Daniel McCarthy

Writers Who Change How You Read

Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com
Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com

In late 2008 I put myself through a crash course in the works of Willmoore Kendall, the “wild Yale don,” as Dwight Macdonald called him, who had been one of the founding senior editors of National Review. This was research for an essay that would appear in The Dilemmas of American Conservatism. I’d read some Kendall before—a desultory stroll through The Conservative Affirmation in America, at least—and hadn’t profited much from the experience. But the second, more attentive perusal was different. Kendall himself had told of how R.G. Collingwood had taught him at Cambridge to read a book by asking what question the author was trying to answer. I didn’t find that approach too insightful, but I picked up something else from Kendall’s own methods—the habit of asking “What conditions would have to be true in order for this author’s arguments to make sense?”

That’s a more productive thing to ask of a serious work than simply, “Do this author’s arguments make sense?” The latter invites the reader to supply a misleading context: the author’s arguments may not match up with reality, but they must match up at least with his own view of reality, and that’s something worth figuring out and contrasting against whatever the reader thinks he already knows.

Stated so plainly this isn’t likely to strike anyone else as particularly insightful, just as Kendall’s report of how Collingwood reshaped his thinking didn’t do much for me. But that’s a lesson, too: it’s the act of thinking along with a text or teacher, and the new context created by that act, which makes a dead question come alive.

I thought of this when I recently came across Peter Witonski’s 1970 NR review of The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, a book that began as a series of Kendall lectures and was finished after his death by George Carey. The review doesn’t do justice to the book—it elicited a sharp letter from Carey, who thought Witonski hadn’t even read what he purported to be reviewing—but Witonski does capture the effect Kendall can have, even decades after his death, perfectly:

What Kendall is all about is thinking—thinking about theoretical problems in politics. The device is that of the master professor, the man who by definition professes because he is wise, and is wise because he professes. The failure to convince, the difficult prose, are the essence of this device. In not convincing, Kendall makes you think the problem over again and again. I recognized this for the first time several years ago, when I met Kendall, for the first and last time, in a suburb of Paris, and spent many hours arguing with him.

The man, like the writer, was convincing and unconvincing. That night he spent a good deal of time propounding the general idea behind a book he had been engaged in writing, dealing with the American tradition. His argument was, of course, brilliant. But when I left him I was as unconvinced as ever. As I walked away from his flat I found myself thinking about what he had said. Suddenly I realized that I was thinking about such things as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence with a new freshness and vigor. I was rethinking them. I still did not agree with Kendall, but in his own perverse way he had taught me a great deal in a short period of time about subjects in which I had long since considered myself to be expert. Kendall was a master teacher.

Kendall and Collingwood are by no means alone in this heuristic impact. But it’s a rare thing: there are many memorable books and teachers that impart facts or insights; there aren’t so many who change the way an interlocutor reads.

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RT ≠ Endorsement

On air, Liz Wahl quits Russia’s English-language propaganda network.

She’s been getting a bit of snark from Twitter over her belated realization that maybe RT is a less than rigorously objective news source. Yet I’m more exasperated by RT’s viewers than by hosts who are, after all, only making a living, however dubiously, by reading from the Kremlin’s script.* In particular, how can certain libertarians or government-skeptical leftists think that as long as the spin is coming from a government other than America’s it must actually be the truth?

Unfortunately, the answer is all too plain: if you think that the U.S. federal government is the source of all evil in your life, your country, and the world, then it stands to reason—almost—that whatever contradicts Washington is on the side of truth. Moscow and Beijing therefore become beacons of light. The ideologues who fall prey to this don’t necessarily hate America—there’s a distinction between the country and its government, after all—and they don’t think of themselves as pro-authoritarian or, in the case of the Middle East, pro-dictator. But they do think, ultimately, that foreign authoritarians and dictators are really more liberal than the liberal-but-really-authoritarian United States. It’s a sour love affair: the U.S. fails to live up to liberal ideals, or even to come close, so regimes that have no intention of abiding by them must be no worse, or indeed a great deal better. Read More…

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Leo Strauss and the Right’s Civil War

University of Chicago

I recently reviewed Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America for the University Bookman. Paul responds to my review here. Note that in addition to Paul’s book being available as an affordable paperback, the Kindle edition is now going for just $12.49—if you’re interested in this topic, be sure to read it for yourself.

