Bats aren’t bugs, II: Goldberg Variation

by John Holbo on May 22, 2004

Jonah Goldberg wishes liberals were more interested in ideas, specifically the history of their own ideas. He wishes they were less ‘intellectually deracinated’; more like conservatives:

Read conservative publications or attend conservative conferences and there will almost always be at least some mention of our intellectual forefathers and often a spirited debate about them. The same goes for Libertarians, at least that branch which can be called a part or partner of the conservative movement.

By contrast:

Ask a liberal about his tradition and he will talk about deeds and efforts to remedy injustice, not ideas. This is in keeping with the legacy of William James’ preference for action over thought, though I doubt most liberals know or care that this is so (while I can think of no conservative who wouldn’t be jazzed to be told his idea was “Hayekian” or “Burkean”). This is a huge tactical advantage for liberals in political battles because they can disown old ideas in ways we cannot.

That was a month ago. Since then, Mark “the Decembrist” Schmitt has taken these anti-liberal allegations as the occasion for what promises to be an interesting series at TAP. Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum have been trying to help, politely but firmly. And Jonah gets letters, he gets letters. From liberals. Here he sits, scraping the bottom of the email barrel.

Liberals condemn themselves to repeating their mistakes by not knowing their history – even, it turns out, when it’s a month old.

It is a sign of the arrogance of liberals that they brag – as so many have done in their emails – that they don’t “need to know what to believe” or to know history or to have a philosophy or to, in effect, know their homework. They simply know what’s right … It is also a sign of the triumph of two strains in liberal intellectual history converging: pragmatism and intellectual radicalism (by which I mean critical legal studies and the like). Both schools of thought reject the notion that “dogma” and “tradition” are useful sources of knowledge or morality, respectively.


Their biggest problem is they don’t have a philosophy. This causes a lack of organization. This causes a lack of popular ideas. This is why the Democratic Party defines itself in such reactionary terms – blocking Republicans, creating lockboxes, yelling “stop” and “no” a la Al Gore and so on.

Four theses to be considered:

1) Liberals don’t know their own intellectual history.
2) Liberals don’t have a philosophy.
3) Liberalism is an arrogant, intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism crossed with a strain of intellectual radicalism.
4) Liberalism is strangely reactionary.

And the correct responses are:

1) Confused; maybe a grain of truth. A mistake worth making for educational purposes.
2) Weirdly false.
3) A ‘bats are bugs’ moment for the record books.
4) Oddly, a mix of 3 and 1. (Wouldn’t have thought that was possible.)

And the explanations for these correct responses:

1) Liberals don’t know their own intellectual history. Jacob Levy makes the necessary points in response much better than I would have (and just in the nick of time, before I made a botch of it.) Basically, there isn’t any natural presumption that students of Rawls, say, should be up on their Croly. Yes, two forms of ‘liberalism’, but surprisingly genealogically distinct. Lots of quite different things get called ‘liberalism’.

I would more strongly emphasize one point Jacob makes. Goldberg knows, I am sure, that ‘liberal’ is one of those terms with so many senses it’s a wonder anyone does anything with this tool except cut themselves on it. Goldberg slices himself something fierce. He uses ‘liberal’ to denote everyone to the left of the Republican party. This is ‘libruhl’, in the pejorative sense, much beloved of right-wing talk radio, not remotely analytically useful. For example, ‘critical legal studies’ – which Goldberg touches on, by way of allegedly getting in touch with one tributary of the liberal stream – is not any sort of liberalism. Critical legal studies has its intellectual roots in all that post-structural, post-modern, post-Marxist continental stuff. (See this randomly googled up page, for example. I have no idea whether it is great shakes, but a long list of the influences on critical legal studies mentions not a single liberal figure or source, which tells you the thing is maybe not paradigmatically liberal.)

If you simply can’t bear not to lump everyone to the left of the Republican party together, at least don’t be surprised when all these folks who don’t have a lot in common haven’t heard of each other. Why should they?

2) Liberals don’t have a philosophy. Wow. Knew the term was slippery. Never actually seen it leap out of anyone’s hand like that and just cut the throat. Clean. Thing of beauty, if you like that sort of thing.

