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“Why Won’t they Fight Me?”

By Jim May · March 24th, 2011 10:55 pm · 18 Comments ·

At Cato Unbound, C. Bradley Thompson is in the middle of an unfair fight.  He is defending the thesis of his book, “Neoconservatism: An Obituary” against multiple opponents, in a series of essays — and encountering no actual intellectual opposition (if “actuality” here is measured by reference to “dealing with ideas”) from the defender of neoconservatism.  I can almost see Thompson wandering the intellectual battlefield wielding his book like Connor McLeod with his sword, asking “Why won’t they fight me?”

His opening salvo:  Neoconservatism Unmasked

The attempted rebuttal by Patrick Deneen:  The American Roots of Neoconservatism

C.B.T. responds to Deneen with a tripartite response:

On Patrick Deneen’s Intellectual Method

On Deneen’s argument, or the lack thereof

Defining Americanism

All of the essays are good reads (there are others by Damon Linker and Douglas Rasmussen).

What prompted me to post about this, however, was this post and this one by Patrick Lawler, at one of the more intellectual-seeming conservatives sites, First Things.  In it, Lawler doth protest too much, shrilly insisting that Leftists, neo-cons etc. are not FASCISTS (just like that, caps and all.)  With it juxtaposed against Deneen’s essay, I was struck by two things:

1.  Deneen’s and Lawler’s posts are differentiated by length, and little else.  Both avoid taking ideas seriously, let alone Thompson’s — while expending considerable energy on topics of their own injection or invention.

They confirm my claim that when the discussion is about ideas, conservatives are simply out of their league.  With rare exceptions, they can’t handle philosophy at all, and that’s when they are emotionally on an even keel – and they never are when faced with the threat posed by Ayn Rand’s ideas.

Hell, even historical Americanism freaks them out enough to make it worth their time to bury it by way of misrepresentation-by-nonessentials, as Deneen does.  But when push comes to shove, all they have is “localism” and the pining for the “return” of a movement of individuals motivated by “something greater than themselves” (in all willful ignorance of the last century’s ideological history).

Seriously, is this the best they can do?  They absolutely, positively cannot avoid straw men, emotionally loaded language and other assorted intellectual malfeasance when faced with ideas.  Even the Left outclasses them at this level.  The only question is whether there even exists a conservative who could give CBT a good scare.  I am growing more and more convinced that conservatives per se are not serious intellectual adversaries, so much as merely being in the way.

2.  It’s worth reading all the above material with my “Road to Hell” analogy in mind.  Lawler in particular is freaked out by the idea that Thompson supposedly equated neoconservatism and fascism.  However, note what Thompson actually wrote in his book:

The neocons are not fascists, but I do argue they share some common features with fascism.

In sum, I worry that the neocons are paving the road to a kind of soft despotism that might even lead one day to a type of fascism.”

(CBT quote via Alfred Centauri in a comment on the first Lawler post.)

While neoconservatism and the literal fascists may be travelling different roads, their ultimate destination (as determined by their common root premise) is the same.  All that differs is the scenery — and as the destination is approached, not even that.  (That, by the way, is why the arguments over whether such as Jared Loughner  or the Texas IRS plane crasher were “left” or “right” wing, are such a joke; the “scenery” of their writings would have been unremarkable in any of the following: Free Republic, Democratic Underground, the commenters at Zero Hedge, or the groupies of Lyndon Larouche and Ron Paul.)

Lawler and Deneen, who ultimately do not give ideas the respect they deserve, refuse to grasp this — and for good reason: they don’t want to discover that they could have known what would result from their ideas, for such knowledge would make them morally responsible for their own ideas — eliminating the moral cover of their professed intentions.  (That, of course, doesn’t stop them from making grandiose, unsubstantiated claims about where Objectivist/Enlightenment ideas will supposedly lead, but let them — I want people exposed to the concept.)

They also fear the reverse: that looking back up the road would reveal that Americanism, far from being compatible with conservatism of any -eo prefix, was indeed the result of the Enlightenment they and the Left so loathe – while conservatism traces its origins to America’s original enemies: monarchy and the brutal religious feudalism of the pre-Enlightenment.

