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Ed Driscoll

Always the Last to Know

August 14th, 2012 - 5:02 pm

Orrin Judd links to a quote from Slate contributor Beverly Gage, a Yale history professor, who asks, “American conservatives have a canon. Why don’t American liberals?”

Ask Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan how he became a conservative and he’ll probably answer by citing a book. It might be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Or perhaps he’ll come up with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, or even Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. All of these books are staples of the modern conservative canon, works with the reputed power to radicalize even the most tepid Republican. Over the last half-century, they have been vital to the conservative movement’s success–and to liberalism’s demise.

We tend to think of the conservative influence in purely political terms: electing Ronald Reagan in 1980, picking away at Social Security, reducing taxes for the wealthy. But one of the movement’s most lasting successes has been in developing a common intellectual heritage. Any self-respecting young conservative knows the names you’re supposed to spout: Hayek, Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Albert Jay Nock. There are some older thinkers too–Edmund Burke, for instance–but for the most part the favored thinkers come out of the movement’s mid-20th century origins in opposition to Soviet communism and the New Deal.

Liberals, by contrast, have been moving in the other direction over the last half-century, abandoning the idea that ideas can be powerful political tools.

Yes, I know. Jonah Goldberg explored that topic in-depth four years ago in Liberal Fascism, and earlier, in a preview of his then-book-in-progress, eight years ago at the Corner, where he first wrote on “the generalized ignorance or silence of mainstream liberals about their own intellectual history:”

Obviously this is a sweeping — and therefore unfair — generalization. But I read a lot of liberal stuff and have attended more than a few college confabs with liberal speakers speaking on the subject of liberalism itself. And it seems to me that liberals are intellectually deracinated. Read conservative publications or attend conservative conferences and there will almost always be at least some mention of our intellectual forefathers and often a spirited debate about them. The same goes for Libertarians, at least that branch which can be called a part or partner of the conservative movement.

Just look at the conservative blogosphere. There’s all sorts of stuff about Burke, Hayek, von Mises, Oakeshott, Kirk, Buckley, Strauss, Meyer, the Southern Agrarians, et al. I can’t think of a single editor or contributing editor of National Review who can’t speak intelligently about the intellectual titans of conservatism going back generations. I’m not saying everybody’s an expert, but I think everybody’s made at least the minimal effort to understand their intellectual lineage and I think that’s reflected in conservative writing, for good and for ill. I would guess that the same hold true about the gang over at Reason.

I just don’t get the sense that’s true of most liberal journalists. When was the last time you saw more than a passing reference to Herbert Croly? When was the last time you read an article or blog posting where a liberal asked “What would Charles Beard think of this?”

At Power Line today, Steve Heyward adds:

This is not a new question from liberals who look up long enough from their primal quest for power to ask whether their intellectual shelf is bare.  A few years ago Martin Peretz wrote in The New Republic that “It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. . .  Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind [on par with Niebuhr] in our culture?  Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire?  Whose books and articles are read and passed around?  There’s no one, really.”  Michael Tomasky echoed this point in The American Prospect: “I’ve long had the sense, and it’s only grown since I’ve moved to Washington, that conservatives talk more about philosophy, while liberals talk more about strategy; also, that liberals generally, and young liberals in particular, are somewhat less conversant in their creed’s history and urtexts than their conservative counterparts are.”

Of course, Peretz was practically run out of TNR on a rail for being too center-right via numerous JournoList contributors — despite Peretz’s magazine serving as the farm team for numerous MSM publications. And an earlier generation of leftists destroyed the Middlebrow concept that attempted to make pop culture one to grown on. Similarly, today’s academy has denuded the study of history, seeing it as nothing but war and racism. All of which has led inexorably to our 44th president, David Gelernter (like Slate’s Gage, a Yale professor himself) writes in his new book America-Lite:

Everyone agrees that President Obama is not only a man but a symbol. He is a symbol of America’s decisive victory over bigotry. But he is also a symbol, a living embodiment, of the failure of American education and its ongoing replacement by political indoctrination. He is a symbol of the new American elite, the new establishment, where left-liberal politics is no longer a conviction, no longer a way of thinking: it is built-in mind-furniture you take for granted without needing to think.

As Gelernter adds, “How could thirty-plus years of educational malpractice not matter? It has already dyed the country a subtle shade of left, and the color will deepen every year.” Even if many on the left don’t know the wellspring of their ideas and are trapped in present-tense culture.

Update: I almost forgot that I employed a certain Mr. H. Roark (or “Coop,” as his friends call him) last month in response to Obama’s “You didn’t build that” Lakoffian sophistry; this seems the perfect post to bring him back again.

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