The implied claim that J.S. Mill, Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, so forth, don’t have ‘philosophies’ is bizarre and false. So 2) is just a weird, weird thing to say, and not even the fact that Goldberg repeatedly says he is overgeneralizing to make a point explains it, because what’s the point of saying something so bizarre and false? I guess he is thinking something like: leftism is fairly intellectually bankrupt. Well, we’ll file that under thesis 3) and get to it in a moment. Maybe he is saying that the Democratic party is not all fired up with ideas at the moment. They are reacting to conservatives. Which is sort of true, because the conservatives are a bunch of radical hotheads, so someone needs to be doing some conserving around the place. Liberals are the Burkeans of the welfare state, ironically. We’ll file this under thesis 4) and get back to it.

Yglesias interprets Goldberg as offended by the intellectually unpretentious, roll-up-the-sleeves small-p pragmatical practicality of contemporary liberalism. It isn’t bold and grand and exciting enough. Some of what Goldberg says seems to fit with this. I remember Henry posted about this strain of contemporary conservatism some time back – sort of antsy and excitable and easily bored and in need of spectacle and stimulation. Burke the man was supposedly that way. But Burkean philosophy is notably not in favor of such things. Well, I dunno whether this is Goldberg’s thing.

The point could be that there is no significant liberal overlapping philosophical consensus (as a Rawlsian might say.) I don’t really see that there is a terrible failing in this area – I mean, more than usual; folks always disagree. There is significant consensus, from the tip-tops of the ivory towers on down, that the modern, liberal-democratic welfare state is a good thing and that we don’t need a fundamentally different form of government. That’s liberal consensus.

I think Goldberg is here again seriously hampered by his tendency to call too many things ‘liberal’. Since a lot of the thinkers he thinks are ‘liberals’ aren’t, it is no surprise that there is no liberal consensus that includes them.

But moving along, the thing that is truly weird about saying ‘liberals don’t have a philosophy’ is that it calls forth the contrary thought ‘so conservatives have a philosophy,’ which is – in my private but highly considered opinion – one of the very last thoughts a sane and prudent conservative thinker should want to spur in his or her audience. There is of course such a thing as conservative political philosophy. Would not dream of denying it. Nevertheless, philosophically speaking, contemporary conservatism is a doctrinal dog’s breakfast and a very poor advertisement for conservatism as a general outlook or temperament. (I exempt libertarianism, which is highly philosophical and admirably coherent, from this complaint.)

Contemporary conservatism looks a lot less bad a couple levels up from anything you might call ‘philosophy’. And so, young man, if you wish to make a respectable mark as a conservative mind, by all means pursue policy wonkery and conceal the odd tangle that is your ideological root system in a forest of mid-level factual detail.

This will, of course, be regarded as grave slander by conservatives. Well, I’ll just link my posts on the subject. You decide. I have argued the case at inadvisable length here, taking Goldberg’s colleague, David Frum, to task when he tried to get philosophical. Then I sort of tied up the frayed ends here. (The latter link contains a handy link to a PDF version of the first, really really long post.)

I make a short, sharp point here. And got some good comments. Basically, being in favor of ‘go, go!’ dynamist capitalist creative destruction while standing athwart the train of history, yelling ‘stop’ … is silly. But this is the circle you’ve got to square.

Then there is this point that conservatives, like Goldberg, who see conservatism as a temperament are left without a justification for being conservative, because temperaments are not properly reason-giving.

Not that my posts are enough coffin nails, I admit. And not that philosophical conservatism is hopeless. Not that there isn’t something wise and essential about the conservative temperament. I follow Mill and Trilling in saying so. But I do think Trilling was right when he wrote, in 1949:

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

Yes, the National Review started up right after Trilling wrote that. And Russell Kirk. Yeah, so maybe Trilling’s snark stopped being true for a time. But it’s true enough today. Because Jonah Goldberg is not going to be standing athwart any trains of history, yelling ‘stop’ anytime soon. (He hates it when Democrats yell ‘stop’. He’s not about to start.) And he is not any orthodox Kirkian, and I don’t see that he’s a coherently unorthodox sort either.

Let’s move on to the next point, which will allow me to develop some of these others.

