"Conformo-Radicalism:" Strike A Pose, There's Nothing To It

The politics of rebellion for its own sake in America has morphed considerably over the years. In his latest column, Mark Steyn describes the current utilitarian pose for the masses as “conformo-radical”, but to understand how it got there, let’s set the Wayback Machine for almost a century ago, when the first round of American “progressives” walked the earth.


It was during World War I and its immediate aftermath that H.L. Mencken was staking out his turf as an “anarcho-authoritarian,” as Fred Siegel wrote in 2006 for the Weekly Standard:

Mencken had genuine cause for bitterness during World War I, when the excesses of zealous Americanism left him fearful for the safety of his family. But neither Rodgers nor his other biographers have noted the context of that hostility. While Mencken was touting the genius of Teutonic militarism, German saboteurs blew up the munitions depot at Black Tom Island off Manhattan. That strike, until 9/11 the most violent action by a hostile force in the history of the city of New York, caused $40 million of damage, sinking the island and its contents into the sea. The Kaiser’s plans to invade America might never have come off, but Germany plotted to bring Mexico into the war against the United States.

The Sage of Baltimore needs to be placed in a broader intellectual context. The man who is still selectively celebrated by people like Rodgers, as if he were nothing more or less than an American iconoclast, was one of a number of anti democratic thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of them, like D.H. Lawrence, were proto-fascists; others, like H.G. Wells, were apologists for Stalin. But they all denounced democracy in the name of vitalism, eugenics, and a caste system run by an elite of superior men.

Part of the reason it’s so hard to make sense of Mencken is that he was, paradoxically, an anarcho-authoritarian. He agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union on the importance of free speech. But while that organization, under the influence of principled men such as Felix Frankfurter, argued for such freedoms on the grounds that “a marketplace of ideas” (to use Justice Holmes’s term) was the best method of arriving at the truth, Mencken supported it in order to shield superior men like himself from being hobbled by the little people. For the same reason, Mencken was a near anarchist when it came to America, but an authoritarian when it came to the iron rule of the Kaiser and General Ludendorff. We are more familiar with anarcho-Stalinists such as William Kunstler, who had a parallel attitude toward the United States and the Soviet empire, but it was Mencken who blazed the trail down which Kunstler and his ilk would travel.

You could also call it “Liberal Fascism.” That’s what H.G. Wells, a contemporary of Mencken, whom Siegel would also profile a few years later, dubbed a similar worldview when he addressed the students at Oxford in 1932. Wells speech was largely forgotten by history — wonder why? — before Jonah Goldberg dusted it off as the title of his best-selling 2008 book.


Flash-forward from the first half of the 20th century to its conclusion. By 2000, particularly thanks to academia, such  radical poses were tempered into what David Brooks called bourgeois-bohemianism. As Robert Locke noted in his review of the book in David Horowitz’s Front Page magazine, by the start of the new millennium, “Bobos, or bourgeois bohemians, are, to put it bluntly, the new establishment:”

Bill Clinton is a bobo. So is anyone else who has the income and power that only fat old men in oil paintings used to have, but who also has the mores, personal tastes, and culture of a 60’s radical college student. This is easy to laugh at, but it is not a superficial phenomenon. Brooks has put his finger on the central weirdness of our current ruling class: they have blithely combined the power and wealth of the old establishment with the cultural and intellectual trappings of its supposed mortal enemy, the counterculture. The two camps that have seemed to be warring for America’s soul since the 60’s have not just reached a detente, they have merged. This is, of course, exactly what you get when you send your best and brightest to universities where bohemian ideals are taught and then release them into a world where the realities of material life inexorably impel them into moneyed positions. As the author puts it,

“This is an elite that has been raised to oppose elites. They are affluent yet opposed to materialism. They may spend their lives selling yet worry about selling out. They are by instinct anti-establishmentarian yet somehow sense they have become a new establishment.”

Brooks describes in great detail the bobo lifestyle, which one can visualize most easily by thinking of its characteristic locales: Greenwich Village, NY; Berkeley, CA; Boulder, CO; Cambridge, MA; Georgetown, DC; Austin, TX; Portland, OR; Seattle, WA; Santa Fe, NM; Ann Arbor, MI; Madison, WI; Athens, GA; Wilmington, NC; Missoula, MT; Burlington, VT; Princeton, NJ, South Beach, FL. This is the world of cappuccino and Volvos, Sierra Club memberships and private schools. Bobos love to live in places that have artiness as their mythical identity but seven-figure real estate prices as their reality. Brooks calls these latte towns or neighborhoods.

