Friday, December 23, 2011

Corey Robin: "The Reactionary Mind": a subject I have personal experience with

Author: Corey Robin
Title: “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

Publication: 2011: London, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-979354-7, 290 pages, hardcover, Introduction, Conclusion, two parts, eleven chapters

Amazon link is here

I mentioned this book (which is a bit expensive) on my main blog Dec. 9, with particular respect to the idea of personal agency. That is, the notion that “someone like me”, an outlier, speaks for himself and draws attention, and separates or precipitates out from authority, insoluble, unreachable by it. 

The author, a CUNY political science professor, has pretty well explained a line of thought I have been examining all my life, and that I thought I had nailed in my first “Do Ask Do Tell” book (1997), but indeed my own understanding of it has somewhat unraveled since then.

The two parts of the book are titled “Profiles in Reaction” (don’t confuse with JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, which I had to read in high school history) and “Virtues of Violence”, but his line of argument is fluid (rather like a Dutch Defense in chess without the Stonewall)  and the two movements (rather like an Op. 111) overlap. 

Here’s the gist of his argument.  Conservatism resents the loss of authority it has over subordinates.  In its sense of loss, it can generate a real fight.  But conservatism, even during “Republicrat” Bill Clinton’s 90s, has become so successful that it has lost its energy. It needs the fight, it needs its objects of derision.  (Hence, libertarianism dies away in morendo.)

Throughout most of human history, social position, wealth, and political authority have largely been “inherited”.   But as conservatives, ironically spurred by the Left, perhaps, take hold of the moral vacuum of such a situation, they invent a new way of thinking: authority is to be generated by meritocracy.  Some of the notion of merit can be expressed in money, in terms of financial success.  But some of it consists of proving your intrinsic worth, of going through your rites of passage.  My name for this idea has been “pay your bills, pay your dues”. 
There is something insufficient about believing that self-worth (and subsequent responsibility and “authority”) is every completely “earned”.  Yup, it’s like the Bible’s (Jesus’s) “man shall not live by bread alone”.  Society is an ongoing community, and no personal achievement would mean anything without if, if others didn’t benefit concretely, tangibly. So one needs a connection to what came before and what comes after – call it “sustainability”.  The radical Left used to call this idea something like “the will of the People”.  But even “The People” will need a political hierarchy.  Generally, history has shown (and Robin is not willing to admit) that the tyrants on the Left are just as corrupt (and brutal) as those on the Right.  Look at North Korea.

So, concepts like "freedom" and "equality" become Janus-faced.  Robin points out that the reactionary sees "freedom" in terms of one's right to maintain a station in life of superiority to others.  
The best way for me to give a more comprehensive assessment of the book is to wall through what I think he is saying in terms of my own experience. And I must admit, I have trouble closing a perfectly logical circle. 
Growing up in the 50s, I was a bit of the “sissy boy”. Yup, you know where this is headed.  I quickly showed an aptitude for piano and music and, after a rocky episode in grade school, suddenly was quite verbal. I liked the idea of attracting attention with my own artistic efforts. But I found that others (starting with my father, and then teachers, etc.) were demanding tribute, in terms of performing according to the expectations of gender complementarity.  (“Girls first!”)  I came of age during the time of the military draft – and student deferments.   It seemed as though “doing your part” – which included sharing risks – was the prime moral imperative.  In a world governed by external threats (Robin’s “national security” paradigm) and the demands of nature – in a time when women took real risks in just having kids – it was essential that everyone did his part just so there could exist a future. If you could not do your part because you weren't physically competitive (according to gender), you were regarded as dependent on or potentially a hazardous cargo for the "group", so you had to do what the more "able" people told you to do.  That was the "logic" of it.
Then, of course, came the issue of homosexuality.  I’ve detailed this difficult period in my college years and early adulthood (and the irony of my own “successful” military service) elsewhere, as in my own books.  But in review, it’s really striking to me now that my declaration of latent homosexuality as a freshman in college (let alone any practice of it) would seem like a greater “wrong” than its inverse, causing a baby to be born out of wedlock.  True, I was (am) an only child.  My statement probably sounded like a death sentence for my family, a repudiation of the permanence of my parents’ marriage (even if they did enjoy 45 years together until my father’s death in 1986).  
Robin has a chapter, the next to last, “Potomac Fever”, on the anti-gay witch-hunts of the period of McCarthyism, defying all logical explanation to the modern person.  (He briefly continues the discussion into an account of the military gay ban, now finally repealed.)  Homosexuality had become a proxy for Communism and even treason, an idea that seems “grotesque” today, as he writes, quoting H.L.A. Hart criticizing the collectivist “moral philosophy” of Patrick Devlin.  But this way of thinking still seems to animate anti-gay thinking in parts of the world today, especially in Islam and in countries like Uganda.  The Vatican is well known for pressing the view that sexuality must come with the price of exposure to (or “openness to”) the future intimacies as risks of procreation. (The Catholic priesthood can hardly live up to its own teachings.)  In a broad view, one can see how sustainability (and now, population demographics) raises the idea that everyone must have a personal stake in those who will follow before being listened to. 
One interesting aspect of homosexuality, at least in my experience, was its irony, or upward affiliation. I became concerned with “who” was indeed the “ideal man” or Nietzchean or Rand-like hero, and what attributes such a hero must exhibit (and not lose – say, remain perfect forever, become an angel and violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics – entropy – and you don’t have to reproduce, or run the risks of procreation – which drag the idea man down – when it is really age and time that do so – and it’s a shared future – progeny—that make a sexually continuous lasting marriage possible. (Okay—we can get into the findings that fatherhood reduces a man’s hormones – but so will age.)

