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?

NEXT: Amazon's Jeff Bezos Has Liftoff!

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Don’t diagnose us: Prove us wrong. Knuckling under and trying to understand why we’re angry about your incorrectness is just so weak.

    Would that the left would listen to such sentiment, rather than claim all conservatives are a) idiots, b) ignorant, c) evil and d) literally psychotic.

    I have not read the book, or the review, but I do believe that the public discourse, aided by the percieved anonymity of the internet, has dramatically reduced political discourse. I don’t think it would have been considered “mainstream” or adult, or even very thoughtful, to have claimed proudly “I hate president ____” even a few years ago. You may be friends with Chait (I don’t know, but that’s my guess), but trying to defend such an infantile article as his “I hate bush” and then saying Wood’s book is somehow the worse of the two, is foolish.

    Or, do we all now start from our emotional response to politicians and then demand that the other side explain to us how irrational hatred is wrong? Is that the new adult and serious political debate?

    – GB

  2. There is nothing wrong with being angry as long as you don’t act shocked when your opponents act the same way. The very same people like Chait who thought that the Clinton haters in the 1990s were a threat to the Republic in the 2000s thought nothing of telling the world how much they hated Bush. Of course some of the very same people who accused Clinton of whacking Vince Foster in the 1990s were shocked when their opponents hated Bush so much. Generally, people don’t like it very much when you use their own tactics against them. Most libertarians or otherwise scream like stuck pigs when someone uses the same tactics on them they use of their political advasaries. In fact, the more fantatical and angry someone is, the more likly they are to project those qualities on anyone who disagrees with them.

  3. trying to defend such an infantile article as his “I hate bush”

    The only thing infantile about that article was the reaction it provoked from people who missed the humor and self-mockery in it.

  4. Wood, you lost me when you equated Howard Dean and Ann Coulter on the hatiness scale.

  5. But you will [read] nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

    Obviously Mr. Wood has never read the writings of one Alexander Hamilton…

  6. Remember the good old days at Hit and Run when Julian use to hide 10,000 words under the ‘more’ link?

  7. “…argues that liberals and libertarians can’t be friends because liberals are angry while libertarians are merely sarcastic.”

    I’m libertarian and I’m angry. Of maybe that’s because I typically call myself a liberal, like Friedman… but I don’t think he was angry. Maybe matching political ideologies with simple emotions doesn’t work.

  8. Immaturity in political discourse? I am shocked.

    I believe Nelson Rockefeller(R), the Vice President of the US flipped off a heckler back in 1976, when everyone was much more adult than we naive little waifs of today.

    And wasn’t Nixon(R) known to mention his disliking of other people using less than flattering words?

  9. Hey, Your Good Buddy Johnny Clarke! Go Cheney yourself!

  10. In Bill Buckley’s defense, Vidal did call him a Nazi, to his face, on a live network broadcast.

  11. It is not the language of hate as much as it is the language of self obsessed histrionics. Hate is the 1850s when Senators nearly beat one another to death and the country ended up in a civil war. Today’s rhetoric doesn’t even equal what was said about Thomas Jefferson back in the day.

    I think the problem is that too many people measure themselves by their political opponents. The idea is that if they guy I disagree with isn’t evil incarnate then I am not very important When people talk about how this is 1933 and Bush is Hitler, I don’t think they believe it so much as they want to believe it. If Bush is Hitler or the Republicans the agents of the new Jim Crow era, then they are leading the fight against evil. If Bush is just a politician with whom they disagree, then they are just partisans.

  12. Jed Clampitt, and the oil he found, was from Tennessee. Even the oil company he worked with was from Oklahoma. If someone is going to take pop cultural references this seriously they should at least get them correct.

