Wednesday, January 30, 2008

'Scuse Me While I Fisk This Guy

Although we don't agree about politics much, I am a fan of my friend Strolling Amok's blog. But sometimes he recommends things that make me wonder. For example, this post by some dude named Will Wilkinson. SA summed this up as "three paragraphs that sum up what's wrong with Weekly Standard style 'conservatism' as well as anything I've seen." Let's think about this a little bit.

Wilkinson begins by linking to an article from The Weekly Standard that, not surprisingly, is touting John McCain and bashing libertarianism. No suprise there: many of the people at the The Weekly Standard have been in the bag for Mr. Straight Talk for a long time. And the Standard folks certainly have no real compunctions about Big Government: back in the 1980s, Fred Barnes fit quite comfortably on the masthead of The New Republic. So I'm thinking, maybe I might agree with this guy. Then Mr. Wilkinson proceeds to write the following "translation" of the article:

Libertarianism is dangerous because it discourages juvenile romantic attachment to higher things — meaningful things – like Honor, Virtue, and the indescribable joy of sacrificing one’s life to the service of the American Volksreich. All libertarians care about is superficial shit like not starving, living a long time, and being creative and happy. Blah blah blah. But, really, what’s the point of living to 200 if all you do is enjoy yourself the whole time? I mean, don‘t you want to know what it is like to kill a man? DON’T YOU WANT TO TASTE BLOOD!? Besides, virtue.
Vote John McCain.

I went through a fairly long stretch where I considered myself a libertarian and while Wilkinson has a point, you won't see it if he wears a hat. "American Volksreich?" Ah, we are clever, using German words, hinting at something more sinister.

Then we get another trowel of subtlety, as Wilkinson purports to explain the deeper meaning from the hapless authors: "DON'T YOU WANT TO TASTE BLOOD!?" Actually, no. Thanks for asking, though. And if you read the article that Wilkinson links to, it's hard to find any bloodlust there. Some tendentious ideas, perhaps - again, standard fare at The Weekly Standard.

The article does have one obvious flaw, however, and Wilkinson has noticed: the authors (or their editors) have misspelled Milton Friedman's name. Our tourguide notes it in passing, feigning regret, then draws a conclusion.

Oh, goodness that’s not fair! But, really, that whole thing is just as embarrassing as misspelling ‘Friedman’. I am more and more coming to the conclusion that National Greatness Conservatism, like all quasi-fascist movements, is based on a weird romantic teenager’s fantasies about what it means to be a grown up. The fundamental moral decency of liberal individualism seems, to the unserious mind that thinks itself serious, completely insipid next to very exciting big boy ideas about shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue, and (most of all) power. And reading Aristotle in Greek.

Oh, we've unpacked our adjectives, haven't we? Embarrassing. Quasi-fascist. Weird. Romantic. Unserious. Insipid. "Big boy." You get the sense that our tourguide likes to sneer just a little bit. Here's a question from the audience: why would one sneer at "shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue?" Ah, because of the next word: "power." No one really believes in such things unless they are motivated by a lust for "power."

Is it possible that such hoary notions as "shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue" are sneered at because they are in such short supply these days? One of the valid criticisms of the Bush administration is that it hasn't really called for much sacrifice. Instead, we are supposed to go about our merry way, being consumers and driving the economy through purchases of lattes and durable goods. You could make an argument that we have subcontracted shared struggle and sacrifice to others and you wouldn't be wrong about it. But there's another angle to it. Maybe, just maybe, shared struggle, sacrifice, duty, glory, virtue and other such verities have an intrinsic value? And maybe, just maybe we can maintain a lifestyle with ample room for "liberal individualism" while simultaneously pursuing things like duty, glory and virtue. We do it all the time. We help our neighbors. We give to charity. Most people live virtuous lives as a matter of course. We do it because we understand that it's the best way to live. Things work better. And there's nothing weird or romantic or insipid about it.

Wilkinson then adds an aesthetic judgment to his earlier ones, as follows:

I sometimes think that liberal individualism is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best modernist design — spare, elegant, functional — but hard to grasp or truly appreciate without a cultivated sense of style, without a little discerning maturity. National Greatness Conservatism is like a grotesque wood-paneled den stuffed with animal heads, mounted swords, garish carpets, and a giant roaring fire. Only the most vulgar tuck in next to that fire, light a fat cigar, and think they’ve really got it all figured out. But I’m afraid that’s pretty much the kind of thing you get at the Committee on Social Thought. If you declaim the importance of virtue loudly enough, you don’t have to actually think.

Ah, it's hard to grasp. Deer hunters and their Hummel figurine collecting wives could hardly begin to understand Mies or Mondrian or Schoenberg like our tourguide does. He's been to college and he paid attention, avoiding the neo-Straussian blind alley and accounting classes. No vulgarity for our tourguide, who isn't shy about touting his own refinement - no wood paneling or fat cigars for Mr. Wilkinson! His virtue is sneering at those who prattle on about virtue without understanding the greater verities. I can see Mr. Wilkinson now, perched in his Wassily chair, sneering at Elmer VanderPutten reclining in his Barcalounger. After all, if you already have all the answers, you don't have to actually think. And you definitely don't have to pay attention to the Committee on Social Thought.


Uncle Ben said...

That strident stuff is just posturing fluff. Okay Will, we get it. You're smarter than us. Where do I send my Danegeld?

Strolling Amok said...

Hey, I'm supporting Barack "I respect everyone" Obama. I've gotta get my strident smackdown fix somewhere.

Mark said...

SA, the thing is, our tourguide doesn't tell us much about "National Greatness Conservatism." But he tells us a lot about himself.

No worries, good sir - and thank you for bringing him to my attention.

Gino said...

i am a libertarian. and i LIKE wood paneling, and hope to eventually have a nice home with my paneled retreat off to the side, where my trophies and rifles will hang with pride.

not all of us libertarian minded dudes are neanderthals.
some of us are actual cro-magnons.

Mark said...

Gino, as Cro-Magnons go, you're aces. And I definitely prefer a libertarian with wood paneling to an eternal undergraduate with affectations.