Friday, March 12, 2010

On Linker On Lowry and Ponnoru On American Exceptionalism

1. Lowry and Ponnoru:

2. Linker:

3. L and P resond to Linker:

4. me:

A few unsystematic thoughts:

I read the Ponnoru Lowry ("PL") essay and didn’t like it for many of the reasons Linker makes out. That said, I did have some problems with Linker’s review not so much for his critique of the PL essay as such as for *some* of his own arguments in their own right.

The first jarring thing was this: “It’s hard to imagine this key conservative claim receiving a more cogent and rhetorically effective defense. Which is precisely what makes the essay’s shortcomings so striking.”

If I were a conservative, *which I’m not*, I could imagine making a case for Obama’s tramelling of the American ideal from my political perspective by stressing the principles forming that ideal—fiscal conservatism, possibly a different account of exceptionalism, reduced government, less obtrusive government, decentralization—as in the local principle, policy incrementalism, less and smart regulation, free market solutions, attacking crony capitalism—along the lines that have been argued for by say David Frum or Douthat and Salam, or even, in a way, by Lawrence Lessig and Sam Tanenhaus in their accounts of a conservatism—and even the tea parties by Lessig—that they find intellectually respectable.

These arguments need not be rooted in the PL rhapsodic account of American history, can call certain spades spades, and go on to formulate a better argument against Obama devoid of cheerleading. So I find in Linker’s review an unnecessary and gratuitous attempt to sweep all present conservative thought into the four corners of the PL essay.

The second thing is this: I like Linker’s dismantling of the PL notion of exceptionalism; but I don’t see, or I missed, what Linker thinks about the idea of American exceptionalism itself. Given that the idea is a foundation of the PL essay, Linker ought to have clarified whether he rejects the idea, favors its assimilation to the truism of every nation’s uniqueness with America being one nation among many, or something else.

After all, for all their rhapsody, PL touch on what is and has been great about America from its troubled founding to date. During the Cold War, a war between Communism and Capitalism, liberal democracy, a war between two great powers, American exceptionalism was a necessary consequence. After the end of the Cold War when for decades America was the world’s sole great power, exceptionalism was a necessary consequence. Now given a poorly functioning system of international law, when nations often act in their interest unrestrained by international law, exceptionalism is a necessary consequence of America’s continued predominant position in the world.

The third thing that strikes me and is of a piece with my first points, maybe just a variation of them, is Linker’s failure to distinguish the claim that what PL say is the core of their conservatism—what they want to conserve—is their definition of exceptionalism from traditional notions of what conservatives want to conserve, from the Burkean conservative ideal. There is a circularity in the PL argument for their conservatism that Linker simply bypasses in his implicit effort to discredit entirely the conservative argument.

Also, a fourth thing: is the following a fair reading of the PL essay?

“What Lowry and Ponnuru want to accomplish is something far more pernicious—namely, to relegate contrary voices in our national narrative to the periphery of our history, and perhaps even to read them out of our history altogether”?

For me two things emerge from this line of reasoning including what follows from I quoted:

1. even for PL, this gives short shrift to their argument; and

2. even if not, it gives short shrift to the conservative argument.

Both those parts stem from one idea: a vision of society that underlies Linker’s arguably overly neat, false and vulgar “us /them” dichotomy: “On one side of an unbridgeable divide stand true Americans, devoted to God and country, liberty and virtue; on the other is an insidious assortment of liberals, leftists, radicals, secularists, and foreigners.”

That vision, which privileges church state separation as a necessary condition of liberty at the core of American exceptionalism, unequivocally wants to reject status or identity as determinants of opportunity—the Hayekian idea of liberalism being coterminous with the movement in society from status to contract. To elide this underlying vision, and then to enfold a “tradition” running from Allan Bloom to Sarah Palin within an “us against them” “narrative moves Linker I think from being a thoughtful critic to a pot shot taking polemicist.

Fifthly, is the following an example of the immediately foregoing?

“Like many conservatives, Lowry and Ponnuru appear to be untroubled by the chasm that separates these two worlds. Sure, it’s a source of “political tension.” But it’s nothing to be overly concerned about, because, they tell us, a 2003 Gallup poll showed that “31 percent of Americans expect to get rich, including 51 percent of young people and more than 20 percent of Americans making less than $30,000 year.

That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru think it’s a very good thing indeed that millions of Americans are deluded “about their future life prospects—in fact, these senior editors of National Review give every indication of hoping to perpetuate the delusion.”

It strikes me that that this (and what immediately follows it) mischaracterize both PL’s and the conservative argument. It is unreasonable, unfair and unbalanced, to infer from their essay, conservative sanguinity with the appalling poverty that exists in America, with the blight of American of inner cities like West Philadelphia, and so on.

