American Campus Diary: Walking Toward the Fire

Charles Mackay is a British academic with a visiting fellowship at an elite American university. They are strange places, but through America’s soft power, they tend to spread their strangeness abroad, with English-speaking countries most susceptible. But forewarned is forearmed, so here are your warnings. Here’s his previous entry. Here’s his next.


Conservatives may also cuss

A teacup-sized storm occurred in a nearby university when a public figure was accused of advocating paedophilia, and it turned out that one of their faculty had written an entry for the religion weblog of their divinity school defending his career. The infamy of the public figure, both prior and subsequent to the allegations that threw her weblog entry further into the public eye, led to some disturbance.

(It should go without saying that I’m not interested in writing about Milo Yiannopoulos. I haven’t anything to add.)

The tone (heated!) of the debate surrounding Rachel Fulton Brown’s remained the same across her original piece and those of her critics. (The content – well, you won’t get less out of it by merely skimming through what I’ve linked.)

This is so even though, in one of her contributions to it, Brown called her opponents “spineless cunts”. (She was quoting the Troll Queen’s description of the Republican establishment, which no-one noticed. Academics do have a problem with making inter-textual allusions the folk can’t appreciate.)

This strikes me as an interesting development. Brown and Yiannopoulos are both ‘conservatives’.

(This is a slight misnomer: some conservatives, Like Edmund Burke, are really progressives, because they are up for pursuing rationalist utopias – but at a more comfortable pace. This disposition, to ride to hell with one thumb on the handcart-brake, is what ‘conservatism’ means for many. By that standard, Brown and Yiannopoulos are reactionaries, because they really believe in a set of claims about human nature and the right social order, claims whose truth is not indexed to a particular age or place, which were once believed and respected, and which have now been rejected and betrayed, demanding recovery and restoration to their proper place.)

The shared journalistic, heated tone of the various contributions to Rachel-Fulton-Brown-Defends-Milo-Yiannopoulos-Gate is an interesting development because, until recently, when a conservative academic or intellectual wanted to challenge a developing orthodoxy, they felt the need to adopt a significantly higher register than their opponents.

Exhibit: this defence of traditional marriage versus this argument for marriage-as-lovers’-contract. (The two are comparable: both public engagement pieces by professional philosophers.) In the debate on the same issue in the UK, the progressive side felt free to call the other meaningless slurs, while conservatives made ineffectual intellectual arguments about the priority of culture over legislation.

I don’t want to make any judgments to the effect of that constraint, but here are some possibilities. Perhaps it raised the tone and richness of public discourse, since ‘conservative’ ideas are what everyone once took for granted, and hence only worth defending using newer and more sophisticated arguments, whereas new ideas need to have a stylistic ‘free hand’ to get themselves on the table. Perhaps it encouraged one side to perceive the other as lacking in charity, and not arguing in good faith. Write a book patiently setting out one’s position? Get called names for your trouble. Perhaps it rigged the game in favour of the progressive side; perhaps it made fair a game rigged in favour of conservatism.


Please No More Chesterton

I raised the question of whether Yiannopoulos’ methods were a good thing for conservatives with a conservative colleague. (Disclaimer: I am a passivist anarcho-primitivist, not a conservative or progressive.) He suggested that (not his words), Milo’s sarcasm and barbed wit were beyond the pale, and that in each salvo of sacred truths emptied on the Coventry cathedral of his listeners’ minds, there were too many missiles of prejudice.

We agreed that conservatives ought to be more pugnacious and witty, but Yiannopoulos is too much of both. My colleague’s example of the sort of thing the right should look for was G. K. Chesterton.

I shan’t link you to La Wik’s description of this fellow. He is a fat dead man beloved of fifteen-year-old young fogeys, some of whom continue to enjoy reading him when their bodies have aged well beyond that. He writes in the long sentences and arch, pompous tone of his period, the turn of the twentieth century. His arguments are florid and reassuring, but neither cogent nor persuasive.

‘Movement’ conservative intellectuals in America have a tragic fixation with these figures – they invest great sums in getting them read by the next generation. So a new elite are equipped with an armory of blunt and heavy blades to do combat with the enemies of Western Civilization: long, arch, pompous quotations, and unconvincing arguments.

Of course they will be ineffective advocates. But they will have safe careers. The re-iteration of their eternal truths will be tolerated in good faith and humour, on one condition. Their spokespeople must treat these truths as museum pieces, and dust them carefully before returning them to the cabinet, showing them to visitors with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow.

If, however, conservatives defend what they say as if they really believe it, they are going to attracted heated criticism, much of it in bad faith. That’s fine: if they really believe what they claim to, they’ll be happy to walk toward that fire, and willing to deploy some tricks of rhetoric themselves. And now, they can.


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