3) Liberalism is an arrogant, intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism crossed with a strain of intellectual radicalism.

Okey. Now the going gets strange. Despite the fact that I’m a liberal I remember – it was a whole year ago – how Goldberg, in his wisdom, dismissed the strict need to pursue consistency in arguments about ideas. Let’s start with that comparatively recent event in intellectual history.

Here’s how it went. Radley Balko caught Goldberg out on an inconsistency. Goldberg admitted it but slipped the snare neatly: “I’m sure my position will force me into uncomfortable arguments sometimes, including alas inconsistent ones. But as I’ve written before consistency is often a red-herring.” Guess that showed Balko.

You can scroll up that page and read all the bits where Goldberg elaborated and qualified his position over the next day or so. Basically, he settled on the view that it’s OK to be inconsistent, so long as you think that – on some level – you are right. No inconsistency can be true, of course, but this “doesn’t mean conservative inconsistency makes us wrong, it just means we have to defend our inconsistency better.” Not resolve it, please note. Defend it. Even though it can’t be true. It’s a Russell Kirk thing, you see: “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence.”

But since you can’t be just go blurting ‘I have an affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence’ at the tail end of all your self-contradictions – eventually it would cause breathing problems, which would only compound the thinking problems – you need to get yourself some intellectual forefathers. Goldberg is right, I think, that conservatives are quicker with tags like ‘Burkean’ and ‘Hayekian’ than liberals are with corresponding tags. But I don’t think this is indicative of conservative intellectual rigor. The tags have legitimate intellectual employments, to be sure, but they are also suspiciously handy crutches for logically weak legs. If you are going to be asserting logical falsehoods a lot, as Goldberg freely admits he will be, you need to be able to make it sound more high-toned, like so: ‘The Burkean wisdom of P … blah, blah, blah … The compelling Hayekian insight that -P.’ The way to defend contradictions ‘better’ is to be well versed in suitable material for constructing arguments from authority. Of course, if your interlocutor has even a short term memory for intellectual history, you may be caught out in the fallacious attempt. But it’s worth a try. [Not that Burke and Hayek are exactly opposites. I’m just following up on Goldberg’s own examples. Burke and Hayek disagree about a thing or two, so it is perfectly possible for B to say P and H to say -P.]

The alternative would be to try and figure out which of the contradictory ideas was false. But this is not an option available to conservatives. Goldberg grouses that it is only liberals who enjoy this ‘tactical advantage’ of being able to ‘disown old ideas in ways we [conservatives] cannot’. (But if you think about it – and I do recommend the practice – the ability to disown old ideas, i.e. admit past errors, is actually a prerequisite for basic intellectual hygiene. I’m sure Goldberg would admit as much in a different mood.)

And this arrogant liberal trick of admitting we are fallible, illicit as it may seem, is nothing compared to the trick employed by conservatives: being able to disown any ideas whatsoever, without giving up on them, in ways we liberals cannot. For in the kingdom of ideas, you are what you imply. But conservatives, with their Goldberg-granted license to self-contradict, are free to stipulate away inconvenient implications by the Kirkian power of ‘the mystery of human existence’. But this amounts to stipulating away the ideas themselves, which cannot actually be separated from their implications. Irritable gestures, looks like to me.

What will Goldberg say to this? First, he will protest that he is not a knee-jerk irrationalist. He thinks consistency is important, but he has a rich appreciation of how life is complicated and general principles often step on each other’s toes. So inconsistency is OK. In short, he is a pragmatist. (The other possible things he might be, leading to so much flagrant self-contradiction, are: idiot, mystic, madman, liar and hypocrite. So I think I’m being quite charitable.)

But if the abiding virtue of conservatism is, at bottom, pragmatism, how can pragmatism also be the abiding vice of liberalism, as Goldberg claims? Hmm, yes?

Come to think of it, it’s a little hard to believe that “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence” is anything but a feeling you feel when you feel a feeling that feels deeply right, but you can’t quite say why it isn’t a contradiction. So we should add: a feelings-based pragmatism is the abiding virtue of conservatism, according to Goldberg.

