Magazine article The American Conservative

Wrong about the Right

Magazine article The American Conservative

Wrong about the Right

Article excerpt

Wrong About the Right The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, Corey Robin, Oxford University Press, 280 pages

Corey Robin teaches political science at Brooklyn College. He is of the progressive-intellectual tendency. He runs a wordy blog, where he takes issue with others of the same kidney: Ezra Klein, Susan Paludi, TaNehisi Coates, Jonathan Chait, and such - earnest liberals picking thousand-word nits over each other's positions on fine points of policy. Sample blog posts: "That Old Centrist Magic: Jonathan Stein Responds to Jonathan Chait" (1788 words), "The Way We Weren't: My Response to YgIesias' Response to My Response to His Response to My Response" (1660 words, and one of a series, as you can tell), "The Mile-High Club: What the Right Really Thinks About Sex" (2,071 words).

These are the kinds of people who believe that American workers are cruelly deprived of labor union representation by scheming bosses (monocles, tail coats, top hats), that asking voters to identify themselves at the polling station is a sinister plot to deprive poor people of the franchise, that conservatives are sexually repressed, that Christians are stupid, and that it is possible to have a functioning society in which nobody is subordinate to anybody else.

I am vaguely aware of these people by name, though prior to picking up Corey Robin's book I had never read to the end of anything that any of them has ever written. Progressive polemic just isn't my thing. This over-intellectualized, smells-of-the-lamp, logic-chopping, what-you-said-he-said-isn't-what-heactually-said argumentation over minutiae of progressive ideology especially isn't my thing. I don't mind it in the sense of being riled up by it. It doesn't rile me up. It just sends me to sleep.

I therefore consider it a triumph of self-control to have finished The Reactionary Mind. I had a modest assist for the first couple of dozen pages: the hope that Robin was going to distinguish the reactionary mind from the merely conservative mind and say something interesting about the former by contrasting it with the latter. Now and then, finding myself in the company of liberals, I have yielded to the temptation to shock the easily shocked by responding to questions about my own conservatism with: "I don't think of myself as a conservative, really; more like a reactionary" Be nice to be able to follow through with some scholarly justifications.

And I do think there is an interesting distinction to be made between the reactionary and the conservative. When someone quoted the Bible to the third Duke of Norfolk, His Grace retorted: "I never read the Scripture nor ever will read it; it was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; yea, I would all things were as hath been in times past." That was in 1540, when New Learning included the notion that a gentleman of rank ought to be literate. The Duke, a true reactionary, was having none of it. It may not be possible to be as reactionary as that nowadays, but that's the gold standard.

Robin would have run a mile in terror from the third Duke of Norfolk, even before that gentleman had had the chance to sic the ducal dogs on him. The nearest Robin gets to this true reactionary spirit is Joseph de Maistre, whose forthright throne-and-altar conservatism marks the rightmost boundary of the book's discussions. Burke is another favorite, much quoted, though Robin is sufficiently well read to note the quibbles about Burke's conservatism. (I don't know how things go in the U.S, but British students are always surprised to learn that Burke was a Whig, not a Tory.)

Contrary to the book's subtitle, though, Burke is not the earliest of the figures Robin discusses. He gives over a whole chapter to Thomas Hobbes, working through the knotty issue of whether the English Civil War was revolutionary (in overthrowing the monarchy) or counter-revolutionary (in seeking to restore ancient liberties usurped by the monarch). …

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