How liberalism reverses legitimate and illegitimate criticism

The blogger Vanishing American is offended at VFR commenter Sage McLaughlin’s criticisms of her and other bloggers’ writing style. She sees it as a violation of etiquette or even of basic ethics that I posted the comment, and she has turned it into a personal issue, with many of her commenters joining in. I reply with two comments at her site. In my second comment, I finally figure out a phenomenon I’ve been trying to understand for years. [Note Feb. 18: apparently VA has removed the entire comments thread, leaving only the original entry. I have never seen such a thing be done before. She’s basically removed all the evidence that was the basis of the below discussion. Fortunately, I at least saved the three comments I posted in that thread, and they can be read here.]

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Rachael S. writes:

My great uncle was a wildlife painter (and a veteran of WWII) and I remember asking him for his advice on a drawing of mine when I was little. He was a grumpy fellow and his criticism really bothered me. I have noticed that the real authority figures we have left are people who won’t spare your feelings if you ask for their opinion.

This is often unpleasant but it is the necessary unpleasantness that goes with patriarchal order—the only order that is consonant with liberty. I would argue matriarchal order becomes fascistic because it must be enforced by the state, as it goes against the natural order that constantly reasserts itself like those pesky weeds in your garden.

What I took from Sage McLaughlin’s comment was that it is always good for a writer to continue consulting The Elements of Style.

(PS: I love the name Mencius Moldbug!)

A. Gereth writes:

Vanishing American has much to offer, perhaps too much, given the time constraints under which we all must prioritize our reading.

As for her hurt feelings, surely the only sensible response is to dismiss unwarranted outbursts, debunk invalid criticism and rebut valid criticism, as you do.

Robert B. writes:

If you don’t mind, I am going to save your comment at Vanishing American and also send it along to everyone I know:

“This is a symptom of the age of personalism and multiculturalism in which we live. It’s important to understand this. People today believe—and this view is actively taught in the schools—that intellectual disagreement is a personal attack, an act of discrimination, and therefore should be avoided. As a result, if a person engages in legitimate intellectual criticism, he is seen as a transgressor of society’s basic standards. And because he’s a transgressor of society’s basic standards, every manner of personal attack on him is now justified.

“Thus morality is turned on its head by a liberal belief system which prohibits intellectual criticism as a form of inequality and discrimination, while justifying personal attacks on the critic for his supposed act of discrimination.”

So precise in its judgement.

LA replies:

Thank you!

Writing this was important for me, because I finally understood this situation that’s been going on for years, namely the way I am repeatedly attacked as “nasty, egomaniacal, meanspirited, misanthropic,” etc., as a horrible person who should be shunned. Why? Because I engage in serious intellectual criticism. My intellectual criticism of other people, such as Robert Spencer, is immoral, while their attempt to belittle, isolate, and marginalize me is virtuous.

It’s of a piece with the “moral inversion” of liberalism that I’ve written about before. Under liberalism, which says all people and all values are equal, intellectual criticism means that the object of the criticism is “inferior,” and so such criticism is a crime against equality and must not be allowed. And how should society treat the person who has committed this crime against equality? He must be treated like a noxious bug and banished.

So, under modern liberalism, normal intellectual discourse is increasingly banned and punished, while vicious personal attacks are increasingly liberated and normalized.

And this fits the pattern of my First Law of Majority-Minority Relations under Liberalism: The more reasonable and impersonal one attempts to be (as in my initial comment at Vanishing American), the more one is attacked for being “superior,” while the more resentful and nasty one is, the more one is seen as being justified in one’s nastiness and resentment.

This pattern can sometimes collapse from its own absurdity, as when Christopher Roach, aka mansizedtarget, went so overboard in his attacks on me at Rod Dreher’s blog on the Texan of the Year controversy that people began to see him as unhinged. But generally, in today’s culture, the inversion of legitimate and illegitimate criticism is successful.

A. Gereth writes:

VFR has become my favorite blog precisely because of your impersonal critiques of issues and perspectives. I can see where liberals who mistakenly think of themselves as conservative or even traditionalist might find the very impersonality that I value depersonalizing and mistake your critiques of ideas for personal attacks against individuals. That is, as they say, a personal problem.

