Reply to John Carney

While John Carney has the right to take exception to my recent statements about Buchanan and Rockwell, both at VFR and at Front Page Magazine, I find myself dumbfounded at some of the specific objections he makes. His first objection—to which he devotes no less than 339 words—has to do with my providing a link to a website called “Punch The Bag” where there was a collection of anti-Lincoln headlines gathered from the website. I never saw this Punch the Bag website before yesterday morning, when its author sent me a link to the page with the list of LRC headlines. I know absolutely nothing else about the contents of the Punch the Bag site other than that list; I looked at nothing else at the site except for the headlines which I copied into my article.

Now, would Mr. Carney find it objectionable if I had provided a link to a factual or otherwise interesting article in, say, the New York Times, even though the Times is in many respects, as most of us would probably agree, a dishonest and evil publication? What is going on in Mr. Carney’s mind that he would think my simple act of referencing a factual item at a website implies my endorsement of anything else that happens to be at that website, let alone of the website as a whole? The only legitimate issue here is the veracity of the list itself. Since Mr. Carney doesn’t challenge its veracity, everything else he says about my publishing it is a flight into irrelevance.

His complaints about Punch The Bag reach a culmination when, after summarizing the distasteful discussions he found there, such as one on how many blacks fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War (a discussion which, once again, I never read, nor did I link it, nor did I mention it in my post), he says: “Mr. Auster’s resort to Punch the Bag while criticizing the ‘intellectually debasing technique’ of his opponents is ironic, to say the least.” This is simply unbelievable. In charity to Mr. Carney, I must assume he was distracted or confused when he wrote this sentence, and I look forward to a retraction by him.

As for the question of whether I was criticizing paleoconservatives in general as perpetrators of an “intellectually debasing technique,” that wasn’t my intention. I thought I made it clear that I was talking about the paleo-libertarians on one hand and about Buchanan and McConnell on the other. While “debasing” may perhaps be too strong a word in the case of Buchanan and McConnell, I stick to my point that their continual attack on a sinister “War Party” has the intent and effect of stirring up their readers’ negative feelings against a particular group rather than of helping them think rationally about very serious and complex national issues. In any case, it certainly does not elevate the level of public discussion in this country.

Moving onto the next subject, Mr. Carney writes:

Beyond the details of this dispute, I simply do not see why we need to excommunicate anyone for their position on the issues involved in the Civil War. To begin with, the idea that Lincoln worked mischief on our Republic has a long and prestigious heritage on the American right.

This is such a patent misrepresentation of what I have said that once again I am floored. My point, stated over and over, particularly in the long thread following my article “The Cause of the Civil War: Moral Libertarianism,” has been to challenge the neo-Confederates’ use of mindless ad hominem slogans that make any rational and civilized discussion of the Civil War impossible. These slurs include such phrases as “bloody Abe,” “war criminal,” “blood-thirsty tyrant,” “ruthless and murderous invasion,” and “Union soldiers who fought like Nazis.” The neo-Confederates with whom I was talking (as well as the site which employs the same language as its daily fare) don’t merely use these expressions for occasional rhetorical emphasis; they use it continuously, as their exclusive language, virtually as the badge of their identity. They are unable or unwilling to conduct a conversation about the Civil War without using this kind of invective. Their excuse—adopted now by Mr. Carney—is that these continuous slurs, aimed at nothing less than engendering hatred of Lincoln and hatred against the Union that he saved, are mere “CRITICISMS,” and therefore that I, by objecting to them, am trying to prevent people from “criticizing” Lincoln or “asking thoughtful questions” about the Civil War. It’s bad enough when immature hotheads profess not to know the difference between a slur and a criticism; when someone of Mr. Carney’s intelligence professes not to know it, we are in trouble indeed.

In this connection, notice Mr. Carney’s bland and inoffensive-sounding characterization of the Southern view that I was supposedly objecting to: “[T]he idea that Lincoln worked mischief on our Republic has a long and prestigious heritage on the American right.” Mr. Carney would have the reader believe that one of my interlocutors said: “Lincoln worked mischief on our Republic,” and that I, intolerant censor that I am, turned around and called that person a slanderer and hate-monger and told him he must not say things like that.

