Are my criticisms of other conservatives mere factionalism?

A reader writes:

One of your topics today is “Ledeen makes incredible factual assertion; questioned on it, he cuts off correspondence.” But then you’ve had your differences with Daniel Pipes, Steve Sailer, Mark Steyn and others.

WorldNetDaily also has a similar story, “What is Savage smoking?”—as Farah takes on Michael Savage (or is it vice-versa?).

Interestingly enough there is this phenomenon on the right—that of who is the “rightest” of all. In the early stages of a conservative movement, writers on the right praise and quote each other until … a certain moment arises. Then they start dissecting each other to see who is the most rational, the most logical, the “rightest.” And they begin to see in each other contradictions, lack of empirical proof for arguments and positions, and complete adherence to a “tradition.” Some even begin to accuse others of “liberal tendencies.” Were they ever truly “conservative” to start with?

Once these insinuations gain a certain momentum, the cannibalization on the right begins. Emails are cut off, writers lose their columns in certain newspapers and journals, foundations excise certain members from their boards, etc.

This sort of thing went on in the Protestant Reformation—who had the right key to the Scriptures—was it Luther, or Melancthon, or Zwingli, perhaps pre-Reformist Erasmus had been right all along. Who was the “rightest”—who had the right arguments, the right proofs…who had taken the argumentation to its apex and derived the most logical conclusions. And as a corollary, who fell by the wayside because of incomplete proofs and the lack to drive the arguments to their supposed logical ends.

Ah how the right, wanting so badly to be “right” about things cannibalizes itself. While the left, with all of its self-contradictions, lack of rationality, and unprincipled motivation, continues from generation to generation ambling along…and scooping up each new, younger generation…

My reply:

This is well-written and interesting, but what is your point? There are real disagreements here. Are you suggesting that the right become like the left and turn itself into a collectivist mass? In fact, that is exactly what the pro-Bush “right” has done for the last several years, killing off desperately needed critical discussion of Bush’s policies. When the right has occasionally dissented strongly from Bush, as over the Miers nomination and the ports deal, meaningful differences were brought out and good results ensued. But I suppose you would call the conservative revolt over Miers “cannibalism.”

Also, please understand, it’s not that I started off my intellectual life in agreement with neocons, and then found little things to disagree on, and so splintered from them. I have for the last almost 20 years been against neoconservatism, and “mainstream” conservatism generally, as an ideology that is not really conservative, but liberal. The critique of neo- and mainstream conservatism is central to my political philosophy.

You seem to assume that such differences are of merely secondary importance, and should be smoothed over for the sake of unity. But between neoconservatism and traditional conservatism, there is no such unity as you imagine.

Would you criticize me if I had a website in which I frequently criticized liberals? No, of course not.

Why, then, do you criticize me for having a website in which I frequently criticize neoconservatives? It can only be because you agree with the neoconservatives and consider my differences with them to be trivial; or, alternatively, because you are one of those people who value consensus and harmony over all other considerations. As for Sailer, I’ve made clear my areas of agreement and disagreement with him.

Again, the traditionalist position I offer is not the mere result of finding differences from neocons and paleocons and Buchananites, or of trying to one-up anybody. It proceeds from first principles. It includes both an account of the bases of our civilization and a critique of the false beliefs that are dragging our civilization down. It is a position I am arguing for, though of course it needs more development. I think the other positions are all a part of the crisis of our civilization and cannot save our civilization. I am attempting to do my small part in presenting a view that I think can save the West. The hope is that, as the falseness or inadequacy of the liberal, neocon, and Buchananite views become evident to more and more people, they may move toward a more sound, traditionalist position that offers hope of Western survival. If such a position is not articulated and made available, what will there be for people to turn to, when they realize that the conventional belief systems have failed to defend them?

Ian writes:

Weighing in on the subject of “is Lawrence Auster a factionalist?”:

It seems fair enough, and illuminating for readers such as myself, to criticize other conservatives (or “conservatives”) in harsh terms for views which, if adopted, would lead to disastrous results. If Mr. Steyn is recommending surrender to Islamic penetration in Europe, for example, and no one else appears to have noticed this, he should surely be exposed. On the other hand, it is probably less than productive later to excoriate the same people for agreeing with you, but merely failing to point out that they have changed their position. I am thinking of “Glasnost, Steyn-Style”, March 5, where you describe Steyn as “sociopathic” and “pathologically dishonest.” We do not have so many allies that we can afford to impose such standards.

Also in this instance I think you may be failing to take into account the situation of a professional newspaper columnist, who, much like a politician, may have to keep up the appearance of infallibility as well as stay outside the subtly shifting boundaries of “extremism” if he is to remain in employment and continue to influence political opinion on a large scale. Offhand, my impression is that columnists, even more than most people, rarely volunteer the information that they have been mistaken.

