Right Wing Nut House



I am in something of a “Lamenting Mood” lately, as I have examined health care reform from the standpoint that it could be better, global warming from the standpoint that it should be less political, and my recent series on intellectual conservatism from the standpoint that it should be, well, more intellectual.

Now comes a truly excellent lament from the pen of Chilton Williamson, first appearing in a 2006 issue of The American Conservative, available today on their website. He writes that we Americans are a bunch of “Philistines” as far as our intellectual life is concerned because we have lost our independence of thought and have given in to a kind of “ideological pragmatism” that is shallow and dishonest.

What makes this article both brilliant and prescient is that he describes to a “T” modern day public intellectuals and how being a slave to conformist thought may make one popular and wealthy, but hardly serves the great cause of “Truth:”

There never was a time in all of history when the reward for propagating one opinion was not greater than that bestowed for disseminating its opposite, when currying favor did not pay off better than ignoring or defying it, when catering to majority taste and sentiment failed to get you further than appealing to minority and private sensibilities, when prostrating yourself before the Great Lie was not, in the worldly sense, a far better bet than standing up for Truth—an act which, in previous times as now, could be positively fatal. That is how the world was, is, and ever shall be.

His diagnosis will be very recognizable to those who read this site, and others like it, where the writer makes an effort to eschew popular themes and attempt - however pitifully in my case - to be honest with oneself regarding their own beliefs and thoughts:

The new, bantam-grade eggheads have been effectively conditioned to reject both the message and the messenger whenever and wherever they fail to match exactly with every received expectation and preconception. For this reason, the pressures exerted upon serious men and women of intellect to conform to the demands made upon them are simply terrific.

Partisans in the so-called Culture War have been insisting for a quarter-century now that every intellectual choose his side, declare himself for Progress or Reaction, Enlightenment or Ignorance, Humanity or Inhumanity, Superstition or Religion, the Glorious Future or the Benighted Past, Freedom or Slavery. In this war, neutrality on the part of any member of the intellectual class has become intolerable. What is more, a general acceptance of the hoary motto of the Left—“Everything is political!”—has resulted in the translation of the cultural conflict into partisan political warfare, setting Democrat against Republican, Blue State against Red State, no matter that the margin of disagreement between them is often very slight, the opposing sides having more in common than not owing to shared fundamental principles underlying the modern project. Society is riven by apocalyptic civil war (so the argument runs), the Forces for Good being pitted once and for all against the Forces of Evil. And so, quaint old rules regulating public discourse in the high bourgeois era, and still quainter standards of thought, logic, knowledge, and truth developed from classical times, are not irrelevant only, they are positively subversive of the war effort.

I don’t think I’ve ever read more insightful thoughts on our political discourse - where objective “truth” is marginalized and, “subversive” to the effort to tear down, demonize, and grind to powder the other side.

Think Coulter. Or Limbaugh. Or Olbermann? Or any of the pop conservatives, or jelly bean liberals who spout exactly what their audience expects - exactly what they want to hear. No deviation is possible without a fall from grace. No independent thinking allowed lest it contaminate the masses they reach and threaten their very livelihood.

Could Obermann get away with saying anything nice at all about the right? Would Beck remain as popular if he began to point out areas of agreement with Obama? Occasional forays into this kind of apostasy would probably be tolerated, but not after stern warnings from the Keepers of the True Faith on the internet and out in Punditland.

So what are the consequences to those who refuse the inducements offered by adherence to dishonesty?

The modern intellectual is encouraged to abandon and dishonor his true metier by temptations of the negative as well as of the positive sort. Either way, they are formidable inducements. On the one hand, there is the nearly certain prospect that the determination to tell the truth as he sees it, always and everywhere, will lose him close and important friends, alienate powerful people, deprive him of influence, put a luxurious and even, perhaps, comfortable life beyond his means, and end by making him a pariah among his fellow men.

For this, think Peggy Noonan, David Brooks, David Frum, and a host of others who make an effort to write honestly about conservatism, about politics and culture - about the world as they see it, regardless of whether their thinking measures up to what everyone expects. While all of the above make a fairly good living, just think of the riches and influence that would be theirs if they were to go the Coulter, or Hannity route? As it is, these conservatives are “pariahs” among many of their fellows, and denied a place of influence at the table.

But suppose they were to abandon any claim to honesty and begin to pander?