And along the same lines, Mr. Carney asks:

Are we to posthumously condemn Willmoore Kendall, Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk for challenging the predominate views of Lincoln, the role of equality in our founding or the Civil War?

The suggestion that, by my supposedly repressive standards, I would banish Bradford, Kendall, and Kirk is beyond ludicrous. There is absolutely nothing I’ve said that would suggest that. In the various essays I have read of these three authors (much or most of which I have agreed with, particularly Bradford in his debate with Jaffa), they never used the kind of low-class, hateful language to which I have been objecting. Mr. Carney would have the reader believe that my criticisms are aimed at stifling intellectual discourse, when, in fact, I was attacking the sort of language that makes genuine intellectual discourse impossible.

He continues:

And then we have Mr. Auster’s repeated insistence that there is something loathsome in Pat Buchanans reference to the “War Party.” Mr. Auster insists that Buchanan engages in “demagogic characterizations designed to create dislike and resentment of the named enemy” and that this “incantatory repetition” serves as an “all-purpose substitute for critical thought.”

By quoting me directly on this point, Mr. Carney has managed for the first time in his article to represent my views accurately, so I will say nothing more about it.

He continues:

Unfortunately, Mr. Auster never bothers to confront the proposition that there is indeed active in our country’s politics a War Party, a more or less allied faction whose members can be counted on to support (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) almost any war under serious consideration.

I agree that there is a faction, a very large faction, apparently consisting of the majority of the American people, that takes the threats from the Muslim world very seriously and supports strong action including military action to meet it. Let me again remind Mr. Carney that it was from a very thought-provoking discussion with him in October 2001, at our monthly traditionalist discussion group organized by Mr. Kalb, that I derived my current view of Islam as “totalitarian genocidal tribalism.” Surely it is not unreasonable to conclude from such a description that strong, even comprehensive, action against such a threat may be called for.

However, the substance of the war debate is not my subject. As I’ve said over and over, I find the expression “War Party” objectionable because it lumps everyone who supports a possible war (i.e., a majority of the country) with a specific particular group, the neoconservatives, which, of course, does have an ideological agenda, an agenda for the global spread of American-style democracy and the transformation of America into a purely abstract state through mass immigration—an agenda with which (apart from the questions of Israel and Iraq) I strongly disagree. Since tens of millions of people who are not neocons tend to support the proposed war, and since they support it not for any “neocon” ideological reasons such as “spreading democracy to the whole world,” but (as in my case) because they agree that Iraq represents a real danger that probably must be met through military force, to characterize all supporters of such a war as an ideological “War Party” is dishonest. It misrepresents and ignores the reasons that most people have for supporting the war. It makes the neocons and their ideological agenda the whole issue, when the real issue for most Americans including myself is: How serious is this danger?—What are the facts?—Should we embark on this war or not?

Indeed, anyone who has read my various brief comments on the war debate at VFR will see that I have not had a dogmatic approach to it at all. It’s obvious that I’ve been trying to figure the thing out myself, and, while I have come down on President Bush’s side on this, I nevertheless have a lot of ambivalence about it, which is why I’m frankly interested in hearing good arguments on both sides of the debate—and I’ve repeatedly linked articles from both sides at VFR—that may help me form my own views. And that is one of the reasons why I object so strongly to the Buchananite demonizing of the neocon “War Party,” because it makes the kind of intelligent discussion about the war issue that I seek all but impossible.

My aim here, as in the Civil War discussion, is not to suppress debate; it is to be able to have a real debate. But such a debate is made very difficult by the Buchananites’ obsessive ad hominem attacks. I am not saying the neoconservatives and their ideology should not be criticized. I am saying it is wrong to center this whole war debate on them and to demonize them.