I have never seen any sign of the mean-spiritedness of which your detractors accuse you, and I hope you won’t alter your approach one whit nor devote more time than necessary to clearing away the detritus of unhelpful comments from the Hurt Feelings Dept.

LA replies:

I think Mr. Gereth’s comment about the value of the impersonal approach is very important. It’s an unfamiliar topic, it’s not something that’s talked about much in today’s world. And part of the reason is that the impersonal is the opposite of the reigning personalism.

Like anything else, the impersonal can be taken to bad extremes. But the impersonal is indispensable to genuine intellectual discourse.

Mark K. writes:

There is a deep reason for the abiding and continuing (personal) criticism of Lawrence Auster.

Many, if not all contemporary belief systems are based on popular assent and social approval. Most current belief systems and concepts have no objective proofs or historical evidence (e.g. Darwinism). Political movements such as Obama’s are based on psychological image (with no programmatic content). Hence the psychological push to join in his efforts to “unify the nation.” Today’s films and music reflect established myths and prevailing stories.

As long as one man—just one man—disagrees, that breaks the universalism that liberals are striving to achieve through their use of social assent and popularly held myths and stories. Most conservatives adhere to some form of this liberal, social and psychological cohesion (e.g. President Bush and John McCain).

The problem is that Lawrence Auster refuses to participate in this universalism because it is a false universalism.

LA writes:

I just want to add one thing. There were comparisons being made: “I like X’s writings for their brevity, I don’t like other parties’s writings including Y’s and Z’s for their wordiness,” and I can see how Vanishing American felt that that wasn’t right and felt offended by that. But, first, it was really just one commenter expressing his opinion. Second, VA was not being singled out for criticism but was mentioned as an example of a general trend. Third, it was made clear in that exchange that she was not being criticized for her ideas. And, finally, the main comment that offended her was not mine but a commenter’s. So, perhaps I did not handle it skillfully and I could have done some editing on Mr. McLaughlin’s comment to soften it a bit. But at the same time it seems to me that VA went overboard in her reaction against me in a way that it was not helpful.

Sage McLaughlin writes:

I agree with your comment. The way my message was worded could certainly have given the impression that VA’s work should be regarded with disdain, or that it was simply not worth reading: “Lawrence, you’re great, but VA really isn’t up to snuff,” that kind of thing. Anybody might take at least some offense to that, especially someone who spends a lot of time on his writing. For some, being a skilled writer is a point of real pride, especially in an age of general incompetence in the written word. So there could definitely be some legitimate grounds for VA’s sense of having been “attacked.” I’m sympathetic, and actually sorry to have phrased my criticisms in a somewhat more caustic way than was really necessary.

But, yes, her reaction is very, very overwrought and self-pitying. It lashes out against people like me for having short attention spans, etc., and it is generally exaggerated. It takes the critique so much more personally than it should, raising the stakes higher with each consecutive post on the subject, and uses language such as, “Oh, so long posts should be allowed then?”—a common sophomoric defense which says that whatever ought to be permitted as a matter of law is therefore beyond reproach.

I would really understand her focusing attention on whether my comments should have been published, whether they were excessively harsh, and what, as a substantive issue, is the relative merit of concision in the weblog format. That’s not what we’re getting though. We’re getting, “Larry and his readers are jerks. Oh, and the First Amendment is still in force too, so in your face!” Not helpful.

LA replies:

In reading over the VA thread again more carefully, I’m struck by how VA and her commenters see the initial post at VFR as a major attack on her and on her value as a writer, with her as the wounded party, and her commenters comforting her and talking about what a terrible person I am. This is wildly overwrought. The kind of verbiage these self-described right-wing traditionalists are indulging in is what you might expect to see in a group of feminists gathering around the female Harvard professor who got sick to her stomach and fled the room when she heard Lawrence Summers say that women are less represented at the highest levels of math and science abilities than men. One could imagine a group of her friends and students surrounding the stricken professor, assuring her that they believed in her worth no matter what that horrible pig Summers had said, and all of them continuing to build up the sense of victimization and resentment.