What PL and conservatives object to is the liberal idea of throwing money at these problems –as Johnson did in his Great Society spending, which Tanenhaus argues was a harbinger of a conservative resurgence in America. They argue for the incremental, market based approach to them such as by free enterprize zones, school vouchers to break up failing schools, and values transformation where individuals and families take responsibility for their own actions, imbibe values of self reliance and personal responsibility—in line with the Clinton Gingrich limiting of welfare, so hailed by conservatives. For PL that low income Americans believe they can be rich is a sign of their belief in their own possibility—surely part of the American ideal—not a reason to be sanguine or passive about poverty in America.

Is it either condescending or inaccurate of Linker to call poor Americans’ belief in their own possibilities “pipe dreams”?

Further, is the policy difference between governing liberals and conservatives really the either / or of liberals crafting ameliorating policies and conservatives doing nothing but issuing bromides about equal opportunity? Isn’t it more a question of the crafting of policies that are consistent with differing philosophical ideas of society and governance, with a real debate to be had between those differences?

Anyway, I’m a Canadian Liberal. If I was an American I’d be a Democrat and I’d be appalled and afraid by a lot of the populism that the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks embody, give voice to and generate. These I think deserve to be criticized harshly and to be shown for what they are, as did Jonathon Raban in the NYR. But I think, in a nutshell, what mars Linker’s review is his assimilation of all conservative thought to PL and then, ultimately, and sub (and not so sub) textually to a Sarah Palin kind of mindlessness, and Linker's tendency to devolve from thoughtful criticism, much of which, as I say, I agree with, to inexpensive polemics.

5. the great jhildner:

Basman, old friend: I read the appalling PL tripe and find DL's response to be a fair, devastating take-down. Whether PL's essay represents the most cogent presentation of American conservatism today, I can't say. They are prominent. The essay strikes me, as it did DL, as a decent description of the view of today's conservative intellectual, and, as such, shows today's conservative intellectual to be not just anti-intellectual (which is typical) but also un-intellectual. (By which I mean specious and fatuous. By which I mean stupid.)

You fault DL for not taking on the notion of American exceptionalism head-on and presenting his own view of the subject. Okay. I might have liked that too, but I didn't see it as required. It's certainly possible to criticize PL's essay without laying out a comprehensive alternative vision.
The argument reminds me of Beinart's piece in Newsweek a while back about conservative vs. liberal versions of "patriotism." As Beinart had it, liberal patriotism manifests itself as an allegiance to ideals -- certain principles which liberals understand "America" to stand for -- whereas conservative patriotism manifests itself as allegiance, period. Love it or leave it.

This difference is reflected in PL's essay which acknowledges the difference but is dismissive of the former form of patriotism as though it were self-evident that it's inferior. This is complicated by the fact that PL -- intellectuals in spite of themselves -- insist upon their own ideas as constituting the main ideas -- the themes -- of "America," and view correspondence to those ideas as better, as truer to America. One might just as easily say to them, "You don't like the stimulus? You don't like health care reform? You don't like auto bailouts? You don't like a black liberal intellectual as president? Hey, it's America. Love it or leave it. Why can't you muster enthusiasm for the country you actually live in, instead of your ideal fantasy version?"

This is only one of the numerous glaring and fundamental contradictions running through PL's essay. (Another is the authors' view of Jefferson, who is scorned for not being sufficiently "commercial" in his disposition and vision for the country, and yet who is implicitly lauded as a significant founding father -- the one who authored the Declaration of Independence -- and explicitly lauded as an advocate for worldwide revolution in the cause of liberty. The problem for PL, of course, is that Jefferson did not share their conception of what liberty meant or required -- apparently, whatever commercial interests want. Now, I happen to agree that Jefferson's economic vision was, let's say, on the wrong side of history. But PL are making a different point. They're saying that Jefferson's vision was actually *un-American* -- odd, given Jefferson's credibility as an historical authority on Americanness.)

Some of PL's claims are subject to a study of the facts, of history. For example, P & L insist that "laissez-faire economics" is at the heart of "America," even though true laissez-faire hasn't existed in this country for much of its history. (It's arguable that "true laissez-faire" can't exist at all in the presence of government, particularly one empowered to levy taxes for the common good, as America's has been from the start -- it's right there in the Constitution.) It's no more true than the notion that the founding fathers were all about Jesus in the way of today's evangelicals.

They were not, of course, and some were near-atheist/agnostics (like, once again, Jefferson). The Supreme Court dealt with this issue during FDR's tenure. Justice Holmes's best quote came in his dissent in Lochner, later vindicated: "The 14th Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics." Nor did it enact The Wealth of Nations or the tenets of classical liberal economics generally.

So, DL's main point stands. PL are saying that their way -- meaning, no more government involvement, however attenuated, in health care than its already massive involvement -- is the only American way. Nice for them, but that argument requires a better, well, argument, and is not resolved by way of reference to the coincidence of the publication of the Wealth of Nations and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (by that anti-commericial, broke-ass wuss). If you want to say that the Tea Party agenda is the most American agenda, go ahead and try, but you have to actually make the argument.

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