We come, finally, to Mr. Carney’s unhappiness over my criticisms of Buchanan for his two columns on Israel last April:

Now nearly a year after the event, I still cannot make sense of the cause of Mr. Auster’s break with the Buchananites over Buchanan referring to Sharon as “the raging bull of Ramallah.” It’s perfectly understandable to disagree with Buchanan over the proper U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, or over where the scales of justice balance out in the conflict between the two, but Mr. Auster goes further. He accuses Buchanan of portraying Sharon as an “animalistic aggressor” and a “freelance killer.” I realize that in our era of heightened sensitivity it is always risky to engage in even commonplace animal analogies. But isn’t Buchanan’s phrase merely a colorful play on the concept of a “bull in a china shop” rather than an attempt to dehumanize Sharon? And don’t we often use heads of state as synecdoches for their people? Mr. Auster has misread Buchanan. This is not ad hominem argument, it is engaging writing.

First of all, I point Mr. Carney and anyone else reading this to my April 15, 2002 FrontPageMag article, “An Open Letter to Patrick Buchanan,” where my analysis of Buchanan’s statements about Israel, leading up my regretful conclusion that they are driven by an animus against Jews, is fully spelled out. My case was persuasive to many long-time supporters and defenders of Buchanan who wrote to Front Page and to me personally expressing their deep disappointment in him. In the case of Mr. Carney, however, I don’t know that a re-reading of my article will do any good. Notice that he does not merely say he disagrees with the article; he says he “cannot make sense” of it. This is an extraordinary comment, given that the reasons I gave for my conclusion about Buchanan (whether that conclusion was correct or not) could not have been clearer. I can only assume that Mr. Carney is so closely identified with Buchanan that he cannot “make sense” of any seriously critical ideas about him.

As an example of Mr. Carney’s apparent inability to acknowledge even the logical possibility of any negative truth about Buchanan, he suggests that Buchanan’s brutal attack on Israel was a mere “colorful play” on words. Remember, everyone: Israel had endured one terrorist attack after another, culminating in a suicide bombing in a hotel dining room where a large family group were blown to smithereens while celebrating the Passover meal. These mass murders and maimings had continued and intensified for a year while the Israelis (behaving less like “oppressors” than like soft-hearted Jewish liberals) had taken no serious steps to stop them. Finally, with the bombings coming daily, they could endure no more, and, a year too late, Sharon finally took strong action and entered the West Bank to root out the terrorist networks. And THIS was the moment when John Carney’s hero, Patrick Buchanan, attacked Sharon as an animalistic aggressor.

Furthermore, my point was not that this was a mere ad hominem attack on Sharon, my point was really the opposite: that Sharon, given his bully boy reputation, was a “safe” target for an “ad hominem” attack by Buchanan that was really aimed at the Israeli nation itself. Buchanan’s message—undeniable to any honest mind—was that the Israelis have no right to defend themselves from mass murder. But, once again, according to Mr. Carney, Buchanan’s verbal assault on Israel, coming at such a moment and under such circumstances, is to be seen as a mere “colorful play” on words. Thus Mr. Carney trivializes the mortal straits Israel was in last spring prior to its incursion into the West Bank. Thus he excuses Buchanan’s blatant attempt to deny the Israeli people the right to exist.

Beyond the present controversies over the “War Party” and over Israel—both of which involve the increasingly open antagonism of many people on the traditionalist or paleo Right toward the Jews—is the question of the larger direction of the traditionalist Right itself. The challenge we traditionalists face is to try to preserve and restore our civilization in the face of the overwhelming forces of liberalism arrayed against it (and let’s be clear that those forces are not just external to ourselves, they are within ourselves.). In the face of this difficult and often discouraging prospect, is the Right going to continue moving, as VFR’s brilliant contributor Matt has pointed out, in the direction of seeing itself as an “oppressed” group, which, like all other self-defined “oppressed” groups, justifies itself in a reactive hostility against its “oppressors”? Or will the Right recognize that its mission—and the only way it can ultimately win against the currently dominant forces of liberalism—is to rediscover and express our civilization in the highest sense?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 27, 2002 03:36 PM | Send


I’m not sure our readers will be very interested in watching Larry Auster and me intellectually arm-wrestle, so I won’t address his points at length here. I am, however, apparently still distracted and confused because I still find Mr. Auster’s reference to Punch the Bag ironic (but I’m not sure why he finds my saying so to be shocking).