When I grew up, "morality" definitely invoked a double standard. It was about much more than taking responsibility for individual "choices" (like causing a pregnancy).  It meant readying oneself to live as part of a social structure, and to share responsibility for other generations -- first by having the capability to do so (according to gender) and then following through.  Life really wasn't just about "choice" or "personal expression".  Parents had both the power and responsibility to bring their children up to both continue their families and live in a community.  But of course all of this idea (that you can state moral rules at all) presumes that society is good enough for individual moral behavior to be meaningful.  So I have to presume that the world I grew up in, while in many ways "unfair" and "flawed", as still better than most other societies that had preceded it. 
Here is where my closed circle finds a kink – the search for the “ideal man” implies an obsession with authority, and a desire to see the “best people” in charge of everyone else – bringing back the “conservative” ideas that oppressed me.  I do remember resenting the idea that my father and others did some things “just for authority” with no other rational purpose. I was to be subjugated. But meet the ideal 21-year-old, I would want to be subjugated, and find it exciting. There’s another unpleasant corollary. Yup, as my Fort Eustis (Useless) Army buddies said, my perfect Ocelot could develop clay feet some day (or balding legs).  But it’s more that I would become cut off from emotion or feeling for the imperfect, for “people as people” (as my father would say, during all the psychiatric mess of the early 1960s).  I would refuse to give people feeling when they genuinely needed it.  There would develop not just a healthy aloofness and impartiality but a coldness, a deletion of empathy. That’s harder to take today than it was fifteen years ago, before 9/11 and then all the recessionary hardships hit the media. 
Robin talks about upward affiliation (a favorite term of socially conservative writer George Gilder when he wrote “Men and Marriage” in the 1980s with a more general term, “sublimity”.  We admire those who can harm or destroy us (I could be more explicit with a word starting with the “failing grade” letter). We lose respect for those who no longer can challenge us.  (I suspect that in giving his own college students essay exams, he asks them to discuss the concept, particularly with respect to Edmund Burke.)   
He also has a chapter where he critiques Ayn Rand. He really doesn’t have much use for her, and calls her work “kitsch”. As to a thinking she was both a novelist and philosopher, she was “neither”.  (That’s been said about me as neither a conservative nor libertarian.) In fact, check out this piece on AlterNet by Bruce E. Levine, “How Ayn Rand seduced generations of young men and helped make the U.S. into a selfish, greedy nation”, link here.

Robin maps all this into our experience of national security in an expected way. He notes that after 9/11, it was no longer easy to mobilize the population into organized shared sacrifice.  But I can remember that resumption of the draft was proposed , not just by Charles Rangel (because it was the poor and minorities who enlisted and bore the risks of American policy) but by Charles Moskos, who found in 9/11 a good reason to drop the military gay ban. (Moskos actually emailed me in late 2001, “Gays must come out for conscription; then the ban would be lifted. “  Moskos, remember, had been one of the authors of “don’t ask don’t tell”.) Robin points out that the majority of us are made to feel more secure by bargaining away the rights of the politically weak and vulnerable. 
I close this review with a quote from someone who misread some of my own writings (Chapter 4 in my 2002 book “Do Ask Do Tell: When Liberty Is Stressed”) and made these angry comments to me in an email about six years ago:
The war on terrorism is the war for *FREEDOM*, and compromises of our liberty are much more our casualties in that war more than any one (or thousand) person's death. Tolerance, privacy and protection of the civil rights of whoever is touched by our country's laws should be (and WAS, before Bush) our most sacred trust. Laws that do not protect the right of the individual, as a rule, oppress the rights of the many. By letting terrorists make us change our lives and laws to make ourselves less free, we concede defeat to them. 
“How many women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq have died for the sins of a few dozen terrorists (assuming it was not a false flag operation by the Bush administration)? There is no question that tens of thousands of civilians have died from acts of violence--that many deaths have been documented and corroborated by multiple press reports of western media--and it appears to be hundreds of thousands have died due to violence, disease and the general disruption that comes from living in a war zone... Saddam is a terrible man who killed hundreds of his own citizens. He used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Iranians. We have descended upon Iraq like a plague, causing the death of one in thirty-five. Is that part of the price that you are willing to pay for your security from terrorism? Would Christ say that your security was more important than peace? 

No comments: