It used to be required, of an intellectual seeking to hold forth on an idea, that he define his terms. Words are slippery things, after all. But then so are intellectuals, and perhaps this is why they often play faster and looser with terms than a backwoods car salesman.
Corey Robin doesn’t have a car to sell, and if he can’t afford one, I suspect he blames the “arrogant and unaccountable ways,” as he writes in his latest Chronicle of Higher Education essay, of the economic elite. This is good fun, hearing a supporter of government economic manipulation go on about the unaccountability of economic elites bailed out and underwritten and anointed by the very sort of politicians he supports.
“Unaccountable” is a necessary word in one’s lexicon when considering Robin, however, who has been invited back to the Chronicle despite a pathological illogic. For how else to describe an essay so fraught with equivocation and non sequitur that its best use may well be for dissection in a college logic class, if colleges still taught logic, which apparently they don’t, insofar as the command of it is no longer a prerequisite for being allowed to teach in one?
In his earlier piece, Robin claimed to show why conservatives love violence and war. Now he explains that conservatives hate protesters, factory workers, secretaries, and wives. The hating is because conservatism is “a reaction to democratic movements from below,” and “a meditation on . . . the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.”
Now, power is one of those slippery words that Robin isn’t going to define for us, and so there’s no need trying to pin him down. What power does a millionaire trader working 80-100 hour weeks in New York have, exactly, over the Princeton trust baby roughing it for the people in his SlingFin tent pitched fifty paces from a Starbucks? Or over the homeless man, for that matter, whom the trust baby will forget as soon as this power-to-the-people action gets tiresome?
It’s an interesting question, especially in a system of decentralized political and economic authorities, but that decentralization is a fact people like Robin routinely elide, because they can no more make sense of its complexity than a Monopoly board can convey how an economy works.
Robin’s point about power is simple enough anyway; rich people have it, and they want to keep it. Now, a more charitable view would be that people with wealth oppose Occupy Wall Street because they don’t want their property stolen from their families, or the institutions that enable people to earn wealth destroyed. But that would suggest they are people who want what’s best for their families and communities.
And that just won’t do. Instead, Robin explains, deep down in the limbic part of their brains, conservatives need power over others. One might ask how he cracks open the collective conservative psyche like that, but it’s a silly question, because we all just know, in our movie-drenched, Freud-besotted culture, that this is what’s really going on.
The most entertaining part of Robin’s diatribe is where he does that slug-is-a-fish-is-a-rat-is-a-boy thing that characterized his last confused piece. This time we learn that a secretary is a wife is a slave, all of them kept down by conservatives. Further, contracts lead to wife-rape, and conservatives like contracts, therefore if you’re voting against Obama in November you were likely just the kind of guy who raped his wife back in the day.
If this has you puzzled, Robin can offer a passage from Edmund Burke inveighing against overturning the social order. To rational people, this is no more proof of his thesis than foregoing supper is proof of anorexia, but this Alice-in-Wonderland logic is well-suited to the shoddy psychoanalysis that is increasingly the domain of the modern political theorist.
But wait. I come not to bury Robin, but to praise him. Because at the butt-end of his long-bodied thesis, he makes an observation that conservatives (and libertarians) ought take to heart. It’s not his own, but at this point I’m willing to give the man credit just for being able to spot a right thought among his intellectual betters. To wit: “A movement that once seemed the emblem of heterodoxy has succumbed to stale thinking and rote incantations.”
Surveying the long slide in America, from The Conservative Mind to The Way Things Ought to Be, from “Firing Line” to “The Sean Hannity Show,” from Goldwater and Reagan to Gingrich and Romney, one can’t help but conclude that would-be leaders who call themselves conservative have displaced principle with pandering, and thoughtfulness with a tentatively moistened finger lifted to the breeze.
Robin is mistaken about why the conservative distrusts the gathered, pitchfork-bearing masses, but he’s right that conservatives (and libertarians) distrust them. And well we ought, whether they gather in the name of modern liberalism or modern conservatism, because both movements are denuded of all but brutish envy and tribalism, and they celebrate commonness, disdain for the intellect, and populism.
But then again, I like puppies and so did Hitler.