Not Doing It Right

by John Holbo on October 18, 2012

I’m increasingly concerned that a critical concern troll gap is opening up between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, due to our honorable tradition of not being able to take our own side in an argument, have a healthy aptitude for it. We love to talk up, in a ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ sort of way, the good sort of conservatism we’d like to have, if only we could. But conservatives don’t really have a go-to fantasy of the ‘good’ liberal who needs to be rescued from the ‘bad’ liberal. This may be because conservative rhetoric – the rhetoric of reaction – is so dominated by slippery slope arguments. The bad thing about liberalism is its bad spirit, causing it to be the case that apparently moderate policies are, in effect, creeping Jacobinism, due to soul-destroying nihilism or resentment, what have you, that lurks behind. If the spirit of liberalism – as opposed to its letter – is the essential problem, per the slippery slope style, you can’t switch gears smoothly, suddenly coming over all concerned that the spirit of liberalism is in danger of slipping. After all, how much worse could it get than communism and fascism? Where is there for liberalism to slip to but up?

So I reiterate my concern that posts like this one suffer from a critical missing piece: “Liberalism isn’t doing so well lately. In fact I’d go so far as to say that liberalism is becoming downright pathological.” You can’t pull that off unless you can fake-praise the good, true spirit of liberalism for at least, like, a paragraph. A sentence, even. What’s so great about liberalism that it should be a bad thing that it’s gone crazy?

As Disraeli probably said somewhere: you can judge the health of a party by the health of its concern trolls, so – in a society whose political culture rests on the health of its two-party system – it is a matter of utmost concern to both parties should the health of the concern trolls of either of the two great parties fail to such a degree as this.



adam.smith (was Sebastian(1)) 10.18.12 at 7:12 am

Don’t we have Corey Robin to close that gap (i.e. to tell us that there are no “good” conservatives)?
I’m not actually intending to snark here – would it be fair to read Corey’s project as an attempt to debunk (among other things) the claim of the good conservative?


Greg 10.18.12 at 7:25 am

Meta-concern-trolling? I love it, this has to be the future.


John Holbo 10.18.12 at 7:39 am

“I’m not actually intending to snark here – would it be fair to read Corey’s project as an attempt to debunk (among other things) the claim of the good conservative?”

Yes, I’ll let him speak for himself but this isn’t too far off. I myself, on the other hand, am guilty of sometimes being a concern troll (of the sort I mock in the post) and sometimes being more like Corey.


Neville Morley 10.18.12 at 8:27 am

For some reason I’m reminded of different models of Christian evangelisation: on the one hand, there’s the approach that assumes significant common ground, so you just need to show heathens how they’re almost Christians already, they just have to make a small step and we’ll worry about all the pagan baggage later; on the other hand, there’s the insistence on a complete Road To Damascus conversion, since everyone who hasn’t been properly saved is damned.

Or is it rather that both sides believe in slippery slopes, but for conservatives it’s a one-way precipice whereas liberals see themselves as the bottom of a valley, where both the right-minded conservatives and the right-minded left might be induced to slide down to join them…


bad Jim 10.18.12 at 8:33 am

Holbo, that link wasn’t safe for thinking people.

My opinion of conservativism was shaped by Goldwater in 1964, and by the segregationists before that. They were fearful, hateful, greedy and stupid. In all the years since it’s been rare to find a conservative who lacked one of those attributes. Economists aside, I can’t recall a conservative intellectual who didn’t exemplify the Dunning-Kruger effect, and how could they not, since their job was to justify fear, hate, greed and/or stupidity without realizing what they were doing or frightening their followers.

Liberals are the same, with a couple of handicaps. Greed doesn’t work for the party of the people who aren’t rich, and hate doesn’t work for the party that doesn’t care what you look like. Moreover, while it’s as certain as anything can be that half the left is as stupid as any half of humanity, we don’t insist that ignorance is a virtue.


chris y 10.18.12 at 10:57 am

Why do you make an exception for economists?


