Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas" (With Apologies to Lionel Trilling)

Gary Kamiya on the content of American conservativism:

"It will be objected that Coulter, Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and their ilk are just the lunatic fringe of a respectable movement. But in what passes for conservatism today, the lunatic fringe is respectable. In the surreal parade of Bush administration follies and sins, one singularly telling one has gone almost entirely unremarked: Vice President Dick Cheney has appeared several times on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Think about this: The holder of the second-highest office in the land has repeatedly chummed it up with a factually challenged right-wing hack, a pathetic figure only marginally less creepy than Coulter. Imagine the reaction if Al Gore, when he was vice president, had routinely appeared on a radio show hosted by, say, Ward Churchill. (The comparison is feeble: There really is no left-wing equivalent of Limbaugh, just as there is no left-wing equivalent of Father Coughlin or Joe McCarthy.) The entire American political system would melt down. Beltway wise men would trip on their penny loafers in their haste to demand Gore's head. Robert Bork would come out of retirement to call for a coup to restore the caliphate, I mean the Judeo-Christian moral law in America. Yet the grotesque Cheney-Limbaugh love-in doesn't raise an eyebrow. We're so inured to the complete convergence of "respectable" conservatism and reactionary talk-radio ravings that we don't even deem it worthy of comment.


In fact, the right's culture war was -- and is -- mostly bogus. Most of the deep societal changes it decried -- the decline of community, the loss of religious faith, economic insecurity, selfishness, social atomization, anomie -- cannot be blamed on liberalism: They are products of modernity itself and of the modern world's triumphant economic system, capitalism. (Daniel Bell pointed this out more than 30 years ago in his 1976 classic "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.") And those changes have been greatly exacerbated by the monopolistic, heck-of-a-job-Brownie, corporate-crony version of capitalism -- one loudly championed by, naturally, the GOP. Other aspects of the right's culture war are simply reactionary and/or unconstitutional, like its attack on science and its outrageous attempt to tear down the wall between church and state. There are some culture-war issues, like the fight over abortion, that are genuine moral cruxes and difficult to resolve. But even these have been made far more toxic and destructive than necessary by the right's hysterical use of them as a bludgeon to attack its enemies.

But if the right's culture war is almost entirely a fraud, and is one of the major factors behind the unraveling of the American polity, it paid big political dividends. The right's embrace of "values" allowed it to stave off what should have been its inexorable decline. If the price is obeisance to an increasingly vulgar, bigoted, nativist, know-nothing and theocratic ideology -- well, apparently it is better to survive as a slimy Gollum hungering after the Ring of Power than not to survive at all.

By rights, American conservatism should be dead or on life support by now. The ideology has always been incoherent, deeply divided between its libertarian, free-market wing and its traditionalist, "values" wing. As George H. Nash noted in his 1976 book "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945," a shared anti-communism and political convenience temporarily concealed these profound differences. Ronald Reagan's anti-communism, and his sunny personality, allowed free-market conservatives to overlook the fact that government actually grew enormously on his watch. With a majority of Americans continuing to believe in Democratic social policies and programs, and demographic trends running in the Democrats' favor, the right was facing disaster after Reagan's exit and the fall of communism. It desperately needed a boogeyman to unify its unruly factions. Fortunately, conjuring up boogeymen has been a right-wing specialty since the days of the Know-Nothing movement.


The sorry state of contemporary conservatism shows that there is an innate danger to civil society in letting loose the dogs of "values" -- especially right-wing values. Because conservatives tend to believe more than liberals in good and evil, in a clear-cut, transcendental morality, a values-based politics for them quickly acquires not just an authoritarian cast, but an almost religious one. As we learned on 9/11, and observe every day in Iraq, religious zealotry is not conducive to reasoned discussions. When you have God, right and patriarchal authority on your side, anything goes. The result, among other things, is ugly psychosexual mudslinging like Coulter's. As my Salon colleague Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, the right's strategy is "to feminize ... all male Democratic or liberal political leaders. For multiple reasons, nobody does that more effectively or audaciously than Coulter, which is why they need her so desperately and will never jettison her."

Yet despite their supposed beliefs, a kind of nihilism, an intellectual sterility, emanates from the Coulters and Limbaughs of the world. This is in part due to the fact that they are, at bottom, entertainers, stand-up comedians of resentment. Their riffs are so facile and endless that they devour whatever actual beliefs supposedly stand behind them. Incapable of compromise or nuance, lashing out robotically, never finding common ground or examining their own ideas, they are shills of negativity, forever battling cartoonish monsters in a lurid, increasingly unrecognizable world. And most Americans, even conservative ones who may share some of their putative positions, are tired of their glib, empty paranoia. If these are the messengers, there must be something wrong with the message." (Gary Kamiya, "The Coulterization of the American Right," Salon).


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