The essence of the bobo lifestyle is being rich while pretending you’re not. Bobos love luxury as much as anyone else with five senses, but because they have been educated in a leftist critique of it, they would suffer damage to their self-image if they openly and honestly imbibed it. Therefore their lives are a peculiar dance, whose subtle application of abstract rules to everyday life would boggle the mind of an ultra-Orthodox Jew, in which they seek to indulge luxury in ways that somehow, according to the bobo code, don’t count.

They employ a number of strategies to this end. For example, the cult of the Absurdly Expensive Ordinary Object, in which the bobo pays $75 for a gardening trowel or $3.50 for a cup of coffee. The first item escapes the stigma of yuppie materialism, which bobos despise, because gardening is a) environmentalist and b) manual labor, and the second because it is only a cup of coffee, after all, and therefore cannot possibly constitute a luxury. Another strategy can be called the Magical Power of Progressive Association: anything, however luxurious, that is somehow associated with progressive politics is thereby purified of the despised taint of consumerism. Thus the fattiest ice-cream on the market, Ben & Jerry’s, survives this usual bobo no-no (they are usually health nuts who eat whole-grain bread) by donating a portion of its profits to approved leftist causes. There is also the Magical Power of Primitive Cultures and other magical powers associated with sports, art, wilderness, tools, and other things. Tools are especially valuable because they enable bobos to play at manual labor and thereby deny their class status. None of this comes cheap.  As the author says, “A person who follows these precepts can dispose of up to $4-$5 million annually in a manner that demonstrates how little he or she cares about material things.”


But this was still during the period where the Cold War had been won, and despite Bill Clinton’s myriad foreign excursions, Americans thought they had settled into a long period of relative domestic tranquility.

The fight over the 2000 election, and then 9/11 destroyed that perception; as Jonah noted when he went back to Burlington Vermont in 2003, which, in the mid-1990s, was the town that inspired Brooks’ Bobos book:

When Brooks visited Burlington, Bill Clinton was at the height of his popularity, just a couple of months before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. The ’90s economy was booming and for whatever reason liberals believed that, unlike the 1980s, Wall Street-generated “excess and greed” under a Democratic president were hunky-dory. If terrorists attacked, Leftists tended to blame America for forcing the delicate hands of peace-loving al Qaeda. And while most Leftists didn’t like it when we responded with force, at least President Clinton did so “proportionately” (refusing to highlight our military advantages too much, which might harm the self-esteem of backward countries and the leftists who infantilize them).

Now George W. Bush is president. And as numerous folks have noted, the Left hates George W. Bush. (See Jonathan Chait’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s debate, for example.) President Bush doesn’t mind demonstrating that when it comes to things military the third world isn’t ready for adult swim. He cuts taxes. He talks funny — and not Garrison Keilor funny or Al Franken funny either. He mentions God in a non-kitschy way without using quotation marks or a lowercase “q.” You get it. The fact is upscale and downscale liberals alike loathe the man.

And, like the savages who riot when you leave the toilet seat up, they have no problem making that known. I flatly refuse to believe that if Brooks visited Burlington today — or any other Latte Town — he would still think the locals are “apolitical.”

So that’s what has changed. What’s stayed the same are the residents of Burlington and liberals and leftists in general. When Brooks wrote about a “fundamental transformation in the American Left, the shift from the adversary culture to the alternative culture” he was half right. Yes, it’s true that the Left has been working for a very long time at creating an entirely alternate culture from the traditional one. By concentrating less on class and more on manufactured notions of one-world ethnicity — think of all that organic food, world music, and multicultural mumbojumbo — the Left is hoping to supplant traditional culture entirely. It will look much like the old culture. The buildings and language will remain intact, but the motives and priorities will have shifted. Think of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers at a civilizational level. The new multicultural entity feeds off of traditional culture aping its language and its form even as it sucks the life energy from its withering body. The final product looks just like the host body, but the similarities are only superficial. I’ve written about this project before myself.

