Tony Woodlief | Author

On the conservative as warmonger

The problem with political science professor Corey Robin’s claim that warmongering is woven into the DNA of conservatives is that he can’t seem to define his subject. One minute a conservative is a Burkean, the next he’s a tea-partier, then a neocon, then a Republican politico. Richer still, Robin represents these British-American country-clubbing anti-marxist quasi-literate literati as intellectual heirs of reactionary Continental conservatives like proto-Nazi Heinrich von Treitschke and French monarchist Joseph de Maistre.

If we can play this fast and loose with terms and associations, then a Blue Dog Democrat is a knee-jerk Pelosi screecher is a scribbling Trotskyite is a slavish devotee of any totalitarian who promises universal health care.

Robin doesn’t just demonstrate profound confusion regarding the differences between American, British, and Continental conservatism. Nor does he stop with hopelessly muddling fascism and conservatism (hint: holding both in contempt doesn’t make them equivalent; strip away the warmongering nationalism from fascism and you have, in fact, Rooseveltian socialism). Not content to bungle his own academic discipline and leave it at that, Robin ventures into the worst kind of post-modern literary analysis.

No, that’s too kind. It suggests that Robin takes his target — in this case Edmund Burke — and performs on him the sort of textual autopsy one expects from clever little grad students besotted with Lacan or Derrida. While it’s an axiom of literary theory that readers determine the text, however, Robin tries to turn this on its head by suggesting that the text determines its readers. Because he can tease out passages from Burke celebrating the benefits of violence, in other words, Robin imagines that he can pin on conservatives who trace their intellectual lineage to Burke a concomitant embrace of warfare.

This is like arguing that Christians and Jews favor stoning disobedient children to death because the book of Deuteronomy says to.

Wait. Robin may agree with that reasoning.

Worse still, Robin doesn’t even analyze Burke’s most influential works. Instead he chooses a little-read text Burke published at age 19 (not in his early twenties, as Robin claims), and to which Burke never went back in his subsequent writing on philosophy and politics. This is like relying on Marx’s earliest critiques of Hegel, before he developed his theories on communism, to argue that Marx’s followers are not really communists.

But this marginal text-proofing, this guilt by association with fascists and monarchists, this conflation of casual observation with core political philosophy, well, it serves its purpose, which is to stimulate head-bobbing among likeminded scholars, all of whom just know that a Republican is a conservative is a psychopath.

Never mind that the second world war was instigated by national socialists, that the greatest carnage came between these totalitarians and their one-time communist allies in Russia, that Asian communists have wrought bloody terror on their class enemies in Cambodia, Vietnam, North Korea, and China, and that the most dangerous states in the middle east are unapologetically socialist both institutionally and theologically, because we all know it’s the dangerous folk in this country, the cranks who believe in constitutionally limited government and a marginal tax rate somewhere south of 50 percent, who are the real threat to peace. If it weren’t for them and their unreconstructed bourgeois ways, in fact, the Pol Pots and Mao Tse Tungs and Josef Stalins of the world wouldn’t have been forced to be so . . . firm.

It’s just shoddy thinking from start to finish, and so embarrassingly characteristic of what passes for popular political science writing these days that I’m glad when people mistake me for an economist.

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