And all of this was triggered, not by anything I said, but by a single commenter at VFR who included VA among a group of writers he considers too wordy!

If this is the stuff of which traditionalist conservatives are made, we might as well forget about the whole thing and go out and vote for Obama, who will bring us together and take care of all our needs and make sure that no one ever feels isolated or separate again.

LA continues:
There are a couple of further points that need to be cleared up.

Vanishing American complained not only of Sage McLaughlin’s criticism of her by name, which I agree I should have softened or edited out, but of the fact that I posted his compliment of me, which she describes as fawning.

But here is the full content of his praise of me in his initial comment:

If there’s one thing you do well at VFR, it’s keeping the length of your posts in right proportion to their content….

Your sense of proportion, and your ability to attack big problems with parsimony, is one of the reasons VFR is such a treasure. Thanks very much for that, and please, don’t change a thing.

That’s it. That’s the full extent of Sage M.’s “fawning” praise. Will anyone seriously maintain that such praise was inappropriate or somehow glorifying of me and that it therefore was egotistical of me to post it?

The fact is, I value conciseness and clarity in expression. I enjoy it in other writers, and I aim for it myself. And obviously the blog form is ideally suited to that kind of writing. So if a reader values the same thing that I value, and praises me for achieving it, I should not post and acknowledge such a compliment?

As for Sage’s criticism of over-long and over-full posts, this is also something I feel strongly. I am constantly annoyed by writing that is overlong, undisciplined, and shapeless. As I’ve explained before, however, I was not thinking of anyone by name in that connection, least of all Vanishing American and Mencius Moldbug. That was Sage’s comment, not mine. I have never had the thought that Moldbug or VA is too wordy. But what I should have done was edit Mr. McLaughlin’s comment to remove their names.

If VA had written to me privately pointing out this problem to me, I would have instantly understood and made the change. I routinely change posts without hesitation if there is some problem with them. But instead of communicating with me on the assumption that I am a reasonable person acting in good faith who may have made a mistake in this case, she escalated a very small matter into a full-blown attack by her blog on mine.

Tim W. writes:

Just adding a little bit to your discussion on this issue. The media’s often-stated opposition to so-called negative campaigning during elections is itself an effort to undermine legitimate debate. It’s impossible to address an opponent’s stance on a given issue without being accused of “negative campaigning.” We’re told that candidates are supposed to run positive campaigns, which means either grandiose promises (“I’ll create twenty million new jobs”) or vague platitudes (“I’ll bring us together instead of dividing us, I’ll work for peace instead of conflict”).

Positive campaigning is fine to an extent, but the obvious problem with it is that it deals with things which haven’t yet happened. It involves promises about things the candidate alleges he will do if elected. Such promises are intangible and not subject to rational analysis. In contrast, a voting record or an analysis of past conduct is subject to actual scrutiny. Thus, the moral ban on “negative campaigning” works to the benefit of liberals, as exemplified by McCain, who takes every criticism personally, or Hillary, who claims every disagreement with her is an attack on “women.” In the case of Obama, he’s riding high because all he’s doing is posing as a savior who will transform the world once elected.

LA replies:

In this connection, here’s what I wrote about McCain in March 2000:

[McCain’s] recent blast at religious conservatives exemplifies his tendency to treat any opposition to himself, especially if it comes from the right, as illegitimate.

One of the ways he has tried to do this is by placing himself on a pedestal above politics.

Just as the left made Hillary Clinton into a transcendent symbol of feminism, so that any questioning of her record was perceived as an “attack on women,” McCain has used his POW experience to cast himself as the embodiment of honor, from which exalted station he regards any criticism of his politics as a personal affront.

Thus when Alan Keyes pointed out a logical contradiction in McCain’s abortion stand, the war hero replied with barely suppressed anger: “I’ve seen enough killing in my life, a lot more than you have…and I will not listen to your lectures about how I should treat this very important issue.”

McCain’s grassroots supporters seemed to agree. Several of them called Rush Limbaugh to tell Rush that he was out of line in finding fault with McCain’s positions since, as one of them put it, McCain is a “good man.” Similarly, a letter writer to the New York Post offered the opinion that, given McCain’s record as a POW, “it is impossible to think of anyone voting against McCain.” As with women and blacks and other sacred cows of political correctness, there is an assumption in some quarters that McCain should be immune from the normal give and take of public discourse.

