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On Birtherism, Intellectual Conservatism, and “Buckleyite Elitism”.

September 6, 2009

“Birthers are the Birchers of our time, and WorldNetDaily is their pamplet”, declares Jon Henke of The Next Right. 

Except… not quite.

To be sure, birtherism seems an alarming trend away from reasoned discourse and toward the sort of zany conspiratorial ruminations that pretty well characterize the past eight years of Democratic party politics.  Except again, not quite.

I believe unequivocally that President Obama is fully qualified to be chief executive according the minimum guidelines set forth in the Constitution.  But that’s only marginally what Birtherism is about to begin with.

Those who inveigh against Birtherism with the same zealousness with which they denounce Trutherism need their moral compasses recalibrated ever so slightly.  There is an appreciable moral difference between believing that our president may not be able to fully prove that he was born in the United States, and believing that George W. Bush allowed the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent Americans in order to enrich oil company executives.  Is it conceivable that birthers are gleefully taunting the president on account of his campaign promise for unprecedented transparency?  No time is spent by Henke exploring this option.

Pattrick Ruffini picks up the banner of anti-Birtherism in order to make the larger point that intellectual conservatism is sorely lacking.  Ruffini writes:

The automatic problem that arises when someone who is not a William F. Buckley (and none of us here pretend to be) is that you’re instantly tagged a RINO for calling out something that is objectively and demonstrably false. The space between fact and fiction is confused as a litmus test between right and left. But what if the WNDers are not the true conservatives in this argument? What if the actual test of conservatism was not how fervently you oppose Obama, or where you went to school, or where you pray, but how firmly your conservatism is rooted in First Principles and not personalities or conspiracy?

Within my relatively short lifetime, I still remember a time when success and intellectual achievement were more often than not conservative virtues, and I remember WFB looming large in this framework. Recent Democratic gains within the creative and educated classes have eroded this image, creating a media dynamic where intelligence is seen as aligning with the left within the Democratic Party, and the center within the Republican Party…

This is why there is a unique urgency now to cast out the obscurantists and the conspiracy nuts. We don’t have a Buckley anymore. Our intellectual giants have died off and not being replaced. And preventing the lowest common denominator from filling the void is a constant daily struggle.

Ruffini’s musings would be helpful, but for the alarming lack of specificity.

People like the Frums, Brookses, and Noonans of the world constantly wave Buckley’s name in front of our faces as the archetypical conservative intellectual without in any way, shape, or form qualifying what constitutes “intellectual conservatism”.  Where exegesis is called for, mainstream conservatives are provided merely with an archetypal figure and told to emulate without being given any indication of precisely what it is that makes the conservative punditocracy of today so different. 

Ruffini, though well intentioned, assumes that popular culture holds intellectualism as the sole province of the left and the center, and that academics uniformly view mainstream conservatives as low-brow rubes and rabble-rousers. 

I might point out at this point that when William F. Buckley penned God and Man at Yale, it was “widely” considered at the time that there was no true conservative intellectual tradition in America.  Buckley, we are told, carved a niche for conservatives out of the supposedly widely-held notion that only progressives were intellectuals.  Not to detract from Buckley’s incalculable impact and importance, but could it also be that progressives figured out early how to influence popular culture to the ultimate end of–stay with me here–painting conservatives as intellectually incurious dullards?  Or could it be that conservatism tends toward the manifestly obvious?    

Never does it seem to occur to extant conservative intellectuals that there may be extraordinarily simple explanations for the “popular” conception of an elite, liberal, intellectual cabal struggling mightily against overall-clad, toothless conservative reactionaries.

