Politics & Policy

Ex-Conservatives & Other Silly Folk

An over-hyped, overdone story.

Lingua Franca, the self-described “Review of Academic Life,” is the best magazine I don’t subscribe to — or work for. They regularly have these wacky, interesting, offbeat and thoughtful articles that aren’t very difficult to read for people like me. Since that’s sort of what we’re going for over here at NRO — the self-described “Review of Snarky Right-Wing Political Stuff for Smart People With Not Enough Time to Read Lingua Franca” — I’m always interested to see what they’re up to.

And boy did it pay off this month. The cover story is titled, “The Ex-Cons: a case study of two Right wingers who have moved to, well, something called ‘the Left.” The two people he picks to highlight this alleged stampede from the Right? None other than those colossi of the conservative movement, Edward Luttwak and John Gray. That’s right, Luttwak and Gray! Two legs of conservatism’s three-legged intellectual stool have been knocked out from under us. Now all we have left to sustain us is Bud Gretnick, that pretty conservative guy who makes the Italian subs at my local deli. If we lose good ol’ Buddy, we’ll be totally bereft of intellectual guidance. Our North Star will be expunged.

Okay, of course I am joking. You’ve never heard of Bud, but that’s sort of the point. If you’re not the kind of guy who saves back issues of Commentary, you’ve probably never heard of Ed Luttwak or John Gray either. Well, I have, so I’ll tell you who they are. Gray is a very smart British intellectual who once liked, and wrote about, Friedrich Hayek. He was a court intellectual to Margaret Thatcher when he was a free-marketer and she was kicking ass and taking names. Luttwak a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was an important neoconservative scribbler and consultant on military affairs during the 1980s. He annoyed a lot of people by saying the military was too soft and too hung up on business-school thinking rather than concentrating on how to kill bad guys. Later, in the 1990s, he annoyed a completely different set of people, more about that later.

Don’t get me wrong, they are both interesting chaps who certainly know a lot more about a lot of things than I do — as if that’s a high bar. But there is one thing I know that they and Corey Robin, the author of this article, apparently do not: They were never very important conservatives. Hell, they may not have been conservative at all.

Man Bites Dog

Corey and the editors of Lingua Franca continue what has become a grand tradition in certain liberal quarters. After decades of war, the Right (broadly defined) has won (even more broadly defined). Over the course of the battle, and even more so in its aftermath, hordes of Leftists have migrated across the intellectual borderlands to the right. Meanwhile, a few dyspeptic and opportunistic tag-alongs and second lieutenants decide to double-back the other way, figuring the decimated and demoralized troops on the Left will eagerly promote them and offer them some hope of victory in the future. The fact that this happens is inevitable considering the natural human instinct to seek the pond most likely to make you feel like a big fish. But the fact is the real story is not that it happens so much, but that it happens so little and by people so easily replaced.

Take for example, David Brock and Michael Lind. Brock was the investigative reporter for The American Spectator, who did nice and justified hatchet work on Anita Hill and Bill Clinton. But, it turned out he couldn’t muster the muscle needed to write a successful book about Hillary Clinton and he seemed eager to hang with a trendier crowd. So, in a move nobody — and I mean nobody — thinks was based on principle, Brock declared that he had been playing for the wrong team, as it were (no, I’m not referring to the fact that he is gay, though that might have contributed to his thinking too). He recanted much of his best work, apologized to the president, shrieked about the “extremism” of conservatives, showed his nipple in Esquire, and got invited to better cocktail parties.

All of a sudden, the clouds surrounding the New York Times op-ed page parted and its glorious rays shone favorably upon him. David Brock became an honorable and substantial person to the establishment media, writing for glossy magazines, doing yawn-inducing hatchet work on his old “friends.” Unfortunately for Brock, he has absolutely nothing interesting to say anymore — though thanks to his apostasy he has plenty of places to say it. (Just see his latest, um, article in Talk as a case in point. It makes me wish I could hit an F10 Macro on my computer and spit out the same article over and over again).

Then there’s Michael Lind. Now, he is a very smart guy. He used to work at the National Interest and is still respected, I believe, by many people I respect, including Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley. Lind also made the decision to switch teams. After writing an almost completely substance-free piece for Dissent “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died” in which he bit many of the hands that fed him, Lind all of a sudden became the golden-boy intellectual of the Frank Rich set.

