Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ross Douthat: If He Can't Be Cool He'll Be In Control

After he wrote the post I discussed earlier, Ross Douthat wrote a response to his critics.

Why Is Reaction Taboo?
Remember, Douthat is trying to bring back a racist, sexist, authoritarian era, with some fascism thrown in for variety. His problem here is separating the bad aspects of authoritarianism from the good. Unfortunately there are no good aspects of authoritarianism; anything done under its mantle can also be done without it, although force makes everything easier for the ruling class, of course. Therefore his anti-#NeverReform project is doomed to fail, just as his #NeverTrump project was doomed to fail.
My Sunday column on reactionary thought — its sins, its strengths, its notable absence from the upper reaches of our official intelligentsia — was an attempt to tackle a subject that doesn’t really lend itself it to adequate treatment in eight hundred words. So let me try to tease out some of the issues latent in the piece.
Poor, dumb Ross.

His first mistake, the one that shapes all others, is considering himself as the intelligentsia. He and all his elite brethren are not the best and brightest, they are the most suitable and most servile. They make up or pass on theories developed to hide the fact that their only goal is maintaining and increasing their power and wealth or the power and wealth of their employers.

Ross Douthat is not a Big Thinker. Neither is David Brooks. Or Megan McArdle. Or Matthew Yglesias. Or fresh young thing Caroline Zelikow. They are marginal thinkers with rich relatives or patrons, but they always support the right people in their destructive causes.

First, more than a few readers interpreted the column as simply blaming a kind of academic-left conspiracy for the absence of serious reactionary thought in America. I can see why it read that way, and to clarify I don’t think that’s exactly the right way to think about it.
In other words, readers correctly stated Douthat blamed liberals for conservatives' actions but Douthat doesn't want people to correct him.
Contemporary academic groupthink certainly illustrates the absence of the reactionary imagination, and it plays some causal role in keeping reactionary ideas taboo or marginal.
"Reactionary": Racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, fascist. By Douthat's own admission.

But there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here, because you could also argue that reaction effectively discredited itself between, say 1930 and 1965 — or between the Reichstag Fire and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, if you prefer — in a way that eviscerated its position morally and made its intellectual exile inevitable. (The Second Vatican Council has a place in that generational story as well, since it was widely seen as the last bastion of Western reaction giving up the ghost.)
Nothing discredits anti-Semitism like the Reichstag. Fortunately Selma eradicated racism, however. So what's the big problem with a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, fascist party when all those nasty things ended long ago? What you have left is the right sort of reform: Authoritarianism without exploitation, racism, sexism, fascism, and anti-Semitism. In other words, nothing.

That's not what Douthat sees. He sees women willingly subservient to men and their gods. Poof! No more men holding down women because women hold themselves down. The same with African-Americans, the poor, and whoever else they scapegoat.

The fetus-humpers have their Roe v. Wade and the Jesus-humpers have their Vatican II, which opened 17 years before Douthat was born. And Douthat wasn't even raised Catholic! "“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man,” said Aristotle, but Douthat never had that formative experience in the Church. Douthat would very much like the Church to be all-powerful and infallible; his complaints about Pope Francis' words on modern families make that perfectly clear. But the Church would also have to be frozen in time like a bug in amber, to never change--and inevitably be left behind by most people as it became less and less relevant to peoples' lives. The Pope is wiser than Douthat and wishes his living Church to change and grow, not become a zombie husk.

So no, Western Civilization did not end with Vatican II, and Douthat only makes himself look weak and frightened when he says it does. Like Rod Dreher, civilization must be crumbling or tragedy will strike; nobody will buy their cures for fixing it. Although it is a little amusing to see Douthat basically blame the Church for his own racism, sexism, and authoritarianism.

If the Church is infallible, Ross is infallible because all he has to do is parrot the Church and he'll be right and an authority, a Leader. If the Church changes, especially if Ross doesn't like the change, where does that leave him? If the Church becomes less racist, sexist, or authoritarian, how does he gain? The pope is just not thinking this through.
It’s not a coincidence, in this reading of intellectual trends, that the one philosophical school within hailing distance of reaction that’s persisted in the modern university is the school of Leo Strauss, a German-Jewish emigre whose critique of liberalism was explicitly and very personally anti-fascist, whose favored pre-modern thinkers were pre-Catholic, and whose disciples have generally cast themselves as liberalism’s wise protectors rather than its subversive foes. (Not that this saved Strauss from being linked, via Carl Schmitt, to the Nazis during the anti-Straussian frenzy of the Bush era …) The Straussian experience suggests that deep critiques of modernity can claim some territory (though not that much) in the liberal academy; they just need to be sufficiently distanced from racism and anti-Semitism and unfortunately most reactionary ideas and traditions simply aren’t.
And this is the corrupt heart of authoritarianism. It is nothing but the desire to have power over others. People who feel they have no power will do anything to alleviate that fear or desire. People who have power will do anything to maintain it. The only way to get people to submit (because death is always an alternative) is to persuade them to submit. The best way to do that is to tell people to raise their children from birth to submit to authority. It is very easy; the parent withholds love and approval in return for obedience instead of giving the child unconditional love. Their parents did it and it's the only way they know to raise a child. The child becomes an adult with the pattern of obedience to authority engraved in his or her mind and it becomes his gut response to fear and need.
Now of course you can turn this around and ask, well, if reaction was discredited by Hitler and Bull Connor, by race hatred and Jew hatred, why wasn’t left-wing radicalism discredited by Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot? If this is all about moral credibility and the company you keep, why did so many prominent historians and literary critics get to keep on calling themselves Marxists after every Marxist-Leninist regime committed mass murder on an epic scale? Why are Kipling’s politics or Eliot’s or Pound’s or even Heidegger’s considered so much more “problematic” and all-discrediting than the Stalinist strain in so much left-wing historiography and philosophy and criticism and art?
I know you are but what am I?

