Fainting Couch Conservatism


Peter Wood, author of a very good book about diversity, might have just written a very silly book about anger. I haven't read it, but a long, doting review by scholar Stanley Kurtz* gave me the shakes.

Yet (sic) sharpest barbs of A Bee in the Mouth come as Wood jabs our political anger back into its larger cultural context. The exhibitionist pleasures of contempt on the blogosphere are foreshadowed by Jack Nicholson's movies, Bob Dylan's music, Jimi Hendrix's riff on the Star-Spangled Banner, much contemporary music, and even, Wood argues, by The Return of the Jedi. (Wood's superb music chapter is especially strong on Dylan.)

Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is. Do you, Mr. Instapundit?

Anyway, Wood promotes his book today with an essay on Liberaltarianism that argues that liberals and libertarians can't be friends because liberals are angry while libertarians are merely sarcastic. Wood comes off like a man so thrown by the tone of political debate that he shudders and faints onto a couch.

Reflecting on the intensification of political anger in the last few years, some commentators have pointed to the extraordinary acrimony between partisans of Jefferson and Adams in the 1800 election as proof that the nation has seen worse. But that comparison misses something. Go back and read the vitriolic diatribes of 1800 and you will find numerous attacks on Jefferson as a would-be tyrant and a man of low morals; and numerous attacks on Adams as a scoundrel who would sell the nation back to the British. But you will nothing remotely like, "I hate Thomas Jefferson," or "I hate John Adams."

But… those sentiments are sort of implied, aren't they? "Thomas Jefferson is a bastard who wants the French to rape this country like he rapes his own slaves! Not that I hate him or anything."

But Wood is very interested in the difference between implying visceral hatred and saying the words "I hate." He imparts almost supernatural power to a 2003 cover story in the New Republic by Jonathan Chait, wherein Chait admitted that he "hated" President Bush. This essay "turned out to be the signal that New Anger was waiting for." And "New Anger came bubbling up in Chait's 2003 article like the Texas crude in Jeb Clampit's swamp."

Really? Chait's essay was the kind of "hey guys, let's meet halfway and have some coffee" stuff he usually writes (and excels at). He was answering the charges that criticism of Bush in early 2003 (when he was overwhelmingly popular) was deranged by saying "yes, some of it is as bad as the hatred of Bill Clinton, but it has a more rational basis." Wood seems to think that readers saw this and figured "henceforth they too would be free to present a firm declaration of anger as though it were the functional equivalent of intellectual analysis, evidence, and argument wrapped up into one." That would have been weird, since Chait was trying to step back from the anger and explain why it existed. He invited National Review editor Ramesh Ponnuru to hash out the issue, which doesn't seem like the thing a writer who thinks anger is its own argument would do.

Wood thinks anger goes a ways to explaining why libertarians are considering shacking up with the party of Chait (and Hate!). As "anyone who has ever touched a libertarian nerve can testify, libertarians also tend to be argumentative, sarcastic, and rude." I spent a couple minutes this morning being argumentative and sarcastic in response to a Victor Davis Hanson post. How you could read that VDH post and come away thinking he was anything but argumentative and sarcastic (and a little low on blood sugar) is a mystery to me. Pretending that libertarians are thin-skinned and bitchy, unlike those conservative grown-ups, is patronizing and, yeah, angry-sounding. It assumes that there's really nothing wrong with the way conservatives (and Republicans) are operating right now, which is pretty ridiculous, too. But libertarians aren't as angry as liberals.

Libertarian sarcasm, however, only now and then dips all the way into the well of New Anger. That's because the libertarian is caged in his self-image as someone who is moved by enlightened self-interest and rational thought. His anger, he mistakenly thinks, is just a good tool for getting his point across. By contrast, New Anger in its pure form is its own point. The Newly Angry are moved by a sense that they are most authentic, most transcendently themselves, when they are unleashing their anger. New Anger is the narcissistic self in high dudgeon.

Is there any way to prove this? Wood seems to think you can prove it by spelunking into a couple elite essays and blog posts. I really don't agree; I think any liberaltarian alliance that matters is going to involve hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of voters, of whom maybe a small fraction will ever read these essays and blog posts. It's more interesting to examine that; why many libertarians (and people who wouldn't call themselves this but care about the 2nd Amendment, or government spending, etc) are considering voting Democratic. And Democrats are not winning them over by simply screaming about how bad Bush is. Several of them—Jon Tester, Ted Strickland, Jim Webb, Heath Schuler, probably more I'm forgetting—have said they will meet libertarians on the 2nd Amendment, and won't go after their guns. Tester, like most of the Democrats, has said he wants to protect the 4th Amendment and roll back government surveillance, which is something conservatives used to be in favor of before they grew obsessed with whether or not people were mean to George W. Bush.

I haven't read Wood's book, just this essay and Kurtz's review. But doesn't the undercurrent of those essays seem to be: "We give up?" It's not usual for scholars who are defending unpopular positions ("conservatism is the best governing philosophy" is unpopular at the moment) to confront dissenters by asking why they're so angry. They (we) disagree with you. Don't diagnose us: Prove us wrong. Knuckling under and trying to understand why we're angry about your incorrectness is just so weak.

But I don't know. Maybe I can't shake the irony of a finger-wagging lecture on anger, and how people like me are responsible for it, coming from the digital pages of William F. Buckley's magazine. Put another way: Now listen, Wood. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I'll sock you in your goddamned face. And you'll stay plastered.

*this is how Sen. Sam Brownback refers to him, and who am I to argue?