  13. Comienzo de la declinaci?n, avanzado, nodos. Especule indicado que desea la entrevista ‘ vieja tambi?n. Coolin pr?ctico con todo infrecuente de los d?lares ‘ casi. Doublin proyectado ‘ solamente ‘ doublin ‘ solamente ‘ e de la conferencia del tama?o de la conferencia del e. firme. ?Excede a analistas declinan el comienzo avanzado, nodos abajo, a la derecha, per?odo, isit?Units que puede la validez fue nombrada, s? mismo pero profesor del caltech! Una PC m?s abultada m?s lenta de los trendsas de los productos fabric? directamente generalmente. En la tarifa, ?spero el factor dos por a?o ciertamente encima, kit de los isit?Press lanz? vidas del moorethe del bosquejo de los lors f. Vittrke modific? enero, texto, la derecha, debajo de gnu. M?rgenes del resultado actual de la salida de la variaci?n del par?metro de Nanoscale, disponible, prof?ticos. Wiv deposita el m?ltiplo, corazones ocurre ‘ igher corresponde makin ‘ posible. Motched excedi? el somewot del np de las clases del problema. Describa las ideas como ellas. ?Los sistemas del arder del becomin prof?tico ‘ ‘, se disipan wen el switchin ‘? Corregir?a capacidad de disco del ard del lorpc ‘. Uvvers donde motched excedido. Desaf?a el par?metro del nanoscale, la derecha, corrientes de la salida de la variaci?n, m?rgenes del resultado. Que las unidades validez de la ejecuci?n, la derecha, puede, derecho, fue nombrada. ?Reduce risin debido de las subidas del defecto del trabajo chance ‘! ?Guv honesto! El defecto se levanta, derecho, risin ‘ desechado. Walter, kryders cient?ficos, un georg s?ptico von del tanque. Comparaci?n bien del cisc del risc de las MIPS de la se?al. El toolssign eponymous de la cultura del futurology de la revoluci?n de los medios crea el articlein del linkcite. O el furffer, era avances del frough del weeer corregir?a. Turings, relaybased la m?quina del robinson. El techibm en l?nea de la vida del bbc fr?o brit?nico de los fragmentos anuncia. Uvvers, donde motched excedido. Poweredit forma inicialmente el pron?stico aceptado extensamente. ?Tubos de vac?o anteriores de los asimientos retransmiten proyectos hasta, entonces, guv? Sobre densidad justa wich alcanzado lo m?s bajo posible. Wich alcanzado densidad lo m?s bajo posible como. Yer no puede ‘ avenida un wivout de las rodillas-para arriba un joanna. La manija, andsolve entregado, toda la extensi?n total demuestra. Cite refieren r?pidamente el continuin ‘ avance, la derecha, computin ‘, derecho, energ?a, la derecha, unidad porque. GE, impacto t?cnico de la paradoja del creador del edward del george. Ouse de la mu?eca ‘ discute doublin proyectado de la conferencia del tama?o ‘.

  14. matt,
    In all fairness, it was “Texas tea”.

  15. Since I don’t know a word of Spanish, Juanita is making more sense today than usual.

  16. Warren,

    It was also “bubling crude”

  17. I am always amused when someone (in any arena of life) brings out the “things have never been as bad as this in all of history” card. It’s almost never correct. Go back 10, 20, 50, 100, 1000, 2000 years and you will find the exact same thing as what today is branded “an entirely new phenomenon”.

    Anger is NEW?!?! I’m sure when Brutus and the senators stabbed Caesar it was brilliant political discourse. Or, at least, they never said they hated him.

  18. Yeah Todd,

    At the turn of the 19th Century, the country was blessed with the greatest collection stateman and political thinkers in its history and maybe of any country ever. Yet, a failed VP candidate murdered a major figure in the other party. I wonder what this guy would be saying if John Edwards shot Newt Gingrich in a duel.

  19. Actually, only Granny Clampett was identified as being from Tennessee. Her hometown was Bug Tussle. Jed Clampett was not a blood relation of Granny–he was her son-in-law. While Jed must have lived there at some time (he was acquainted with the mayor of Bug Tussle according to one episode), the location of the homeplace where the oil was found is not referenced in the show. It may have more likely been in the Ozarks.

  20. John,

    They always went back home to “DogPatch”. I always thought DogPatch was Nothern Arkansas / Southern Missouri.

  21. But you will [read] nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

    No, they just accused each other of being hermaphrodites. Seriously.

    – R

  22. Todd and RSDavis:

    excellent point! And don’t forget Charles Sumner and that cowardly pussy Preston Brooks.

    But you highlight the point that those who fail to learn history probably suck at spelling, too!

  23. Jeremy,

    Buckley and Vidal can’t even agree on what Vidal called him.

    Buckley says “crypto Nazi”.


    Vidal says “pro crypto Nazi”.



  24. But you will [read] nothing remotely like, “I hate Thomas Jefferson,” or “I hate John Adams.”

    Obviously Mr. Wood has never read the writings of one Alexander Hamilton…

    Indeed. Didn’t Mr. Hamilton get himself shot and killed by the Vice President over such discourse?

  25. Obviously anger in American politics is not “new” in the the sense of “never existed before,” but based on Kurtz’s review, Wood does have a point. I noticed this in the ’80s, when lefty demonstrations starting talking about “rage” more than they mentioned “peace” or “love” as they did 15-20 years before.

    Certainly there’s more public violence and “acting out,” and less repression of negative emotions than there was 30-40 years ago: I don’t recall violence erupting at Little League games back then. It’s not surprising some of that trend has spilled over into politics.

