Friday, October 10, 2008
On the Firing Line:Bombshell Duds
David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and Christopher Buckley.
I'm not calling them turncoats. Just effete and tiresome.
ELITIST UPDATE. Earlier in the week, David Brooks called Sarah Palin a "cancer on the Republican Party." Today, he excommunicated all the conservatives who don't work for The New York Times or National Review:
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.
Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind.
Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them. He was rooted in the Midwest, but he also loved Hollywood. And for a time, it seemed the Republican Party would be a broad coalition — small-town values with coastal reach....
Republicans have [since] alienated the highly educated regions — Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham. The West Coast and the Northeast are mostly gone.
The Republicans have alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it’s 2-to-1. With tech executives, it’s 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it’s 2-to-1. It took talent for Republicans to lose the banking community.
Conservatives are as rare in elite universities and the mainstream media as they were 30 years ago. The smartest young Americans are now educated in an overwhelmingly liberal environment.
His conclusion, of course, is that Sarah Palin is the catastrophic climax of a process of devolution that has destroyed the conservative movement in America. It's an astonishing piece, as revealing as it is, well, stupid.
We have here a whole series of untruths, misrepresentations, and confusions of cause and effect. I am sure that this is an accurate representation of the conservative universe from David Brooks's viewpoint. It's just that it's historically and conceptually false. If you read the whole essay, for example, you will discover that he has essentially confined the entire Reagan Revolution to one three-sentence paragraph, almost as an asterisk to the real work that was done by Buckley and other conservative intellectuals like himself. I'll come back to the falsehoods later, but first it's time to take note of another, equally provocative essay that appeared online today.
It's by Chris Buckley, son of the late patron saint of the National Review, William F. Buckley. Son Christopher has decided to endorse Barack Obama. Here are some representative excerpts of that gem of insight, longer than I would like but necessary to convey the flavor.
The son of William F. Buckley has decided—shock!—to vote for a Democrat.
Let me be the latest conservative/libertarian/whatever to leap onto the Barack Obama bandwagon. It’s a good thing my dear old mum and pup are no longer alive. They’d cut off my allowance....
I am—drum roll, please, cue trumpets—making this announcement in the cyberpages of The Daily Beast (what joy to be writing for a publication so named!) rather than in the pages of National Review, where I write the back-page column. For a reason: My colleague, the superb and very dishy Kathleen Parker, recently wrote in National Review Online a column stating what John Cleese as Basil Fawlty would call “the bleeding obvious”: namely, that Sarah Palin is an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that. She’s not exactly alone. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who began his career at NR, just called Governor Palin “a cancer on the Republican Party.”
As for Kathleen, she has to date received 12,000 (quite literally) foam-at-the-mouth hate-emails. One correspondent, if that’s quite the right word, suggested that Kathleen’s mother should have aborted her and tossed the fetus into a Dumpster. There’s Socratic dialogue for you. Dear Pup once said to me sighfully after a right-winger who fancied himself a WFB protégé had said something transcendently and provocatively cretinous, “You know, I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” Well, the dear man did his best. At any rate, I don’t have the kidney at the moment for 12,000 emails saying how good it is he’s no longer alive to see his Judas of a son endorse for the presidency a covert Muslim who pals around with the Weather Underground....
A year ago, when everyone, including the man I’m about to endorse, was caterwauling to get out of Iraq on the next available flight, John McCain, practically alone, said no, no—bad move. Surge. It seemed a suicidal position to take, an act of political bravery of the kind you don’t see a whole lot of anymore.
But that was—sigh—then. John McCain has changed. He said, famously, apropos the Republican debacle post-1994, “We came to Washington to change it, and Washington changed us.” This campaign has changed John McCain. It has made him inauthentic. A once-first class temperament has become irascible and snarly; his positions change, and lack coherence; he makes unrealistic promises, such as balancing the federal budget “by the end of my first term.” Who, really, believes that? Then there was the self-dramatizing and feckless suspension of his campaign over the financial crisis. His ninth-inning attack ads are mean-spirited and pointless. And finally, not to belabor it, there was the Palin nomination. What on earth can he have been thinking?...