Daryl McCullough 10.18.12 at 11:39 am

I think I disagree with the main premise of this article. I certainly have heard many conservatives describe themselves as liberal in the traditional sense. Supposedly there was a golden age for liberalism where their goals were free markets and limiting the power of the state. Libertarians often claim to be true liberals in the old-fashioned sense.

Having indulged in many political blogs, I have seen plenty of concern trolls attacking liberals for not living up to liberal ideals.


R. Porrofatto 10.18.12 at 12:00 pm

I’d be more concerned and shocked at the insincerity of conservative concern trolls if the example in question weren’t Stanley Kurtz. Hard to imagine that the author of Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities and Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism would have much credibility even if he did evince some efflatus of concern about the fate of liberalism, or for pretty much anything beyond his wingnut ken.


chris 10.18.12 at 12:36 pm

Well, if nobody else is willing to say there are no good conservatives, I will. A conservative, by definition, hangs onto old ideas after the evidence shows that they are no longer useful. (IOW, I define people willing to abandon tradition as soon as it seems reasonable to do so as not really conservative. Real conservatives, of course, can put a good face on deferring to tradition when your own reason is telling you the tradition’s time is up; I can’t make the argument with a straight face so I’ll leave that to someone else.) How can that be good?

Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities

Wow. Considering that suburbs only *exist* so that their inhabitants can benefit from the existence and public services of cities while dodging city taxes…


JP Stormcrow 10.18.12 at 1:00 pm

More cowbell.


Ethan 10.18.12 at 1:03 pm

I think that Daryl’s basically right. The conservative equivalent is essentially, “Libertarians are the real liberals”, how that sounds to modern leftists should suggest how much the “good conservatives” have to do with the conservative movement.


bianca steele 10.18.12 at 1:30 pm

For those not allergic to The New Republic, and those who didn’t grow up among the Republican elite and don’t know the lingo (and not to get back on that hobbyhorse), this book by Geoffrey Kabaservice might be informative.


mdc 10.18.12 at 1:35 pm

I think this is related to conservatives’ recent rejection of the right-left political axis. Liberals are happy to point out that they reject the ultra-left; do conservatives even admit the possibility of a right-wing dictatorship? To the contrary, the righter the better, since there can be no excess of the good.

Re concern trolling: don’t David Brooks and others pine for the Niebuhrs of days gone by? (I always bristle at this as an insult to Niebuhr.)

And on Robin: yes, he has it that all conservatives are reactionaries, but some of them are brilliant and interesting, and even worth learning something from– not just worth ‘taking down’ and stigmatizing.


Pub Editor 10.18.12 at 2:19 pm

chris @ 9:

A conservative, by definition, hangs onto old ideas after the evidence shows that they are no longer useful. (IOW, I define people willing to abandon tradition as soon as it seems reasonable to do so as not really conservative. )

No true Scotsman, chris?

Some conservatives might respond that, in most cases, “the evidence” is not as clear-cut as the most zealous advocates of any particular new policy maintain it is. Conservatives also have a healthy fear of unintended consequences. (This last is enhanced by the fact that they tend to be comfortable with the status quo, but it is still a factor.)


Jeffrey Davis 10.18.12 at 2:26 pm

I have no idea of his thinking at present, but at one time in the not too distant past, Arlo Guthrie became a Republican. He expressed the need for some kind of “good” Republicanism.

Woody Guthrie’s son. In the party of Sarah Palin, Bloody Bill Kristol. Mitt “The Hydra” Romney.


CJColucci 10.18.12 at 2:34 pm

Whatever happened to the smart conservative who carefully calibrated exactly how much reform was necessary to keep the unweashed masses from slaughtering his peers in their beds and doggedly and artfully pushed through just that much reform, and no more, over the howls of liberals and the stiff resistance of the conservatives who weren’t smart enough to know he was saving their bacon?


Brad DeLong 10.18.12 at 2:35 pm

I think John Holbo is definitely onto something here.

