Hawkins and the Tragic Flaw of the Conservative Ideologues
I would like to think that the continuing drama being played out between pragmatists and ideologues in the conservative sphere might be optioned to NBC and made into a daytime drama. Two problems arise immediately; soap operas are a dying TV genre and it would be no contest with regards to sex appeal between Sarah Palin and David Frum.
That said, a fascinating incident made public by John Hawkins, who denied David Frum’s website a place in his conservative ad network because he didn’t believe Frum was sufficiently conservative (defined as someone who criticizes the right solely to ingratiate themselves with liberal elites), underscores the current struggle between those who believe in applying conservative principles to government in a prudent, practical effort to preserve liberty and force Washington to be a servant of the people, and those who wish to use conservatism in the same, exact manner in which Democrats are using liberalism today; as a club to destroy their enemies.
Am I mischaracterizing the beliefs of Hawkins and his ilk? I’m sure John would mostly agree with this rant from Dr. Zero (linked by Instapundit), in which the good Doctor defines the two sides thusly:
There are two Republican parties, and both had a candidate on the 2008 presidential ticket. John McCain was the candidate of the thin-blooded aristocracy, tired men who dislike certain elements of their nominal constituency far more intensely than their political opposition. They have no strenuous objection to the premises of the Left, as could be seen from McCain’s swift acceptance of the freedom-has-failed spin pushed by the Democrats during the 2008 financial crisis. Many of them believe opposition to the Left’s emotional narrative is electoral suicide. This also makes them reluctant to criticize Democrat candidates in harsh terms…
The other Republican party is young and vital. On the 2008 ticket, its banner was carried by Sarah Palin. It’s the yeoman wing of the party, composed of people with middle-class backgrounds and real-world business experience. These people are appalled at the bloated mess in Washington, and the smaller but equally fatal tumors infecting many state capitols. They see a government speeding toward systemic collapse, its doom spelled out in the simple math of unsustainable entitlements and economy-crushing taxation. They’re in love with the American people, a sincere passion that rings from every speech Palin delivers.
Dr. Zero didn’t include the horns and tail for the “thin-blooded aristocracy” or the halo for his “yeomen” (hardscrabble dirt farmers operating on the economic margins, and light years from being considered “middle class” ) which is just as well. This isn’t serious analysis anyway. Such one dimensional, stick figure characterizations can’t even be construed as generalizations; more like representational cotton candy cut outs with the heft of a feather pillow and the consistency of oatmeal. It’s value is in how it reveals the shallowness of ideologues’ thinking and their exaggerated opinion of themselves as well as the comically broad manner in which they denigrate the pragmatists.
Here’s Hawkins on why he turned Frum down:
There’s an easy answer to that question: the mainstream media loves “conservatives” and “Republicans” who will trash whomever the Left hates most. So, if you’re willing to talk about how Sarah Palin is a hick, Glenn Beck is a crank, Rush Limbaugh is bad for the country, and the Tea Party is bad for democracy, the mainstream media will reward you — and because conservatives pride themselves on being open minded, they’ll all too often give you a pass for your atrocious behavior — especially since the MSM doesn’t insist you play their game all the time. As long as you’re willing to say what they want about the people they hate the most, they’ll reward you with a cover story at Newsweek and then in your off time, you can churn out a few articles to point gullible conservatives towards while you’re trying to guilt them into taking you seriously by crying “epistemic closure!”
This is what David Frum does for a living — and don’t think he doesn’t know it. Even the people who write for him know it. I ran into someone who writes for his blog at an event once. He was extremely defensive about writing for them. I must have heard him tell at least three people, myself included, something akin to, “I write for FrumForum, but please don’t hold that against me.”
Long story short, everybody has to make a living. But, I’m not interested in helping people like Frum play this little game where they try to cripple conservatives publicly while coming around on the back end to milk us for money. If Frum wants to be a dancing monkey for the Left, let them come up with the money to pay for the tune.
Hawkins has a lot more to say and you should read the whole thing. But instead of mocking epistemic closure, John should reread the original piece by Julian Sanchez and contemplate how his explanation defines the term:
Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.
Hawkins does not believe that Frum is a conservative at all. He comes to this conclusion not because of what Frum espouses or what he believes philosophically but because liberals like it when he criticizes Hawkins’ favorite cotton candy conservatives! It is not where Frum stands on the issues that rankles Hawkins, but rather some of his criticisms are exactly the same as those coming from liberals. Ergo, since liberals have nothing to say that any “real” conservative should listen, anything Frum says is dismissed.
I went through this same thing when I had some nice things to say about Sam Tanenhaus’s Death of Conservatism. Dismissing what someone says based solely and exclusively on their ideology is too stupid to comment on. That goes for both sides of the divide and bespeaks an anti-intellectualism from those who practice such idiocy. Tanenhaus was dead wrong in much of his critique, but that doesn’t mean he had nothing of value to say. To believe that is to close your mind entirely to alternative points of view.