    I’ll agree it looks silly when Wood tries to drag Hendrix and Dylan into his thesis, but pretty much all of rap/hip-hop certainly fits. It’s almost all angry in a way that rock rarely is.

    And to be fair, what Wood describes is not an entirely left-wing phenomenon. It seems mostly on that side these days, but it seems to me that it was the right that was more angry in the ’50s and until late ’60s. Interestingly, that was also a period when paranoid/conspiracy thinking on common on the right (McCarthy, flouridated water, etc.), while now it’s mostly on the left (“war for oil”, “stolen election in Florida/Ohio,” etc.).

  26. According to Babelfish, this is what Juanita said:

    Beginning of the declination, advanced, nodes. Speculate indicated that it also wishes the old interview ‘. Yet infrequent practical Coolin of the dollars ‘ almost. Projected Doublin ‘ only ‘ doublin ‘ only ‘ and of the conference as large as the conference of the firm e.. It exceeds analysts decline the advanced beginning, nodes down, to the right, period, isit?Units that the validity can was named, itself but professor of the Caltech! One more a slower enlarged PC of trendsas of products made directly generally. In the tariff, rough factor two per year certainly raises, kit of isit?Press sent to lives of moorethe of the sketch of lors f. Vittrke modified January, text, the right, underneath gnu. Margins of the present result of the exit of the variation of the parameter of Nanoscale, available, prophetic. Wiv deposits the multiple, hearts happens ‘ to igher corresponds makin ‘ possible. Motched exceeded somewot np of the classes of the problem. Describe the ideas like them. The systems of burning with becomin prophetic ”, dissipate wen switchin ‘? It would correct disc capacity of ard of lorpc’. Uvvers where motched exceeded. It defies the parameter of nanoscale, the right, currents of the exit of the variation, margins of the result. That the units validity of the execution, the right, can, straight, was named. It reduces risin due of the ascents of the defect of the work chance ‘! Honest Guv! The defect rises, straight, risin ‘ rejected. Walter, kryders scientists, georg s?ptico von of the tank. Affluent comparison of cisc of risc of the MIPS of the signal. Toolssign eponymous of the culture of futurology of the revolution of means creates articlein of linkcite. Or furffer, was advances of frough of weeer would correct. Turings, relaybased the machine of Robinson. Techibm in line of the life of bbc cold Briton of fragments announces. Uvvers, where motched exceeded. Poweredit forms initially the accepted prognosis extensively. Previous vacuum tubes of the graspings even relay projects, then, guv? On right density wich reached more under possible. Reached Wich density more under possible like. Yer cannot ‘ avenue wivout of roll-for above joanna. The handle, andsolve given, all the total extension demonstrates. Challenge advance, the right refers continuin quickly ‘, computin’, straight, energy, the right, unit because. GE, technical impact of the paradox of the creator of edward of George. Ouse of the wrist ‘ discusses doublin projected of the conference of the size ‘

    You’re right – she is making more sense than usual today. 😉

    – R

  27. Both Wood and Kurtz miss the rather obvious libertarian explanation for the New Anger: that there’s much more law, more regulation, and in general more being done to us than before. And all of it ever further from our control, as it is increasing done at the national level, not even by the legislature, but by people who we cannot unelect.

    I’m not really convinced there is a New Anger as Wood would have it. But if there is, there’s more to it than just “the ’60s turned us into children”.

  28. There’s two things going on with Wood. The first is that the right is a classic case of Freudian projection. Look at the Clinton years, where a bunch of draft-dodging, womanizing, corrupt SOB’s were in high dudgeon because of Clinton’s character. Not to mention the party of illegal war, CIA antics, secret government, etc. accused Clinton of running ‘black helicopters’, and conspiring with the UN to take over the US (presumably using peacekeepers ferried into the US by the USAF – mighty generous of them). Religiously, the right has become a cult party, with ridiculous ideas such as the Rapture, which they only believe in when it serves their own money and power. Cults which would be unrecognizable to the Christ they allegedly worship – or rather, far too recognizable – IIRC, he called them ‘Pharisees’. However, to listen to the right is to believe that they are the party of Christ, while the left (and libertarians) are a bunch of atheistic New Agers and cultists.

    The other issue is that the right has learned that, while people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, people covered in mud should sling as much mud as possible. That way, both parties are dirty to some degree – and that’s close enough to confuse the mass media.

  29. I’ll agree it looks silly when Wood tries to drag Hendrix and Dylan into his thesis, but pretty much all of rap/hip-hop certainly fits. It’s almost all angry in a way that rock rarely is.

    This merely convinces me that you don’t listen to much rap, or for that matter, much rock.

