Truth, authority, and the anti-Auster right

In an August 2 entry, a reader explained why he has had it with me. His reasons included, along with my putatively excessive anti-anti-Semitism, my supposed ambition to be the “sole judge of what constitutes acceptable opinion on the traditional right.” (I should add that I think the reader was being a bit dishonest, because it was clear from the things about me which bother him that he would have objected to me all along, not just recently.)

I replied to him in part:

The act of defining terms and articulating standards is central to what I’m about. I have no ambition to be the “sole judge of what constitutes acceptable opinion on the traditional right.” However, it is my calling to attempt to define such terms as traditionalism, liberalism, and so on. The act of defining terms and articulating standards is an act of intellectual leadership which is indispensable for society and particularly for conservatism, and almost no one does it today. I have no desire to control or direct other people. At the same time, the act of intellectual articulation in which I instinctively engage, as my calling, is by its nature an act of intellectual leadership. Many people in our society, including many conservatives, are strongly offended by such an act of leadership. They want everyone to be free to think what he wants and to define terms as he wants. Therefore they will see someone engaging in the act of intellectual leadership as a bossy egotist imposing himself on others.

I would add this. In rejecting the articulation of standards and the definition of terms, such conservatives are behaving as liberals. Conservative discourse consists in the attempt to get closer to the substantive truth of things. A conservative writer or cultural critic puts forth standards, and to the extent that other people agree with him, those standards begin to become authoritative for society, or at least for the conservative part of society. Or else other people disagree with him, and offer their own views as to what the standards ought to be. Either way, whether conservatives agree on substantive truth or disagree, they believe that there is a substantive truth which we can discover and that this truth ought to be authoritative.

Liberals, to the contrary, object to the very idea of authoritative standards based on substantive truth, and they call any attempt to advance such standards dictatorial and fascist. And this is exactly the way my various overheated right-wing critics constantly react to me. Instead of arguing that my standards are wrong, and offering their own standards which they think are better, they attack me personally as a would-be dictator, a self-annointed pope, an insane bully, a person “who banishes everyone who disagrees with him,” and so on. And by the way I have done nothing to make my personality the issue; that has been purely the work of my enemies, through their continuing ad hominem attacks on me. These supposed rightists are thus carrying out the central task of liberalism as explained by James Kalb in his seminal 2000 essay, “The Tyranny of Liberalism”: the suppression of discourse—through a variety of means including personal smears and ostracism—about the substantive truth and standards by which man ought to live.

(Of course, as Kalb shows in his essay and as I’ve expanded on it many times, liberals in reality have their own authoritative standards which they impose in a dictatorial manner on society, but they conceal this fact under their rhetoric of equality, which formally rejects all authority and power because power means that some people have more power than others and so are unequal.)

- end of initial entry -

Kristor writes:

Anyone may err, to be sure; and you have erred. But I have found you open to correction, and to new information, and have seen you change your tune in response to what you have learned from your interlocutors. I myself have corrected you—“Watch out for that quasi-Kantianism, there, Larry”—and have not been consigned to the outer darkness. That I have not thus fallen from Austerian grace is due, not to the fact that I am waxing your car every week or something, but simply to the fact that I am not out to get you, or to protect myself, but to understand the truth. I correct you; you correct me. It’s a joint project, and it can be a lot of fun, provided one understands that in that project one is not involved in self-aggrandizement or preservation, but derogation and correction of one’s self in favor of truth.

I cannot help thinking that this widespread confusion on the right and the left about the difference between one’s ideas and one’s self is due to a gigantic failure of intellectual catechesis in the formative years of the Boomers. We Boomers grew up thinking it was all about us, we were the new new thing, our radical new ideas, untrammeled by any inheritance from the past, were going to save the world—and our parents failed to discipline us. The Greatest Generation, who ought of all generations to have known better, failed to show us that life is not about oneself, but about the truth, and one’s apprehension thereof and fealty thereto.

What else is there? The more correction, the better, say I. What use would VFR be, after all, if we its readers never found ourselves challenged in our presuppositions, never found ourselves brought up short at the realization that a precept we had long cherished as our own dear and precious insight into the depths of reality is false?

Whoever reads VFR, or indeed any writing, and is not interested in finding out where he has erred is wasting his time.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 09, 2010 11:42 PM | Send

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