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Entertaining takedown of the day

[ 60 ] September 30, 2012 |

Mark Lilla is insufferably smug, and I have little use for his politics. But the man can write, and he was a superb choice to review a new book on Barack Obama by one Charles Kesler, who seems to be the Straussian equivalent of Glenn Beck. A couple of choice cuts:

A sense of proportion, once the conservative virtue, is considered treasonous on the right today, and Kesler cannot be accused of harboring one. But his systematic exaggerations demonstrate that the right’s rage against Obama, which has seeped out into the general public, has very little to do with anything the president has or hasn’t done. It’s really directed against the historical process they believe has made America what it is today. The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago, is now little more than a click-click slide projector holding a tray of apocalyptic images of modern life that keeps spinning around, raising the viewer’s fever with every rotation. If you want to experience what it’s like to be within that mind on a better day, then you need to visit “I Am the Change.”

For some years now the Claremont Institute has been promoting the idea that Wilson was a kind of double agent, whipping the Huns in World War I while surreptitiously introducing the Hegelian bacillus into the American water supply and turning us into zombie-slaves of an elite-run progressivist State. Glenn Beck popularized the notion among grass-roots conservatives by placing Wilson at the center of his Jackson Pollock blackboards, with spokes running out to Bill Ayers, Angela Davis, Saul Alinsky, Acorn, George Soros, Cass Sunstein and now I’m forgetting who else. Kesler gives us a more sober account of what Wilson wrought.

 

Comments (60)

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  1. Heron says:

    I don’t see what was particularly progressive about a philosopher who cribbed most of his ideas from Plato, and argued that northern Europeans had been chosen by history to dominate the mudbloods, so whatever pain we caused them was totally ok. His entire moral concept of history was just circular reasoning; it is right that this should happen because we have the power to make it happen and so it is right that it should happen. Then there’s the laughable premises of his theory; that history-as-events is a process, has a meaning, and has a will of its own. Goddamn Hegel.

    • Anderson says:

      In Holy Alliance Europe, Hegel looked good: at least he said things change!

      • Lurker says:

        Being a member of a small European nation, I can’t help being grateful to Hegel. His theory of history is, of course, quite nonsensical if you are a materialist, but psychologically, it gives meaning to the existence of smaller countries.

        In particular, it is possible to argue, based on Hegel, that the small nations and cultures are necessary for the dialectical development of the human culture. Thus, they have enduring value. This viewpoint was especially adopted by the Finnish Hegelian philosopher Snellman. His work, based on this thought, gave Finnish nationalism an ideological basis which allowed us to develop our culture with relatively non-militaristic bent.

      • Lee says:

        Plus arguably, without Hegel no Communism because Hegel was rather influential on thoughts of Marx and Engels.

        • DrDick says:

          For all values of influential where Marx and Engels repudiated his theories of causality while adopting the phrase “dialectic.”

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      Sounds to me as if most of Kesler’s ideas about Hegel’s evil influence came filtered through Karl Popper.

    • Zoltar the Magnificent says:

      Has Lilla even read Hegel? Or is he just describing Kesler’s views of H? I’ve only read (most of!) the Phenomenology of Spirit, but seeing it as about the triumph of the overarching state seems like a very impoverished/slanted/dumb reading (and I came at it through Kojeve!).

  2. Xof says:

    Kesler is an accomplished player of two conservative parlor games: Cherchez le Kraut and Whac-a-Prof.

    I will forgive the writer of this line a great deal of pomposity elsewhere.

  3. Vance Maverick says:

    To draw a line from Hegel to Progressivism, however silly, is not to associate him with “progressive” values as we use the term.

    Lilla couldn’t suppress his contrarian urge altogether — the praise for Ryan’s budgeting raised a smirk.

    • swearyanthony says:

      I noted that too. What the fuck? That and “cringe when I hear the name McGovern”, along with many other LannyDavisms.

    • Cody says:

      Yes, I almost had a brain aneurysm when I read the “better ideas in Paul Ryan’s Budget”.

      However, I’m going to be charitable and hope he just means he found one item in the whole budget that was reasonable.

