After technical hassles too complicated and boring to describe, my conversation with Ann Althouse is up at BhTV. It got a little heated in the begining [sic] and I've been trying to figure out why Ann and I had such a problem talking to each other about Frank Meyer, state's rights etc. Ann's a nice and reasonable person, after all.I had a problem -- as I say in the diavlog -- with the continual discussion of abstract ideas that in real life were connected with racist policy as if the ideas could be examined without paying attention to where these ideas led the man who thought them up. We were sitting there essentially celebrating Frank S. Meyer for 9 hours. It wasn't that I thought I was morally superior -- though I did end up feeling like a big liberal -- it was that I found myself in a position where silence meant too much. To be frank, there were times when I it occurred to me that this might be the way highly intelligent white supremacists would present themselves in mixed company.
A little background: She and I both attended a Liberty Fund conference on Frank Meyer's legacy. Meyer was the author of the doctrine which became known as Fusionism (though Meyer didn't like that label). Meyer was obsessively libertarian in almost all realms, but he alo [sic] took the structure of the constitution very seriously, making him a staunch supporter of State's rights. This put him in the untenable situation of defending States' rights in the face of Jim Crow. He was right on the constitutional principle of state's rights, but he was wrong historically and morally about how that principle needed to be applied in reality. We set aside a whole panel session for this topic, though many of us — but not Ann — had already spent the night arguing about this stuff until 2:00 in the morning. Anyway, earlier last week, Ann ran a post on her site implying that attendees of the conference were a little scary because they "believed" too much. I called her post "odd." She apparently, and I think wrongly, took considerable offense. She later explained that she was really talking about the libertarians and their extreme dedication to ideological conviction. Proof of this, I learned while talking to her, was the lack of realism when talking about the States' rights stuff.
Anyway, you can learn more and see all the related links by going to BhTV. But what's been bothering me ever since our conversation is that Ann sees herself as specially positioned — both at the Liberty Fund and in conversations with me — to lecture others about race. I agree with her entirely about how conservatives need to be very careful when trying to sell federalism. But what bothers me is the assumption that conservatives need liberals to tell us about how to be racially "enlightened." It seems to me — and this is just my theory — that because a roomful of people who were not trying to persuade any audience or play to any constituency didn't perform the usual liberal rituals about how terrible Jim Crow was, Ann interpretated [sic] this as a lack of commitment. Morevoer, she thought the people in the room were woefully out of touch with racial reality and therefore need moral tutoring from a liberal who really understands these things.
The incessant abstraction felt wrong to me. Isn't it nice that they talked about the problem of race during the off hours? Excuse me for being asleep at 2 a.m.! We went for hours and hours in the sessions talking about virtue. That seemed quite weird and obtuse to me. The response we were being intellectual just doesn't cut it. Imagine a left-wing conference going 9 hours talking about Karl Marx's ideas and disqualifying discussion of the evils wrought in the name of communism. We talked about the evils in the middle of the night while you were sleeping. We know all that, now get back to the fine ideas.
Maybe at a similar conference full of liberals there would be much gnashing of teeth and teary-eyed condemnations about the legacy of Jim Crow. But, if that's the case, mightn't that be a sign of how liberals embrace liberalism to feel good about themselves and morally superior to others? There's a certain Sorkinesque aesthetic to liberalism, full of self-congratulation and righteous grandstanding, that assumes the world needs liberals to tell everyone else what's right and wrong.I said in an earlier post -- one that Jonah linked to and that we discussed in the diavlog -- that I don't know many nonliberals because I'm here in Madison, so this point about my perspective has been well-conceded, and not just at 2 a.m., but publicly and explicitly on this blog. I was in a strange milieu at that conference and observing it and my reaction to it was a big part of what I was doing in the 9 hours I spent at the table. I was scarcely asking for people to "dance a[n] 'I'm-not-racist' kabuki every time they make a point." Imagine the vast number of points that were made in a 9-hour conversation. At some point the failure to talk about it has got to mean something!
I'm not saying that Ann is one of those liberals, by the way. In fact, she gets a lot of grief from the left for not playing that game. But, I do think she doesn't know conservatives (or libertarians) very well, and so when we don't talk like liberals, or when we don't talk like conservatives at the University of Wisconsin, Madison — who're forced to dance a [sic] "I'm-not-racist" kabuki every time they make a point — she thinks we don't understand reality and that we really do need liberals to guide us to enlightenment.
