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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Schadenfreude and the New York Times

I very much enjoyed the recent columns on the current status of conservatism by David Brooks and Ross Douthat. I don't have anything useful to write, because (as frustratingly usual) I have nothing useful to add to Paul Krugman's post. So I will write a useless post.

Briefly, Brooks and Douthat agree that Conservative's have lost their way

"Eventually a path for conservative intellectuals will open.

But for now we find ourselves in a dark wood, with the straight way lost." Ross Douthat

"Trump demagogy filled the void.

This is a sad story." David Brooks

I agree with Krugman that "both deserve credit for taking a critical look at their team."

I think there is now a consensus among the New York Times opinion staff. The two token conservatives just wrote that they agree with the rest of them. Note that "nytimes" appears in the three urls but the blog post nor either column includes the word "York". This shows the genuinely impressive elitist arrogance of the New York Times staff. All three present the current state of opinion among the New York Times opinion staff as the current state of informed opinion.

On Brooks I note only three things. First he really lead with his chin when he wrote

"I feel very lucky to ... The role models in front of us were people like ... Irving Kristol ..." and later " conservative opinion-meisters began to value politics over everything else." Did he really not know that Krugman would respond by typing "'the accounting deficiencies of government'" among other things ? Even sticking with the same nuclear family, he could have written "Gertrude Himmelfarb" instead of "Irving Kristol". Note that Brooks considers himself to be part of the conservative intellectual elite. I don't want to think what rhetorical errors he things non elite conservatives make.

Second Krugman referred to Brooks as "David" in his blog. I don't recall that happening before. I think it is an olive branch.

Finally Brooks wrote both "The very essence of conservatism is the belief that politics is a limited activity, and that the most important realms are pre-political: conscience, faith, culture, family and community. " This is extremely offensive (so no olive branch from me). That can only be the essence of conservatism if it is not shared by non conservatives. If Brooks's sentence means anything, it asserts that non conservatives think that politics is more important than "concience, faith, culture, family and community." That claim comes close to libel. Of course Brooks doesn't mean that. He doesn't mean anything. He correctly describes that vaguely related difference between non conservatives and conservatives later

For years, middle- and working-class Americans have been suffering from stagnant wages, meager opportunity, social isolation and household fragmentation. Shrouded in obsolete ideas from the Reagan years, conservatism had nothing to offer these people because it didn’t believe in using government as a tool for social good.

Believing or "not believing in using the government as a tool for social good" is the actual difference between non-conservatives and conservatives which Brooks incorrectly describes in his outrageous implied insult of non-conservatives. I don't think that it makes any sense to call Brooks a conservative -- he just plays one on TV. He can only claim to be conservative by dividing people into Leninists and "conservatives." I don't think he has ever even tried to explain how he can claim that, to name two examples, Paul Krugman and Hillary Clinton don't embrace his "essence of conservatism".

I think Brooks is reduced to justifying his claim to deserve to keep his excellent job with the following syllogism "conservative thinkers have something useful to contribute. I am a conservative thinker. Therefore I have something useful to contribute": I don't think he has (or can) present an argument for either of the first two claims in the syllogism. I don't think he's even trying anymore.

Douthat is marginally more interesting. He is very openly elitist: the frankness of "the pyramid that is modern American conservatism has always been misshapen, with a wide, squat base that tapers far too quickly at its peak.

The broad base is right-wing populism, in all its post-World War II varietals: Orange County Cold Warriors, “Silent Majority” hard hats, Southern evangelicals, Reagan Democrats, the Tea Party, the Trumpistas. The too-small peak is the right’s intellectual cadres," is bracing.

His column is based to a large extent on the words "populism" and "managerialism". He abuses both.

First he discusses only right wing populism. This makes it possible for him to identify populism with right wing populism and write "the toxic tendencies of populism, which were manifest in various hysterias long before Sean Hannity swooned for Donald Trump." leaving out the qualifier "right-wing". The claim is technically true. If it just so happens that all those hysterias were right wing it isn't necessary to note this fact. But Douthat should ask himself if he can think of analogous widespread left wing hysterias. I don't think they occurred. Not all 9-11 truthers support and are praised by Donald Trump. But those on the left are an isolated fringe. There are fairly large numbers of extremely angry leftists (black lives matter and occupy wall street) but their claims of fact are supported by overwhelming evidence and their policy proposals are reasonable. A solid majority of US adults have left of center populist views -- they support higher taxes on the rich and more generous entitlements. These people clearly have strong suspicions (for example that the GOP focuses mainly on serving its rich donors). But that belief is not paranoid hysteria. It is a fair summary of the available evidence. As noted by Krugman, neither Douthat nor Brooks even discuss the issue. I think that Douthat would have two separate problems. First, Krugman explains how conservative commentators could remain prominent even if they have nothing useful to say, but second, because the widespread but non hysterical egalitarian populist views demonstrate that populism isn't as prone to toxic tendencies as Douthat asserts.

