14 December 2008

Recommended Reading (1) - Kevin Mattson

Surprisingly enough, I came across this slender volume in our local big box bookseller not long ago. In the interest of full disclosure Mattson is a PhD from the History department at Rochester. To the best of my knowledge I've never met him. That said, the book - Rebels All! (Rutgers University Press, 2008) - is quite good even if it is too civil by (at least) half.

The title states the theme - conservatives have fancied themselves rebellious, rising against the allegedly hegemonic liberalism of American politics. Mattson is charitable, he views this self-image as a paradox rather than as a symptom of what Richard Hofstadter would call paranoid fantasies. And Mattson leaves under-stated what seems to me to be obvious fact - since the 1950s, the American right has been consistently wrong. It is a feature of American amnesia, for instance, that when William F. Buckley recently died we were treated to much fawning comment from the the press when, instead, and rightly, we ought to have been reminded that, among other things, the pompous windbag supported Joe McCarthy and opposed the civil rights movement. Mattson offers readers a litany of similarly disastrous and despicable political stances running up through the current inanities being peddled by Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Adam Bellow and other beneficiaries of conservative nepotism. (Didn't I read somewhere lately that blind Bill is claiming we've won the war in Iraq?) Ultimately, what seems to bother Mattson is the aggressive, obnoxious style of conservative intellectuals. He does not like that they are zealots. What bothers me is the policies they push. The problem is not that they are uncivil, the problem is that they are not just consistently wrong, but demonstrably and dangerously so.

Mattson would respond, no doubt, that vituperative, extreme style is a necessary platform for wildly ideological politics. Maybe. The problem is that the reasonableness he counsels in his conclusion is no match for the willingness of ideologues to yell slogans. What I think is crucial here is to shift the terms of assessment from virtues like civility to consequences. Mattson comes close on this. What liberals and the left need to press - and press hard - are the consequences for politics (both discourse and policy) of the right-wing propensity to advocate mindlessly retrograde policies at full volume. I do not think the liberals have it in them to do that. Mattson does. Perhaps that is where we most disagree.



Blogger Public Squalor said...

For disinformation to work, I think it requires more than manic repetition of the message. A receptive audience is also necessary. Why do the right's toxic bromides gain such traction among Americans. Why are so many of us captivated by that twisted world view?

BTW - if you've ever listened to Air America or Talk Left on Sirius satellite radio, you'll get a taste of windbags from the liberal corner. For me at least, it's as unlistenable as Rush Linbaugh. I think for left-leaning ideas to take hold, we need to do more than substitute liberal rhetoric for right-wing bullshit.

- peace & Happy Holidays!

15 December, 2008 13:18  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

I agree about talk radio as a format - yelling is not a way to persuade anyone, it is just a way to keep the already converted in line.

But playing hardball politics does not mean lapsing into "Hardball" format a la Chris Matthews and those even less intelligent more more retrograde politically.

15 December, 2008 16:39  

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