In the review I say that whether or not Strauss was in some sense a “conservative” is not the most interesting thing about him or the debate over his work. Gottfried may be correct that Strauss is better understood—if he needs to be situated in the context of late 20th century politics at all—as a Cold War liberal. The deficiency with that approach, however, is that it fails to account for why Strauss and his disciples are more often seen to associate with the conservative movement than with the leading figures and institutions of liberalism. Strauss and Straussians have been a presence in National Review since the 1960s. They have never had a similar representation in the New Republic, let alone The Nation.

Paul points to the importance of Strauss’s critique of relativism to explain the affinity that conservatives, especially conservative Catholics, have felt for him and his disciples. He also, however, calls attention to the Strauss circle’s apparent preference for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1950s and 1960s as evidence of a left-leaning disposition. In the Bookman, I challenge he idea that presidential voting counts for much—I cite the preference of Murray Rothbard and Peter Viereck, two other ambiguously conservative or right-leaning figures, for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower as an indicator of how voting is not always a sure sign of ideological alignment. I chose those figures because they happened to agree with Strauss (according to Stephen Smith’s account of Strauss’s voting) in the elections of the 1950s and because they, like Strauss, are not easy to pigeonhole. The point can be expanded, however: Russell Kirk, a conservative’s conservative, liked Eugene McCarthy as much as Barry Goldwater, and James Burnham—an important influence on Gottfried’s fellow paleoconservative Sam Francis—strongly preferred liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller over Goldwater.

The “relativism” question is far more important than presidential voting, and taken together with personal and institutional associations creates a much stronger case for placing Strauss among conservatives than among liberals like Louis Hartz or A.M. Schlesinger. National Review‘s William F. Buckley Jr. and Willmoore Kendall considered Strauss a comrade, as did Russell Kirk—though he came to have a more negative view of Strauss’s disciples after the 1980s.

This is worth stating explicitly because less historically informed commentators than Gottfried—who touches on such associations just briefly—may think there’s some mystery as to how latter-day Straussians came to occupy a prominent place in the conservative movement. The simple answer is: they inherited it, both from Strauss himself and from Harry Jaffa, who is ideologically idiosyncratic but has been influential in right-wing Republican and NR circles since the early 1960s. Read More…

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Can Liberals Understand Politics Anymore?

I’m baffled by liberals who don’t actually support Obamacare themselves—they want single-payer—but are furious at Republicans for voting against it. (Several comments here illustrate the phenomenon.) Let’s consider the logic. A great many Republicans actually do oppose Obamacare for bona fide reasons. Others are indifferent, and some might opposite it only on partisan grounds while liking the law in principle. Which of these groups of Republicans do liberals think would have had reason to vote for the law?

Those who secretly liked the law were going to see it passed anyway by a Democratic majority—they got the policy they wanted without having to risk blowback in a Republican primary. You’d have to be extremely idealistic to believe that taking a serious political risk to make no policy difference is a prudent move. Indifferent Republicans faced an even starker calculus: risk your career for a policy you don’t care about at all or that you think has as much chance of turning out badly as well. Finally, Republicans who did oppose PPACA out of principle surely can’t be expected to have a reason to vote for the law anyway absent something to change the equation.

This was the ex ante logic, and it proved to be correct: any Republican who had voted for Obamacare would have faced the wrath of the Tea Party, and if he had survived past 2010, he would still have to survive a 2014 midterm in which even Democrats risk losing their seats over their association with the law and its disastrous implementation.

Liberals are so politically inert that I don’t waste much time criticizing them. The Democratic Party, to the extent that it’s liberal, wins nationally because the GOP is a basket case. The hard left, which knows that Democrats are about as neoliberal as the GOP, lives in a nonsense world in which puppet-wielding protesters shape policy, or would if only they built more and bigger puppets. I know some very well meaning, otherwise intelligent antiwar leftists who are nonetheless the most politically infantile people you will ever meet. Politics is just magic to them. (Some of this comes of drawing the wrong lessons from Alinsky and Gramsci—wrong lessons the activist right is now busy committing to memory.)

What drives liberals’ political inanity is the same thing that accounts for why the Tea Party can’t govern: just as the grassroots right is against a lot of things but doesn’t feel much urgency about figuring out what it’s realistically for, liberals go hot with rage over Republican bad behavior and stop there, indulging in outrage rather than thinking about how to change the GOP’s incentives.