Seriously: aside from Conor Friedersdorf’s high-quality concern-trolling claims that Romney would be no worse than Obama on the issue of the unchecked executive power to unleash flying killer robots, are there any other examples of high-quality right-wing concern trolling these days? It’s not as though there is any right-wing counterpart to our anxious warnings to conservatives that they need to upgrade the arithmetic competence of an economic team exemplified by Kevin “Dow 36000 by 2003” Hassett, that they need to upgrade the ability to construct coherent argument of a keyboarding battalion examplified by Victor Davis “Ezra Klein is the real racist here!” Hanson, and taht they need to upgrade the ability to contact earth of a detachment-from-reality flight exemplified by Ramesh “Romney did too tie Obama in the second debate!” Ponnuru.

If there are such, they have escaped my notice.

I propose we develop a plan to divert the Mercatus Center’s funding to the exclusive training of high-quality right-wing concern trolls, and take it to the Koch brothers–out of our disinterested altruistic benevolent concern for their own good, of course…


Uncle Kvetch 10.18.12 at 2:38 pm

Conservatives also have a healthy fear of unintended consequences.

And nowhere was it more in evidence than in the invasion of Iraq.


David Moles 10.18.12 at 2:39 pm

Conservatives outsourced their liberal concern-trolling to the libertarians a long time ago.


mds 10.18.12 at 2:51 pm

I propose we develop a plan to divert the Mercatus Center’s funding to the exclusive training of high-quality right-wing concern trolls, and take it to the Koch brothers

… Rich Fink said, sometime in the 1980’s.


Marc 10.18.12 at 3:14 pm

Words like “liberal” and “conservative” are moving targets. What is called conservative in the US today is actually ultra-reactionary in a historical context.


rf 10.18.12 at 3:15 pm

Conservatives concern troll with the best of them. Look at their new found (semi) love for the Clintons. Or old xenophobic Tory’s harking back to the days when the left cared about ‘the working man’ and not foreigners. Or the endless implications that the left went to hell when the blacks and women and all other minorities started having a say. Or before they became weak on national security, and so on….

And that’s all before we get to Daryl McCullough’s point at 7


rf 10.18.12 at 3:23 pm


John Holbo 10.18.12 at 3:24 pm

Daryl’s point at 7 is, indeed, a good one. However, the typical way this is couched is not: liberals have, sadly, fallen from their former/potential philosophical loftiness. Rather, liberals have hijacked the good name of a philosophy that has nothing to do with them. That is, ‘true liberals are classical liberals’ does not exhort liberals to better themselves, and isn’t a posture of feigned respect for liberals, but simply accuses them of theft. It isn’t really concern trolling.

“Having indulged in many political blogs, I have seen plenty of concern trolls attacking liberals for not living up to liberal ideals.”

Conservatives like to make hypocrisy accusations, very true. Accusing of hypocrisy is not quite the same as concern trolling.


SN 10.18.12 at 3:29 pm

Reading that piece, I’d say the conservatives aren’t feeling our concern.


Bruce Wilder 10.18.12 at 3:35 pm

Marc @ 20: “What is called conservative in the US today is actually ultra-reactionary in a historical context.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jeb Bush for King 2016 will be ultra-reactionary in an historical context.


Uncle Kvetch 10.18.12 at 3:48 pm

John, here’s an example, I think: Glenn Reynolds pining for the days of FDR and the WPA, where the government gave you a check to actually get up and do something, unlike Obama, who (in Reynolds’ frantically active imagination) hands people checks to sit on their asses and watch Honey Boo Boo all day.

Does that count? It’s not a common meme yet, but Reynolds is an intellectual beacon for so many, so watch this space.


Brad DeLong 10.18.12 at 3:57 pm

But I would not call Glenn Reynolds “high-quality concern-trolling”. Admittedly, it is better than nothing…


rf 10.18.12 at 3:57 pm

But if Corey Robin is right that conservatism is reactive, then surely concern trolling is a vital, indeed central, tactic. (‘You had some good points, but now it’s all gone to hell’)
I’d nearly go so far as to argue Conservatism is an elaborate case of multi-generational concern trolling. The very foundations of Conservatism are concern trolling. Surely?