But where Brooks is flatly wrong is this notion that the new “progressive” entity is, or ever was, “apolitical.” To believe that such people could suddenly lose interest in national or international politics would be to rewrite everything we ever knew about the psychology and ideology of the left. That Brooks mistook the natives of Burlington for apolitical professionals more interested in making their toilet flushes so weak they couldn’t sweep away a Tic-Tac than protesting a war is understandable. The Body Snatchers had already laid claim to Burlington. Since they knew Bill Clinton was one of them, they believed the plan was moving ahead as scheduled. But with the election of George Bush, the natives have reacted with a natural threat-response. They are furious and unwilling to tolerate the notion that their plans are being foiled. I suspect that Brooks’s mistake has something to do with one of his greatest strengths: his urbane niceness. I still admire David Brooks a great deal, I just wish he’d left the town screaming, “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, You’re next!” like Dr. Miles J. Binnell (played by Kevin McCarthy) at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


And in Mark Steyn’s latest column, just out this weekend, after exploring the ramifications of Audi’s “Green Police” ad during last week’s Super Bowl”, he places it further into context. After 9/11, “anarcho-authoritarianism” and bourgeois-bohemianism have morphed into, as Mark calls it, “conformo-radicalism:”

Let’s turn to an item from The Philadelphia Inquirer. A young American with a white-bread name (“Nick George”) and a clean-cut mien returns from Jordan to resume his studies at Pomona College in California, and gets handcuffed and detained for five hours by U.S. Immigration and Philly police. Why? Well, he had Arabic-language flash cards in his pocket. Also, upon his return to the United States, his hair was shorter than on his Pennsylvania driver’s license. “That is an indication sometimes,” explained Lt. Louis Liberati, “that somebody may have gone through a radicalization.” Really? As Nick George’s boomer mom remarked, once upon a time long hair was a sign of radicalization. But now it’s just a sign that you’re an all-American spaced out doofus who’ll grow up to congratulate himself for driving an Audi TDI.

At any rate, the coiffure set off a Code Red alert, and Nick George found himself being asked: “How do you feel about 9/11?”

According to the Inquirer’s Daniel Rubin, “He said he hemmed and hawed a bit. ‘It’s a complicated question,’ he told me by phone.” However, young Nick ended up telling his captors, “It was bad. I am against it.”

My, that’s big of you.

Take it as read that the bozos at the airport called this one wrong. The problem is not that Nick George, his radical haircut notwithstanding, is a jihadist eager to self-detonate on a transatlantic flight. The problem is that he is an entirely typical American college student – one for whom 9/11 is “a complicated question.” After all, to those reared in an educational system where the late Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” (now back in the bestseller lists) is conventional wisdom, such a view is entirely unexceptional. It’s hardly Nick’s fault that the banal groupthink of every American campus gets you pulled over for secondary screening when you’re returning from Amman.

America can survive a few psychotic Islamic terrorists flying planes into skyscrapers. Whether it can survive millions of its own citizens mired in the same insipid conformo-radicalism as Nick George is another matter.

If you think “conformo-radicalism” is a contradiction in terms, well, such is the way of the world. It was reported last week that as many as a dozen men have been killed in disputes arising from karaoke performances of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Surely, bellowing out “I did it my way” to Frank’s backing track in a karaoke bar is the very definition of not doing it your way, but it’s marginally less pathetic than the song’s emergence in post-Christian Britain as a favorite funeral anthem: For what is a man? What has he got? If not himself, then he has not? Nothing sums up your iconoclastic individualism than someone else’s signature song, right?

That’s Nick George: “9/11? I do it my way.” That’s the metrosexual ninny in the Audi ad: “Thinking the way everyone else thinks has never felt so cool.” The good news is, as in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” there are still a few holdouts. The Washington Post ran a remarkable headline this week: “Europe Could Use Its Own Tea Party.” Underneath David Ignatius went through the obligatory metropolitan condescension toward America’s swampdwelling knuckledraggers before acknowledging that the Continent’s problem was that there was no similar populist movement demanding fiscal sanity from the governing class.

He’s right. I’ve been saying for months that the difference between America and Europe is that, when the global economy nosedived, everywhere from Iceland to Bulgaria mobs took to the streets and besieged Parliament, demanding to know why government didn’t do more for them. This is the only country in the developed world where a mass movement took to the streets to say we can do just fine if you control-freak statists would just stay the hell out of our lives, and our pockets. You can shove your non-stimulating stimulus, your jobless jobs bill, and your multitrillion-dollar porkathons. This isn’t karaoke. These guys are singing “I’ll do it my way” for real.

But it’s awfully late in the day. The end is near, we face the final curtain, and it’s an open question whether the spirit of the tea parties can triumph over the soporific, sophomoric, self-flattering conformism of that Audi ad: Groupthink compliance has never felt so right!


To be fair, it felt right to a century’s worth of progressives — but what was once hip and cool even before coolness itself got its name is now something taught in schools to a generation of college students. It’s still radical — but it’s no longer chic. As Mark writes, radicalism really is the new conformity.

Russell Kirk once described conservatism as a “negation of ideology.” It’s also a marvelous neutralizer of poseurs, much to consternation of today’s bobo-conformo coastal elites.


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