Mr. Auster is correct when he says that I understood him to be saying something more about the “neoconfederates” than he did. We’re in agreement on the point that overheated rhetoric and mindlessly repeated cant stifles thought.

Posted by: John Carney on September 27, 2002 6:26 PM

Mr. Auster -

I found your exchange with Mr. Carney interesting, but terribly convoluted on your part. Your response to Mr. Carney, dated September 27, has left me stymied as to your point. I must say: I read your rather lengthy retort in good faith — with a desire to truly understand your position. However, your presumably thoughtful articulation caused me mental and intellectual whiplash.

Please, if you would, explain how your position is distinct in kind from the typical neconservative position.

Your position strikes me as a variation on the neoconservative theme: (still) an imperialistic impulse lacking the global democracy rhetoric. In the end, the perspective as outlined in your response to Mr. Carney seems quite in accord with neocon imperialism.

I think the issue may be misstated: the issue for me has less to do with the neocon desire to make the world safe for democracy and more to do with an arrogant, unchecked will to power that Irving Babbit so eloquently calls into question. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to put checks on itself: to act in a direct yet proportioned manner.

I’m all for retribution as pertains to events of 2001, but the proposition that Hussein had any direct involved seems tenuous at best. Hussein is a thug, a tyrant, and yes, a despicable dictator, but Iraq is hardly a serious nation-state at this stage. Hussein operates not like Hitler, but more like John Gotti — he’s Don of the desert.

I do share John Lukacs’s suspicion of labels per se: labels like nativist, xenophobia, and racist are typically anti-democratic tactics used, all to often today, by neoconservatives to marginalize those not in accord with their agenda. However, the war party descriptive seems valid and more importantly accurate.



Posted by: Michael on October 4, 2002 3:10 PM

As best as I can make out, Michael’s complaint is that my arguments were convoluted, that they caused him intellectual whiplash, and that I’m really a neoconservative. It’s hard to know how to respond to this. Almost the entirety of my article consisted of direct responses to John Carney’s criticisms of me, yet Michael doesn’t mention any of that. Further, my references to the neoconservatives are highly critical. Since his complaints don’t make much sense on the face of it, allow me construct what I think his real concerns are. He sees me as, apparently, some kind of traditionalist conservative; yet at the same time he sees me criticizing the Buchananites and the neoconfederates for their use of ad hominem attacks in place of cogent arguments. This creates cognitive dissonance for him, because he assumes that anyone who criticizes Buchanan and the Confederacy and who is not reflexively opposed to a war on Iraq must be, by definition, a neocon.

He writes: “the issue for me has less to do with the neocon desire to make the world safe for democracy and more to do with an arrogant, unchecked will to power that Irving Babbit so eloquently calls into question. It is incumbent upon the U.S. to put checks on itself: to act in a direct yet proportioned manner.” I hereby certify to Michael that I agree that arrogant, unchecked will to power is something to be avoided, whether in private life or in international relations. But how does that general principle help us decide what precisely we should do about Iraq? Michael seems to believe he has made an argument, when in fact all he has done is to ennunciatte a general moral principle. It is still up to him to show how he applies that principle to specific circumstances. That’s what moral and political reasoning is about.

As for whether I am a “neoconservative,” I encourage Michael to go to our archives and do a search for my many articles where the word “neoconservative” appears and also where I discuss my views on the war. I cannot restate for him here all the many arguments about the war that have been made at VFR. After he has informed himself further, maybe we can have a further exchange.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on October 4, 2002 5:07 PM

Mr Auster -

Your dismissive, presumptuous, and rather childish response and complete mischaracterization of my respectful request bears little fruit and clarifies nothing.

I sought clarity not compliant, sir. Your thin skin and circular “logic” is very revealing. I regret wasting my time and yours engaging in this exchange.

Posted by: Michael on October 4, 2002 5:31 PM
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