Michael Lind wrote a very dumb piece for the New York Times yesterday.
But before I get to that, I should put my cards on the table. Michael Lind has always annoyed me. In the early 1990s, because I was so cool, I used to hang out a lot at the offices of The Public Interest, which is still the best hard-core (not in the smutty sense) public-policy magazine in America. Lind was then the executive editor of The National Interest, a companion journal which shared office space with the PI. My first introduction to Lind was when he threw a hissy fit over the fact that a couple of us were playing wiffle ball with a crumpled-up piece of paper during lunch hour.
Lind was technically correct that knocking a piece of paper around the office was “unprofessional,” but I generally don’t like hissy fits or men who throw them. And I guess that’s why I’ve always been particularly immune to Michael Lind’s shtick.
Yeah, that’s right, shtick.
You see, Michael Lind became a little famous in the mid 1990s for declaring, with entirely imagined authority, that the “conservative intellectual movement” had “died.” In what seemed to me a profoundly disingenuous article for Dissent, Lind described how conservative intellectuals had become Vichy-like pawns of the occupying army of the Religious Right. Like a medieval pope excommunicating an entire nation, Lind waved his hand over the whole conservative intellectual world, including many of his friends and colleagues, and declared it impure, intellectually ossified, morally tainted, and professionally corrupted.
Around the same time, Lind took quite a few shots, some of them quite deserved, at Pat Robertson in the radical lefty New York Review of Books. Lind also made it clear that he considered himself a hero for going after Robertson and that conservatives, everywhere, had ostracized him for his moral courage.
And here’s the kicker: Lind did all of this as Republicans took over the House and Senate for the first time in decades.
The Left, moping like a big dog whose food bowl’s been moved, snapped up Lind like he was a T-bone. Going after Robertson instantaneously made him a hero to Frank Rich and all of the people who let Rich do their thinking for them. And, smearing his friends and colleagues was simply proof of his integrity.
First came the fawning profiles, and then the plum job offers. Like a rock star carried on the shoulders of adoring fans, the Left passed him from one prestigious outlet to another: The New Republic, The New Yorker, Harper’s. Rolling Stone actually dubbed Lind “What’s Hot” — alongside a picture of him in an embarrassingly fashionable ensemble. In the pages of The New Yorker, he started ridiculing Washington as full of “dweeby white guys.”
Indeed, Lind, a famously un-hip fellow, allowed the liberal media to turn him into a lefty Tom Wolfe. Apropos of that, he even wrote a novel called Powertown, which claimed to show the sexy, shadowy underbelly of the “real” Washington, complete with an insider’s view of a D.C. crack house. As a friend remarked who knows Lind: “This, from a guy who sweats uncomfortably in the lobby of a four-star hotel.”
Now, it’s worth remembering that over the preceding decades, every generation saw hordes of liberals and leftists move to the right. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Bill Bennett, and Richard Perle were former Democrats; David Horowitz, Peter Collier, and Ron Radosh, former Sixties radicals. Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, Richard Neuhaus, and — oh yeah, just to end what could be a much longer list — Ronald Reagan and the millions of Democrats who elected him, migrated to the sunny uplands of conservatism over the course of this century.
So in the middle of the 1990s — when the Contract with America swept conservatives into both houses of Congress, and when Bill Clinton (then still the great pale hope of liberals) was miserably unpopular with average Americans — it’s hardly shocking that the Left would use Lind as a salve for their bruised psyches. Lind told them precisely what they wanted to hear: that the Right is run by bigots, religious fanatics, and corrupted intellectuals addicted to the filthy lucre of nefarious but media-savvy foundations hell-bent on creating some form of theocracy. And Lind wasn’t just some hysterical keyboard-pounder at The Nation; he was an “eyewitness.”
The fact that all of this was a either a deliberate lie on Lind’s part — or, more likely, a phantasmagoric concoction of imagined slights, personal agendas, and rank careerism — didn’t matter. Adding a neo-leftist’s hissy fit to the shrieking chorus coming from the op-ed page of the New York Times made for pitch-perfect harmony.
The Oracle of the NYT
Oh, hey, that reminds me: Michael Lind had a very dumb piece in the New York Times yesterday.
Asked to offer a eulogy on the political demise of Pat Robertson (Robertson is resigning as head of the Christian Coalition), Lind announced that “Pat Robertson has been the most influential figure in American politics in the past decade.”
His evidence? Well, let’s see: John Ashcroft is the attorney general. The Religious Right walloped John McCain in the primaries. The House has passed anti-cloning legislation; conservative magazines — namely NR, Commentary, and The Weekly Standard — have run articles critical of Darwinism. Leon Kass, “the religious right’s favorite intellectual” according to Lind, runs the president’s bioethics commission. And, oh yeah, both Al Gore and George Bush talked about God a lot in the last election.
He also simply asserts that, “Thanks to Pat Robertson, the religious right also captured — and killed — the conservative intellectual movement. By the mid-1990s, as the Christian Coalition consolidated its control over the Republican Party, any intellectual to the right of center who dared to criticize the television preacher was purged.”