A. Gereth writes:

LA writes: Third, it was made clear in that exchange that [Vanishing American] was not being criticized for her ideas.

True. But ideas are shaped by language. Verbosity often muddies the expression of ideas, whereas concise wording tends to clarify them.

I’ve ploughed through Moby Dick, Faulkner’s late novels and my favorite author is Henry James. But the writing of these authors is verbally dense, with many themes, ideas and symbols to be found in the thicket of their prose. By contrast, the verbose bloggers are verbally meandering, skewing the ratio of words to ideas, to the detriment of the latter. I find your writing ideal, illuminating as it does every facet of the topic under discussion without endlessly restating of the obvious.

P.S. By the way, I’m Mrs. Gereth, actually. I took as my Yahoo ID the name of one of my favorite Jamesian characters, Adela Gereth; space constraints made it “agereth”. It never occurred to me that you would refer to me as other than “agereth”. Like the estimable Laura W, I’m a female chauvinist pig.

LA replies:

From now on, unless you prefer otherwise, you’re Adela Gereth. That way no one will assume you’re a man.

Gintas writes:

The discussion at Vanishing American talks about short attention spans, as if that were the problem here. I’m sure most Americans would find long essays difficult to read, but how many “average Americans” are reading these blogs? I have no shortage of attention span. I posted as “Anonymous Coward” (last night):

I have read _War and Peace_, _Les Miserables_, _The Karamazov Brothers_, _Moby Dick_, all unabridged, so I think I know how to brute my way through a mud bog. And you _are_ just a bit verbose. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

No one criticised the content of your writing. That they even mentioned you means they probably think it’s worth _trying_ to read you.

Perhaps she thought I was saying her writing is like a mud bog, and took it personally. She was certainly in the mood to do so.

So many of these arguments bog down into personal offense. My Serbian uncle loves a good old-fashioned argument, and everyone goes home friends. It can’t be done in America.

Laura W. writes:

People who can argue for the sake of arguing, as Gintas describes, are the rarest of birds. When one finds such a creature, hold on to him! He is like gold discovered in muddy stream!

When I was 19, I walked one day into the lavatory of my college dormitory. There I caught sight out of the corner of my eye of a girl with wild, frizzy hair and an abstracted expression. Thus began one of the most prolonged and joyful arguing experiences of my life. For three years, we argued with each other. We argued about politics; we argued about love; we argued about history; we argued about the color of the sky. We never, ever took a single word the other said personally. We never once quarreled. To this day, whenever we meet, it takes just one word for the arguing to resume. “Yes, but that’s not always true…” In heaven, there must be eternal arguments like this.

Uh-oh, here comes more “hate.” James R. writes (Feb. 17, 3:30 p.m.):

Sage McLaughlin was spot-on with his assessment of VA’s blogger being long-winded and this is precisely the reason I deleted the blog from my favorites list several months ago. When I’m looking for a chicken salad sandwich I don’t go to a restaurant which has a triple cheeseburger as the only item on the menu.

After I wrote this I decided to go to the VA site and found this which brought a smile: “There are lots of fast-food blogs out there; you don’t need to force down a four-course meal if you’re hankering for Mickey D’s.”

Joe L. writes:

This “Vanishing American” affair his more than run its course, but you identified the principle it illustrates, and that was worth the mention.

Since, according to liberalism, there can be no authority beyond the individual, all disagreement is perforce personal. The only source of a belief is the person who holds it, so the two become identified and disagreement is antagonism against that person. Calling disagreement “hate” is an obvious tactic under liberalism. We gain sympathy from others, the disagreer is marginalized, and there are an increasing number of laws that apply …

LA replies:

“Since, according to liberalism, there can be no authority beyond the individual, all disagreement is perforce personal.”

Thank you for seeing this. You have stated the principle very well—concisely in fact! I agree that the affair was worth it for helping bring out this understanding—not that anyone at the VA blog seemed to take it in.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 16, 2008 12:39 PM | Send

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