On the other, there is the only somewhat less certain chance that a readiness to tell the truth as the world sees it —or wants it seen—will win him fortune, fame, praise, intimacy with the rich and powerful, and, very likely, a degree of power itself. Never have the rewards inherent in the intellectual life loomed so stupendously; never has the failure to acquire them appeared so disappointing and ignominious. Why, in a world that so frankly and shamelessly believes in nothing beyond success, should the man of intellect squander his life in defense of that something in which no one but ignoramuses and hypocrites professes to believe and that has only scorn, contempt, impotence, and relative poverty to offer as reward?

Is it right to accuse cotton candy conservatives like Hannity, or helium liberals like Olbermann of selling out? Damn straight. If they have not, then why do they never seem to deviate from the ideological “truth” espoused by those who are making them rich? Both those gentlemen have reached the apex of the ideological ziggurat and are balanced precariously at the top, knowing that deviation from the “norm” is akin to professional suicide.

This is also part of the phenomenon of having to constantly outdo oneself in outrageous statements and behavior almost on a daily basis in order to maintain one’s position at the top of the pyramid; more hate, more nastiness, more strawmen arguments, more hyperbole is necessary to keep the rabid, slavering “Philistines” who tune in to hear exactly what they want to hear from going elsewhere for their ideological reinforcement.

Finally, Williamson laments the lot of those who seek “Truth and Beauty” instead of wallowing in pseudo-intellectualism:

The pseudo-intellectual, the pandering entertainer passing himself off as an artist, like the rich man gets his reward on earth. We need not concern ourselves here with him. Far more dangerous than temptation to the man of genuine intellect is the threat of demoralization the modern world offers him. Though there is of course no way of knowing, it seems unlikely that even the staunchest and most loyal devotee of Truth and Beauty is utterly impervious to the danger, which implies a further temptation of its own: the fatal despair that produces a sense of intellectual, artistic, and moral failure, the suspicion that one has accomplished nothing, that one has thrown one’s life away and is thereby guilty of mortal sin. The temptation is as natural as it is tragical. It must be resisted, and there is one way, and only one, to do it. That is for the conscientious intellectual to make a serious examination, not of himself alone, but of the nature and meaning of the pursuit to which he has been called.

Been there, done that, although while I have made it plain that the “examined life” is a goal worth pursuing, the thought of exploring the “nature and meaning” of my writing has escaped me. I may be a navel gazer but I stop short of looking for the lint.

I see some of me in this essay, but let me hasten to reiterate that I do not see myself as an intellectual. Williamson solves that dilemma for me by referring to “intellectual workers” who toil in the field of ideas. That’s close enough to what my “calling” may be that I’ll accept that as an identifier.

As luck (or Karma) would have it, Conor Freidersdorf writes along a similar vein here. He bemoans the state of affairs in our commentariat where thoughtfulness is seen as newsworthy, as he comments on a NY Observer article describing a forum where Ross Douthat experienced, according to the reporter, an “uncomfortable moment” when asked a difficult question:

I mean, really? That’s your lead? A guy on a panel was “uncomfortable” for “a moment”? Call Drudge and cue the siren! What kind of weird place have we reached when it’s news that a guy, being peppered with the most difficult questions a roomful of smart people can muster, once during a session displays a moment of discomfort? I’ll tell you what kind. We’ve reached a place where a stunning number of folks you see commenting on television or other public venues care so little about the substance of what they’re saying that even when they and everyone else knows their words are utter idiocy, they still refrain from displaying actual discomfort, because to them it’s all a game, unconnected to any sense that words have consequences, or that integrity is partly a matter of challenging one’s own own ideas out of a lingering sense that commenting on public affairs confers some responsibility, and that it is shameful to frivolously and lightly proffer arguments that one isn’t able to defend.

Only a society that long ago reached that place has gossip sheets writing excited leads about a polished speaker feeling a moment of discomfort when challenged with a difficult question, one that is causing him intellectual ferment. Why look, honey, that man is grappling with his thoughts! Let’s all laugh at his quaint display of intellectual honesty! This is particularly noteworthy because, as The Observer makes clear, after that shocking moment of discomfort, Mr. Douthat gathered his thoughts and cogently addressed the subject at hand.

A society that values intellectual honesty, thoughtfulness, independence, and rigorous self examination would not reward the Coulter’s, the Olbermann’s, the Hannity’s, or the Kos’s by setting them up as the ideal of intellectual attainment to be feted as legitimate doyens of our politics and culture. But that is the world as we find it, and we must embrace it or, as Williamson suggests, offend the sensibilities of the Philistines and toil in the outer darkness, always on the fringe, a stranger in a strange land.

