An interesting tactic I’ve noticed among right-wingers is to attempt to shut down the whole conversation, and this crosses topic lines. This isn’t just among the “stupid” right-wingers either, but even amongst rightist “intellectuals,” the type that Amazon reviewers tend to heap praise on (has anyone else noticed the right-wing slant of the Amazon reviewer populace?) Some particularly fascinating/infuriating examples:
-Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals tries to claim that (left wing) intellectuals had questionable personal lives and that therefore we shouldn’t listen to them, and this book has its praises sung in reactionary quarters. Putting aside the massive factual errors and blatant falsifications (check out the review in the Journal of Bertrand Russell Studies here) his thesis is not really supported beyond its shock value. Despite all the bluster, he never really answers the question of why we shouldn’t trust the ideas of people whose personal lives are suspect (even if he gets this latter bit factually wrong to begin with). Furthermore, who exactly gets to decide what counts as a “suspect” personal life? Doesn’t that require some ideas? Finally, Johnson’s omission of all but one right-wing intellectual (Evelyn Waugh) is telling. Why not write about Milton Friedman, Thomas Carlyle, Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, William F. Buckley, Michael Oakeshott, Ayn Rand, Alasdair MacIntyre, Roger Scruton, Robert George, John Finnis, Cornelius van Til, Gordon Clark, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Martin Luther…I could go on? In a final ironic twist, by his own thesis we should find Christianity suspect, given the “questionable” (by his own standards) conduct of so many members of the clergy.
-I have many times heard the claim that the whole (yes, all of it) of modernity is a rationalization of sexual immorality. Well shit, if everything I believe and everything I do is just to justify the fact I like to fuck, our conversation is pretty much over isn’t it? I’ve heard things along this line from supposed “intelligent” (I use the term with many implicit qualifiers) reactionaries, like the philosopher Bill Vallicella.
-In the book Faith of the Fatherless, a right-wing psychologist tries to use Freudian psychoanalysis (which, might I add is vastly inferior to Lacanian analysis 😉 ) to demonstrate that atheism is the result of having a bad and/or distant father. Not only is there more cherry-picking of examples, but the contortions the author goes through to try (and fail) to maintain some semblance of coherence are really astounding to witness. For example, in explaining Ayn Rand’s atheism (Rand greatly admired and had a good relationship with her father), he simply falls back on the fact that Rand’s father was also a skeptic. In the case of good ‘ol Marx, he claims that Marx rejected his father’s lifestyle (bourgeois), so that counts, even if Marx’s upbringing was good and the two shared a good relationship. And in the case of theists who did have bad relationships with their fathers , the author says that it’s okay because they sought out father figures! Finally, the book ignores huge swaths of the population in places like China, Russia, Denmark, the Czech Republic (and many other countries) that are atheist. I suppose these people all these people had bad fathers. All several million of them.
-The common claim that the upheavals of the 1960s were just people rebelling against their parents. Of course this explains all the revolution around the world at this time (national liberation movement leaders just didn’t want to eat their veggies!), the uprising of women of all ages, of adult queers and people of color, the workers rising up in France in May ’68. I’m sure those steel workers had just started listening to the 60s equivalent of My Chemical Romance and dyeing their hair.
The insipid nature of these ideas aside, I notice a common undercurrent running through many such ideas, one that fits well with the understanding of reactionaries that I’ve come to have. All of them seem to ask, in an exasperated tone, “why won’t you just submit?” It’s not just a tone of intense factual disagreement, like a string theorist arguing with a loop quantum theorist (sorry for the cosmology references folks, only one in this post, I promise) but a lamenting of the fact that people just aren’t submitting anymore. The leftist historian Corey Robin has what I think is the best analysis of the reactionary mind out there (the book is actually called The Reactionary Mind, read it!) describing it as a meditation on having lost power once had. To someone who is in a position of relative power in society (by virtue primarily of their class, but also race, sex, sexuality, etc.) of course their power is going to seem natural. Ideology emerges from the concrete conditions of life, as a way of making sense of the world. To someone who was in a position of power relative to much of society (or at least were sycophants who had come to see their interests as lying with such people), a shift in this order, a destabilizing of these relations of power, will appear nothing short of unnatural and insane. Indeed, all the reasons people will have for destabilizing the order will appear to the reactionary as “rationalizations” inasmuch as their own position appears simply natural.
While sometimes exceptional examples of such individuals can transcend their position of power and join the side of the proletariat, this is rare. For such figures, their objective interests lie either with the status quo or a status quo that has since passed, and most of them will remain on that side. As the philosopher Alain Badiou would say, there is a certain “this-sidedness” to truth, and as Mao says “it is always right to rebel against the reactionaries.”