Ebenezer Scrooge 10.18.12 at 4:10 pm

There is a fair amount of high-quality concern trolling from the right. David Brooks is a master of that black art. Charles Murray developed some excellent concern trolling technology, but could not change his shtick once the left got wise to it. Sam Peltzman created a masterpiece of concern trolling, when he argued that seatbelts killed. Come to think of it, the entire “unintended consequences” school of political economy is nothing but concern trolling, sometimes with numbers.

I’ll agree with John that it is harder for conservatives to concern-troll. However, many of the best right-wing concern trollers are not conservatives. Some are mere prostitutes, without rhetorical or psychological baggage. Others are glibertarians, convinced that the left is softheaded, and willing to give the left a big heart to illustrate the point.


Soullite 10.18.12 at 4:18 pm

That’s silly. Liberals are great at shouting down and concern trolling (just read any Democratic blog). They just focus those efforts on people further to the left than they are, that’s all.

You (meaning liberals in general, not any specific individual) don’t all suck, as you so conveniently prefer to see it, because you’re such good people that you’re incapable of fighting back. You suck because you just don’t feel the kind of gut-level revulsion toward conservatism that you all pretend to feel, the same revulsion that you often so clearly feel toward leftists.

Everyone’s just kicking the guy to their left. Conservatives, when they do hate people to their right, are smart enough to simply say nothing.


X 10.18.12 at 4:25 pm

chris, 9: “A conservative, by definition, hangs onto old ideas after the evidence shows that they are no longer useful.”

Sounds like a very useful sort of person to have around, given the quality of much of the “evidence” on offer. Sadly, it bears little resemblance to the actual conservatives on display in US political culture, who seem to have no problem throwing out old ideas like “let’s not torture people” on the slightest pretext.


Corey Robin 10.18.12 at 4:47 pm

I feel like I’m at a deficit in this conversation as I’ve never been able to really figure out what concern trolling actually is. That said, I think John is mostly right here, though I think it proves my point about the essentially reactionary nature of all conservatism. (Though it should be pointed out that there are a few conservatives like Mark Lilla who do invoke a good liberalism by essentially redescribing it as stereotypical Burkean conservatism; liberalism is the spirit of slow, gradual, evolutionary, moderate change.) I’d just add one more point. The reason conservatives can’t invoke a good liberalism (that is, in any recognizable sense, liberal) is that there is in fact a creeping Jacobinism at the heart of liberalism. Certainly American liberalism. You see this in John Adams’ quite perceptive response to the American Revolution — that the claims of the Declaration will be taken up by subordinate classes throughout society, in spheres many elites don’t want to touch — and so on down the line.


Jeff R. 10.18.12 at 4:48 pm

Wait a minute, isn’t “Feminists should be strictly focused on the plight of women under Sharia [or, occasionally, with sex-selective abortion in India and/or China] rather than wasting their efforts on marginal improvements in the more-or-less oaky West” concern trolling? That’s still alive and well, isn’t it?


Patrick 10.18.12 at 5:11 pm

Conservative concern trolls are, IMO, not ideological. They’re logistical and mechanical. In the sense that they’re concerned with the logistics and mechanisms needed to achieve liberal goals. “Sure it would be nice to feed poor people, but your attempts to feed poor people will lead to food getting diverted to terrorists.” Excuse the (slight)hyperbole in my example, but I would argue that conservative concern trolls are very good at this sort of trolling, even exemplary. See David Brooks, Megan McArdle, etc…


Meredith 10.18.12 at 5:26 pm

Reading Soullite’s and then Corey Robin’s comments here makes me wonder: when did serious people of a certain political inclination start identifying themselves so proudly as liberals rather than leftists? (I’m not suggesting that Soullite or Robin fall into this trap, of course.)


Marc 10.18.12 at 5:36 pm

@30: Know your audience. The crowd here is many things, but “liberal” in the US sense of the word isn’t one of them.