If you’re wondering where the vast Gulag Archipelago of purged conservative intellectuals is, so am I. But more on all that in a moment.
Lind goes on to say that the Religious Right didn’t deserve its influence. In fact, religious voters were never the election-deciding swing-voters Robertson claimed. “Only a bipartisan political elite unfamiliar with the working-class majority,” Lind declares, “could have been fooled by Pat Robertson into thinking that the mainstream swing voter resembles Ben Jonson’s Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy, more than Norman Lear’s Archie Bunker.”
So, to sum up: The Christian Coalition is bad and not representative of America. Conservatives are spineless for sucking up to it. Lind — and other “right-of-center” intellectuals, to remain nameless, who “dared” to criticize Robertson — are martyrs for pointing this out. Golly, where have I heard all that before? Same old shtick.
But what about the substance of the argument? Well, Lind is a very smart guy. And, like many smart guys, he’s a master at connecting all sorts of weak links into what looks like a very strong chain. So let’s go link by link.
Lind contends that the election’s religious rhetoric was a symptom of the “bipartisan political elite’s” ignorance of the blue-collar folks Lind knows so well (no doubt this reclusive author of a book-length epic poem on the Alamo hangs out with a lot of Teamsters). Well, first of all, forgive me if I’m wrong, but haven’t American politicians always talked about God? And in the last two or three decades, haven’t the presidential candidates who didn’t mention the Almighty been the ones who tended to, well, lose?
Moreover, in a climate where the professional political consultants have digitized the electorate down to a collection of ones and zeroes through focus groups, polls, and surveys, I somehow doubt that they haven’t market-tested a lot of this religion stuff more than Lind suggests. And, of course, there’s also this funny thing called “believing in God” which might explain some of the religious rhetoric of the election. We know Bush is legitimately born-again. Whether Gore is a sincere believer is a mystery, but you don’t have to be an expert to understand that Gore’s weaknesses were only helped by his seeming more of a believer. That vast chunk of America that we in Washington call “the red states” apparently votes for the guy who sounds like George Bush for a reason.
Sure, the Religious Right gave McCain a hard time in the primaries, but they did it chiefly by having more votes — which is at least inconvenient to Lind’s view that they have no popular support. Yes, John Ashcroft got to be attorney general in part to placate the Christian Right. So what? He’s also qualified and a bona fide conservative. Yes, I suppose Leon Kass is popular among the Religious Right, though I would think Marvin Olasky is the Religious Right’s favorite intellectual. Also, since Lind is fond of charging Pat Robertson & co. with being anti-Semitic, it’s funny how he doesn’t mention the fact that the man he labels as the Religious Right’s favorite intellectual is also a devout Jew.
Then there’s this idea that all conservative intellectuals have sold their souls because they’ve run “anti-Darwin” articles. First of all, that’s simply deceitful on his part, making it sound like Commentary has adopted the position that the world is 6,000 years old. I don’t agree with all of the anti-Darwin stuff out there (I’m a passing fan of evolutionary biology). But many of the articles and authors Lind smears wholesale are actually quite serious and interesting. And National Review, for example, has published articles on all sides of the current debate. How come it’s corrupt, when it says negative things about Darwin — but not brave like our heroic Mr. Lind, when it says positive things?
Moreover, the inquiry going on about evolution has a back-story. First, Marx and Freud — the other two secular and once seemingly invincible gods of the 20th century — have only recently died. Some conservatives, myself included, do think it’s worth whacking a little cant and dogma off of Darwin’s hide, even if that leaves what’s left stronger and more persuasive. And, where Lind sees cowardice and corruption, I see people who’ve been willing to endure the scorn of people like Lind from the pages of the New York Times. Let us not forget that Marx and Freud were once established scientific fact as well. And, moreover, let’s see Lind’s friends at Dissent run a negative article about Marx, Freud, or Darwin.
Lind wants it every which way. Where conventional wisdom sees the Religious Right as weak, he says, “No, it’s powerful.” When conventional wisdom says the Religious Right’s influence is based on popular appeal, he says, “No, it’s a paper tiger.” When conservative intellectuals bolster the Religious Right, he says they’re liars; and when the government does something he doesn’t like — anti-cloning legislation, opposition to gay rights — he says it’s because of the undue influence of the Religious Right, and the blinkered stupidity of all those politicians who don’t use his books as a bible.
There’s a common phenomenon in the world of journalism. For want of a better phrase, let’s call it the pilot-fish syndrome (the creatures that feed alongside sharks). A writer becomes famous, or let’s say well known, for “exposing” or attacking a person or an institution. The problem is that he then becomes dependent upon that person or institution to keep himself alive. Michael Lind’s hysterics about the Religious Right and the conservative movement have reeked of bad faith for a very long time but he’s gotten a good ride out of them. One wonders what will sustain Lind now that Pat Robertson’s gone; he certainly can’t live off his complaints about dweeby white guys.