Glad I don’t have to make the choice. The world will not rise or fall by what I write here. I only have to please myself, trying to be true to my beliefs as much as my character and humanity will allow.

Sure would nice to be popular, though…


  1. But how do you know you are right?

    You are correct. Being “right” is not the same as being “honest.” It’s not so much the result but rather the journey itself that matters.


    Comment by steve — 10/22/2009 @ 9:55 am

  2. pop conservatives, or jelly bean liberals
    cotton candy conservatives…, or helium liberals

    I’m not really sure what this means, but it feels pretty awesome.

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 10/22/2009 @ 10:27 am

  3. Bravo!

    An absolutely excellent piece, Rick, with some absolutely excellent links.

    The problem is with the audience. The audience doesn’t want to be made uncomfortable. The audience doesn’t want to be challenged. The audience was to be soothed and reassured and comforted.

    So they demand that their prejudices be confirmed. They demand that their every belief be ratified. This isn’t just a cable news phenomenon, it’s pervasive in our society.

    We are at a point in history when our intellectual life has already been massively unsettled by technological advancement. The printing press brought the gospel to the common man and undercut the power of the priests. The camera brought pictures of war to the widows and raised questions about political and military leadership. Radio and then television and satellites allowed us to hear and see events far from our own lives and challenged the comforts of tribalism.

    The internet combines all of those technologies with an always-there availability, and an individual programming capability that allows us to choose entirely for ourselves what we will or will not see. At this time in history critical thinking, a basic grounding in epistemology, and some moral foundation in the central value of truth, is absolutely vital.

    Our schools don’t teach it, parents don’t demand it (rather the opposite)and our intelligentsia actively participates in subverting critical thinking and a devotion to truth, choosing instead to pander for money.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 10/22/2009 @ 11:05 am

  4. ….choosing instead to pander for money.

    ….and popularity and power.

    Comment by Mannning — 10/22/2009 @ 12:46 pm

  5. “global warming from the standpoint that it should be less political”

    Then you would wish for the UN IPCC to cease to exist. The UN IPCC in effect politicized the entire science on it, thereby turning gold into lead, scientifically speaking.

    Comment by Freedoms Truth — 10/22/2009 @ 1:03 pm

  6. #3 “, and an individual programming capability that allows us to choose entirely for ourselves what we will or will not see. At this time in history critical thinking, a basic grounding in epistemology, and some moral foundation in the central value of truth, is absolutely vital.”

    Profound comment that I riffed on in another context over here..


    Comment by Freedoms Truth — 10/22/2009 @ 1:46 pm

  7. Rick;
    I hate to partially agree with Michael Reynolds but did it ever occur to you that a “blog” audience will not

    value intellectual honesty, thoughtfulness, independence, and rigorous self examination

    To paraphrase McLuhan maybe this Medium kills the message

    I value those things - and that’s what counts.


    Comment by c3 — 10/22/2009 @ 2:53 pm

  8. Part of the problem is the rise of “postmodernist” philosophy. Its basic premise is that truth can’t be separated from “context”, so there’s no “objective truth”, and its basic rule of analysis is “deconstruction”. Once a person accepts this premise, there’s no possibility of defining shared first principles, since they all can be “deconstructed” into nothingness. This eventually leads to “might makes right” utilitarianism and the idea that truth is irrelevant without the power to impose it.

    These ideas have spread into all sorts of areas, and has had enormous effects in politics as well as all things media-related, including pundits of whatever variety.

    Postmodernism is anti-rationalist and is the descendant of the counter-enlightenment concepts of guys like Nietzsche and Rousseau.

    For all that, in many ways the pomos have a point. What we call rationalism is rooted in Western concepts of a lawful, orderly, materialist universe that behaves predictably once the rules are understood, so “other things being equal” scientific-method testing and debate is possible. But there are other ideas of how the universe works, including some that handle many situations better than pure rationalism.

    Comment by Foobarista — 10/22/2009 @ 5:38 pm

  9. When does the price paid become so high that the journey may never be made? We are approching the point of raw survival. I agree, not there yet, but no one ever sees the line until it has long been crossed.

    You must exist for your principles to matter. This is always on my mind. You must see in black and white first to give the shades of gray an anchor.


    But how do you know you are right?

    You are correct. Being “right” is not the same as being “honest.” It’s not so much the result but rather the journey itself that matters.



    Comment by steve — 10/22/2009 @ 7:09 pm

  10. In my logic and debate class last year I had a student who was passionate on some issues. One of their assignemnts was to sell me on any topic they chose, but to assume that they actually had to sell me.