From long experience, I’ve always found that it’s much more likely to have people on the far left hating people on the left (insufficiently pure!) than to have people on the left worry much about the far left (they worry more about the right.) Your mileage may vary, I suppose.


William Timberman 10.18.12 at 5:40 pm

Your mileage may vary, I suppose.



Britta 10.18.12 at 5:41 pm

Jeff R is right. There is plenty of concern-trolling for the ladies, from the likes of Caitlin Flanagan et. al. It’s not that they want to undo the sexual revolution/feminism/any strides towards gender equality, it’s just they’re so concerned about the physical and mental health of young ladies who have been tricked into going on BC (perhaps even into an abortion!) and having sex before marriage and then a career afterwards.

Outside the more genteel of the chattering classes, anti-abortion groups have taken to claiming abortion causes PTSD and breast cancer, and is part of a genocidal plot to kill all black people designed by proto-Nazi Margaret Sanger and carried out by PP.


Britta 10.18.12 at 5:44 pm

Oh, and if we’re talking about actual political parties in the contemporary US, I would say, “neoliberal” and “fascist” are more accurate descriptive terms of the two parties, respectively.


Uncle Kvetch 10.18.12 at 5:57 pm

I feel like I’m at a deficit in this conversation as I’ve never been able to really figure out what concern trolling actually is.

It probably would be helpful to get John’s working definition, since it’s his post. I tend to think of it as ostensibly helpful “advice” that is neither helpful nor offered in good faith. On left-leaning blogs, it can take two general forms:

1) “Look, I’m as liberal as the rest of you guys, but can we please tone down the rhetoric? All this nastiness is only going to hurt us in the long run. Surely you can express disagreement with David Brooks without dwelling in detail on all the different painful deaths you think he deserves. (He does write for the New York Times, after all — can you say the same?)”

2) “I’m a conservative, but I place great value on the give-and-take of ideas that’s so essential to a healthy democracy. That’s why I hope that one day you liberals will find your way back to your honest, principled roots, the ones you had before you were taken over by a bunch of shrieking fags and feminazis and race pimps.”

John, of course, is talking about (2) here.


bianca steele 10.18.12 at 6:22 pm

There’s a variety of journalist, that after you’ve been reading them for a while, suddenly they move on to a different topic, and you say Wha?! S/he’s a conservative/Republican? There are some local opinion writers who were all “Bush is awful, Romney is awful,” when they were in office, and as a contested election approached, first started criticizing the Democrat more closely, then started reasonably saying how great the Republican was (and how much like the best Democrats even), and when you think back, they’ve never said anything principled against Bush or Romney (in Massachusetts), and never said anything in favor of a Democrat that showed they supported Democrats in principle. Or suddenly it occurs to you that although what they write has every appearance of being, they only say nice things about right-wing people and only have “more in sorrow than anger” posts about left-leaning or left-center people (and then suddenly they have to declare themselves for some reason, or someone else does it for them, and the aha! light goes on).

It was certainly possible to read close to half a dozen columns by Caitlin Flanagan without catching on to the fact that she is a conservative. She used all the sources conservatives claim to be, as the OP put it, in the wrong spirit. She showed every evidence of moving in social circles that were very liberal, both socially and politically. And when she praised someone like Dr. Laura, she did it in the manner of a (neo)liberal trying to persuade her fellow left-leaning types that there was something after all in “old-fashioned” values that we’d do well not to jettison entirely. There was something “off” but it was not obvious, immediately, what it was.


bianca steele 10.18.12 at 6:23 pm

“every appearance of being centrist, nonpartisan, etc.”


QS 10.18.12 at 6:28 pm

“One kind of conservative thinker, and one kind of socialist thinker, seemed thus to use the same terms, not only for criticizing a laissez-faire society, but also for expressing the idea of a superior society.” ~ Raymond Williams

It’s not surprising finding people on the left wishing for an “authentic” conservatism given that they share a common enemy. Williams shows how the metaphor of the “organic” proliferated in both camps, each seeking a revival of the natural community atomized by liberalism.


