Those of us who came of age in conservative circles know exactly what Applebaum is talking about. The same kinds of rifts have opened up among conservatives around the world, in Britain, Italy, Germany and the U.S.
Some conservatives stayed on the political trajectory they were on in 1999. Others embraced populist nativism. They wandered into territory that is xenophobic, anti-Semitic, authoritarian. Still others were driven leftward by the reactionary revival.
Those "driven leftward" being presumably the MSNBC apostates, Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot and so on.

Brooks blames Communism for the resulting problem, apparently for falling to pieces too early, before the conservatives were intellectually ready to seize the means of production and distribute them to the philosophers, and the academic liberals who somehow managed to block them from assuming their natural position of cultural dominance and forced them into shadows in which they failed to mature, like so many Belgian endives grown out of the sunlight:
During the Cold War, being a conservative was a moral cause. You were fighting Communist tyranny — aligned with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Lech Walesa. But you were somewhat marginalized in your own society. Liberals controlled the universities, the news media, the cultural high ground, so the right attracted many people with outsider personalities.
Then with the election of Reagan and Thatcher and in the years afterward, conservatives built their own counter-establishment — think tanks, publications, broadcasting outlets. As conservatism professionalized, it despiritualized. After the Soviet Union collapsed, conservatism no longer had a great moral cause to rally around. It became a technocratic, economics-focused movement concerned with small government and entitlement reform.
Outsider personalities like the ultimate outsider artist David F. Brooks, the Grandma Moses of political writing.

Or hipster enthusiasts like David F. Brooks who were into Mises and Schumpeter before they went mainstream. Applebaum's pathos (she can't hang out with a woman who was the godmother of one of her children) turns into Brooksian bathos (he's not as famous as he could have reasonably expected to be). But more important is to remember, with Dorothy, that if your heart's desire isn't in your own back yard, then your foster-parents didn't kill it and bury it there that time you thought they did, and by the same token if your deepest-held goal is anti-Communism, then you might be better off being for something or other.

The punchline is that a Brooks confronted with the situation suddenly finds himself in favor of the "meritocracy" he's been bitching about for the last three or four years:
The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy.
In office, what the populist nationalists do is this: They replace the idea of excellence with the idea of “patriotism.” Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence. In fact, a person’s very lack of creativity and talent becomes proof of his continued reliability to the cause, as we’ve seen in the continued fealty to King Trump.
Brooksy's nostalgic for "excellence" now. He continues to wish for a "moral purpose" but he really wishes there were a voice for basic competence as well. I don't know if it will ever occur to him that this is the moral purpose of liberalism as we commonly understand it—musically speaking, the project of enhancing everybody's voice—but it's not likely.

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