And although it is possible to devise flabbier forms of pragmatism, Goldberg’s version is pretty flabby. Any form of pragmatism that affirms contradictions, rather than attempting to resolve them rationally, is flabby in my opinion.

And Goldberg often describes himself as an elitist, and I think claiming to be elite on the basis of nothing better than flabby feelings is pretty arrogant.

I infer that the following is a fair sketch of Goldberg’s projected conservative philosophy: an arrogant, intellectually flabby, feeling-based pragmatism crossed with a strain of intellectual radicalism. In short, he is a liberal. (Except that this isn’t a very good description of liberalism, which isn’t essentially a species of pragmatism at all.)

I haven’t gotten to the bit about Goldberg’s intellectual radicalism.

4) Liberalism is strangely reactionary.

This is really the start of another post, rather than a proper conclusion for this one. Anyway, whenever anyone starts accusing liberals of being reactionaries, I am reminded of a passage from Frum’s book, Dead Right.

He talks about how in the halcyon Reagan years “we thought about policy and elections so hard that we seldom stopped to think about philosophy … we learned to limit our own speculations to what the balance of political forces at that particular moment declared feasible; we wrote articles as if they were memoranda to the president, banning the not immediately practical from our discourse.” There is a paradox in this notion of impractical, speculative conservatism, if I make no mistake.

But at some point the flip was indeed made. Liberals are more conservative than conservatives, these days. Liberals are Burkeans of the welfare state. Whereas the Burkeans have all turned Jacobins, wild-eyed radicals. Hence Goldberg’s frustration at liberal reactionaries, always standing athwart the train of history, shouting ‘stop’. I quote again:

The Democratic Party defines itself in such reactionary terms – blocking Republicans, creating lockboxes, yelling “stop” and “no” a la Al Gore and so on.

As a conservative, he can’t abide such counter-revolutionary obstructionism.

I do realize that Goldberg himself is aware of at least some of these ironies. Whole thing is very confusing.



Walt Pohl 05.22.04 at 9:33 pm

I think the key thing to understand about conservatives is that they think about liberals all the time. Liberals think about conservatives when they impede on their consciousness, but conservatives’ thinking about liberalism is practically their raison d’etre. They also, on some level, really believe that everyone to their left is in it together, that there is some gigantic alliance of urbanites, academics, Hollywood celebrities, and Europeans that is dedicated to belittling them and holding them down.

That explains why whenever there’s an argument they bring up the views of someone that strikes a liberal as a non-sequiter. For example, in the comment section for the post of Harry’s that you linked to, someone brought up Arundhati Roy. I don’t know of a liberal who could give a shit what Roy thought about drive-up daquiri bars, let alone America and American foreign policy. For a long time, I thought it was just a rhetorical ploy, but it’s too consistent for that: they really think we’re all in it together against them.


bob mcmanus 05.22.04 at 9:53 pm


Another contribution above, although maybe a little more about conservatism and politics. And funny.
I don’t how I can take this seriously, when there is no analysis of p-idealism to be found here. But there wouldn’t be, I suppose, for if there were, it would be empiricism. :)
I know very little yet about “critical legal studies”, if this has anything to do with Quine,Rorty,Davidson etc who I am starting to study. But I do see some value to “post-modernism” as a kind of meta-political theory, as a progression from Trotsky/Gramsci to an instrumental use of ideas and language, an appropriation of Machiavelli and Strauss by the left to enable us to lie our butts off if needed to get the redneck biblethumpers out of power.


h. e. baber 05.22.04 at 9:57 pm

In haste because I’m on my way out to a Kerry fundraiser…I’ve gotten involved in Democratic politics and there does seem to be an anti-intellectual bias at least at the grassroots. I’ve been at least marginally involved in liberal activism for much of my adult life and yes there does seem to be an anti-intellectual bias starting from my involvement during undergraduate days during The Revolution. The pitch then was that argument and “ideology” was a scam–once you started “intellectualizing” you were beat. Can’t pull down the master’s house with the master’s tools.

These days there’s less pop Marxism and more argumentum ad miseracordiam–sentimentality and appeals for caring and sharing–and vindictive crusades against Bush at al. No one I’ve dealt with has even hard of Rawls. Maybe I can talk some people up at the fundraising party.