Britta 10.18.12 at 6:45 pm

I think, relatedly, is that there’s little concern trolling for liberals qua liberals, but, as I and others mentioned above, there’s a decent amount of concern trolling for the constituent groups which make up “the liberal coalition.” This is especially true for women. It’s less true with African Americans as the Right abandons its pretense of not being racist, however you still get a bit of residual concern with the ‘we want to teach blacks the value of hard work’ type of stuff. Gays and lesbians no obviously, but poor people definitely, and with the more enlightened Right, Latinos also. In this sense, certain arms of the Right have been adept at adopting some of the language and conceptions of the more radical Left, like false consciousness and hegemony. The difference is they see these as tools in the arsenal to be called out when the other side uses them, not explanations of how oppression works.


bianca steele 10.18.12 at 6:50 pm

In this sense, certain arms of the Right have been adept at adopting some of the language and conceptions of the more radical Left, like false consciousness and hegemony.

I wonder if this is because certain arms of the Right don’t see the left, or liberalism, as actually existing at all? Yet there are these things called “the conceptions of the left,” and they must be the conceptions of somebody, so (since only the Right exists) they are the conceptions of a segment within the Right.

(I don’t think there is anything similar on the left, offhand–a sense that the right doesn’t have any ideas at all, except for misconstruals of true ideas as falsely rightwing or conservative?)


Ebenezer Scrooge 10.18.12 at 7:04 pm

I think that Britta is a good observer, but not a good diagnostician. The crap emerging from the Caitlin Flanagans of the world (oh you poor dear! contraception is so hard on you!) has little to do with persuading, and much to do with legal strategy.

The legal problem is that the lower courts can’t quite attack a woman’s right to sexual autonomy–there is too much Supreme Court precedent to the contrary. So they end-run this by admitting the right (through gritted teeth), and then denying that women have enough agency to exercise these rights. It’s just consumer protection, y’know.


Trader Joe 10.18.12 at 7:15 pm

Me thinks too much of this crowd doesn’t spend enough time trolling conservative oriented blogs to recognize the extent of conservative trolling going on.

I’d argue as a very simple straightforward observation that any conservative who has ever expressed the notion that “The Tea Party has gone too far on X, Y or Z” has adequately trolled the most worrisome parts of the party back towards its center ballast.

Substitute: Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, the NRA or a few dozen others in the above sentence for “tea party” and you could easily rewind the history of conservative worry trolls for 30+ years…


Mao Cheng Ji 10.18.12 at 7:19 pm

I dunno, I hear conservative concern trolling of the “If you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain” variety all the time, from ordinary people. It goes: ‘their hearts are on the right place, but their ideas just don’t work; look at the USSR.’


William Timberman 10.18.12 at 7:48 pm

Mao Cheng Ji @ 47

Too true. I know someone who once headed the bond department of a large U.S. regional bank, and in that capacity personally lobbied for the repeal of the Glass-Steagel Act. In a post-2008 conversation about economic policy, he told me that he had indeed tried to read Marx years ago, but in the end found it of little interest because Marx didn’t seem to understand human motivation. When I remarked that he might have confused Marx with Stalin, he observed that one begat the other, therefore….


Dave Maier 10.18.12 at 8:40 pm

I remember hearing conservative concern trolling in the particular domain of atheism, to wit [my paraphrase]: “Atheists used to have good arguments — or as good as they could be, given their wrongness — for atheism, good enough to make us think carefully about why we believe; but now all we get is Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I point this out more in sorrow than in anger, &c.”


magistra 10.18.12 at 8:56 pm

Dave Maier@49. In contrast, liberal/left-wing atheism, which used to concern-troll the more liberal forms of religion (“Your concern for loving others is good, now if you’d only drop the belief that Jesus was more than a Good Man”), now seems to be moving towards the slippery slope argument: “if you attend Evensong today, you’ll be setting up a theocracy tomorrow”. Which suggests that these tendencies are not inherent to either side of the right-wing/left-wing divide.


