Noah Millman on "The Closing of the Conservative Mind"
April 11, 2010, 01:46 AM
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Noah Millman writes:
... assuming one agrees (as I do) that the American right-wing is, these days, substantially more closed-minded than the American left-wing (as represented not so much by ordinary people as the intellectual, political and media leadership), why should we have come to this pass?
I`m not sure if that is in the absolute sense, but it is true in the relativistic, opportunity cost sense. Since, for example, 92% of Hispanic elected officials are Democrats, the Democrats can`t afford to have an intelligent debate on immigration. They just can`t. The Republicans can, but the Republican Establishment (e.g., Karl Rove) has striven hard for the last decade against intelligent discussion of immigration.

Noah goes on:

- Blame the money. Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched? If there is, please let me know that person’s name. Ron Unz is the only person who comes immediately to mind, and honestly I don’t think he’s quite in the wealth category one would ideally want.

Nobody, of course, is just going to hand out money willy-nilly. But there is an enormous difference between bankrolling a person or organization because you like what they think, and bankrolling a person or organization because you like the way they think. If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with – and I want other people to know as well. That second millionaire might wind up funding Diane Ravitch – and getting a very different report than he or she expected. And why would that be so bad? If Diane Ravitch has lost faith in a certain kind of school reform, that’s a hugely important fact – her arguments are ones that any advocate of school reform needs to know and grapple with. Even if she doesn’t change her patron’s mind, he or she should be glad to have funded her work.

Ultimately, you can only have an intelligentsia if you have patrons who are interested in learning things they don’t already know. And so, if you want a conservative intelligentsia, you need patrons of a conservative temperament who want to learn things they don’t already know – things that may unsettle them. If all the patron wants is advocacy for established views in defense of established interests, then you don’t actually have intellectual patronage at all, and pretty soon you won’t have an intellectual establishment.

I have never been a movement conservative, and I’ve never worked for a conservative institution, so any impressions I have are from a considerable distance – second-hand impressions at best, generally third-hand. Having declared that caveat, I will say that my general impression is that the money going to purportedly intellectual conservative organs is vastly more interested in advocacy than in developing intellectual talent or generating new insights. If I’m right, then that is something that has to change if you want an open conservative mind.

But if I’m right, the question that must next be asked is: has this changed? Were things different in 1975, and if so – why? I think it would be highly instructive to see a study done on the sources of funding for conservative organs and see how these sources have changed over time – is the money coming more or less from individuals over time, from more or fewer sources, from the same or different industries, is the age of donors changing, has the place in American life of donors changed over time, etc. I don’t know much of this information is in the public domain, but if it is, it would be interesting to see if anything can be gleaned from this kind of aggregate data. But, you know, I’m an elitist. My own inclination is to think that single individuals who are determined to shape history can make an enormous impact if they have the wherewithal. You don’t need a whole generation of intellectually-minded plutocrats to sponsor a renaissance. If he’s rich enough, and clear-eyed and determined enough, you may only need one.

Well said. Noah goes on:
- Blame David Frum. Just prior to the Iraq War, David Frum published a now-infamous essay expelling “unpatriotic conservatives” – that is to say, people who vociferously opposed the war – from . . . well, it’s not exactly clear from what, since he had no power to expel anybody from anything – let’s say from “conservative respectability.” And this endeavor on his part was, generally, applauded by the outlets of the organized American right. I don’t know that this was literally unprecedented, but it felt to me at the time – and more so since – like a crucial Rubicon had been crossed.

In previous defenestrations – Eisenhower’s turn against McCarthy , Buckley’s expulsion of the Birchers, the removal of Trent Lott from his leadership position – the organizations or individuals being expelled were extremists of the dominant tendency. If Republicans were generally anti-Communist, McCarthy took this to an unacceptable extreme; if Republicans were generally more friendly to a white Southern perspective on American history, Lott, in his remarks, took this to an unacceptable extreme. Frum was not expelling extremists, however; he was expelling dissenters.

The expulsion of dissenters is not something we generally associate with mainstream political movements; it is most memorable as a tic of the radical left, Stalinists expelling Trotskyites and so forth. Certainly, right-wing groups – anti-tax groups, anti-abortion groups, etc. – have tried to impose orthodoxy before, demanding pledges of allegiance in exchange for electoral support. But this is just interest-group politics; civil-rights groups, unions, and other left-wing organizations do that sort of thing all the time, with more or less effectiveness depending on the political circumstances. Expelling dissenters is something else again, and once the precedent has been set, it is very difficult to see how one may justify not applying it in more and more circumstances.

While I don’t think it’s fair to blame David Frum as an individual for very much (and poetic justice has already been served on him specifically anyhow), I do think it’s important for those who are concerned with the openness or closedness of the conservative mind to grapple with this particular event, and consider whether a formal repudiation might not do rather a bit of good, even at this late date.

A simple model would suggest that conservative intellectual productivity was at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s when neoconservatives were being welcomed to the movement with open arms, but once neoconservatives got the upper hand within the movement, they began purging their rivals, with the usual deleterious impact on intellectual life.