As for Senator Obama: He has exhibited throughout a “first-class temperament,” pace Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s famous comment about FDR. As for his intellect, well, he’s a Harvard man, though that’s sure as heck no guarantee of anything, these days. Vietnam was brought to you by Harvard and (one or two) Yale men. As for our current adventure in Mesopotamia, consider this lustrous alumni roster. Bush 43: Yale. Rumsfeld: Princeton. Paul Bremer: Yale and Harvard. What do they all have in common? Andover! The best and the brightest.
I’ve read Obama’s books, and they are first-rate. He is that rara avis, the politician who writes his own books. Imagine. He is also a lefty. I am not. I am a small-government conservative who clings tenaciously and old-fashionedly to the idea that one ought to have balanced budgets. On abortion, gay marriage, et al, I’m libertarian....
Obama has in him—I think, despite his sometimes airy-fairy “We are the people we have been waiting for” silly rhetoric—the potential to be a good, perhaps even great leader. He is, it seems clear enough, what the historical moment seems to be calling for. [emphases mine]
The Brooks piece and the Buckley piece may seem substantially different -- one a formal construct of argumentation and the other a personal, almost casual memoir of conversion -- but what they share is far deeper than any of the points they make. Both rest on the unacknowledged assumption that what is called intellectual is, in fact, meant to be synonymous with intelligence itself, specifically the kind needed to make decisions for a rowdy people that can never be trusted to do such basic things as read character, employ logic, understand consequences in the short and long term, and run their own damn country.
In Christopher Buckley's piece in particular, I found reinforcement of a suspicion I have always entertained, with much reasonable doubt to be sure, about William F. Buckley. To make this suspicion clear, I'll need you to look at the following YouTube clip from Brideshead Revisited, the miniseries of Evelyn Waugh's exploration of the British aristocracy in the Edwardian (pre-WWII) era. The scene in the clip portrays the first exposure of the staid protestant protagonist, Charles Ryder, to the glamorous society of Oxford's decadent Anglo-Catholic demi-monde.
Skip to 2:55 in, to the arrival of Anthony Blanche. Watch
as much of his luncheon performance as you can stand.
The relevance of this scene is not Blanche's ostentatious homosexuality. It's his determination to dominate by being outrageous. He succeeds brilliantly in his goal of attracting attention. He is more a master of style than of substance. But in his social context, he might be pardoned for believing that verbal quickness and cleverness are the most effective proof possible of authentic intelligence. After all, people listen to what he has to say. They are defenseless against his repartee.
That, forgive me, was always my concern about Buckley the elder. For two reasons. First, because I had run into blueblood "conservatives" at Harvard myself and when you scratched the surface, they were not so much (small "R") republican federalists as anglophile monarchists. Like the Anglo-Catholics of Waugh's book, they looked down on the lesser American elites of Kennedys and Massachusetts descendants of the founding fathers. They regarded membership in the Democrat Party as an unbecoming stain on true aristocracy. Their objection to the power of labor unions wasn't a political distaste for the New Deal Coalition so much as an unpleasant olfactory response.
Second, the Buckley verbal style always grated on me. It was so mannered, so somehow self-satisfied in its refusal to be clear and direct, that I immediately associated it with the posturing of Anthony Blanche. And if you think the comparison is far-fetched, how is it that an American born in this country and educated at Yale continuously displayed the most perfect possible example of the infamous "Oxford stutter"? Worse, his columns embodied exactly the same refusal to communicate clearly and directly. His sentence structure was perverse, his syntax rococo, his use of vocabulary deliberately opaque, and his anti-egalitarian insistence on being incomprehensible to those who did not know Latin or Greek made me regard him as more poseur than political evangelist. I never bought the act that he was reaching out to everyday Americans. If he was, he was a terrible writer. If he wasn't, he was an American version of Anthony Blanche -- a pretentious (however learned) cocktail party hero.