Dave Maier 10.18.12 at 9:33 pm

Magistra – yes, I’ve seen that too. Also, I think Terry Eagleton was one of the ones saying “old atheism was better,” so even that wasn’t just a right-wing thing. But John was asking for *any* right-wing concern-trolling, so I thought I’d mention it.


Salient 10.19.12 at 1:11 am

I was a little disappointed to find Kurtz’ “uspsurege” was just a typo on ‘upsurge’ and not some new awesome word that would have made letting Stanley Kurtz hit me with a broomstick for nine paragraphs sort of not completely pointless. I am holding out hope for ‘psychiatic’ and not googling it just yet.

But Kurtz certainly did imply a perfectly defensible answer to What’s so great about liberalism that it should be a bad thing that it’s gone crazy? At least hypothetical liberals who aren’t already llllllllleftists wouldn’t feel a sick, twisted, compulsive need to demand that we conservatives shut up shut up shut up. But the only contextually appropriate way to imply this answer is to trigger, in as many liberal readers as possible, ohmyeffingod shut up shut up shut up. Chastising the moderator for “breaking with her proper role” was especially broomsticky. KURTZ TO CANDY: KNOW YOUR PLACE. GET BACK IN THE @&%#ING BINDER AND LET THE MAN SPEAK.

But the whole point of this is provocation, and it’s actually more provocative to never bother to provide any kind of wistful fakepraise cover with which a tepid political opponent could soothe themselves. The Shorter version of Kurtz doesn’t even contain words: it’s just *poke* … *pokepokepoke* … *POOOOKE* … *walks away, whistling*

Since your impulse to expend energy decrying Kurtz for not doing Not Doing It Right right is actually evidence that Kurtz is not not doing Not Doing It Right right, I guess you’re not doing ‘not doing Not Doing It Right right’ right.


js. 10.19.12 at 5:30 am

The reason conservatives can’t invoke a good liberalism (that is, in any recognizable sense, liberal) is that there is in fact a creeping Jacobinism at the heart of liberalism.

Just want to make sure we all agree that this is, you know, a good thing. (Alternatively, all of this is doing a really good job reinforcing my inclination not to identify as a “liberal”—not that I disagree much with all y’all on, say, policy.)


Jerry Vinokurov 10.19.12 at 1:31 pm


Antti Nannimus 10.20.12 at 1:58 am


You trying to get me STARTED? Okay, later maybe, but right now I’m too busy coiling up rope and keeping the powder dry.

Have a nice day,


John Holbo 10.20.12 at 3:02 am

Thanks for the Gerson link, Jerry. That’s a good one. Gerson is funny in that he is currently on the outs with conservatives for his compassionate/heroic conservatism stuff.


John Quiggin 10.20.12 at 4:14 am

As Corey and I have discussed before, I think the liberal ideal of a conservative is someone who thinks along the lines argued by Oakeshott

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

and the name typically attached to this is Edmund Burke.

But, as Corey shows, Burke wasn’t like this at all – he was the 18th century version of a neocon. And, as we’ve discussed here, none of the US candidates (Buckley snr, for example) stand up either.

An open question so far: Was Oakeshott actually a conservative in the way he describes? Some limited evidence in favor is that, according to Wikipedia, he turned down a knighthood offered by Thatcher. Regardless, he’s describing a disposition which does not seem to be correlated at all with political “conservatism” in the English-speaking world.


Ebenezer Scrooge 10.20.12 at 12:04 pm

John @ 59:
All Corey shows is that there is a Burke who was the 18th century version of a neocon, or something. But there are a lot of Burkes. Burke was a complex man. Since he wasn’t an academic, he didn’t strive for ideological consistency. There is an Oakeshottian Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France. There is a cranky old Birchite Burke in Letters on a Regicide Peace. There was also the Burke who supported the American Revolution and impeached Warren Hastings. His respect for national autonomy (if not human rights) is the opposite of a Paul Wolfowitz. But there is no single essential Burke.