It is depressing. Liberalism in the loose and popular sense has the intellectual high ground but liberal activists seem afraid to take advantage of it.


Grand Moff Texan 05.22.04 at 10:16 pm

What is the point of studying conservatives’ ideas if they have nothing to do with conservatives’ policies?

Simply because they’ve managed to package an aristocratic agenda in an odd assortment of guises, from cold-fusion economics to religious superstition to mythologized history, doesn’t mean that anyone needs to waste time memorizing the jingles and slogans. Follow the money, count the bodies.

But especially anencephalic is their manufacture of a “liberal” to blame everything on, even when the left is out of power. One, the character they’ve created yields great deep structure on the fears and preoccupations of self-described conservatives (above). Two, is how effective they have been at selling this stereotype to their footsoldiers, their economic and social inferiors.

Is that process a case study in how to undermine a democratic republic, or in the impossibility of one?


Atrios 05.22.04 at 10:21 pm

The liberal philosophy apparently includes a kneejerk reaction forcing us to respond to the blanket criticism du jour from idiots like Goldberg who having not bothered to make an actual genuine point, gets to interpret mere enagement of his sillyness as victory as well as letting him keep redefining the meanings of words and the parameters of the debate until finally you just throw up your hands and give up.

Shorter Atrios: don’t feed Jonah the Troll.


asg 05.23.04 at 12:07 am



yabonn 05.23.04 at 12:09 am


I make a short, sharp point here.

Where you write :

there is no way even to begin to conjoin so-called social or cultural conservatism and economic conservatism. Because the latter assumes that (economic) laissez faire is good: change will tend to be for the better. And the former assumes that (cultural) laissez faire is bad: change will tend to be for the worse.

What if the magic formula is Me?

Me as in “Me is voting for the conservative even if i’m poor because i’m not one of these librul wusses, and i believe in hard work and markets rather than big gummint etc”.

And as in “Me is voting for the conservatives because i’m a good god fearing citizen, not like these godless homo lovin libruls that will go to hell etc”.

I don’t know if this qualifies as a philosophy but, as a glue, it looks effective enough. It works, and the feelgood aspect – that moral clarity warm, fuzzy feeling – gives it quite some appeal among many.

I remember an astonishing letter (over at orcinus iirc) of some poor dude who saw his life changed after listening to o’reilly (iirc again). Gained back his self comfidence, self respect, because he learned that he was on the good side : Me was right. And down with the interventionnist state and faggots.

That Me-above-these-others figure is everywhere in the common u.s. conservative rethoric (real rightist men against dubious whiny libruls), and binds the conservatisms of all stripes pretty effectively.

Again, i don’t know about the coherence of it all. You can’t really discuss about the coherence, or philosophical weight, of a tautological “i’m right because i’m right” belief. But boy, is it effective. And widespread.


bryan 05.23.04 at 12:24 am

‘what’s the point of saying something so bizarre and false? ‘

it proves he’s a republican.


bob mcmanus 05.23.04 at 1:40 am


Jacob Levy continues. I have been visiting Volokh for quite a while, and I guess I just have not noticed this guy. Like, wow.


Robert Lyman 05.23.04 at 2:40 am


I’m not heavily involved in conservative grassroots politics, but I have certainly encountered a substantial number of conservative types who aren’t heavily interested in intellectual history.

For instance, me.

I’m not totally uncurious about the past giants of conservative philosophy, but I’m much more interested in what the future will look like, and for that the study of actual history, rather than the history of academic yammering, whether right or left, is arguably more relevant.

But John, this entire game is stupid. As several people have pointed out, Goldberg hasn’t provided a meaningful definition of “liberal,” and of course it is entirely correct to point out that modern conservatives want to change more things about government than they want to keep the same. And “liberals,” though they are keen on sexual liberty, aren’t terribly keen on, for instance, leaving people at liberty to peaceably possess arms. So the labels themselves are only minimally related to any reasonably consistent philosophy. It’s nonsense to talk about “liberals” and “conservatives” in this way.