(Originally found via Diana Hsieh.)

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Neoconservatism: Best of the Blogs | The Editors | Cato Unbound // Mar 25, 2011 at 6:12 am

    [...] finally, Jim May writes: While neoconservatism and the literal fascists may be traveling different roads, their ultimate [...]

  • 2 madmax // Mar 25, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks for the links. Rasmussen’s essay was useful. Rasmussen seems to be a Rand-influenced scholar. I don’t know if he is technically an Objectivist but he clearly respects Rand (and understands her philosophy) which is rare for an academic. Damon Linker on the other hand is totally confused. His mind is Pragmatist mush and that comes across in his writing (I feel stupider for having read his essay).

    C.B.T.’s essays are well written and informative. Neo-Conservatism is something of a mystery to me. In so many ways they have the same philosophic core as traditionalist Conservativism yet they come out for the welfare-state and nation-building. Traditional Conservatives advocate localism in the form of relatively little economic intervention but a great deal of social and religious Conservatism; what Rasmussen called “statecraft=soulcraft”. But the NeoCons are like traditional Conservatives who are semi-socialists on top of being humanitarian war-mongers (what a crazy concept but that’s what they are). This makes the NeoCons worse than Leftists in many ways. In fact I think they really are Leftists but just Pragmatist ones who are simultaneously socially Conservative. What a weird mix.

  • 3 madmax // Mar 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    That, by the way, is why the arguments over whether such as Jared Loughner or the Texas IRS plane crasher were “left” or “right” wing, are such a joke

    They were both influenced by anarchism as was Timothy McVeigh. In fact, whenever there is a terrorist act, the first question I ask myself is “was it a Muslim?”. If the answer is no, the second question I ask is “was it someone influenced by anarchism?”. The media keeps selling these anarchists as limited government Republicans in order to discredit them but they are all part of the anarchist/leftist political culture.

    But the general point is right. NeoCons and Leftists are both statists. They’re leading us to hell each in their own way.

  • 4 L-C // Mar 25, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Max, do you think these tactical accusations will incur any cost to the Left in the long run? Or can they smear away until they happen to be correct, and then only that instance will count?

  • 5 Edmond Dantes // Mar 25, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    I wonder why C. Bradley Thompson is allowed to think that NeoCons are not fascists even though their philosophical ideas will eventually lead to them being fascists, but David Kelley isn’t allowed to thinks that Libertarians are not nihilists even though their philosophical ideas will eventually lead to them being nihilists.

  • 6 Jim May // Mar 25, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    I wonder why this blog has been attracting Kelleyite drivebys lately?

    Dantes: Kelley is allowed to think whatever he wants. There’s nobody stopping him. There never was.

  • 7 Inspector // Mar 26, 2011 at 8:38 am

    Edmond,

    Wait, what?

  • 8 Inspector // Mar 26, 2011 at 8:42 am

    What I mean is: there are so many double negatives in that post that I’m either not following what you’re trying to say, or you’re saying the opposite of what you’re trying to say.

  • 9 madmax // Mar 26, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Or can they smear away until they happen to be correct, and then only that instance will count?

    Exactly. Sooner or later there probably will be an act of violence by a limited gov’t Tea Party member. (It is only a matter of time.) When that happens the Left will explode. They are probably all salivating just thinking about it.

    The Left uses any event to advance their agenda. Both the BP oil spill and the Fukushima nuclear incident have advanced the environmentalist agenda. The BP oil spill has resulted in the Obama administration’s refusal to grant new permits to drill in the Gulf. Fukushima probably has been the nail in the coffin for any hope of building American nuclear power plants. A Tea Party killer would probably push the Left into attempting to criminalize non-Leftist thought. There would be speech regulation. That’s a certainty.