I object more srongly to Douthat's use of "managerialism". First it is pretentious jargon -- Burnham wrote a long time ago and few people remember him. I think that Duthat should replace "managerial" with "informed". I think that is what he means. It is an insult to managers to call university professors "managerial" (n my experience, this is also true of professors of business management). Most managers in the USA are middle managers of private sector corporations. That's not the managerial class Douthat has in mind. He makes it clear that he means "three generations after Buckley and Burnham, the academy and the mass media are arguably more hostile to conservative ideas than ever, and the courts and the bureaucracy are trending in a similar direction." Note that somehow the mass media has been redefined to exclude Rush Limbaugh and Fox News). Note that senators, representatives, governors, and Kochs are not included among the managerial elite. He isn't referring to the powerful or the rich. Of course he is thinking of the New York Times opinion staff and complaining that he has lost all the water cooler debates for years. But he should at least try to define a large important group which is "more hostile to conservative ideas than ever."

I believe that group would be the people who know and deal with facts which don't concern them personally (everyone deals with facts in our ordinary lives). Basically, I think the problem noted by Douthat is that conservatives have lost all the debates in which arguments must be supported by facts or logic. He has decided to define the people who know the relevant facts (and are honest) as "the overclass" because defining knowledge as class is a way to discredit it.

I think it is possible to remove these problems by always adding "right wing" to "populism" and replacing "manager" with "subject matter expert" and "managerial" with "of subject matter experts". The insinuation that those who have rejected conservatism are acting as a class is a cheap rhetorical trick (and just another sign that, if you want a recent example of the typical defects of Marxist thought, you should read a contemporary conservative).

In his "to be sure" passages, Douthat writes some positive things about one conservative and some conservative thought. These assertions are completely unconvincing.

Consider the wonderful internal contradiction in "in reality political conservatism’s leaders — including high-minded figures like Paul Ryan — turned out to have no strategy save self-preservation." Douthat asserts that Ryan is "high-minded" and has "no strategy save self-preservation". He doesn't claim that Ryan used to be high-minded then changed. He doesn't admit that those who thought that Ryan was high minded were deceived by transparent flim flam. He admits that he and many others were totally wrong about Ryan but won't admit that Krugman and Jon Chait were right all along. I think that the absurd intellectual error can be eliminating by adding as single word replacing "high-minded" with " alledgedly high-minded". The extremely charitable might also accept "apparently high-minded".

Douthat also wrote

Partial revolutions there were. Free-market ideas were absorbed into the managerial consensus after the stagflation of the 1970s. The fall of Communism lent a retrospective luster to Reaganism within the foreign policy establishment. There was even a period in the 1990s — and again, briefly, after Sept. 11 — when a soft sort of social conservatism seemed to be making headway among Atlantic-reading, center-left mandarins.

I have noted that the claim that stagflation demonstrated any errors of earlier non-conservative economic thought is based entirely on lies. It is true that the boldly lying right managed to promote right wing economic ideas. The claim about "luster" is even farther from illustrating a claim in which evidence turned out to support conservative's claims. I am old enough to remember that, in the 70s and 80s the conservative position was that the USSR and communist movements were much stronger than non-conservatives admitted. It turns out that non-conservatives were totally wrong, because they came to close to agreeing with the claims of conservatives. I have no idea what "soft social conservatism" Douthat has in mind.


reason said...

"and just another sign that, if you want a recent example of the typical defects of Marxist thought, you should read a contemporary conservative"

On the other hand you could visit and read some comments by some real Marxists in the comment threads.

Still, I quite the like the idea that there is a "Managerialism" that should be criticized (i.e. the idea that general purpose "Managers", trained by business colleges, can be taken and placed in any business and know what they are doing - regardless of what the business does).

reason said...

Just to be clear, I think subject-matter experts and managerialists are not one and the same, but are in fact natural enemies.