I think what Goldberg is really saying is “The liberals I meet socially are less interested in their intellectual history than the conservatives I meet socially.” Now, I don’t think anyone here can disprove that, so why not just let it slide?


jholbo 05.23.04 at 4:05 am

Well, Robert, I can’t let really bring myself to let it slide because I have a personality defect that causes me to pile on inordinately. More seriously, this small point Goldberg is making is obviously supposed to be just the thin edge of a larger wedge. And the thin edge can be neatly blunted – Jacob Levy does a good job: it isn’t ‘their’ history that these folks aren’t interested in – and the wedge itself is just a big block of confusion. There is a point to nipping this whole ‘conservatives are more philosophically coherent and rigorous than liberals’ thing in the bud.


bob mcmanus 05.23.04 at 4:41 am

Goldberg (and DenBeste) are trying to appeal to whatever percentage of the geeky psuedo-intellectual HS/College crowd that visits the political blog world and may not have their positions fully locked. Goldberg (besides probably having a book contract for some tendentious hatchet job) would like to prove that “liberalism” has no coherent intellectual basis and is just mushy touchy-feely stuff. For the twenty yr old engineer or programmer who shoots Klingons and wants to feel tough, this might appeal.

It is all about the children.


chun the unavoidable 05.23.04 at 6:11 am

I would like to reiterate robert lyman’s point and add that I find it curious that you have such evident interest about what this low-grade journalist, who is not noticeably better informed than the vole of the field, thinks about anything.

I’m as interested in the sociology of reaction as much as anyone, but at a certain point you’ve got to fire up Excel, or an open-source equivalent, and run a cost-benefit analysis.


drapeto 05.23.04 at 6:15 am

once you started “intellectualizing” you were beat. Can’t pull down the master’s house with the master’s tools.

i really hope you were being ironic with the quote from audre lorde because you are using it to mean the opposite of what it was intended to mean. lorde wasn’t arguing against intellectualizing, she was arguing in *favor* theorizing *rather* than accepting “old blueprints of response”. it would be pretty crazy for anyone, especially a person of color, to think of intellectuality as the “master’s tool”.

in america, anti-intellectuality (as richard hofstadter wrote) is the master’s tool.


q 05.23.04 at 7:53 am

JH: I do think Robert Lyman has a point on the use of the word “liberals”. Though CT is a good place to start defining what is a liberal, which I would say has historically been about the development of a system of government based on individual rights. Conservatism can simply be defined as the promotion of the rights of the wealthy. Liberalism is something that started way back with people like Oliver Cromwell opposing the right of inherited wealth to coerce others. Many supposed liberals today simply play mind games with principles in order to selfishly promote their own particular lobby group. This has less to do with liberalism and more to do with Machiavelli. Of course, liberalism will always have an oppositionist strand by the very fact that it attracts the downtrodden and oppressed.

For example, I am not so sure about what is so “liberal” about high income taxes on earnings, seems more authoritarian to me.

A “liberal” would also be campaigning for the rights of ordinary citizens to not be terrified of crime. Liberalism for me entails some measure of responsibility, which parts of the left seems to be happy to ignore. Yet there are liberal elements that appear to focus on the rights of murderers.

In addition, problems of liberalist debate today come from the collapse of intellectual development since the 1940s. The development of fascism and racialism left many people doubting the wisdom of relying on scientific intellectual ideas and a laissez-faire approach to anything.

So a good test would be to ask someone: Are you a Machiavellian, a liberal or rich? I suspect that you will find a good deal of modern day “liberals” are Machiavellian, and a fair number of “conservatives” are liberal.


liberal japonicus 05.23.04 at 7:57 am

For the twenty yr old engineer or programmer who shoots Klingons and wants to feel tough, this might appeal.

I just was remembering that Goldberg tried that goatee look a while back, and it reminded me of the ST episode with Spock from the parallel universe with the evil Kirk. Maybe this is where he’s trying to position himself. I bet he’s in front of the mirror now practicing how to arch one eyebrow…


Kip Manley 05.23.04 at 8:36 am

“Typical. So typical. Savage life forms never follow even their own rules.”
—[uppercase] Q, “Encounter at Farpoint”


Robert Lyman 05.23.04 at 12:17 pm

it would be pretty crazy for anyone, especially a person of color, to think of intellectuality as the “master’s tool”.