  • 10 Edmond Dantes // Mar 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Jim May,

    Truly feeble. You know full well that that is not what I meant by “allow.” For the rest of you (since Jim May is perfectly okay with intentionally giving you the wrong impression): I mean “able to make the distinction between actuality and potentiality without being smeared by ones alleged allies as harboring some secret philosophic similarity to the group you’re critiquing.”

  • 11 Jim May // Mar 26, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Dantes: quit making shit up. Kelley was busted for passing off counterfeit goods under the Objectivist label; the Libertarian sanction issue was the failure of his ideas, his “product”, which blew that issue wide open.

    I find it telling that here we are, on the cusp of what is potentially the biggest inflection point in recent American history, and all these characters can think of is to whine, attack and smear Objectivists over something that was over and done with two decades ago.

    Those priorities speak volumes about the road that Kelley and his sycophants were always on, doesn’t it?

  • 12 Edmond Dantes // Mar 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Precisely. Here we are on the biggest inflection point in recent American history – when the outside world is more likely to embrace Objectivism than it ever has been – so it’s imperative that the Objectivists it meets don’t simply stamp their feet like little babies and pronounce the world as hopeless simply because it doesn’t automatically see what is clear to it’s seasoned adherents.

    As for your claim that Kelley was passing of “counterfeit goods”: what does that even mean? All he said was that tolerance was part of justice (just as the judgment to denounce is appropriate in some contexts, in others the appropriate judgment is to tolerate). C. Bradley Thompson is tolerating the neocons (ie: using his objective judgment of them as persuadable) by trying to persuade them – as opposed to denouncing them as beyond the point of no return on the road to fascism – and he’s being complimented as a passionate Objectivist activist. David Kelley did the same thing to Libertarians and he was, and still is, accused of trying to (secretly or subconsciously) twist Objectivism into subjectivism.

    Why don’t you just face it: just as you feel the need to ignore this point in every which way that you can (we’ve discussed this a number of times and you never fail to invent some new way of skirting the issue) simply to reassure those more influential Objectivists who might read this that you’re a “company man”, Leonard Peikoff – all those years ago – realized that there is only so much personal value to be squeezed out of Objectivism as a profession, and if he wanted all that he (wrongly) thought he deserved, he was going to have to conjure up something to get his competitors out.

  • 13 Mike // Mar 26, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    “C. Bradley Thompson is tolerating the neocons (ie: using his objective judgment of them as persuadable) by trying to persuade them – as opposed to denouncing them as beyond the point of no return on the road to fascism – and he’s being complimented as a passionate Objectivist activist.”

    “Persuade”? In an article whose title claims to be unmasking them and that ends by denouncing them: “The neoconservatives are the false prophets of Americanism. Those who wish to defend America’s Enlightenment values and the individual-rights republic created by its revolutionary Founders must therefore recapture from the neocons the intellectual and moral highground that once defined the promise of American life.” I call bullshit–if he’s trying to persuade anyone of anything, it’s everyone else than Neocons that the Neocons are a threat. You clearly are so committed to David Kelley that you either can’t read straight or won’t write honestly.

  • 14 Drew // Mar 27, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Type CBT into any search engine and “cock and ball torture” invariably pops up. You people are sick. Oh, the depravity!

    Seriously though, great post and blog in general!

    Though I’ve often felt there is more to the history and context of these conflicts among Objectivists than the average person can garner from the web, one thing I’ve noticed is the sheer volume of anti-Peikoff/ARI material (like websites and various monographs) vs. say, anti-Kelly et al stuff must say something. I mean, who’s focused on advancing ideas, and who’s more interested in sustaining old grudges and perpetuating pettiness?

  • 15 Edmond Dantes // Mar 29, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Mike,

    David Kelley – by speaking to every day people who were attracted to Libertarianism because it seemed to them to be the best chance of preserving America’s essence – wasn’t trying to convince everyone else that Libertarianism was a threat? That Libertarians (ie: the ideology’s intellectual leadership; those who were explicitly moral subjectivists) were the false prophets of Americanism?