But it's not just a matter of wanting people to acknowlege that race discrimination is bad. I (almost) always assumed that everyone would say: Of course, it is. We all know that. As I wrote in that earlier post, I see something wrong with the style of thinking that entails latching onto ideas as ideas. I have a problem with the fundamentalists and ideologues who don't keep track of how their ideas affect the real world and who don't maintain the empathy and the flexibility to adjust and correct their thinking in response to what they see. I kept trying to ask why people were finding the ideas of Frank S. Meyer so enthralling. One theory is that they actually like where the ideas would take a person, but no one wanted to talk about that. I'm willing to believe you don't want to go where he went. Another theory is, you just like the ideas as ideas, and if you concede that, you have the other problem, that you're an ideologue, and I find that dangerous.
Presumably, there's a third theory. Somehow, you like the ideas but not in any hardcore fundamentalist way, and you see a way to use them and benefit from them but still maintain your bearings and preserve or pursue what you, with good sense, understand to be good. Talk about that. Tell me how.
One last point I tried to get in our conversation, but couldn't.Watch some old Bloggingheads diavlogs with Jonah. He typically dominates. I knew that and wanted to make sure I wasn't dominated. He knows how to come back if he wants. I usually pull my punches, but, in this diavlog, I went ahead and took a few shots.
Conservatives were, broadly speaking and with more exceptions than the conventional narrative allows, on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. That goes for National Review, too, by the way.Yeah, the National Review pieces in the conference readings had Frank S. Meyer actively encouraging the state governors to take back the National Guard and fight off Dwight D. Eisenhower's nefarious plan to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. (Oh, but let's talk about Meyer's beautiful ideas.)
But the left has used this fact to put the mark of Cain on conservatives ever since. It's amazing to me how eager liberals are to say that intellectual history matters when it's inconvenient conservative intellectual history. But whenever you try to to turn the subject to liberal intellectual history, all you get back is eye-rolling. One small example: Recently, I wrote that liberals had a long love affair with Fidel Castro. This is simply factually true. And yet, I was deluged by liberal readers and lefty bloggers whining about how either that never really happened or that was old news. hardly applicable to liberals today. Well, liberal and leftwing fawning and excuse-making for Castro is far more recent than conservative support for Jim Crow, thank you very much.Well, this part isn't about me, obviously.
The Progressive movement, which we today call liberalism, stands on a foundation of eugenics and theocracy. But, if you bring that up, you mostly get ignorant stares from the same liberals eager to tell me — a guy named Goldberg from New York City — that I have to atone for what "my side" did in the 1960s. I don't mind coming to grips with my side's intellectual history, in fact I love that stuff. What offends me greatly is when liberals say conservatives are the only ones who should do it and, moreover, they should only do it when it suits liberal ends.I agree!
Anyway, there's other fun stuff up over there, from robot rights to kid's cartoons. Time for me to take Cosmo squirrel hunting.I agree that squirrel makes a fine holiday meal. And he's right that we move on to talk about robots and cartoons. We also talk about toys and sex. And Andrew Sullivan.
ADDED: Jonah writes: "[Frank S. Meyer] was right on the constitutional principle of state's rights, but he was wrong historically and morally about how that principle needed to be applied in reality." Look at that closely. If you really believe in the principle, what saves you from going where the principle leads? If it's all about how you apply the principle in reality, you've moved away from the hardcore ideology that I was critiquing. If you're going to take the lessons of history to heart, and you're going to keep your moral compass and check your course, then you're not one of the people I'm complaining about. You agree with me. I kept saying that to Jonah, and I think he heard me. My real problem was with the libertarians. The conservative traditionalists, the Burkeans, have a safeguard against the worst mistakes of the ideologues.
YET MORE: Stephen Bainbridge reads this post and says:
My guess is that hanging out in Madison and the national law school community has exposed Ann mainly to libertarians (can you say Eugene Volokh or Glenn Reynolds), as opposed to conservatives who learned first at Kirk's feet before folding in Novak, Hayek or Meyers as seasoning. The latter are concerned not so much with abstract ideas, as they are with achieving a proper balance between the Permanent Things and the need for salutary reform, tempered with a caution founded in the law of unintended consequences.Hmmm.... I can only assume Steve didn't read the part of this post where I say:
If you're going to take the lessons of history to heart, and you're going to keep your moral compass and check your course, then you're not one of the people I'm complaining about. You agree with me. I kept saying that to Jonah, and I think he heard me. My real problem was with the libertarians. The conservative traditionalists, the Burkeans, have a safeguard against the worst mistakes of the ideologues.And listen to the diavlog. I tell Jonah several times that I'm not really talking about him, I'm talking about the libertarians. Steve's big point is that I need to learn about Russell Kirk (who was, by the way, in our conference readings). I tie Jonah to Edmund Burke at least twice in the context of saying I'm not really talking about him. And Kirk ≈ Burke, right?