The anguish of the right-wing intellectual
A few postscripts to yesterday’s post about the intellectual devolution on the right. I should have noted that several conservative intellectuals have expressed some anguish about the situation. For example, David Frum (is he an intellectual? for these purposes, I suppose so) filed a cri de coeur (“Why Rush is Wrong“) with Newsweek, of all places, expressing worry that the rise of Rush Limbaugh to the de facto leadership of the Republican party is bad news for conservatism at a time when conservatives need a thoughtful reinvention rather than just heating up the old stuff they first cooked up in the 1970s. Many other conservatives are embarrassed by the rise of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin, not to mention McCain’s proudly stupid campaign—as they should be.
Well yes, but…. The anguish on the right reminded me of something that Slavoj Zizek said in Laibach: A Film from Slovenia. In the 1980s, Laibach loved to dress up in fascist and Stalinist garb, much to the annoyance of Slovenian nationalists who were pushing for independence from Yugoslavia. Zizek, who appears as a talking head throughout the film, commented that the annoyance came from Laibach’s exposure of the “hidden underside” of Slovenian nationalism. To the outside world, Slovenian nationalists wanted to appear modern and civilized, but hidden underneath was a strutting authoritarianism that was revealed by Laibach’s uniforms, goosesteps, and martial anthems.
So you have to wonder if the anguish among intellectuals on the right is anguish at the exposure of their hidden underside. At the popular level, the American right has long been associated with a paranoid, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual stance. (Yeah, I know it’s fashionable to hate Richard Hofstadter, but he nailed this and many other things.) When William Buckley founded National Review in 1955, he wanted to differentiate himself from all that. He was looking for something more serious and cosmopolitan, opposed to both social democracy and Babbitry (seen as deeply linked). An aristocratic contempt for democracy was always part of the Buckleyesque mix; I certainly remember it from my days in Yale’s Party of the Right (POR). The POR’s hero is Charles I, who said in his execution speech, in a passage happily quoted by Party chairmen in their toasting rituals, that government is no business of the people, because “a subject and a sovereign are clean different things.”
But Buckley himself was a fan of Joe McCarthy, hardly the kind of guy you can imagine sitting down at his harpsichord to play a Bach invention, or appreciating someone who did. The early NR was populated by segregationists like James Kilpatrick. Buckley himself had great sympathy for the South’s struggle to preserve Jim Crow. A memoir by a former NR intern, published in Spy magazine back in its glory days, recalled lots of crude racist jokes around the office in the late 1980s. But all that was disguised behind Buckley’s odd accent and arched eyebrow.
Now the hidden underside is front and center, and about all that remains. It’s hard to imagine Joe or Sarah quoting Burke or Kirk. It’s funny that Jonathan Krohn and Bill Bennett are best friends. Bennett loves to present himself as Mr High Culture, but he’s a yahoo from head to toe. No wonder the intellectual right is beside itself. It badly needs to work up some fresh camouflage.