Corey Robin 10.20.12 at 3:26 pm

Not to get too repetitive here, but I also think Oakeshott was not Oakeshottian — not in terms of his behavior but in terms of his theory. Here’s what I write in The Reactionary Mind:

Take Michael Oakeshott’s famous definition in his essay “On Being Conservative”: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the suffi cient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” One cannot, it seems,
enjoy fact and mystery, near and distant, laughter and bliss. One must choose. Far from affirming a simple hierarchy of preferences, Oakeshott’s either/or signals that we are on existential ground, where the choice is not between something and its opposite but between something and its negation. The conservative would enjoy familiar things in the absence of forces seeking their destruction, Oakeshott concedes, but his enjoyment “will be strongest when” it “is combined with evident risk of loss.” The conservative is a “man who is acutely aware of having something to lose which he has learned to care for.” And while Oakeshott suggests that such losses can be engineered by a variety of forces, the engineers invariably seem to work on the left.
(Marx and Engels are “the authors of the most stupendous of our political rationalisms,” he writes elsewhere. “Nothing . . . can compare with” their abstract utopianism.) For that reason, “it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” Not at all inconsistent—or altogether necessary? Radicalism is the raison d’être of conservatism; if it goes, conservatism goes too.


Teafortwo 10.21.12 at 4:02 am

Great post. If I can be allowed to miss the joke for a bit, there are actually two varieties of liberal concern trolling that appear to be in rude good health.

1) “Why do so many of today’s liberals fail to see that the best way to help women and minorities in [country x] is to drop thousands of bombs on it?”


2) “When will today’s liberals understand that the best way to help farmers in Bangladesh threatened by flooding is to encourage more Americans to drive SUVs?”

You could throw a rock at the Internet and hit a dozen examples of either any day of the week.


Dave the Sage 10.21.12 at 5:38 am

Conservative principles are timeless, and will outlast any politician.
– Alfred Regner


pws (@pws4) 10.21.12 at 3:00 pm

Hi Corey, I’m not sure if anyone has done this yet, but Trolling is an old hacker term that mean “Lying for fun.” Basically, a troll would be someone making an inflammatory statement and seeing if anyone takes the bait. (Troll is a fishing related term that coincidentally sounds like a creature from European folk lore.)

The important thing about the troll is that he doesn’t believe what he is saying. He’s just doing it to disrupt an online conversation. Originally trolls were just pranksters, but it turns out that disrupting conversations can be a useful tactic in the commercial and political spheres. So, a political troll is someone who misrepresents their position in a political conversation in order to create grief for their political opponents. Like someone who’s actually a Republican who pretends to be a Hillary supporter in order to attack Obama, but who was really a John McCain supporter.

A concern troll then, would be someone who uses a plausible concern that they don’t really believe in (like the plight of women in Afghanistan, for instance) to attack some political position they dislike (availability of birth control as a political issue). It is very important that the concern troll doesn’t really give a damn about the Afghan women, because if he really did care about them he wouldn’t be a troll. (He might have the same effect on the conversation, but he wouldn’t be trolling. He’d be expressing a genuine concern that he felt was being ignored in favor of what he considers a less important issue.)

All trolls are liars.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 10.23.12 at 4:05 pm

” A conservative, by definition, hangs onto old ideas after the evidence shows that they are no longer useful. ”

The ironic thing is that because they’re defending ideas from the past that are past their sell-by date, there’s a historic amnesia, where the positions dearly held before are flushed down the memory hole.
Illustrating this is the difference between how the GOP treated their past presidents* in this year’s convention versus how the Democrats treated their past presidents. In one the past presidents were embarrassing relics to be disowned; in the other they were feted and celebrated.

* With the exception of Zombie Ronaldus Magnus.


Jacob T. Levy 10.24.12 at 12:31 pm

John, does it count for your purposes when a concern troll name-checks Scoop Jackson or Bob Casey? I still see examples of both of those kicking around.


Fu Ko 10.24.12 at 5:08 pm

I thought the Democrats were the “good” conservatives…

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