The Obamacare saga is the clearest example of the left’s failure to think politically. Lefties defend a law that they don’t even like, and which cost the Democratic Party enormously in 2010 and looks set to do so again in 2014. This would be like conservatives defending Medicare Part D if it had caused Republicans to lose the House in 2004. To their credit, most right-wingers, even the hawks, have the good sense not to attack anyone today for failing to support the Iraq War in 2003.

The only way to get a party or a politician to act against its interest or its principles is to change what those interests or principles are through powerful incentives. Offer X in return for Y, and if X is a higher priority for the other party than not-Y, you will get your way. Such negotiation isn’t always easy or even possible—the alignment of interests (including self-preservation) and principle involved in Republican opposition to Obamacare may have been insurmountable. At that point, a politician or party has a choice: press ahead with the policy knowing that you will bear 100 percent of the blame if things go wrong, or put your wager on something else and bide your time on this issue until the other side is more tractable. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi made their choice—fair enough—and they’re living with the consequences. The Republicans did the only thing that made sense in their position; and now they might reap a reward.

Liberals can comfort themselves in one respect, however: the Republicans have blown opportunities as good as this many times before. That’s why Harry Reid is still majority leader.

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The GOP’s Contraception Conundrum

Libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett spots the corner into which “judicial conservatives” have painted themselves on contraception, whose nationwide legality is vouchsafed by a Supreme Court decision notoriously at variance with the right’s judicial philosophy:

judicial conservatives… believe that the Court in Griswold was wrong to protect a right to use contraceptives. … And the smarter and better trained they are as judicial conservatives, the more they are trapped by the accusation that state legislatures could ban contraceptives if they want, which then leads to the next questions [which] is whether they think state legislatures ought to ban contraceptives.  How they answer this question can then get themselves in trouble with parts of their socially conservative base.

In short, this is a morass for those conservative Republicans who have embraced judicial conservatism, and who are smart enough and well schooled enough to understand where the logic of their position truly leads.

Barnett’s solution is to propose “a constitutional conservatism that seeks to enforce the whole Constitution, including the parts that judicial conservatives are at pains to explain away, like the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth.” In Barnett’s view, this would require a strong rationale for any restriction on individual liberty by any level of government. Presumably one could come up with reasons why abortion or various hard drugs should be banned but contraception should not. Barnett doesn’t tackle these questions in his post, and he may not be sympathetic to the antiabortion and pro-drug-war elements of the right, but in theory what he proposes need not preclude their goals. That’s especially important where abortion is concerned since Griswold set the stage for Roe. Read More…

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‘Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam’

One of the few foreign journalists operating from rebel-controlled Syria, Francesca Borri, paints a picture every bit as grim as you could imagine: “nobody is fighting the regime any more; rebels now fight against each other. And for many of them, the priority is not ousting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but enforcing sharia law.”

She’s not apologizing for Assad—“both the rebels and the regime hunt us,” she says of her fellow journalists—but she’s calling attention to the whitewashing perpetrated by the likes of Elizabeth O’Bagy and Syrian activists. (“They are the famous citizen journalists, glorified by those who probably would never trust a citizen dentist.”) Be sure to read the whole piece.

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The Empathy Test

SergeBertasiusPhotography / Shutterstock.com

It’s not Voigt-Kampff, so it may not tell you if you’re a replicant, but this quiz at the New York Times site is a pretty interesting test of one’s ability to read others’ emotions from eyes alone. I scored 30 and found it much easier to judge the women’s expressions than the men’s. Quicker, too: I could quickly discern what a woman’s emotion was meant to be, but it takes a few seconds to figure out what variation on “peevish ape” a man’s might be.

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Virginia’s Election Was a GOP Rout—and Here Are Its Lessons

If you’re looking for lessons from last Tuesday’s Virginia election results, don’t just look to Ken Cuccinelli’s gubernatorial defeat—for which any one or combination of a dozen factors can be blamed—look as well at how the Republican candidates performed in the other two statewide races. E.W. Jackson, a fiery cultural rightist who makes Ken Cuccinelli sound like Wendy Davis, lost by 10.5 points in the lieutenant governor’s race. Mark Obenshain, who is about on par with Cuccinelli and Bob McDonnell on social issues, is up by a hair and probably heading for a recount in a 50-50 draw to become the next attorney general. What can we learn?

First, style matters. Three Republicans with roughly similar views on social policy performed very differently: the most flamboyant, Jackson, was crushed; the quietest, Obenshain, did best; and Cuccinelli, in the middle, fell short against Terry McAuliffe.