For one, even self professed conservatives like Ruffini insist on repeating the canard ad-nauseum!  The Frums and Brookses of the world profess befuddlement at a perceived dearth of intellectualism whilst blithely asserting that conservatives are, in fact, intellectually bereft, unless they be of the mealy-mouthed “centrist” variety.  Ruffini and company may be committing a simple post-hoc logically transgression by assuming that a lack of mainstream support follows true intellectual heft.  Judging according to this criteria, it is no wonder that the self-proclaimed intellectual gatekeepers of the movement–and I’m not saying Ruffini is professing to be one, just that his point begs this observation–are at a loss when searching for intellectual giants within the conservative movement.  It is almost certainly not surprising that “conservative” intelligentsia like the aforementioned Frum, Brooks, and Noonan declare for the notion that centrists like themselves who toil in relative obscurity are the intellectuals, while those with a healthy readership or listenership–Levin and Steyn come to mind–are obviously disqualified from the elitist “conservative intellectual” nomenclature.

Just what of the supposition that there is some great intellectual tradition concomitant with liberalism?  Liberal thought-food reads like the back of your standard phone book.  Consider Noam Chomsky, for example.  Hegemony or Survival is a work of pure propaganda.  Chomsky’s dissertation on America as a hegemonic empire ruthlessly foisting its will upon the world (world in this sense can be taken to mean any part of the world where Chomsky sees any government not aligned in any way with U.S. interests) is a rambling, disjointed, febrile attempt to convince the reader to see historical events and political policy (Chomsky has precisely no training in or understanding of either of these things) through his narrow prism of oppressor versus oppressed.  Unfortunately, no matter the topic or the particulars, Chomsky is absolute in his conviction that America is the prime oppressor.  Lest the reader attempt to deconstruct Chomsky, his idiotic tomes are chock-full of preemptive arguments that are so insidiously clever in their twisted abuse of language (Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at MIT) as to nearly preclude the remotest possibility of successful refutation, to wit: if you argue with him, you are part of the cabal of capitalist oppressors and your argument only makes sense through the prism of pro-capitalism hegemony.  Chomsky first constructs an argument according to certain criterion and then procedes to remove those rules when called to account for his inanity.  Is this intellectualism?  Mailer, Zin, Chomsky… they’re all the same: The academic equivalent of magicians.  Without remorse, they tinker with language until words and phrases have no deeper meaning than whatever the hell they say they do.

Buckley wasn’t an elitist.  Lest we forget, this is a man who once told the bloviating Gore Vidal that if Vidal called him a crypto-Nazi again, he’d sock him in his “goddam face”.  Buckley’s writing, like all enduring works of relevance to conservatives (and indeed, mankind–in my opinion) was sound and methodical without being pretentious, long-winded, or overly-floral. 

So again, what tone must conservatives adopt in order to be deemed sufficiently supplied with gravitas to be considered “conservative intellectuals”?  Must every missive penned from a conservative point of view have jettisoned any hint of snark, sarcasm, and satire to be taken into consideration?  Buckley wasn’t a dry writer himself, so I’m not sure exactly what Ruffini is looking for.  Must every inane liberal proposition be afforded a deliberative riposte?  Is it at all possible to dismiss even their zanier theories as pure gobbledygook, or would such a dismissal disqualify one from the vaunted title of “conservative intellectual”?  The fact of the matter is: however outlandish some on the right may get, they’ll almost never come within shouting distance of the tinfoil hat wearing variety of conspiracy nut that plagues the left. 

Why do we insist on undermining our own?  I’m not saying that we should blindly swear fealty to any self-professed conservative; indeed, there is far more room for disagreement among conservatives than there is among liberals.  Ruffini is a great writer and thinker who (despite my occassional disagreement with him) has an otherwise excellent point in his most recent post.  One of the defining characteristics of conservatism is that it holds people as egalitarian and some ideas as elite.  It doesn’t take a PhD from Harvard to understand that collectivism in its various incarnations fails every single time its tried.  Conservatism is informed as much by human experience as it is intellectual inquiry.  Instead of attacking our own and vainly hoping for Buckley’s resurrection, how about we curtly dismiss faulty ideas on our side and focus intently on what really matters: promoting true conservatism and attacking liberalism?

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