Firstly, a hat tip to @CSBrown28 for having the guts to come onto this ferociously right-wing forum and defend his political beliefs. And a double tip, for giving us the opportunity to deepen our understanding of our own beliefs by defending them from a well-written attack.
I believe everyone should read, carefully, the Washington Monthly article linked to by him. It’s a very competent summary of the liberal case against conservatives. Any serious political person wants to be familiar with the arguments of his enemies, and here they are, all in one place.
If you find that you cannot answer some of those arguments, that’s not a problem. They cover 70 years of history, and are written by a pretty smart fellow (a Princeton PhD candidate) who has been researching this topic for years.
Few people, liberals or conservatives, who are not PhD-level students of history, could answer, off the tops of their heads, the arguments of a sophisticated opponent who has spent two or three years reading and preparing his case.
(And this is not only true of politics: if you have ever argued with a sophisticated 9/11 ‘Truther’, or a well-prepared ‘Moon-landing-was-a-hoax’ believer – and such people exist – you will know that someone who has spent months or years gathering evidence for even the most outlandish ideas, can be a formidable opponent against someone who is just relying on common sense. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I began reading the moon-landing-was-a-hoax arguments.)
I think it would be useful to take up the arguments in the Washington Monthly and discuss them one by one. There are far to many to engage with in a single post, so I’ll try to go paragraph by paragraph through the article, and comment on it, over a few weeks.
A response to the first paragraph, which says
" If you spend any time consuming right-wing media in America, you quickly learn the following: Liberals are responsible for racism, slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan. They admire Mussolini and Hitler, and modern liberalism is little different from fascism or, even worse, communism. The mainstream media and academia cannot be trusted because of the pervasive, totalitarian nature of liberal culture."
This assertion is an example of cherry-picking, and it’s done by both sides. What you do is to find the worst examples of arguments put forward by people ‘on the other side’, and pretend that they are typical, or representative of all the people on the other side. Since there are plenty of idiots to go around, among both right and left, this is easy to do. I’m pretty familiar with the whole spectrum of what is called ‘the Right’, and I instantly recognized these arguments. Of the sixty million people who voted for Donald Trump, there are no doubt millions who would endorse the sentiments the author attributes to the whole Right.
The problem is, there are also millions who would not. If you want to seriously engage with your political opponents, you should try to adhere to two closely related guidelines: (1) What do the people who lead your opponents say? What do their thinkers, their writers, their pundits put forward in the websites and journals which are part of their movement?
I could easily bring up quotes from Black conspiracy theorists who believe the CIA introduced crack cocaine into the Black community in order to weaken it; or who attribute the staggeringly-high Black on Black homicide rates in the inner city to white racists disguised as Blacks. I could run through the career of the shameless demagogue – embraced by Hillary Clinton – Al Sharpton. I could gather up hair-raising quotes from AntiFa flag burners who want to destroy the police forces in every city. I would quote the leader of the Huey Newton Gun Club who praised the man who murdered five Dallas policemen. It wouldn’t be wrong to do this – they’re part of American leftwing reality – but it would be dishonest to pretend that these people represent American liberalism.
To take on American left/liberal thought, I would need to engage with the ideas presented in The Progressive, the Nation, the New Republic , Mother Jones … and, moving further Left, Jacobin magazine, and websites like CounterPunch and Truthout.
Similarly, anyone wanting to attack the American conservative tradition, must read and engage with the arguments in National Review, The American Conservative, Chronicles of American Culture, First Things, and The New Criterion. Conservatism is far from a unified movement, and you won’t find a monolithic voice here.
What they have in common is a deep skepticism towards abstract proposals to radically alter the human condition via the exercise of state power, an appreciation of institutions that have evolved over time, and unwillingness to overlook the ‘dark side’ of human nature.
The father of this attitude was Edmund Burke, a friend of the American Revolution in the British Parliament, who famously predicted the outcome of the French Revolution when it was still in its benign phase. He was no reactionary – he favored gradual change – but quite rightly was hostile to proposals to re-order society based on a set of abstract principles.
So, first point: our Princeton PhD candidate should look at every manifestation of American conservatism, not just the ludicrous attitudes that can indeed be found among some self-declared conservatives.
The second point is a generalization of the first, and was best enunciated by the great Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci was commenting on a book review by the Russian Bolshevik leader Nicolai Bukharin. Bukharin was reviewing a treatise on sociology by a pro-capitalist academic. Gramsci made the following observation: Bukharin, he said, attacks the weakest arguments of this man. And in physical warfare, that is exactly right: we avoid the enemy’s strong points, and attack his weak points. But in intellectual warfare, we must do just the opposite: we must attack our enemy’s strongest points.
This post is too long already. In the next one I’ll look at that first paragraph from Washington Monthly, to see if there are any kernels of truth in it, and if so, why conservatives believe them.