Cuccinelli’s supporters complain that he was defamed by McAuliffe’s “war on women” advertising, and Tim Carney, among others, has argued that Cuccinelli was in fact active behind the scenes in opposing the Republican legislature’s transvaginal ultrasound mandate for women seeking abortions. The trouble is that whatever the nuances of Cuccinelli’s antiabortion views, the image he’d cultivated as Christian conservatism’s champion—the very thing that earned him such ardent loyalty on the right—contributed to impressions that what McAuliffe said about his views must be true. Cuccinelli tried to send one signal to his base (I’m with you 100 percent—whatever that might mean) and another to the general voter (I’m not an extremist). That set up an uncertainty that McAuliffe could exploit, and did. Read More…

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The Future of Conservatism—A Few Remarks

Last month Future 500 invited me to participate on a panel about the future of conservatism. You can watch the whole thing—featuring Future 500′s Bill Shireman and syndicated columnist Charles Hurt, along with yours truly and moderator Stephen Jordan—here. But as a teaser, these are my remarks, ably edited into an 18-minute clip:

Also worth watching is the subsequent panel, which illustrates some of the gender and generation gaps on the right, with panelists including Norm Singleton from Campaign for Liberty, Steve Bannon or Breitbart.com, Lori Sanders of R Street, and Brittney Morrett or the Libre Initiative:

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Who Will Be the GOP’s 2016 Name-Brand Nominee?

The ignominious end of the shutdown/debt-ceiling standoff has some pundits wondering whether any of the GOP’s star senators—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio—could be a viable presidential nominee. With Republicans on Capitol Hill vastly unpopular with the nation at large, is this an opening for a governor in 2016?

Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are the obvious possibilities, with obvious problems. Bush is a familiar name—perhaps too familiar. Christie may have trouble with the right. (Although he’s not inherently any less ideologically plausible a nominee than, say, Mitt Romney.) But every four or eight years, pundits’ imaginations get fired by dark horses: last year, Tim Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels had their moments of vogue. In the middle of the George W. Bush years, National Review improbably pinned its hopes on Colorado Gov. Bill Owens as his successor. (Even more improbably, the magazine had a crush on Dan Lungren, then attorney general of California, back in 1996.)

There’s a reason these fantasies never play out: Republican voters not only have a strong preference for familiar names, they also like nationally proven brands.

In the six decades from Eisenhower’s nomination in 1952 to Romney’s in 2012, the GOP unfailing nominated someone who had either run before, already held national office, or had celebrity cachet. Ike was a war hero. Nixon was VP when he first won the nomination. Ford was already president the only time he won it. Goldwater had made his name in 1960 before he became the nominee in 1964. Reagan was not only a governor, he was also a movie star and had run in 1976 before he won the nomination in 1980. Bush I was VP. Dole had been on a national ticket as Ford’s running mate in 1976, ran for president in 1988, and had just stepped down as Senate majority leader in 1996 when he accepted the nomination. Bush II was a first-time candidate for the White House in 2000, but of course his name was identical with that of the last Republican president. McCain had run once before and was perhaps the most prominent person in the Senate when he won the nomination in 2008. Romney ran in 2008 before winning the nomination in 2012.

The absence of dark horses is no accident: Republican voters like familiarity, which connotes to them national appeal, ideological predictability, and readiness for the job. No surprises, no risks—or at least, the risks ought to be known in advance, even if that means nominating a leader obviously past his prime.

In 2016, the party will most likely hew to the pattern of the past 60 years and nominate someone with a degree of national prominence who is comfortably familiar to Republican voters. Jeb Bush’s whole campaign-in-waiting is based on that idea. If he wasn’t named Bush, he’d be Tim Pawlenty.

Not all of the presumed contenders—Rubio, Cruz, Paul, Christie, Bush, and what the heck, Rick Perry—fit the bill equally well, of course, and it’s not necessarily the case that the one that fits it best will be the nominee. But the profile is suggestive. Is Rubio, for example, really well enough known nationally? Perry imploded in 2012, but he’s at least familiar to Republican voters nationwide now, and perhaps that’s more important than his debate performances. (He’d better hope so.) Paul and Bush fit the profile most closely: neither has run for president before, but both are brands familiar to Republican primary voters from their relatives’ runs. Cruz and Christie are plenty prominent, but the GOP has shown a remarkable tendency to go with whoever is next in line.

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