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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book Review: The Reactionary Mind

So over the weekend I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind:  Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin.  I finished it Sunday morning and have allowed a few days to go by to get my thoughts about it in order.

So as not to spoil the book for anyone thinking about reading it for oneself, those thoughts are below the fold.

The book is misleadingly titled.  The book seems to promise an examination of reactionary thought through time – up to and including its present-day exemplars – but no such examination is really presented.  The book instead is a series of previously written essays, loosely tied together by a lengthy introduction and some edited-in transitional language.  And that means the book doesn’t really present an organic examination of the reactionary mind so much as it presents glimpses of different aspects of that mind.

In a way, this works to the book’s benefit.  Because Robin hasn’t made a great deal of effort to tie these essays together, the reader must make the effort to do so.  I’m guessing that anyone inclined to read something like this probably has an interest in the subject matter already, so a reader willing to invest the effort necessary to work out where and how each chapter fits within Robin’s overall thesis will be rewarded with having thought through some things for him or herself.

This structural flaw – if it can be called that – is only reinforced by Robin’s use of language.  Robin is not one for speaking in simple, declarative sentences; he clearly relishes the poetic potential of the written word.  Which means that while the book is a quick read (absent endnotes it clocks in at a slim 250 pages), one is likely to re-read at least a few passages here and there to make sure one understands precisely what it is Robin is trying to say.  I confess I found this annoying at first, but after a while came to appreciate the opportunity Robin’s style presents for stopping and working through some things on my own.

I also found Robin’s use of authority a little confusing.  Although the book boasts some forty pages of endnotes, very often I would come across some especially provocative statement about what Conservatives believe or how they have reached a particular conclusion, and there would be no citation to a Conservative thinker making any such statement.  One has to assume, then, that such claims are no more than Robin’s own conclusions about Conservative thought, but interspersed as they are with citations to particular Conservative thinkers it seemed a little dicey.  If I were looking to cite Robin’s work for documented examples of actual Conservative thought in order to make a larger point, I’d be very careful about which specific assertions I relied upon to support my argument.

Now, all that being said, I really did enjoy the book, but in a way that makes me a little cautious about accepting it as authoritative.  I enjoyed the book because its observations and conclusions regarding Conservative thinking fit in very well with my own thoughts on the subject, and Robin’s work provides a useful framework for tying these observations and conclusions together.

But I am cautious about accepting Robin’s framework as authoritative because (i) I don’t know enough about Conservative intellectualism to evaluate Robin’s arguments on my own, and (ii) I am always wary when someone presents me with an explanation that too closely coincides with my own predispositions – the temptation is always to accept that explanation without thinking about it too critically, which then runs the risk of adopting a plausible but incorrect or incomplete understanding of the subject matter.


But, essentially, what Robin seems to be arguing is this. 

Conservatives Do Not Seek to Preserve But to Change Society
Far from being “traditionalists,” or advocates for continuity and only small, incremental changes to existing social structures, Conservatives are – in fact – fairly radical thinkers who can define themselves only in relation to some past or imminent attempt (real or imagined) by others to wrest power, wealth or privilege away from them.  Conservative thought is “reactionary” in it cannot exist in a vacuum; Conservative thought needs its grievances. 

Edmund Burke, for example, often thought of as the “father” of Conservative thought, was reacting to the destruction of the ancien regime by the French Revolution.  Going back even further, Robin identifies Thomas Hobbes as the First Counter-revolutionary, and points to Hobbes’s efforts to undo restrictions on monarchical power.

Thus, Robin argues, Conservatism – properly understood – is never about maintaining things the way they now are; it always is about reintroducing the “proper” balance to society, which previously had been upset by some illegitimate reformation.

Conservatives Must be Victims
And this, in turn, explains why Conservatives are always whining and casting themselves as victims.  It is insufficient that they should argue for changes to society; what they need is to argue that society must be changed, because when it was changed the last time something to which they were entitled was taken away from them.  “We have been dispossessed,” they argue, “and therefore you should feel sorry for us.  Feeling sorry for us, you should let us have what we want.”

I confess that, for me, this is one of the more powerful explanatory aspects of Robin’s book.  How easy it is to explain the conservatism of the White South by pointing first to the fact the Confederacy lost the Civil War (and thus was dispossessed of its own self-regulation), then lost its right to hold others in bondage (and thus was dispossessed of property), and then lost its ability to discriminate against others (and thus was dispossessed of automatic social standing.)