  4. Murc says:

    But the man can write, and he was a superb choice to review a new book on Barack Obama

    Mark Lilla has some facility with words. But frankly, given his politics (and by that I hope you mean ‘his shaky, at best, command of facts and history’) I can think of many people right off my head who’d have been better choices to review this book. Having a few pithy takedowns in that review doesn’t make up for the shoddy reasoning and crypto-conservative thought seeded all through it.

    I mean, hell, there’s a piece buried right in one of your money quotes:

    The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago

    This is just one of many statements in that review that, if Lilla actually believes them, makes him unqualified to comment on if the sky is blue.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      One needs to remember that, two decades ago, Mark Lilla considered himself to be a conservative ;-)

      • Murc says:

        And evidently still is, he just lacks the balls to own it.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

          Well if you read this review, he claims to be extremely supportive of, and satisfied with, Obama’s presidency (just like, incidentally, his fellow former(?)-neocon and student of Straussians Andrew Sullivan). I certainly don’t think that necessarily makes him not a conservative, but I’m not sure others would agree with me about that.

          • Cody says:

            I agree completely with you here. He’s a Conservative, just like Obama.

            The fact that he’s now a Democrat, just means he’s not an idiot who continued driving off the right side of the road with Republicans. Have to give him some kind of props for that.

            Also, I had to google Straussian. I at first thought for sure he was a “Gaussian”, which would be odd. I doubt human beings are Gaussian surfaces.

    • ploeg says:

      It’s probably not a correct reading that “fresh ideas” don’t necessarily mean “good ideas,” but I’ll spot him that for the sake of argument. Arguably, the “fresh ideas” weren’t even “fresh” two decades ago. But certainly the ideas haven’t improved with age.

    • DrDick says:

      By definition, conservatism has not “fresh ideas”, as new thoughts would be progressive. All of their ideas are old, stale, and moldy.

      • arguingwithsignposts says:

        when bullshit first comes out of the bull, it’s fresh.

      • dlankerlanger says:

        they’re generally in favor of new and exciting ways for conserving greater wealth and power for themselves.

      • montag says:

        Well, the conservatives are always selling the “… conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago….”

        The conservative mind, however, is mostly full of new sales techniques and accounting frauds (not to mention exciting new ways to rig elections), not genuinely new ideas. Pry open any conservative “new” idea, and one finds a variant on an old, old theme: more for us, less for them.

    • This is kinda sad and tribalistic, isn’t it, to read the review as little more than a chance to grouse about Lilla and his ilk? Maybe this makes me suspect, but I used to enjoy some of his pieces in the NYRB (the were some about Glenn Beck a couple of years ago that I especially liked). I didn’t pick up on his politics until he went after Corey Robin.

      In this piece (more than anything else of his I’ve read) he clearly wanted to stake out a position as a “centrist liberal[]… who cringe[s] at the name McGovern” but doesn’t cringe at Paul Ryan’s “sensible budget ideas.” That’s hard to swallow, for sure. In fact, I wonder if he didn’t thrown those lines in as poison pills, just so he wouldn’t be spreading too much joy amongst the condescending, false-consciousness-believing far left (*).

      You don’t have to swallow ‘em, though.

      (*) from the Lilla-Robin exchange in the NYRB (I’m afraid if I link, this’ll end up in the spam box).

  5. JazzBumpa says:

    I got beaten to the punch in haranguing against this quote:

    The conservative mind, a repository of fresh ideas just two decades ago,

    But I won’t let that stop me.

    Well, Aaron, Laffer’s ideas were unfamiliar, I’ll give you that. But they were simply a new ruse to disguise rapine and plunder by the elite overlords. Call that “fresh” if you like, but roll back the top cabbage leaf and you’ll find a rotten core.

    It’s some sort of weird myth that conservatism has been associated with any kind of idea generation. Conservatism is by it’s very nature backward-looking, negative, pessimistic, and intellectually vacuous.

    One of the most famous quotes from one of the alleged intellectual leaders of 20th century American conservatism can be loosely paraphrased as: “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

    That pretty effectively demonstrates the upper limit of conservative mental achievement.

    Which is why they think Paul Ryan has anything new to offer.

    JzB

    • Aaron B. says:

      Well, they’re constantly searching for new justifications for massive wealth inequality as older ones get cycled out due to lack of credibility. Lately, they’ve been recycling old stuff, but Laffernomics was fairly original when it first appeared, and was worth taking seriously as a hypothesis (until disproven fairly comprehensively, which I think it has been).