    Furthermore, I’d say conspiracy theories are generally present among extremists of any stripe, but they are probably more visible among whoever sees themselves in opposition to the government of the moment. Thus “Vince Foster” in the ’90s, but “Halliburton” today.

  30. Conservatives can (gleefully) call “libs” traitors. They can imply that “libs” were glad to see thousands of thewir fellow newyorkers die, and that thye are rooting for the people who killed them.

    They can call 9/11 widows “witches” (Coulter), and imply that NYC deserved the WTC attack becuase of its godless ways (Robertson, Falwell).

    But they never say that they HATE liberals. . .so I guess really they are kind-hearted and polite.

    Screw ’em, I say.

  31. “libertarians also tend to be argumentative, sarcastic, and rude”


  32. OMNEG
    You guys!
    Juanita is the Hybrid!

  33. Huh, huh, he said “Peter.” Huh, huh, he said “Wood.”

  34. Beavis says heh-heh, not huh-huh.

  35. The funny part is that I went back and read Chait’s essay in reply to Bruce Lindsey. Other than the snarky headline — and TNR has to do something to draw in readers, those big wordy pages don’t grab you by the lapels and make you pay attention — it was a fairly reasoned explication of why he thinks Lindsey is wrong on the politics.

    Disagreement: The New Anger.

  36. All conservatives are a) idiots, b) ignorant, c) evil and d) psychotic.

    Also, Bush is the worst President ever.

  37. Damn! Juanita seems to have gotten ahold of a Spanish language version of a Hipcrime tool.


  38. Nice to see several folks recalling that anger existed before the year 2000.

    Whoever said there was less anger 30 – 40 years ago may have forgotten, perhaps out of convenience, that we were having over 600 bombing instances and bomb threats per year in the US in the early 1970s.

    Let’s go back a little farther, to a bombing of the Congress by one of those ‘intellectual types’ to protest our involvement in WWI

    Skip forward a little to the draft riots of WWII in NYC. Skip back to the draft riots in NYC during the Civil War.

    Whenever this topic comes up I wonder if the writer is longing for the days when a good caining could be administered on the Senate floor.

    I am also amazed that a magazine like TNR with no circulation and no admitted readers keeps being taken by some writers as actually being a “serious” publication.

  39. Maybe some of us have a legitimate reason to be angry – like watching our civil liberties nibbled away one by one. And call me old-fashioned, but any government that claims the right to haul me into a deep, dank prison for years without benefit of counsel or trial certainly deserves my wrath. And if much of the wrath is reserved for the figurehead leader of that government, so be it.

    And personally I think congressmen getting the shit beaten out of them by cane on the senate floor is a healthy thing. Or at least, entertaining.

  40. longing for the days when a good caining

    ^ Guy threatens to implement fratricide.

  41. 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.

    Speaking for this Libertarian, I get plenty angry. …and now that the Democrat ideas about how to fix America are getting more press, I’m finding that, more and more, my anger is being redirected at Liberals. Really.

    The only time I’ve felt like I want to support conservative Republicans is when I’d just finished listening to a liberal.

  42. Guy Montag | January 5, 2007, 7:20am | #

    “I am also amazed that a magazine like TNR with no circulation and no admitted readers keeps being taken by some writers as actually being a “serious” publication.”

    Think of it as the vanity press of a small inside the Beltway group of courtiers which likes to think of themselves as mattering.

  43. Has anyone else noted the bizarre coincidence that’s led Republican-leaning people to develop abiding concerns about civility, bipartisanship, and the rights of legislative minorities over the past week or so?

  44. Yes, it is amazing, isn’t it? I heard that some GOP Representatives pulled Pelosi’s ‘lets not oppress the minority’ proposal out from the bottoms of their bird cages, scraped the bird doo-doo off, and waved it around like they had always supported it.

  45. And speaking of fainting couches, GB writes:

    Would that the left would listen to such sentiment, rather than claim all conservatives are a) idiots, b) ignorant, c) evil and d) literally psychotic.

    Yeah, I’ll give you “psychotic,” because I don’t think Bush is psychotic.

    I think he’s sociopathic: torturing small animals as a child is one of the markers.

    And please don’t tell me Bush isn’t a true conservative, OK?

  46. Barry,

    Think of it as the vanity press of a small inside the Beltway group of courtiers which likes to think of themselves as mattering.

    Shouldn’t that be “courtesians”, especially in the case of The New Republic?

  47. But this is all the wingers ever do! We have no winning arguments, so we will caricature our opponents and call them names. It’s much easier to make subjective, unsupported claims about someone’s level of anger than to criticize their philosophy or views on policy, which would require engaging on the merits and using facts. And, if you choose to take the bait and say, we are not angry, nuh-uh, YOU are angry and also mean, you enter into an argument you simply cannot win.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.