Douthat repeats his plea from his earlier post; if liberal academics can be Marxists, why can't conservative academics be racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and fascist? The question reveals a lot about Douthat and it's all ugly.

The New York Times. Power, prestige, privilege. And it's not nearly enough for Douthat. He wants to be able to hate and control and punish as well.

Nice job, Elite. Your front man is a petty little nebbish who whines about being unable to publically force people to submit to his authority without everyone calling him a hateful bigot.


Downpuppy said...

I had to read them twice to be sure. Tis true! You quoted 6 complete paragraphs, in which Chunkier says a total of absolutely nothing.

Susan of Texas said...

What can he say? He can't defend his beliefs or the policies he bases them on. He can only say that nobody will listen to him because they're biased. Against racism etc etc!

Susan of Texas said...

I mean the policies he bases on them.

gromet said...

If this is all about moral credibility and the company you keep, why did so many prominent historians and literary critics get to keep on calling themselves Marxists after every Marxist-Leninist regime committed mass murder

Oof, standard rightwing schtick -- to pose a misleading question instead of answering an on-target one, and then stand back like the answer must be so obvious. Well, Ross, it IS obvious: The answer you're looking for is, "Marxism is first and foremost a methodology for critiquing power structures, not itself a system of government. Duh. And an academic methodology can't be tainted by Lenin any more than it would ruin English if John Wayne Gacy majored in it. Whereas reactionary authoritarianism has no academic bones; from the start it is a political engine that amounts to wishful thinking run amok, and by definition it cracks the skull of anyone who stands in its way." You dishonest hack.

(I can't believe I never knew about this blog till last week! SusanofTexas, your Ross post is kickass. I'm adding this to my list of sites.)

Bob M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob M said...

trying again - Good lord what a putz. I would fee sorry for him as he laments that reactionary thought has not shed enough of its burden of racism and sexism but his obvious desire to punish the modern world for being well modern is just evil. He may not have the power but oh he does know what he would do with it.

D. said...

"Nice job, Elite. Your front man is a petty little nebbish who whines about being unable to publically force people to submit to his authority without everyone calling him a hateful bigot."

Thank God he has no authority to force anyone to submit to. Also that the Bourbons will not be restored to power. And he needs to give up everything the modern world makes possible and write his garbage with a quill pen on self-manufactured homemade papyrus, as God intended.

Anonymous said...

Chunky Reese Witherspoon

Tengrain said...

Dear Ross -

As for the Chicken and the Egg: The rooster came first.



Yastreblyansky said...

Ew, Tengrain. How do you know he and Mrs. Proto-Hen didn't have a simultaneous? "Did the earth move for you too, Little Red?"

Yastreblyansky said...

Hi Gromet, nice to see you. You approximately wrote the comment I was going to.

Yastreblyansky said...


He can't defend his beliefs or the policies he bases them on.

Actually, think about it!

You could really argue that the reactionaries do base their beliefs on the policies they favor. Like if I'm the king and I want to execute everybody who insults me, I make up a theory about the sacred majesty of kings which it is blasphemy to challenge. What we've been seeing on tax cuts for the wealthy for the last three-four decades, every time the economic situation changes they invent a new sophisticated theory that just happens to imply that the wealthy need tax cuts.

That's why it's "reactionary", because it arises not from general assumptions but from the response to a particular situation (where the underlings are managing to grab a share of the political power). And that's why it isn't "discredited" in the way Ross thinks it is by one or another 20th-century event, because it never had any real intellectual content in the first place. LIke the stupid theology Catholic reactionaries set up in terrorized reaction to Vatican II.

Hitler wasn't a reactionary either; reactionaries like Hindenburg wanted to use him, the way Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III wants to use Trump, but they couldn't. Fascism is revolutionary, about a new crowd taking power, but it's not leftist-revolutionary on the basis of a class analysis--it's just the Big Man and his friends who want to take over because they're Supermen.

Arguably Stalin was a true reactionary by the late 1920s, fighting against the revolutionary diffusion of power--he ended the liberating New Economic Policy in favor of an economic style that would have been familiar to Catherine the Great, and the artistic avant-garde in favor of schlock painting and Beethoven, and brought back the Orthodox church. And had a Tsarist court, just like reactionary Putin does.

Kathy said...

Douchehat and Doughy and all those other faux-intellectuals just can't get it thru their solid solid heads that Lenin and Mao were no more "leftist" than Hitler. They used leftist terminology, but they were vicious reactionary, totalitarians.

Susan of Texas said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Gromet, thanks very much.

Yastreblyansky, yes, I see what you mean. (It's not always about feelings!)