Well, I’ve met a number of “people of color” who think this way. In fact, everyone I’ve heard this quote from in the past has used it in some similarly bone-headed way, in a variety of contexts (e.g. don’t get involved in politics because that’s just selling out, don’t fight back against rapists, because that’s just promoting the “cycle of violence” etc). I won’t claim it’s a large-scale movement, but Lorde’s quote, it seems to me, has been widely misunderstood and misused. Drapeto’s explication is the first and so far the only one that has led me to think that Lorde might actually make some sense.

Which, I suppose, might be taken as evidence that liberals aren’t as familiar with their intellectual history as they ought to be. For those who are so inclined.


drapetomaniac 05.23.04 at 1:26 pm

Drapeto’s explication is the first and so far the only one that has led me to think that Lorde might actually make some sense.

audre lorde has a pretty precise understanding of what the master’s tools consist of. in the context of the essay, she is telling white women that they can’t expect to bring down patriarchy (master’s house) without divesting themselves of racism (master’s tools).

Which, I suppose, might be taken as evidence that liberals aren’t as familiar with their intellectual history as they ought to be. For those who are so inclined.

bravo. i hear the problem of the 21st c is the problem of the color line.


not lyman 05.23.04 at 1:37 pm

Speaking of tools and liberals, especially French ones:

Posted 9:43 AM by W
Call Amnesty International: Monsterous barbarians torture writer in prison Faut mettre Amnesty International sur le coup: Des barbares monstrueux torturent un écrivain en prison
‘It starts off by being stripped naked in front of 10 police officers including two women, gratutious humiliation is used to break you down.’ ‘… worst jail that you can possibly imagine.’ ‘Not even a hole to go to the bathroom. You have to piss against a wall and you sleep in piss on the concrete floor.’ The torture victim demands ‘the immediate shutdown of this secret underground prison’. It’s not at Abu Ghraib, it’s in Marseille, France.


bob mcmanus 05.23.04 at 3:17 pm

After some overnight thought, I think y’all need to help Jonah out by informing him that he will never understand modern pragmatic liberalism without a comprehensive study of the complete works of Charles Pierce.


Matt Weiner 05.23.04 at 5:10 pm

q, I think you’re exemplifying the problem with defining “liberal” in terms of some political theory and then scolding contemporary liberals for not conforming to it. Of course, if liberalism really is economic libertarianism (and Cromwell wasn’t big on religious liberty IIRC) then contemporary liberals don’t do a good job of measuring up to it. But if liberalism involves some sort of concern for the fate of the poorest in society, a la Rawls, high taxes on the wealthy are perfectly liberal.
And they’re only authoritarian if you think that the right to contract without taxes trumps all others, which maybe is a view you might get from Locke or Smith–but as Matthew Yglesias has elegantly argued, Locke and Smith were responding to a particular set of circumstances with doctrines that approved on that set, and there’s no reason to take those doctrines as setting the template for liberalism for all time. Liberalism is pretty pragmatic.


Matt Weiner 05.23.04 at 5:14 pm

Mingy point: That’s Charles Peirce the pragmatic philosopher, not Eric Alterman’s buddy Charles Pierce.


roger 05.23.04 at 5:42 pm

Let’s get this straight. The supporters of the War are Burkians and Neo-Hayekians? Hmm. You centrally plan the absolute change of another State without any tacit knowledge — or even much overt knowledge — of the culture. You do it because you have a theory of politics you want to prove.
Wow. I understand, though. Take Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society, or Burke’s speeches on the East India Bill, his Reflections on the French Revolution, or the speeches on Warren Hastings Impeachment. Sure, on the surface they seem to indicate that the Iraq war is the exact kind of thing radical ideologues, without any appreciation of the idea of self organization, would inflict, with maximal pain, on a historically evolved order. But that is just the surface, man! See, you go out and you buy Leo Strauss’s special lemon juice, and you rub that juice on the pages. And hey Presto! It turns out that Hayek and Burke, oh so prophetically, say the same things: FOLLOW PRESIDENT BUSH LIKE ROBOTS.
Those conservative intellectuals. They get more impressive by the month.


q 05.23.04 at 6:19 pm

Matt Weiner:
To clarify, I was focussing on the taxes on earnings derived from labour, not taxes derived from wealth (capital).