  6. scott says:

    I’ll second the rest of the thread on this. Lilla is a major believer in the idea that conservatism had some judicious, even-tempered golden age, which Lilla seems to think persisted as long as 20 years ago. Corey Robin did a good job dismasting that argument, and Lilla’s outraged spluttering responses didn’t really lay a glove on him. I’ll welcome him back to reality but take anything he says (like Sullivan – remember when all us liberals were 5th columnists and terrorist sympathizers) with a barrel of salt.

    • arguingwithsignposts says:

      20 years ago would have been 1992. Wonder what “fresh ideas” the conservative mind had in 1992? the contract with America?

    • Murc says:

      At most, I’ll concede that in postwar American until, mmm, sometime in the 70s, it was possible to describe yourself as conservative and be pro-civil rights, pro-worker, pro-environment, and pro-welfare state and not have it be a ridiculous assertion. There were some conservatives with pretty good ideas.

      But that brand of conservatism existed right alongside Bob Taft and Barry Goldwater, and those guys drove the other kind to extinction. Sometimes you meet one on the street. You will never meet one in Congress, or even in a state lege.

      • Xof says:

        And Barry Goldwater couldn’t win a Republican primary now; he’d be RINO’d out.

      • John says:

        I would have thought Taft was pretty close to the ideal type of the old school, pre-Goldwater conservative. I’m not sure it makes sense to lump him in with Goldwater.

        • Murc says:

          … you know I’m talking about Robert Taft, not William Howard Taft, right?

          Bob Taft was a crazy man and yes, he damn well is lumped in with Goldwater.

          • rea says:

            The oldest Robert Taft, right? Ths son of the president, not the subsequent senator, his son (Robert Taft II), or the governor, his grandson (Robert Taft III)?

            • Cody says:

              Holy, having kids with the same name can really tarnish your legacy.

              I guess when you name them, you think they’ll be better than you…

          • burritoboy says:

            To expand here:

            Yes, we’re talking about big Bob Taft. I don’t know if you can call Robert Taft crazy. His politics were quite horrid, however. And Robert Taft effectively was the conservative wing of the Republican party in between the mid 1930s and the mid 1950s.

            The conservatives in the Republican party weren’t any better then – they simply hadn’t gotten several different weapons under their belts that they gathered from 1945-1968 or so: evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, race baiting, the Southern strategy, extreme anti-communism stunts and demagogue-ing, breaking the back of the unions, hippie-punching, etc.

    • Heron says:

      Yeah, Sullivan was supremely ridiculous for a while, though at least he admits it now. Of course, his nostalgic championing of The Bell Curve and the assertion that one can insist that whites and East Asians(Coastal Chinese, Koreans, and non-aboriginal Japanese) are mentally and physically superior to every other designation of humanity without being a racist continues to make him seem pretty ridiculous whenever he goes on a tear about it.

      I’d also add that, besides legal equality for homosexuals, he was rather ridiculous on most issues before September 11th as well, and I’m actually someone who thinks that he could be a rather important moral critic given his cachet, middle-class popularity, and mild immunity to Villagism.

  7. arguingwithsignposts says:

    BTW, that gun header is jarring.

  8. calling all toasters says:

    Doesn’t the Times already have an insufferable, overrated, all-purpose-yet-useless academic on staff? Why didn’t they give this to Stanley Fish?

  9. It is a great takedown, I agree, and a fun read.

    It’s interesting that, except for a passing mention of “Harlemization,” Lilla accepts at face value Kessler’s premise that the exceptional thing about our first black president is his progressivism. If Kessler believes himself and there’s no smoking-gun rhetoric, it’s probably just as well Lilla left it at that. But you gotta wonder where this shit comes from, if not the obvious.

  10. Cody says:

    Shorter Charles Kesler: Woodrow Wilson could read German, all Progressives are Germanic (read: Nazis)

  11. burritoboy says:

    What might be notable is that BOTH Kesler and Lilla are Straussians – in fact, they are students of the exact single same Straussian (Harvey Mansfield at Harvard). I believe, in fact, they were both big Harv’s students at the same time.

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