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Tony Judt, Corey Robin, Raymond Aron

Along with the crime novels I can read with half my brain tied behind my back and go through at a rate that gives me pause, I recently finished The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century by Tony Judt and am presently engaged with The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin and The Elusive Revolution: Anatomy of a Student Revolt, Raymond Aron's response to May 1968. All three books are quite interesting, accessible, and I think imminently relevant to the American crisis of our day. I may share my thoughts about them at greater length at some future date (fair warning) if I can put them together in coherent fashion. For now I want to quote a few passages from Robin that strike me as right on, as we used to say in the sixties.

Robin's premise is that conservatism is about power besieged and power protected, which plays out as preservation of rule by a superior class and hostility to the extension of power to the lower orders. Chapters on Thomas Hobbes, Ayn Rand, ex-cons (ex-conservatives), and Antonin Scalia (as far as I've gotten to date) are provocative, sometimes fascinating, and always well documented.

Robins is a forthright polemicist who does not hide his opinions behind a faux objectivism. The Rand chapter is titled "Garbage and Gravitas." Much is made of Rand's misreading of Aristotle and "the similarities between the moral syntax of Randianism and of fascism." "Fascism" is an epithet thrown around so loosely these days that as a rule its association with an individual or party should be taken with principled skepticism. The onus is on the person leveling the charge to make a rigorous case for it. Robin does so and offers a fresh critique of libertarianism along the way.

Rand's popularity is at least as unsettling as the taint of fascism, and more baffling. As Robin asserts and I agree she was neither a novelist nor a philosopher though she thought she was both. As recently as 1998,

readers responding to a Modern Library poll identified Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as the two greatest novels in English of the twentieth century.... In 1991 a survey by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month Club found that with the exception of the Bible, no book has influenced more American readers than Atlas Shrugged. (The Reactionary Mind, p. 76)

More than 800,000 copies of her novels were sold in 2008 alone (The Reactionary Mind, p. 94).

Full disclosure moment: My knowledge of Rand is for the most part second-hand. Many years ago I picked up either Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead, I don't recall which, only to abandon it after making little headway through pages of turgid prose, cardboard characterization, and hackneyed philosophizing.

Her popularity and "resonance in American culture," as Robin puts it, baffle me. Okay, much baffles me. It is not so much that Rand influences acolytes such as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, senate gadfly Rand Paul, and Silicon Valley libertarians as that she gives them a story that can be passed off as a philosophical framework for the radical individualism that has had deep roots in this country from the beginning.

The chapter on ex-cons focuses on John Gray and Edward Luttwak, once free-market enthusiasts and staunch anticommunists, now fierce critics of market fetishism and global capitalism.

In the 1970s Gray was a rising star of the British New Right. An Oxford-trained political philosopher, he penned prose-poems to the free market, crisscrossed the Atlantic to fuel up on the high-octane libertarianism of American right-wing think tanks, and, says a long-time friend, enthralled his comrades late into the night with visions of the coming "anarcho-capitalist" Utopia. But after the Berlin Wall collapsed, Gray defected. First he criticized the Cold War triumphalism of Frances Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and counseled against scrapping Britain's National Health Service. And then in 1998...he handed down False Dawn, a ferocious denunciation of economic globalization.... Now he is a regular contributor to The Guardian and The New Statesman, Britain's principal left venues. So profound is his conversion that no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher has reportedly wondered, "Whatever became of John Gray? He used to be one of us." (Reactionary Mind, p. 111)

As for Luttwak,

Once he was one of Ronald Reagan's court intellectuals, a brilliant military hawk who mercilessly criticized liberal defense policies and provided the philosophical rationale for the American military buildup of the 1980s.... Luttwak effortlessly parried their [his critics] arguments, pressing the Cold War toward its conclusion. Today he is disillusioned by victory. He finds the United States a capitalist nightmare. (The Reactionary Mind, p. 111-112)

All of this is by way of a lengthy preamble to two spot-on observations by Luttwak, who now holds that the market "invades every sphere of life, [producing a] hellish society":

An optimal production system is a completely inhuman production system are contantly changing the number of people you employ, you're moving them around, you're doing different things, and that is not compatible with somebody being able to organize an existence for himself. (quoted by The Reactionary Mind, p.126).

I believe that one ought to have only as much market efficiency as one needs because everything that we value in human life is within the realm of inefficiency—love, family, attachment, community, culture, old habits, comfortable old shoes. (quoted in The Reactionary Mind, p. 127)

One last note. The chaper on ex-cons opens with a truism attributed to Winston Churchill, apocryphal according to Robins: "Any man under thirty who is not a liberal has no heart, and any man over thirty who is not a conservative has no brains." The chapter closes with a counterpoint by way of an account of the author's interview with William F. Buckley Jr., "the original bad boy of the American right":

At the end of our interview, I ask Buckley to imagine a younger version of himself, an aspiring political enfant terrible graduating from college in 2000, bringing to today's political world the same insurgent spirit that Buckley brought to his. What kind of politics would this youthful Buckley embrace? "I'd be a socialist," he replies. "A Mike Harrington socialist." He pauses. "I'd even say a communist." (The Reactionary Mind, p. 129)

Interesting, n'est-ce pas? I get a kick out of this kind of thing, but there is more to it. Our ideas are never wholly our own. "Nothing is got for nothing" (Emerson). We study writers and thinkers for perspectives and tools they offer that we can use to inform and shape but not dictate our own thinking and, if we are fortunate, make it more sophisticated, substantive, and rigorous. You do not have to buy into anyone else's philosophy or manner of thinking whole hog. "Don't follow leaders / Watch the parkin' meters" (Bob Dylan). Speaking strictly for myself, my take on things political, social and cultural, philosophical, literary, the whole bag, would be far more wanting than it too often is if not for exposure to some of the best that has been thought and said, in Matthew Arnold's formulation, along with a generous measure of what is less than the best. Beyond that, reading and study, learning about people and things, trying to figure them out, is almost always in some sense s pleasurable experience.


Memo from the Editorial Desk

I wrote in precipitous haste after dinner on the evening of February 8 when this post was published. My intent was to share the two Luttwak quotes. The piece got out of hand as I tried to provide context. It was, shall we say, fleshed out substantially on the mornings of February 9 and 10 as the customary second and third thoughts besieged me. As always I hope readers will find these observations of interest.

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