It is an easy way as well to explain the backlash against feminism.  For Conservative men, when women were no longer supposed to be second-class citizens but fully the equal of men in the workplace and before the law (they could, y’know, vote, and own property, and decide not to have sex with their husbands, and get divorced and stuff – they would no longer be chattel), the men were then dispossessed of their role of undisputed ruler in their own homes.

(There is a video that has gone viral in the past week or so that shows a Texas family law judge viciously beating his own daughter with a belt.  The damned thing is nearly 8 minutes long, and I’m not going to link to it, but I did watch the first minute and a half or so.  What arrested me about the video was when the girl’s mother stepped in and yelled at her 16 year old daughter to turn over on her bed and “take your beating like a grown woman.”  Huh.  You see, the way I grew up, a grown woman does not take a beating – from anybody.  But I guess such families are still out there, in Red State America.)

This also provides an explanation for why Conservatives always feel under attack no matter how much actual power their movement has accumulated.  Back in 2005, when Conservatives controlled the White House, both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court, all the executive agencies, etc., if one listened to their pundits or to talk radio one would think they were still under attack – and losing.  But now the people attacking them were “pointy-headed intellectuals and long-haired college professors” – despite the fact such caricatures had disappeared by the mid-1970s and the Chicago School of thought has come to dominate our universities.

I remember, back then, that a man named Bernie Goldberg had written a book titled 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (And Al Franken is #37), filled with the usual suspects:  Michael Moore, Michael Jackson, Barbara Streisand, Anna Nicole Smith, Howard Stern, and various celebrities, TeeVee hosts, journalists, cartoonists, academics and liberal pundits.  I remember as well an exchange between Goldberg and Jon Stewart when Goldberg appeared as a guest on The Daily Show to flog his book (although I am, of course, paraphrasing this exchange from memory):

JS:       It strikes me that, in your book, nobody that you think is “screwing up America” has any real power.  This seems to be just a list of people that you don’t personally like.

BG:     You don’t think that our celebrities, our journalists, have any power?

JS:       No, not really.  Condoleeza Rice has real power.  Paul Wolfowitz has real power.  These people have the power to make decisions about who to kill and who to commit to war.  Almost the lowest person in the federal government can make a decision that has a real effect on a real American person, somewhere.  Howard Stern tells dick jokes over the radio.

Like Stewart, I’ve long been puzzled by Conservatives’ viciousness when railing against popular society and famous people with no real power, but Robin at least provides one explanation for such behavior:  Conservatives still must find someone whom they can claim is attacking them.  When they actually control all the levers of real power, this reduces them to yelling at those whose only offense is to disagree with them, because Conservatives must always be victims of someone.

Their Victimization Justifies Their Violence
Because they insist on being victims, Conservatives feel justified in going to extremes in order to avenge themselves; their victimization automatically renders them “the Good Guys,” and therefore also automatically excuses anything they do in pursuit of their own goals – they are right you see.

This helps to explain why the United States reacted as it did after the 9/11 attacks, how it was able to justify the terrible abuses of civil rights and freedoms, the worse physical abuses of people shuttled into the horrifying CIA “black sites,” and Conservative pundits’ dismissal of any suggestion that what happened at Abu Ghraib, Bagram or Guantanamo Bay (Jesus! how easily the names of such horrible places come to me now, 10 years after the attacks) might have been “torture.”

Their Violence Justifies Their Will to Power
Running throughout Robin’s book is the underlying goal of Conservative thought:  a will to power over others.  Although he presents quite a few provocative quotes to support this idea as the lodestone about which all other Conservative thought revolves, he does not really flesh out why Conservatives should have such a goal – he merely asserts that they do.

Still, it is a seductively plausible explanation for all the rest.  Going at least by the quotes Robin presents – especially those pulled from the editorials immediately following the 9/11 attacks – there appears to be a real craving by some to “prove themselves” by combat or some other ordeal, to suffer in order to establish their superiority, and preferably to suffer by making the effort to ensure that others suffer even more.  (I wonder if this where our newly discovered craving for economic "austerity" comes from.)

If Robin is correct, this might explain the bloodthirstiness displayed by so many Conservative Americans, who all mouth words about how “terrible War is,” but never let those words get in the way of their willingness to commit others to combat so as to demonstrate to the rest of the world how “tough” America is.   

It also might explain why, today, the Republican Party is more than willing to let the American economy go to hell in a handbasket rather than do anything that it believes would endanger its chances to defeat President Obama going into the 2012 elections.  As the GOP has become more and more thoroughly captured by the most Conservative elements in its party, its goals inevitably have shifted from enacting policy to pursuing power for power’s own sake.

For Conservatives, it's never about the idea -- it's about winning.  And it's never just about winning -- it's about humiliating your enemies.   

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