Incredibly, in Hawkins’ response to Frum’s pique over the ad controversy, Hawkins claims that he and other conservatives don’t mind being criticized – as long as it doesn’t mimic what liberals say about them:
If you were going by talent, personality, or ability to hold an audience, none of the people I’ve just mentioned, including David Frum, have the ability to claw their way up the conservative food chain like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, and Mark Levin have. So, to use David Frum’s word again, they’re willing to prostitute themselves (If Meghan McCain happens to read this, I don’t mean that literally — like a street walker. It means you’re selling out your principles. If you get confused, ask your daddy to hire someone to explain it to you) to the liberals in the mainstream media who want “conservatives” who are willing to tell liberals what they want to hear. This is no secret to David Frum or anybody else who works in this business.
Actually, I, like most conservatives, do not advocate groupthink or demand people rigidly stick to the “company line.” We actually have a simpler request: We just want people who are billed as Republicans and conservatives to actually be on the same side we are. The editorial pages in the newspapers slant liberal. The columnists slant liberal. Even the news in the newspapers slants liberal. Hell, even the TV shows and movies slant liberal. So finally, after all that, you run across a “conservative” in the mainstream media giving an opinion and guess what? He’s been given a platform to speak because he agrees with the liberals. That’s what people like David Frum get paid to do, I’m sick of it, and I’m not doing anything else to reward people like him, including allowing them to get into the Blogads Conservative Hive.
Shorter Hawkins; We don’t advocate groupthink except when we advocate groupthink. We don’t want an independent thinker representing conservatism and Republicans – even if he served in the administration of a Republican president, advocates strongly for conservative issues like fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, and strong defense, supports many conservative candidates, and has written passionately about ways that the GOP and conservatism can be made relevant again.
We want someone like Eric Erickson representing conservative – a guy who once referred to former Supreme Court Justice David Souter in a Tweet as a “goat fucking child molester” and daydreamed at RedState, “At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?”
Much better. Such “true conservatives” are what we need front and center, representing the right.
What makes Hawkins response to Frum so classically tragic is that he fails to recognize how much in the grip of epistemic closure he is. He can write that he doesn’t subscribe to groupthink while making it plain as day that this is exactly what he is beholden to. Such a Shakespearean formulation – where the protagonist fails utterly in sensing his tragic flaw due to hubris, or fear of knowing oneself, or even being blocked from self-awareness by the Gods – makes Hawkins’ ignorance heartbreaking for those of us on the right whose criticisms of the Beck-Hannity-Palin-Limbaugh worldview seeks to smash the echo chamber that dominates conservative conversation and inject some realism and a little sanity into the discourse. At the very least, criticizing the shallowness, the illogic, the wildly exaggerated conspiracy theories and the outright falsehoods espoused by the cotton candy conservative crowd allows for an alternate record to be made that promotes reason rather than the irrational.
Hawkins is a prisoner of an intellectual conceit that brooks no opposition, and even less independent thought. Unable, as Sanchez points out, to answer the criticism on an intellectual level, Hawkins and his ilk stoop to questioning motives. Of course Frum is critical of the right; he craves attention and financial rewards from liberals. Never mind engaging Frum on the specifics of his criticisms (a far more rewarding proposition and one with a good chance of success given Mr. Frum’s sometimes inconsistent arguments). The way to answer Frum is by trying to discredit him by accusing him of being intellectually dishonest.
Hawkins seems to be suggesting that we go on TV not as individuals, to express our own ideas as best we can, to offer the most useful information we can discover. No – people should appear as representatives of pre-existing tribes: conservatives, liberals, blacks, whatever, to engage in a ritual of synchronized repetition of pre-existing phrases. You are a conservative? You must say THIS – and never that. You must approve THIS – and never admit to doubts about that.
Hawkins asks: “What’s the point of putting Frum on TV?” Take him seriously though and you have to wonder: What’s the point of putting ANYONE on TV when the job could be so easily automated?
Hawkins makes it plain that conservatives are free to speak their minds – as long as they think Glen Beck is the bees knees, Rush Limbaugh is the cat’s meow, and Sarah Palin is ready to be president. The ideologues who equate criticism of their heroes with being a liberal do so because their worldview is so closed to alternative viewpoints that they are incapable of logical argument. Hence, the strawmen, the logical fallacies, and the simple, personal smear questioning the integrity of others is all they have.
What criticism of the right would Hawkins agree with? He never says, although you can be sure it would be irrelevant to what really ails conservatism. A movement so fatally flawed by its failure to engage critics from its own ranks – critics who seek to make conservatism relevant again so that electoral success can translate into prudent, practical public policy that will regrow the economy, protect our citizens, and re-establish the primacy of individual rights – may find temporary success at the polls as a result of the utter stupidity and incompetence of Obama and the Democrats. But in order to truly reform the government and the culture, it will take a more intellectually rigorous application of conservative principles and a pragmatic political bent that will ensure political competitiveness for decades to come.