The comments section to my Washington Post piece is a predictable zoo. One reader — a professor at a major university – sent me this:
Jonah: the following started as a comment to your WaPo tease on young conservatives, but it quickly got out of hand. So I edited it such that it’s now addressed to you rather than your commenters. Feel free to ignore it (it’s long), but don’t tell me that you did – I just need to be able to tell myself that you MIGHT have read it. It occupied about as much time as working my way through all of Debbie’s links. Peace out!
[Name and affiliation withheld]
The comments on your WaPost tease are really quite amazing, especially those from the Left. As a conservative academic at a major Midwestern research university, I can tell you that there is something to your thesis , though I definitely experience the phenomenon more now, as a practicing academic, than I did as a college student.
Outside of a few specific classes (one of my two majors was taught predominantly by unabashed Marxists, who managed to get quite a lot of political content into a course of study that should have been largely apolitical), the “indoctrination” wasn’t overt or perhaps even intentional. Rather, I experienced the phenomenon you describe primarily as a series of realizations that most of my friends, colleagues and academic mentors could not even conceive of the possibility that someone might disagree with one of their positions on an ideological matter. Thus, it wasn’t the avowed Marxists who were a problem; those guys realized that they were promoting a fringe ideology of their own and were mainly aggressive apologists/evangelists for their viewpoints. That is relatively easily dealt with, even though I had to sit through classes like “1492 and the Aftermath.” The real problem was the great majority of the community who trended well left of the true American center, but who thought themselves “mainstream” and thus blithely presented highly contestable liberal premises as immutable fact. If you’re going to take those folks on — and remember, they’re your friends and colleagues — you have to be intelligent, articulate, and enormously careful.
But the real problem with the left-leaning comments on the Post is all of the strawman argument about “conservatives” generally. We all believe that cavemen rode dinosaurs. We think the free market is the solution to everything. We have no empathy and take comfort in social Darwinism. We’re all either bigots or “subservients.” We promote myths to “exploit peoples’ fear and ignorance.” We’re closet fascists. We (a) get all our information from Fox and talk radio, and (b) lose critical brain cells thereby.
It is always difficult to tell whether folks peddling this nonsense really believe it (in which case, they have my deep sympathy and pity, for the true myopia of their own purportedly broad worldviews is stunning) or whether they’re simply using these classic old tropes to advance their own agendas without regard for their obvious falsity.
I’ll assume the former, just because it would break my heart to think that so many of them are evil themselves. I guess I’d rather be talking to folks who misguidedly think ME evil than to those who know I’m not, but find it politically useful to argue that I am.
In any event, a couple of quick responses. First, I concede that they can probably locate a few self-described conservatives who do in fact look like the horrible caricature that emerges from the comments. But for every one of those they locate, I can find them an equal but opposite leftist whose “Power to the People” mantra is followed by a silent “means more power for me!” The great mass of conservatives are good, decent, kindhearted, and, yes, thoughtful folks. (I didn’t always believe that last adjective fit in the list, but this conservative, at least, occasionally lives and learns). So why does the classic leftist attack (conservatives are cold, heartless, greedy, etc.) have any traction at all?
The Left’s attacks work to some degree because the Left quite cleverly refuses to engage on the real battlefield; in so doing, it assumes as given the very thing conservatives find most contestable. They all want to fight over the content of conservatives’ collective character. We know—KNOW—that the real fight is over whether and to what extent the government is even capable of solving the problems we all agree exist. They want to just DO something. We know—KNOW—that we have to look beyond the good intentions that most of us will grant our ideological opponents, focusing instead on good RESULTS. They’d rather feel good about their ability to identify a social problem, empathize with those suffering its ill effects, and explain that they can’t be held responsible for its continued existence because, after all, they supported [insert expensive regulatory fix here]. We can’t take that last step with them, unless the fix is likely to make things better in the real world; when we see dozens of rusted regulatory hulks strewn alongside the road, we quite sensibly ask, “Where are we trying to go, again? Does it seem to be getting warmer out here?”
This is not to paper over the fact that there are a few significant differences in core beliefs between liberals and conservatives, or even between different types of conservatives (the “conservative monolith” meme and its obverse— the “liberals are so darned thoughtful that they can’t agree on anything” trope— are really quite sad). Despite the fact that I’m an evangelical Christian and a conservative, I support gay marriage. Not everyone with my voting record does. And there are other examples.
But the great mass of what the Left would label “conservatives,” whether Republicans, Tea Partiers, Libertarians, libertarians, etc., would agree with most self-identifying “liberals” on a great many ends. We, like they, want to see Dr. King’s dream realized. We, like they, want to see poverty and its consequences contained, then rolled back. We, like they, want peace, both at home and abroad. We, like they, want to live in a land of unbounded opportunity for all, where the amount of melanin in one’s skin and the place and time of one’s birth has no predictive value as to one’s future. We just don’t always agree on how to get there.
Every so often, the internet explodes with a study contending that liberals are, on average, intellectually superior to conservatives. After years of getting angry every time this particular meme pops up, I’ve begun to wonder if maybe there isn’t a grain of truth to it, at least with respect to liberal opinion leaders. I had the dubious distinction of being one of the three or four smartest kids in my high school. The other folks on that particular plane ended up—gasp!—liberal, (bless their hearts). But because I was there, in all my pimply, socially-awkward math-nerd glory, I can tell you three things that were sadly true of me, and of others like me: (1) our senses of self-worth were enormously dependent upon our ability to feel intellectually superior to our classmates (because that was pretty much all we had going for us); (2) we believed that all problems had perfect solutions, because in school they did, and we found those solutions faster and better than anyone else; and (3) as a result, we were more subject than most to hubris.
At root, the liberal pathology is characterized primarily by a particularly ugly combination of smugness and hubris. Having aced the test on Aeschylus and Sophocles, liberal elites fail to grasp that they are, in fact, Agamemnon’s intellectual heirs every bit as much as their favorite conservative bogeymen. And unlike conservatives who, let’s face it, were maybe a little dimmer but a WHOLE lot faster, stronger, better-looking and more fun at high-school parties (to which my IQ cohort was never invited anyway), the liberal NEEDS to feel superior. Taken together, these characteristics go a long way toward explaining the current liberal mindset: “We can fix it, because we’re so darned smart and morally superior. Did we mention we were morally superior? Yes, morally superior to you specifically, conservative Neanderthal in the fourth row, wearing that ridiculous seersucker suit and bowtie.”
Conservatives, by contrast, don’t think, “[Evil laugh.] How can we keep the [discrete and insular minority] down for a few more decades?” but rather, “I’m not sure it CAN be fixed, and we sure as heck need to think about unintended consequences and our own limited resources before we throw taxpayer money at it.” The better among us follow that thought up with, “What can I personally do to change things for the better? If I am the change I seek, why do we need the government as middleman?”
I’m sick and tired of the standard liberal rant against conservatism. It’s time for them to step up their game. It’s time for them to address the merits. “Conservatives are evil, stupid, or both” might have worked in the dorm room salons and grad school echo chambers, but the inevitable consequence of their time in that comfortable, Pauline-Kael-esque cocoon is that those of us who don’t share their opinions have lived more, lived harder, and have the intellectual scars to show for it. Don’t bring a brie-spreader to a gunfight, guys — we’ve had plenty of time on the firing range.