Now, there was probably a bit more principle sprinkled in with his monumental pomposity, intellectual disingenuousness, and sub rosa personal resentments. But one can hardly dispute that this relatively unknown and unsung intellectual’s career was helped immeasurably by the fact that he was willing to dump all over the Right. A more socially inept and ill-at ease guy, I’ve never met, and yet he was touted as the hippest man in creation. Rolling Stone declared him — I kid you not — “What’s Hot.”

It’s not surprising that Robin cites Lind as another in this allegedly huge migration from the Right (his other example is Arianna Huffington, who’s fraud is recognized by pretty much everyone but Geraldo Rivera). But the list pretty much ends there. There are no more famous intellectuals — or simply famous — former conservatives who’ve gone left. (I guess one could say that the sainted Daniel Bell went Left, but he never put more than a toe over the line in the first place). But, good Lord, how many former Leftists, socialists, Marxists, Trotskyists, and Democrats have moved right? Literally hundreds. If you count normal, non-pointy headed people, millions. Generation after generation of the Left’s best minds have decided they like things over here more. Many if not most of National Review’s founding editors were former Communists. The very word “neoconservative” was coined as an epithet by the socialist Michael Harrington to describe all of his friends who were heading for the exits to conservatism. It’s not just the older generation. Every decade we get a new wave of writers and scholars who have come in from the rain, Christina Hoff Sommers, Michael Kelly, Andrew Ferguson, Charles Murray, just to name a few. Hell, I don’t even act surprised anymore when I meet conservatives who say “I used to be a Communist.” It’s almost a cliché.

Free-Market Boring…Losing Consciousness

Okay, so what about the actual arguments put forward in the Lingua Franca piece? Well, putting aside the fact that conservatives are not abandoning ship and that neither of these guys are conservatives, there is an interesting discussion to be had. The basic point is that some career intellectuals are getting bored with the free market.

Boredom is a powerful incentive to come up with bad ideas, especially for intellectuals. “Capitalism,” says Irving Kristol, “is the least romantic conception of a public order that the human mind has ever conceived.” The reason it’s so unromantic is that it doesn’t tell people what to do and that can be very frustrating for intellectuals who want to tell people what to do. Indeed, court intellectuals have always been more influential where the people are less free, because when an intellectual persuades a dictator or a socialist prime minister (a small distinction to be sure), their advice gets translated into reality. When an intellectual says, “It would be a better society if all beer was free” a free-market politician would, or at least should, say “Maybe, but what can I do about it?”

(Of course, Luttwak, hasn’t liked capitalism for years. In the early 1990s, when he wasn’t predicting America’s humiliating defeat in the Gulf War, he was predicting our inevitable economic and cultural decline relative to [snicker, chortle, snort, guffaw] Japan. In a debate in Commentary he predicted America would be a Third World nation by 2020 and that we’d have an infrastructure comparable to Islamabad’s or Kinshasa’s. He prophesized that the future promised only “the relentless erosion of the entire economic base of American society.” As Japan goes into its second decade of economic blah and we remain immune to Kinshasa’s shining example, one can take his current analysis of capitalism with more than a grain of salt).

John Gray has some interesting but wrongheaded things to say about why he doesn’t like the market these days. But they don’t explain why he’s not a conservative anymore, because he never was one. Gray was a libertarian of some distinction. So his discovery, for example, that the state is a “necessary evil” is no discovery to conservatives at all. In fact that’s been our position all along. I could quote conservatives all day who, in the words of Irving Kristol, gave only “two cheers for capitalism” and recognized that some government will always be necessary — and not even necessarily evil. But I’m already running way too long. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Both Gray and Luttwak, in what seems to be a nod to their own vanities, see themselves as independent thinkers shaking off the ossified ideological crust of the Right. Gray says touting his independence, “What was striking about Bolshevism was that Lenin was so extraordinarily flexible. Then it hardened into Trotskyism. And similarly Thatcherism began to harden…. It was a habit of thought that I found deeply repugnant.” Good Lord. It seems lost on this guy that the key, nay indispensable, contributor of Lenin’s “flexibility” was his ability to murder people who expected him to be consistent. What is so revealing about Gray’s invocation of Lenin is that Lenin was a freak. He cared only about politics, living a life of self-denial in pursuit of the political. He may be the dashboard saint of a certain breed of intellectual, because he got to cut out the middle-man and wield power himself, rather than whisper in the czar’s ear.

Unromantic as it may be, in free societies we don’t have much use for Lenins, though we have plenty of room for them. A free-market society runs pretty much on auto-pilot. It may get boring for those who want to muck with the controls, but that doesn’t mean we should let them.


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