Adam Kotsko 05.23.04 at 6:46 pm

There is definitely a breed of intellectually curious, impatient young men who, due to not being well-read in any real sense but already feeling themselves superior to others, latch onto conservative “philosophy” or whatever you want to call it — as a weapon to use against others.

I know that I was seduced by the right-wing propaganda machine for a while in high school, just because I was in the mood to be opposed to the “liberal” stuff we were learning in high school (ironically enough, I now think I had a great high school education, all things considered, and regret feeling like I was superior to the ideas I was learning). As soon as I went away to college and there wasn’t as much pressure to try to start conversations with my dad based on Rush Limbaugh, I pretty much stopped caring about whether progressive taxation was like the Holocaust, then when Bush became the Republican nominee, I realized what a farce the whole thing was.

(I come from a religious tradition that encourages personal testimonies, and Republicanism.)


Robert Lyman 05.23.04 at 8:18 pm

q, I think you’re exemplifying the problem with defining “liberal” in terms of some political theory and then scolding contemporary liberals for not conforming to it.

And I’d say Roger is doing the exact same thing to “conservatives.”

But I’d point out that this isn’t exclusivly the domain of political opponents: often enough, supporters of one side or the other will define themselves in terms of an attractive philosophy and then proceed to deviate from it when convenient. Liberals, as I mentioned above, love to cast themselves as lovers of tolerance, in opposition to bigoted conservatives. But as someone who looks and acts like an urbanite (but has substantial sympathies with rural residents, and even carries an NRA card), I can tell you that bigots are very well represented in the “tolerant” urban left. Conservatives do the same thing, for instance, in proposing fairly radical and untested rather than incrimental solutions to problems like Social Security and public education.

My point being, the labels, and the philosophy they refer too, are only minimally related to the realities on the ground. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a overarching philosophy of liberalism or conservatism, just that it (surprise!) isn’t identical to the philosophy of 50 or 100 years ago.


Jeremiah J. 05.23.04 at 10:15 pm

I don’t think anyone on this thread has yet questioned the propriety not of the idea that conservatives do have philosophies or a philosophy, but that they indeed should. I’d say 80% of repsectable conservative thinkers, from Burke to Oakeshott to Kirk would have serious problems with the idea. Even Irving Kristol who is more of an ideologue that a philosopher or even a student of philosophy, asserts that conservativism and thus neo-conservatism is not a philosophy or ideology but a persuasion. Huntington calls conservatism a disposition rather than an ideology.

This view of conservatism is true whether conservatives explicitly endorse it or not. They are constantly aping liberal symbols, strategies and ideas (e.g. “liberals are the elite–we are the *common* people!”). Libertarianism is simply an older more modest liberalism, this is obvious and boring. But the point is that conservatism learns to live with liberalism but seeks to slow it down is very consistent with conservatives eventually copying liberalism. So conservatism is a disposition (not without some good reasons to recommend it) to try to stop or slow social and political change rather than a set of ideas which competes with liberalism on an even field. This even applies to “intellectual” or philosophical conservatives, who are guided by this disposition without being self-conscious of it.


roger 05.23.04 at 11:39 pm

Jeremiah, you make an excellent point. There’s an anti-theoretical strain in conservative thinking going back to Burke’s animadervisions on “theorists” in the Reflections. But here is the liberal/left critique — as soon as one announces this opposition to theory — to a tendency to derive political policy from an ideology, rather than the natural order, seen as that order that emerges in a culture over time and circumstances — one is, however discretely, announcing a theory. I find Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution exemplary in this regard — partly because Burke was so sensitive to the antithesis himself. It is hard to read the letters on the Regicidal Peace without hearing the strains of an ideology. In other words, to fight for an order, rather than to fight within an order, requires some reflection on the order.

Hazlitt, I think, was the first to see this — although Wollenscraft also apparently did. No matter how hard the conservative disposition tries to substitute a sensibility for a dialectic, it keeps getting drawn into its logical contradictions — and its solutions to those contradictions.

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