The Corner

Theorycons & The Future of Concons

Derb, I have the reverse problem. I find it hard to read novels. When I’m forced to, I enjoy the classics. I even think I can take in a good novel in a deep way–but only under pressure. For some reason, I like to take in the world through non-fiction. (Except classic theater, which I love.) I consider that a failing, and I feel guilty about it. I wish I read more novels, Derb, and I wish I could write like you. I can’t, though.

My real concern in this mini debate is simply that young conservatives should not leave with the impression that they should avoid political or social theory. Of course, most of what passes for theory now is truly awful, even if filled with a perverse sort of insight. But theory makes you powerful. It’s no coincidence that Bill Kristol and Andrew Sullivan have Ph.D.’s in political philosophy–both taken under Harvey Mansfield at Harvard. You won’t find two tougher political infighters than Kristol and Sullivan, yet each is made vastly stronger by their grasp of theory. Of course, the media has begun to pick up on the theory background of many powerful conservatives and has converted that fact into a ludicrous conspiracy theory. But the real lesson is that theory makes conservatives–and conservatism–powerful.

In my recent “Democratic Imperialism” piece, I talk about Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. Each was a great political philosopher in his own right, yet each led a school of British Imperial administrative thought–and action! It’s amazing, when you think about it, how powerful theory allowed both Burke and Mill to be as practical politicians.

Yes, political and social theory in today’s academy has become the appalling preserve of politically correct commissars. To me, that’s a tragedy. One reason that the whole “neocon” idea has lost its focus is that many neocons used to have a background in classic social theory (as I do). But now that the academy has been taken over by a bunch of nuts, it’s almost impossible to train a “neocon” in the ideas that made neocon thought powerful in the first place. Rather than write the academy off, I’d like to see us take it back. And it’s worthwhile for conservatives to master even the postmodern, neo-Marxist, and radical feminist and queer theory that now rules the academy. Only because I know that stuff–and its many weaknesses–can I do the work that I do. But where are the teachers who can bring all this home to students? They have been killed off by the academic left. That saddens me, and it weakens conservatism.

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