I keep trying to find conservative contributors, without much success. Perhaps this is not an accident, but a consequence of the nature of the conservative mind. Thinking about my experience, and reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, gets me wondering.
Sure, when I asked in my last post, where are the conservative intellectuals, there were a number of sensible suggestions. Michael Corey pointed to a conservative institution of higher learning, Hillsdale College, and Regina Tuma and Lisa reminded me that there are some individuals, self-identified as conservatives, who are worth reading, David Frum and Andrew Sullivan (though if I am not mistaken, Sullivan has recently publicly renounced his identification with the label, given its crazy turns in recent years).
But I am looking for debate and for intellectual power, which forces me to pay attention and question my commitments, looking for committed conservatives that require respect. I have been reaching out to some conservative professors, with no success thus far. And while Frum is occasionally interesting, he is not really challenging, and Sullivan is fleeing from conservative orthodoxy. He is hard to pigeonhole. Perhaps that’s a hint of where I should go, seek “un-gated contributors.” Indeed, that is what I often do, as the editor of Deliberately Considered and in my reading, writing and teaching.
Over on my Facebook page, some friends have suggested that I may be delusional in my search for conservative contributors. One friend declared, “You are a Diogenes for our time, although with worse odds.” Another asked “Where is Ann Coulter when you need her?” Another wondered, “Are you going to play with necromancy?”
I realize that these ironic remarks imply a serious judgment. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally problematic with the conservative position, and that, therefore, my search is mistaken. Could it be that serious reflection on the events of the day shouldn’t include those on the right? Could it be that the center has shifted so far to the right that those who are now called conservatives are in fact beyond the pale of intellectual interest and decency, that the reactionaries, the counter revolutionaries and the conservatives are all the same, and fundamentally indecent? If this is so, therefore, conservatives should be appraised and opposed, but not taken seriously on their own terms.
This is how I understand the position of Corey Robin in his book. It is a provocative and illuminating collection of inquiries. It has opened a serious discussion about the significance and meaning of the power of conservative thought and practice in the last decades of the twentieth century and the opening years of the twenty-first. The Reactionary Mind received the full New York Review of Books treatment. A prominent scholar, Mark Lilla, has negatively reviewed the book, dismissing it by outlining the book that he thinks should have been written. Robin has rightly called foul, and Lilla has gotten in the last word. Lilla thinks that a book should be written to explain conservatism, to recognize its distinguished contributions, and to critically appraise its present intellectual quality and political application in its diversity. He gives an outline. I think it would be an interesting book. He criticizes Robin for not having written it. This criticism is not fair. Robin’s project was to present an argument, a sharp reading of conservative, counter-revolutionary and reactionary thought (he identifies the three) as a defensive reaction against social emancipation. It’s a strong, though of course not complete, argument.
Robin formulates his project in a variety of different ways. In the opening pages he explains: “conservatism is: a meditation on — and the theoretical rendition of — the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” A few pages later, he explains a bit more fully. After discussing John Adams’s resistance to Abigail Adams’s proto-feminism and the resistance of slave owners to emancipation, he presents some details of what conservatism is and is not:
Conservatism, then, is not a commitment to limited government and liberty – or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and ever-changing modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians and warriors, for that fusion is infused by a more elemental force – the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. Such a view might seem miles away from the libertarian defense of the free market, with its celebration of the atomistic and autonomous individual. But it is not. When the libertarian looks out upon society, he does not see isolated individuals; he sees private, often hierarchical, groups, where a father governs his family and an owner his employees.
The libertarians, according to Robin, like all other conservatives and reactionaries, defend challenged hierarchy. I have no doubt that there is something to this, but I am also sure that there is more involved. What he calls the byproducts of conservatism, may include the real cultural accomplishment and intellectual challenge.
I also must make myself clear. I sometimes want to be on the other side of the revolutionary barricades. I know that defending established ways is sometimes imperative, that some social projects enacted in the name of emancipation actually enslave. Being a veteran Central European hand, a long- term observer of the politics and culture of the old European killing fields, the contrasts in Robin’s account between progress and regress are too sharp for me. I am reminded of an essay of Adam Michnik, first given as a public lecture at the New School, beautifully entitled. “Grey is Beautiful.” (I wonder: perhaps my difference with Robin can be ultimately be explained by the fact that when he thinks about the cold war, he thinks about Latin America, while I think about the Soviet Union and its neighbors.)
In a quick Facebook post, I called Robin’s approach reductive. He responded and rightly called me out. I was overly casual (and dismissive) in the style of the social networking site. His position is richer than my quick post suggested. He provoked me to write this piece, publicly recognizing and critically appraising his work. Robin knows that the conservative position starts with a defense of hierarchy, but then goes on in a variety of different ways to cover a lot of ground, “from Burke to Palin.” He has interesting things to say about Anthony Scalia, Hobbes, neo-conservatives and, ex-neoconservatives (I found these reflections particularly intriguing). The essays taken separately linger on the details of the cases he studies, but the frame of the book makes the big statement, and the details recede. I am more interested in the cases than the frame, which I think is too roughly drawn.
But, I must admit, I have some self-doubts. Robin’s argument could explain why my project of breaking down the gates is mistaken. On balance, I still don’t think so, but it is a possibility.