I reserved judgment about Buckley because he did ultimately bond with and support Reagan. Reading Chris Buckley, though, who is one further generation from Edwardian England, I am frankly repelled at his anglicisms -- "mum and pup," "don't have the kidney," "the bleeding obvious" -- and casual Latin pretentions "pace Oliver Wendell Holmes." I'll readily admit I haven't read Chris Buckley's fiction, but I'd place a small wager that he writes more like Waugh than any other American you might name. I'm also suspicious that he's so easily seduced by Obama's "writings." If he cares enough about the candidates to libel John McCain for trying to win an election, he should also care enough to consider evidence that Obama may not have written his "first-rate" memoirs. (Oops. What would that do to his "airy-fairy" endorsement? What, what, eh?)
And bearing just a bit longer with the Waugh analogy, it does seem to me that the best way to understand the high and mighty American Republican elitists is to see them as the minority Anglo-Catholics in the liberal aristocracy that dominates all the professions and universities. The political battle they think they perceive with their superior intellectualism is actually a social contest undertaken in the very provinces where David Brooks feels himself losing -- "Silicon Valley, northern Virginia, the suburbs outside of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Raleigh-Durham," among other watering holes of the rich and privileged. These places are no more liberal than they've ever been. What's changed is the snobbery standard. Nobody likes Bush and the cognoscenti are embarrassed he went to Andover and Yale. Academic institutions among the elite have been marxist for a century. That hasn't changed. Lawyers switch parties whenever their opportunity to sue is threatened. T'was ever so. What's different is the company highbrow conservatives are compelled to keep -- or at least defend.
When I was much younger, my experience wth such snobs convinced me that there was a fifty-first state no one knew about. It included Grosse Point, Michigan, Lake Forest, Illinois, Chestnut Hill in Boston, the Philadelphia Main Line, the Upper East Side, New York, and dozens of other wealthy preserves where the children were destined to attend the same prep schools, the same prestigious universities, and the same private summer communities. Call it the "Commonwealth of Intelligentsia." Its citizens tended to know one another, no matter how far apart they lived, and they shared what Fitzgerald called a "vast carelessness," nourished by the certainty that real consequences are always visited on those a level or two down in the social order. For the past eight years, parties have been a drag for intellectual conservatives. The poor dears. The local politics of Intelligentsia have gotten ugly. Teacups are being dashed to the floor in anger. (Which is tantamount to extreme violence for the Paper People.)
This is the state David Brooks and Chris Buckley are from. The rest of our country isn't real to them. The Reagan Revolution is only worth a couple of sentences in the tomes they write about their own accomplishments, and they missed all the real historical antecedents of conservatism in flyover country because they can't understand or even perceive a movement that begins in people's hearts and lives rather than high-society skirmishes that result in unlikely invitations and lucrative book and media contracts.
Bottom line (I use this term here because they hate it so): Defecting from the cannon-riddled ship of American conservatism at this point in time is perfectly predictable and perfectly illuminating about who they are. They never got into this game to defend hockey moms, moose hunting, and Down syndrome babies. And their astonishment at discovering that in the internet age, writing about politics can lead to such unpleasantness as death threats is also a revelation of their naive presumptions. They've been "conservatives" all this time without knowing what innumerable combatants like Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter put with daily, hourly? Me, I'm perfectly happy to have them run away to their boat slips in Nantucket and put all the nasty byplay of politics behind them forever.
But the good news is we don't need them. Intellectualism is not the same thing as intelligence. In many ways it is frequently the opposite. (Read Chris Buckley's "pup" quote about Harvard vs the phonebook and then his uncomprehending deprecations of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton politicians. He knows. But he doesn't. QED.) If you want to read the best writing about American conservatism, read "Reagan in His Own Hand." No, he wasn't an intellectual. But he was smarter than all the clowns we've been discussing in this (admittedly) overlong post.