06 July 2009

Bill Kristol's Little Brother Ross Douthat ~ Evidence of the Inherited Inability of Conservatives to Make an Argument

I used to spend too much time here pointing out the idiocies of Bill Kristol. I have not paid much attention to his replacement, another conservative, Ross Douthat. While I was getting ready for class today I stopped to get coffee and read Douthat’s column in today’s New York Times. You can find it here. In the column Douthat laments Sarah Palin’s political demise and wishes that she had not accepted John McCain’s invitation to run for Vice-President. Here is Ross::
If Palin were exactly what her critics believe she is — the distillation of every right-wing pathology, from anti-intellectualism to apocalyptic Christianity — then she wouldn’t be a terribly interesting figure. But this caricature has always missed the point of the Alaska governor’s appeal — one that extends well outside the Republican Party’s shrinking base.

In a recent Pew poll, 44 percent of Americans regarded Palin unfavorably. But slightly more had a favorable impression of her. That number included 46 percent of independents, and 48 percent of Americans without a college education.

That last statistic is a crucial one. Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.

But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.
Douthat, thankfully, does not try to save Palin from the obvious fact that she has more than proven inept at politics. Indeed, his lament would have no ground if that were not the case. But he turns to the conservative’s standard bogeyman as he casts about for someone to blame. When in doubt, it must’ve been “the elites.”

This is hypocritical and tired. Why hypocritical? Douthat, of course, cannot quite bring himself to mention that he hardly comes from from a family of auto-mechanics, unemployed industrial workers, or Walmart greeters but, instead, from a family of lawyers and writers. He fails to mention that he attended a pricey private secondary school on his way to Harvard. He obviously now writes for the oh-so obviously plebeian New York Times. In other words, like his predecessor on The Times editorial pages, Bill Kristol, Douthat is simply a hypocrite when he whines about the nefarious “elites” and their patronizing views of America. There apparently is no mirror in the Douthat residence.

Why tired? Because like most conservative whining it is immune to basic facts. Lack of self-awareness aside, Douthat neglects to note - based on this own chosen poll - that a majority of Americans “without a college education” view Palin unfavorably. No doubt, he would complain, that is due to the barrage of bad press that the “elites” have directed her way. But might it not simply be the case that regular Americans know ineptitude and wackiness when they see it? To adopt that view would be to treat normal Americans as intelligent and sensible. Douthat instead wants to insist that they’ve been misled by their betters at places like The Times. Ooops! Is that your elitism showing, Ross?

And, of course, Douthat subverts his own defense of Palin too. He notes, rightly, that McCain chose Palin as a running mate at the behest of advisers, “the professionals who pressed [her] into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign.” Just so. Those were the people who cynically exploited poor Sarah - an otherwise solid, family-oriented, god-fearing Governor of a little known state. But they were Republicans, Ross. Not the liberal elites whom you are railing against. The campaign was just as pathetic as you make it out to be. And Palin was just another gimmick. Which means that your syrupy narrative of American history - Jackson, Truman, and all that - is simply a well-worn, and not terribly compelling jeremiad.

But in this narrative of decline and disrepair, Douthat too looks down his nose at Sarah Palin. I wonder if he learned that at the private school? I wonder too when the people who run The Times will discern the strong negative correlation between the conservative leanings of their columnists and their ability to construct a plausible argument.

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Blogger J. said...

I'll be the first to say that Sarah Palin was a disaster and an embarrassment to the Republican party or even America. I'm also not clear on how I feel about Douthat at this point. (His argument that pornography is a form of adultery in the Atlantic last year was rather simple-minded, but his recent NYT piece about the failure of Nehring and Tsing-Loh to consider their own class positions was insightful enough.) But as a relatively educated self-proclaimed conservative (I'm working toward a Ph.D. in the humanities at a top university in my field), I'd say this post seems unnecessarily polemical compared to the op-ed that provoked it. Is Douthat a hypocrite? Who cares? I don't think the hypocrisy of a speaker has any relevance to the validity of his/her argument. We ought to weigh ideas on the basis of their own validity, independent of the speaker. (If someone warns about the dangers of global warming but is known to drive SUVs and take private jets, does that mean we shouldn't take their message about global warming seriously?) I find arguments about hypocrisy "tired," to use your word, and not really productive in any greater sense. Even if Douthat's argument isn't particularly coherent, the conclusion that conservatives lack the ability to argue coherently is unnecessarily broad and seems to be born more from anger than anything else. (Would you deny the incisive mind of Edmund Burke, for all his flaws?) Conservatives need to do a lot of soul-searching, certainly. I've left the Republican party myself in favor of independent status, though the idea of joining the Dems--who have their own breed of closedmindedness--is almost inconceivable to me. A truly thoughtful conservative platform--probably one that begins by admitting the truth of cultural relativism--has yet to emerge. But we aren't all as dumb as our national spokesmen would lead you to believe. And--I apologize if I offend, but regardless of whether you publish this comment, you ought at least to hear the dissenting opinion yourself--I don't think the kind of writing you're doing in this particular post is really generative of free-minded political discussion.

07 July, 2009 21:44  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

J ~ Thanks for your comment. But I thought that a top humanities program would teach you to read! (THAT is a joke!)

You will note that I draw an analytical distinction between Douthat's hypocrisy and the tiredness of his argument. Doutthat is a hypocrite on this and it diminishes the credence I give to him as a public intellectual (if you want to use that description)). I had heard that he was likely to be better than Kristol in this regard and it turns out not to be the case.

His argument is also un-persuasive; in your own words it "isn't particularly coherent." And it is unpersuasive for the reasons I offer. It is a common conservative ploy to blame elites for everything. In the process they assume that those nasty elites are leading the masses around by their collective nose. And they seem to miss the ironic breeze of elitism surrounding that complaint.

I happpen to think that as a causal matter the hypocrisy goes considerable distance toward explaining why the argument is so poor. He is so busy trying to avoid laying responsibility for the Palin fiasco where it should be - the intellectual poverty
and political cynicism of the Republican party - that he insults the majority of Americans who lack a college education in the process.

Here we come to what I think is the crux of your comment:

Even if Douthat's argument isn't particularly coherent, the conclusion that conservatives lack the ability to argue coherently is unnecessarily broad and seems to be born more from anger than anything else.

The first problem is that you cannot offer an counter-example. Which conservative do you have in mind? Would that we had a conservative even approaching Burke's (to take your example)intelligence. The problem is that the mostly privileged white males who head what passes for the intellectual wing of Americana conservatism have not risen to the top of the crowd on the basis of talent or merit but on the basis of nepotism (Kristol; Bellow; Podhoretz) or accidental connections (Jonah Goldberg). I will leave the media ranters like Limbaugh and O'Reilly aside since they are just that - ranters. And they systematically trot out arguments - bad arguments - like the one Douthat offered in his column.

The second problem is that you want to transform the issue from the cogency or otherwise of Douthat's argument into a question of my psychological state. That is a pretty standard rhetorical move. But you are getting me wrong there. I am not angry with Douthat or even with his enablers at The Times. Based on this (admittedly small) sample of his thinking I consider him a joke. And the joke, I am afraid, is on the people who are providing him with the soapbox.

08 July, 2009 09:54  

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