Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla

Is this man on your syllabus?

Is this man on your syllabus? (Psst. It's Bill Buckley, Jr. He loved McCarthy, Southern segregationists, and Nixon. He should be.)


Adam Kotsko has a nice rendering of a widespread logic employed in conservative thinking. It just so happened that I recently heard a rendition of this.

This was in my mind when I read another one of those contrarians in one of those contrarian moods, in this case Mark Lilla , about how the left has thought conservatism as a pathology, not as a tradition,  so I had my own more pathological response. FIrst, I love the observational powers of Mark Lilla, who begins with this bit about the wonders of America’s conservative movement—which is not to be confused with the fascists of Le Pen et al. in Europe:

Our conservatives accept the legitimacy of constitutional self-government, even when they hate the legislation and court decisions resulting from it; they play by the rules. The same cannot be said of the European right, which has always been suspicious of parliamentary politics.

I wonder just where Lilla has been living these past few months, if not the past several decades. Did he not witness the Bush years? And the conservative non-response to it? “They play by the rules”? 

I say this because at the least, if you’re going to argue that idiot members of the left are unfair and ignore the great ideas of the right, you should do so without suggesting that leftists like me can’t or won’t read. Perhaps Lilla himself can’t read, if one were to look just at his examples: Allan Bloom (agreed), Edmund Burke (great stuff there), Whitaker Chambers (really? really?, uh, ok), Irving Kristol (better than his son…a hack, but I can see for pointing out the history of conservative politics), Ayn Rand (well not at all like the others, really heading south quickly), and William Buckley, Jr. (the worst of the bunch–had a great prof who said his trick was just to speak really slow, which is about right).

I’m wondering if Lilla is not practicing a bit of leftist jujitsu here: convince others that these are the conservative tradition in order to carve it up. These are some of the worst writers of recent memory. My bet is that they wouldn’t have been published if not for the fact that they were conservative. Is Rand known for her subtlety with language? And Buckley is exactly one of the Le Pen nationalists that Lilla cites. Maybe I don’t read conservatives as well as he supposes he does, but I did read Buckley on the segregationist South, and all through his later career. And not one, but two of his spy “novels.” His son, Christopher Buckley, can be a great comic writer; the father is simply a joke.

As in this article by Lilla, which pretends that the left doesn’t know—like he does—about the “think tanks” in Washington that have so much influence, while we parse out so many supposed subdivisions of postcolonial feminist critical race theory. Or whatever. But I do know all of those groups (having learned it from some leftist or other), I have read a number of their policy papers, and I dare say anyone paying attention to Washington politics does know them. But at least do the conservatives a favor: read them. As in real decent ones, like everyone I know who takes political theory seriously has: not just Burke, but all those who fit loosely into a better tradition than the apparently ill-read Lilla can: Scruton, Eliot, Heidegger, Strauss, Tocqueville, Arendt, Schmitt, and on and on. I’m not saying these figures fit easily, but you can’t tell me Ayn Rand is a political thinker that we must read and then ignore the fact that her pedantic egoism isn’t covered in most ethics books I see. And then rightly ripped to shreds as self-defeating, with her novels as the worst tripe. No matter how many decided to go carve out their libertarian mountain hideaway (it’s a Rand thing, don’t ask) after last year. But as Lilla says, if only we’d read these figures, we’d be….well, he doesn’t say what would happen. (I realize that reading Lilla after the early 90s Derrida affair at the NYRB on “intellectual diversity” is a hilarious exercise.):

They read selections from Burke, Maistre, Hayek, Buckley, Ayn Rand, Irving Kristol, Allan Bloom, and many others, including Lyons’s personal favorite, Peter Viereck. (Now, answer honestly, dear reader of The Chronicle Review: How many of these authors have you yourself read?)

Well, honestly: all of them, but thanks for the presumption. (That list does seem to run out of steam quickly after Hayek, doesn’t it?) And Vierkeck has a couple of great essays on Buckley and Kristol (I’m sure you know this Mark Lilla, since you’ve read him) calling them “pseudo-conservatives” who have no intellectual heft, with the fear result by Viereck that they would come to stand for those truly fighting a battle of ideas, instead of defending McCarthy and others in the name of ideology. And if Lilla would read more on the left, he would note that Burke and Maistre and others he doesn’t mention are oft-cited in political theory. And I’ve taught Burke, Maistre, Bloom, Strauss, Heidegger, Arendt, and others he doesn’t cite, let alone all those who could be said to belong to a longer tradition going back to Plato.

I was going to say, does he think that we keep a censored list of writers? But then, yes, he does say that at the end. I guess that’s why I don’t teach Plato or Aristotle or Aquinas or anyone else who is not a postcolonial, postfeminist theorist. (Please don’t write me for including Arendt or whomever—I include them for the importance to other conservative writers.)

Ok, so what’s the upshot, Mark Lilla?

[David] Horowitz is an annoying man, and what’s most annoying about him is that … he has a point. Though we are no longer in the politically correct sauna of the 1980s and 1990s, and experiences vary from college to college, the picture he paints of the faculty and curriculum in American universities remains embarrassingly accurate, and it is foolish to deny what we all see before us.

It is obvious that Mark Lilla should not be running any curriculum. Horowitz is an annoying man because he has no point. Look at any youtube video of him getting questioned by students. He is a dolt. He is a self-important, egregiously unprincipled man who has students tape recording their professors (even yours truly) to publicize their “radical” agenda, only to find out (as in my case) that I’ve been teaching Homer. And Horowitz has never written anything that would be worthy to print. But Horowitz more that you, dear academic reader, knows better than you what should be taught in a university. David Horowitz. Because he knows what Mark Lilla knows:

Over the past decade, our universities have made serious efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity on the campus (economic diversity worries them less, for some reason). Well-paid deans work exclusively on the problem. But universities show not the slightest interest in intellectual diversity among faculty members. That wouldn’t matter if teachers could be counted on to introduce students to their adversaries’ books and views, but we know how rarely that happens.

Yes, whenever you read that a dean or a professor is “well paid” (unlike Horowitz, who has grown wealthy for his efforts, and has been accused by some of milking the whole thing for speaker’s fees), you know that something really ground-breaking is about to follow: a description what “we know” (always love that rhetorical trick, the non-evidential “we know”) that “rarely happens.” So let’s try a field trip in the coming week to our local university bookshops. He’s right that we won’t see Buckley, Jr. but I don’t recall his magnum opus—does his hagiography of Nixon count? He’s right we won’t see Irving Kristol—I’ll just have to assign my students his work defending the sovereignty of South Africa during Apartheid (neat trick for a Jew living in Manhattan). And he’s right, you won’t probably find Chamber’s red baiting. Or Rand’s embarrassing work. (Actually, you will—I have a colleague that teaches it.) But you’ll find all the others he mentions and more than all that. Now, I’ll have to get over to Columbia the next time I’m in New York and see what Lilla’s been teaching: maybe some Rancière or Foucault or Levi-Strauss or Judith Butler for “intellectual diversity”? Maybe some good SR stuff?

Or does diversity only count if you’re defending racist Apartheid states?