    He delivered a blistering defense of a topic he felt strongly about. It was as good as anything you’d read in the (then) current discourse from that camp, but presented from the “anybody that doesn’t agree with what I say is either intentionally bigoted or a god-dammed idiot” perspective.

    I had to explain to him that while his actual argument was solid, he failed utterly in his assigned goal. I told him that when trying to pursuade an audience, always assume that your listeners can be divided into three camps.

    The first are already so deep in your camp that they will agree with whatever you say, no matter how wrong, as long as the ultimate conclusion is the one they already hold.

    The second are so far in the opposition camp that if the Messiah himself (or herself) came down from the Heavens to endorse you they still wouldn’t listen.

    The third are undecided.

    To affect the discourse, you have to speak to the middle . . . and calling them evil and/or stupid isn’t the way to do it. If all you want is reinforcement you are right, then just talk to your reflection in the mirror. Convincing people that already agree with you is irrevelant to the outcome. Explaining your position to people that don’t agree is how debate has moved society forward for thousands of years. Preaching to the choir is fun but a waste of oxygen.

    If current public discourse is any indication, in addition to being fun but pointless it is also apparently extremely profitable. When true debate and discourse stops, so does the society.

    I hope America will get back on track.

    Comment by busboy33 — 10/22/2009 @ 11:39 pm

  11. Another great article Rick, thanks!

    Comment by Andy — 10/23/2009 @ 9:54 am

  12. Seems like a pretty shallow attack to demean the work of individuals without examining their individual characters.

    “Think Coulter. Or Limbaugh. Or Olbermann? Or any of the pop conservatives, or jelly bean liberals who spout exactly what their audience expects - exactly what they want to hear. No deviation is possible without a fall from grace. No independent thinking allowed lest it contaminate the masses they reach and threaten their very livelihood.”

    Really? You think that none of these individuals ever mulls over their ideas? That they are all driven by money and power and thus would never deviate from their initial conclusions? That they never confer with others that have a different take on events or ideas? This author must have psychic powers that rival Cleo mon.

    The fact remains that certain ideas become paramount in our existance. They are formed early in our development (from conciousness to our early 20s perhaps, later for some people) and change little. I’m sure psychologists have a term for it but it escapes me. Core values perhaps. Whatever the term they are the general values that we gather around. Values such as the importance of life. For ourselves, human life in particular. And perhaps human life can be defined even further along racial, ethnic, class or religious lines (see National Socialism and Soviet Stalinism). After that we make intellectual constructs in order to maintain these values. Is life further affirmed by a collectivist or individualist approach? Is life further affirmed by mysticism or rationalism? Are certain races higher forms of life and more deserving? Here is where it gets difficult because now we must confer and interact with others. Others that may not share the core values and may rise in opposition.

    Life is not always a debate club. I wish it was. The Nazis weren’t interested in debate. The free West couldn’t sit down at a debate table and mull over the intellectual aspects of Nazism with their counterparts. Why? Because the Nazis held core values that were so far removed from our own that compromise was impossible. What happens when an unstoppable force meets and unmovable object. Conflict of the non intellectual sort.

    The important truth is that at a certain point nothing really new is being injected into the debate. The intellectual points have been mulled over and conclusions drawn regarding policy. The only thing that remains is to react to events and seek to position our own values in the best possible position. Many involved retain the responsiblity to modify their positions through the introduction of new data but this process will be slow and tedious. The intellectual base of our world did not evolve into its current form overnight and it won’t be altered overnight. Individuals that care about ideas will continue to bring in new sources of information which will either confirm or deny their current conclusions or perhaps take them in an entirely new direction.

    Because Rush champions rugged individualism on a daily basis and doesn’t convert to a Paul Krugman outlook doesn’t mean that Rush has rejected the arena of ideas. It means that he believes that the battle at this point is over in terms of ideas until a new combatant enters the fray with something new to modify his outlook. Such a combatant may not alter Rush’s outlook dramatically. But Rush, Hannity, Coulter and even the editorial board of the NYT’s won’t shut out opposition. They will battle hard and perhaps be slowly pressed into a corner where they will find themselves in need of idea adjustment. The change won’t be radical or sudden. Don’t expect such a thing. But neither should one assume that no intellectual discourse is taking place.

    Some people are as this article describes though. Anti-intellectual cynics that have in fact sold out genuine debate for the pursuit of money and power. Evaluate the large voices in our society as individuals and not simply because they seem to be larger and louder than others.

    Comment by Robert — 10/23/2009 @ 6:32 pm

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