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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Noah Millman: "Who Closed the Conservative Mind?"

A terrific piece by Noah Millman at The American Scene. One excerpt:
-Blame the South. The argument, in a nutshell, is that a successful political coalition in America cannot be dominated by the South, as the GOP currently is. The South is a distinct region in America, significantly different in history and political culture from the rest of the country. Moreover, regional identity in the South is manifested substantially in opposition to the rest of the nation. A political movement dominated by the South will necessarily manifest a political culture that is more similar to that of the South than to that of the rest of the nation, and that political movement is also going to absorb this oppositional element of Southern identity, and will necessarily become overly invested in intellectual shibboleths. What looks like epistemic closure is really just identity politics.


I don’t think this explanation can be dismissed out of hand – in particular, dismissing it out of hand as “insulting” to the South would be in instance of precisely the dynamic I’m outlining. The South does have a distinct history and culture; that culture is substantially oppositional; and the American right is dominated by the South in a way that it has not been before. Dominance of a party by an atypical and oppositional region is just a structural problem. And, if this is a problem, it is going to be a hard one for the American right to solve, because the South is now large enough and strong enough, and remains cohesive enough, that its leaders should expect to lead any coalition of which they are a member.

Now, you might plausibly say that whether the GOP is dominated by the South is irrelevant to the intellectual state of the right in America. The GOP could be run by a bunch of ninnies and the right could be full of intellectual ferment. I think that’s a reasonable description of the state of things in much of the 1970s, for what it’s worth.

The problem is that, if you are an engaged intellectual, you want to be able to see a way forward. And right-leaning types today – contrary to historical type – are terribly engaged. If, for the foreseeable future, the GOP is going to be dominated by the South, and the Democrats are going to be dominated by the left, then where is a Northern conservative to find a natural political home?

You can see the dynamics playing out in a place like the Manhattan Institute. Properly, the focus of the Manhattan Institute should be topics relevant to urban America – that’s their beat. So why do they publish so much culture war fodder? Why do they publish on foreign policy at all? Is it really plausible that what’s good for Alabama is good for New York? If not, then why isn’t City Journal the forum in which New York’s right-wingers get to make the case for their priorities over the priorities of Alabamians? I think part of the answer relates to the fact that an oppositional section is now dominant within the conservative coalition.

- Blame the money. Is there a major patron of conservative intellectuals who is a patron primarily because he or she wants to generate new ideas, insights, works of the spirit that do not already exist in the world, as opposed to advancing arguments for ideas that are already well-established in defense of interests that are well-entrenched? If there is, please let me know that person’s name. Ron Unz is the only person who comes immediately to mind, and honestly I don’t think he’s quite in the wealth category one would ideally want.

Nobody, of course, is just going to hand out money willy-nilly. But there is an enormous difference between bankrolling a person or organization because you like what they think, and bankrolling a person or organization because you like the way they think. If a multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I believe that vouchers are the answer, so I’m going to give $100,000 per year to a think-tank to produce pro-vouchers research and advocate for vouchers, well, that’s not really intellectual patronage. If, on the other hand, that same multi-millionaire says: I am interested in education, and I am skeptical of the way the system works now, how we train teachers to how our schools are financed, and impressed with some of what’s been achieved following new models. I’m going to find the smartest, most informed, most independent-minded people I can, who are also skeptical of established practice, and give them money to do whatever research they want. If they can impress me with their independence and intelligence, then I want to know what they can learn with a bit of money to work with – and I want other people to know as well. That second millionaire might wind up funding Diane Ravitch – and getting a very different report than he or she expected. And why would that be so bad? If Diane Ravitch has lost faith in a certain kind of school reform, that’s a hugely important fact – her arguments are ones that any advocate of school reform needs to know and grapple with. Even if she doesn’t change her patron’s mind, he or she should be glad to have funded her work.

Ultimately, you can only have an intelligentsia if you have patrons who are interested in learning things they don’t already know. And so, if you want a conservative intelligentsia, you need patrons of a conservative temperament who want to learn things they don’t already know – things that may unsettle them. If all the patron wants is advocacy for established views in defense of established interests, then you don’t actually have intellectual patronage at all, and pretty soon you won’t have an intellectual establishment.

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