(It also seems more plausible that Steyn was fired in England for his “extremism” than for inconsistencies in his views, which few people are likely to have noticed, notwithstanding your own efforts. At any rate, “extremism” covers a very wide political area in England, even in conservative newspapers, as you are no doubt aware.)

My reply:

Certainly if I went around labeling as a “sociopath” and as “pathologically dishonest” everyone who ever changed his opinion without admitting it, that would be wrong and silly of me. But I have not said that about everyone, I’ve only said it about Steyn. Steyn is sui generis. He places himself, as I’ve said, somewhere off the planet, superior to everything and everyone, asserting over and over his absolute assurance that Bush’s democratization of Iraq would succeed, treating all critics of the war as laughable left-wing losers; then he (at least momentarily) switches to the exact opposite view from the view he’s had for years, and tries to make it seem that he has always had this new view. And that is only the most recent of his astonishingly dishonest behaviors which I have catalogued. In his self-centeredness, in his lack of a sense of responsibility, in his jumping from one view to another as suits his impulses, in his evident lack of intellectual conscience, I think he can fairly be described as an intellectual sociopath.

The reader says it’s ok for me to attack a conservative who is advocating bad positions, but not ok to attack a conservative for changing to a good position but not admitting that he has changed. This assumes that Steyn really has changed his position. But what ground is there for believing this? Based on his long-standing pattern, he will doubtless be saying the opposite in his next column.

Again, we’re not dealing with a more or less normal columnist who has had one view for a long time and then changes it. We’re dealing with a columnist who dances like a manic pinball from one position to another, even within the same column, a writer who is loyal to nothing except to his own radical freedom to say whatever he feels like saying from moment to moment. The motivations driving Steyn in this behavior are not those of a writer trying to preserve his professional viability; they are the motivations of a radically liberated self, rejoicing in his freedom from all constraints, and in his ability to keep gulling his conservative readers.

If Steyn truly changed, and consistently adopted a more serious and responsible view of things, and if I then continued my criticisms of him, I could be fairly criticized for attacking him unfairly. But that has not happened.

David writes:

You wrote:

I am attempting to do my small part in presenting a view that I think can save the West. The hope is that, as the falseness or inadequacy of the liberal, neocon, and Buchananite views become evident to more and more people, they may move toward a more sound, traditionalist position that offers hope of Western survival. If such a position is not articulated and made available, what will there be for people to turn to, when they realize that the conventional belief systems have failed to defend them?

Very clear, succinct statement of your self-appointed mission. I have on more than one occasion thought of your efforts in light of Nietzsche’s aphorism (#156) from Book Three of The Gay Science:

Who is most influential.—When a human being resists his whole age and stops it at the gate to demand an accounting, this must have influence. Whether that is what he desires is immaterial; that he can do it is what matters.

My reply:

Thank you very much for bringing this quote to my attention. It is strange to think of the situation in such large terms, but that is what we have to do, isn’t it, to challenge our whole age. We’ve realized to our horror that our whole civilization has gone wrong, in its whole and in its parts, that it is careening toward the abyss, and, furthermore, that it is not some external force acting on our civilization from without that is making it do this, but the authoritative and respectable forces of the civilization itself, with the result that the civilization cannot even discuss what is happening. So it’s both heading toward the abyss, AND it can’t see that this is happening or discuss the fact that this is happening, because the sacred and accepted beliefs of the civilization are making it do this. And therefore we, people who have no power or influence, we who are not part of the mainstream, have no choice but to try to figure out what is making this happen, to think our way into the very core of what is making this happen, and to call attention to it and to say stop. And we can only hope that bit by bit, as the society’s self-destructive tendencies become more and more apparent, and as more and more people see these things, that our view will stop being that of a minuscule minority, and become effective in resisting the trends of the time.

However, I don’t understand what Nietzsche’s second sentence means:

“Whether that is what he desires is immaterial; that he can do it is what matters.”

Meaning, I guess, that the person may not be intending to resist his whole age, and may not even be aware that he is doing so, but is doing so nevertheless? It’s awkwardly written.

By the way, I looked up the passage in my edition of The Gay Science, and found it underlined, going back to when I first read it during a 24 hour Greyhound bus trip from Boulder, Colorado to Bisbee, Arizona in 1977, one of the great reading experiences of my life.

David replies:

I think that you have rendered the essence of the aphorism correctly and your rendering of it is certainly at one with my intention in sending it to you. The instinct to resist the nihilism of the age is its own justification. So, we are talking of things in “large terms.” Hemingway used to disparage writers, such as Faulkner, who constantly sent readers to the dictionary or who used phrases such as “Western Civilization.” Yet with the flared nostrils of Islam breathing down our backs, with non-discrimination elevated to a near law of nature, the stakes seem to be playing themselves out on a stage that requires large terms. Perhaps that form of modesty—Hemingway’s—is not possible for the moment.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 11, 2006 04:28 PM | Send

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