Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The few conservatives who make me think

For anyone looking for intelligent conservative commentary, I suggest the following. I have plenty of disagreements with many of these, some very deep, but they are often thought provoking, and have changed my mind sometimes.

  • Greg Mankiw's econ blog (and its greatest hits, i.e. the top Google results for his site)
  • Ezra Klein (not a conservative)'s podcast, where he frequently interviews conservative guests
  • Russ Roberts's podcast out of the Hoover Institute, which has been mentioned by a bunch of you before; wide ranging and curious, not polemical
  • Sam Harris's podcast and books on religious belief, fundamentalism, and skepticism; I think he feels he's not a conservative, but feels like liberalism left him behind in its drive towards relativism
  • Jonathan Haidt's blogging and articles on epistemology and open mindedness; again, not very conservative, but often argues in reaction to progressivism; eg "The Coddling of the American Mind"
  • Megan McArdle's blogging and articles in the Atlantic, though I feel these have declined in curiosity and rigor over time
  • Writings by FIRE, the foundation for individual rights in education; sometimes outrageously unfair, sometimes terrifyingly on point; "Coddling" was cowritten by FIRE's director
  • Reason magazine (libertarian, Thiel-ish, Koch-funded)--uneven but often interesting
  • VS Naipaul's A Bend in the River, a sort of founding conservative literary text that put in literary form the idea that radical revolutionary movements are forces of arbitrary power and triumphant incompetence, not forces of egalitarian freedom
  • JM Coetzee's Disgrace, a spiritual successor of sorts to Naipaul
  • Laura Kipnis's writing about sexual politics, eg her essay "Sexual Paranoia"

I've tried for decades to find good conservative writing, and I've subscribed to several conservative magazines and read all sorts of stuff I disagree with, and met David Horowitz (for a long one-on-one conversation) and Dinesh d'Souza (mostly watching him debate a friend).

Through all that, I really think there's something about conservatism, like communism, that precludes honest and curious thinking. I think some of the best evidence of this is the lack of nuanced and insightful conservative writers on subjects which aren't directly political.

By the way, I hate the word "conservatism". Shouldn't it be "conservativism"? An activist who is active does not practice "actism", and an a relativist who thinks in relative terms does not practice "relatism".)

Where's the conservative Emily Nussbaum? Without the insights of feminism and postmodern critique, she doesn't exist. Where is the conservative Daniel Mendelsohn? The conservative Michael Pollan?

What passes for intellectual rigor in a magazine like The American Conservative or The Weekly Standard is laughable. I knew several conservative writers-in-the-making in college, whom I came to consider sloppy and incurious thinkers; several of them were showered with journalism job offers, easily got book deals, etc., and now write for the big time, just as vapidly. (One of them, hilariously, wrote in The Weekly Standard a few years back that Obama was allowing the deficit to balloon through his horrible tax raises). You have to go to something truly peripheral like Jacobin to get the same level of lazy, shallow callousness on the left.

Alex Haley, a black Republican at a time when that didn't mean what it means today, did produce a spectacular book in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which might be the best book ever by a conservative. No other American conservative-written political memoir on the right can compare to Richard Wright's Black Boy.

As for fiction, where are the great conservative novelists? Great literature has almost always been transgressive in a progressive direction, pushing against prejudices and superstitions and towards widening the circle of humanity. This is as true of great foreign literatures like Russia's philosophical epics and French introspection, as it is true of American travel bildungsromans.

And yet one of America's oft-cited "great American novels" stands out as thin and uninsightful: Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, which I think doesn't have a tenth the insight into America as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I think there's tons that's valuable about conservatism; I consider myself to be significantly conservative, in the sense that I truly value growth, morality, civilization, tight social bonds, and protecting how much justice, wealth and stability there already are in the status quo; and in that I oppose measures that throw the baby out with the bathwater, that impose arbitrary constraints on people, that produce bureaucracies that perpetuate themselves unconditionally, and that experiment irresponsibly with our society and our world. But those values seem a tiny part of what animates most conservatives I encounter.

I think that American conservatism, as a coherent worldview and identity, has persistently violated those values, without owning up to it in a way that would help avoid further violations. Intolerable constraints on liberty have always been easily entertained by conservatives, so long as they are applied to someone who doesn't look like them.

Conservatives have ever been followers, and never leaders, in movements to expand the circle of human sympathy to include those previously excluded from it. And yet the intellectual case for conservatism today--as it has always been--is essentially that progressive forces have always been right about expanding that circle, and conservative forces always wrong, up until this precise moment, when conservatives are finally right and progressives are going too far.