    Give me a break. He did exactly what C. Bradley Thompson is doing here – just to a different target. Or perhaps you think that “everyone else” isn’t sympathetic to Neoconservativism, and wouldn’t give in to being labeled as one if the only other option was to be called a liberal or socialist? If not, then why write the article?

  • 16 Roderick Fitts // Mar 31, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Edmond,

    “David Kelley did the same thing to Libertarians and he was, and still is, accused of trying to (secretly or subconsciously) twist Objectivism into subjectivism.”

    Kelley was mainly kicked out for the content of his essay defending his speaking to libertarians at functions. And with good reason, because the view of Objectivism that he articulated there and in subsequent books is mistaken, and should be properly distinguished from what Objectivism is. I’ve written a number of essays on the issues between Peikoff and Kelley, and why I agreed with Peikoff, on my blog, if you care to read that.

  • 17 Jim May // Apr 2, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Kelley was a counterfeiter in that he was passing off an inferior philosophical product under someone else’s label. Plain English.

    I examined that product, in the form of the first edition of “Truth and Toleration”, back in the 90′s when it was in the blue cover and stapled sheets of small-scale publishing, and know from it that he did far more than merely say that “tolerance was a part of justice”. Among other things, one of his principal weasel moves was to allow, as Dantes purports to do, that “just as the judgment to denounce is appropriate in some contexts, in others the appropriate judgment is to tolerate”… but then proceed to establish criteria of evaluation set up to ensure that few, if any, real-world examples would ever end up calling for “denunciation”. (A side note: my dissection of this bit of intellectual slippage yielded some of the insights which eventually coalesced into my understanding of what I now call ideological causality.)

    Dantes misrepresents Kelley, thereby establishing himself as commenting here in bad faith.

    I can’t imagine why he bothers, after Diana Hsieh has already buried him and the rest of Kelley’s remaining followers under yards of their own detritus..

    But I do recognize the pattern. I imagine his goal is to keep playing “last word”, Lee Stranahan-style, trying to goad me into shutting things down using the style and terminology he’s come to expect, in hopes of further maintaining his caricatured view of Objectivists, in the eyes of whoever it is to whom he is pitching his defective philosophical product.

    Dantes, you are wasting your time. I’ll just tell you what I told Stranahan: You hang yourself so well with your own words and attitude, I wouldn’t dream of taking the rope away. I’ll ignore you when it suits my interests, and poke you when it suits my interests.

    To Dantes’ prospective victims, I will merely say: go right ahead, examine the product! Read up, all the material you need is on the Web. Not only Diana’s, but Kelley’s own material, including his essay “A Question of Sanction” and the second edition of “Truth and Toleration”.

    The Tea Parties do not equate to the Libertarian Party, and the idea that CBT’s engagement with the neo-conservatives is somehow equivalent to Kelley’s engagement with the Libertarians should have been posted yesterday, it’s that big of a joke. Dantes has made no such case, and plainly isn’t interested in doing so.

    And that’s that.

  • 18 setnaD dnomdE // Apr 3, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Jim May,

    Do you really think that CBT was trying to persuade William Kristol, the man? Or David Brooks himself? Of course not. They are individuals who should not be tolerated. Their errors should be pointed out at every opportunity, and if and when their ideas are defeated, they should be held personally accountable for all of the costs those ideas incurred beforehand (just as Leonard Peikoff, et al should be held personally responsible for the professional – and dare I say, psychological – destruction of David Kelley, et al).

    Are the Neoconservative leaders who CBT’s article was written for? Of course not. It was written for any fair-minded person who is, will be, or ever might be – out of naviete or simply a lack of a better alternative – willing to call himself a Neoconservative.

    If you don’t believe that that’s a significant portion of the American public, my advice to you is to close down your blog (not because you’re a an ARI sychophant, but in self-preservation) and head for the hills – because if you’re right, this country is toast.

    If Neoconservatism’s unofficial base isn’t the average American (simply because Leftism is more nakedly anti-American), then you’re living in a very wicked country. One that’s almost as bad as one full of drug addicts and pedophiles (which, of course, we all know anyone who has ever had a word for Libertarianism secretly is).