I can point you to many essays by liberals and progressives about what their movements have gotten wrong about education, regulation, war, police brutality, etc. Where are the conservative criticisms of, say, how they were wrong for decades about gay rights, women's rights, civil rights, global warming, aggressive policing, war, etc.? These things seem to change in conservatism without much noticing and reflection, as evidenced by the Mormon church's continuous retcon of its past doctrines, recently requiring them to quietly scratch out the rule that black people can't enter heaven, and soon to require them to do the same for gay people. But there was no reckoning, and there won't be one soon.

Otherwise brilliant people turn spectacularly ignorant when it comes to this sort of imagination. Peter Thiel was the first gay person to speak from stage about being gay at the GOP convention; he shared the platform with several people who would have him undergo conversion therapy. Is that really the only thing his fellow speakers are wrong about -- the one thing he can't help but acknowledge sympathetically, because he is in the excluded category himself?

I think it's not a coincidence that conservatives (and on the left, communists) so often have holy books and figures of reverence, compared to liberals and progressives. Of course revering a human or a book means ignoring their many flaws, and it strikes me that the people I have known who most vehemently ignore such flaws have been conservatives and communists. (I spent quite a bit of time with various communists back in the day!)

The closest thing on the left is a discredited book of wishful identity fudging like I, Rigoberta Menchu. But how damning is a fraud like that? It certainly points to a hungry empathy among bleeding hearts, which can be turned to passionate causes that are thinly sourced, and that's a valid critique of progressivism. But there are plenty of other books that tell much the same story of working-class struggle and the violence that many people who fight against imperialism and armed state capitalism face. Make Rigoberta Menchu a white rancher facing FBI thugs trying to take her land to put up a parking lot and you have a conservative classic, albeit one better written than nearly any other.

I think you need epistemic closure--a firm limit on the bounds of what you allow your mind to entertain--to maintain serious belief in the conservative holy books I've read. Or, for that matter, to maintain serious belief that Lenin or Mao were heroes. It's not the belief in God I'm talking about; it's the belief that God wants you to revere a book and tradition that has been so nonsensical, deeply wrong, unjust, and absurd.

I love going to synagogue and singing about God, and don't begrudge others' beliefs and routines in which they find meaning. Some very intelligent people who practice religion are ready to apply their full intellect to considering whether Jesus really sent a demon spirit into a pack of pigs, and are happy to admit there's no chance that really happened--it's just a story some humans made up. But others will contort their thinking as much as they need to block themselves from honestly answering that question.

I want to be precise about what I mean: I'm not talking about people who simply say that when they pray or read the Bible they know nothing else and a different kind of truth fills them. I believe them, and I think that's how belief really works: it's usually a vague feeling and not a logical conclusion.

I'm talking about people who will turn to every last rhetorically ridiculous gambit to avoid directly owning up to their beliefs being inconsistent and devoid of rational grounding. When you get into the weeds of a debate, it is clear when someone is considering arguments curiously, and when their purpose is to bat away thoughts before they can risk entertaining them. It seems to me that among the conservatives and the communists I've known well, and the smarter ones I've read, this sort of blocking is nearly universal.

I'm sort of trying to thread a needle with my argument, not sure if it really makes sense. I think there is much that is valuable about conservative perspectives. And, at the same time, I think there is something within conservatism--maybe in its fear of destabilizing the safety and security that we have--that treats self-directed inquiry and questioning, and even imagination, as a dangerous and destabilizing force.

There's even a pride in refusing self-directed inquiry; this is prominent in Ayn Rand's fiction.

It's very hard to find simple contemporary conservative descriptions of the experience of someone who is outside the conservative sphere of protection: a gay person in 1980, say, or a slave in 1850, a time when progressives were generating many such documents of imagination. That's part of my point about the dearth of great conservative (and communist) fiction; it's indicative of the dearth of imagination.

As for liberalism, it is not without its groupthink, but I see liberalism as being fundamentally cosmopolitan and catholic (as opposed to orthodox) in its approach to truth. Liberalism takes its values and outlook by mixing elements of conservatism, progressivism, and other lines of thinking, which is why it is able to adapt to become tough on crime or tolerant of gays; it is inherently anti-doctrinaire and open to being influenced by information. I really think that makes liberalism and conservatism, as whole outlooks, fundamentally different.

Read about the influence that good governance think tanks feel they were able to have with the Clinton White House vs. the Bush II White House, for instance. One was solicitous of perspectives and would revise policies in the face of outside criticism just to make them better in ways too obscure to ever translate to votes; the other was notoriously run by a closed circle who kept dissent at arm's length.

But I agree that there are counterexamples of curious conservatives, like the Hoover Institute's Russ Roberts, and I'm open to more that prove me wrong! What I most wish for is a smart, conservative counterpoint to The Weeds, the generally liberal Vox policy podcast with Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias (one of my favorite thinkers), and Sarah Kliffe.

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