On duplicity, fairweather conservatism, and the art of war
Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.
Confront them with annihilation, and they will then survive; plunge them into a deadly situation, and they will then live. When people fall into danger, they are then able to strive for victory.
Sun Tzu – The Art of War
I’m still trying to decide if Conor is willfully misreading me or if this is simply a rhetorical tit-for-tat. Conor pounces on the title of my “strategy” for taking responsibility for the conservative movement – which I flippantly called the Trojan Horse Strategy. If you recall, the Trojan Horse is a story from Homer. In it the Greeks (think dissident conservatives) built a big wooden horse and filled it with some Greek fighters and then left it on the doorstep of the city of Troy. They then pretended to sail away. The Trojans (think: conservative movement) unwittingly brought the horse inside thinking it was a parting gift and were roundly beaten by the Greeks who sneaked out, unlocked the gates, and let their hiding army inside.s
Okay – so it’s a terrible analogy for what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to “defeat” the conservative movement, after all. Just change it for the better. My point is simply this: quit hurling spears at the walls of the conservative movement in vain. Don’t you see, the only way to make a real, lasting difference is to get inside? And to do that you use this big wooden horse and then….yeah. Terrible analogy.
But that was my point, bad analogy or no. I fleshed it out with some nice bullet points like 1) don’t alienate the base; 2) don’t alienate the independents; 3) try to reconcile social, fiscal, and defense conservatives; 4) try to nudge these groups in a more practical, productive, and ultimately good-for-the-country direction – etc. (Nudge is key here. I think it is more effective than denouncing people as racists or calling their radio show hosts out as bigots or as “rude” or whatever…see the above Sun Tzu quote….)
Anyways. Here’s Conor’s take:
After I objected that The League of Ordinary Gentlemen wanted dissident conservatives to “assess an ideological subset of the American public, discern their sensibilities, and craft all subsequent writing so as not to offend them,” Mark Thompson insisted that I got their critique all wrong: “Our point has nothing to do with insisting that Conor or anyone else soft-pedal their critiques of Limbaugh, et al, although those attacks may well have the effect of making matters worse.”
E.D. Kain agreed:
“My critique is simply this: engage in a fight over ideas, often and passionately. But engage. Don’t try to unseat the champions of the right. Try to change their hearts and minds, or at least use them to reach their audiences.”
Soon after, however, he wrote another post suggesting that conservative dissidents should become duplicitous writers. Of course, that’s not how E.D. Kain labels his approach. Wait. Double-checking. Ah, actually, it is basically how he labels it: “Let’s call it the Trojan Horse strategy.” Go read it for yourself.
Okay, are you back? It contains some good advice, and some less good advice. On the whole, however, the idea is that Rod Dreher and I should make the following calculations: 1) we’d like “movement conservatism” to improve; 2) it can only be improved from the inside; 3) Forcefully arguing for our true beliefs will prevent us from being insiders. 4) We should therefore conceal our true beliefs, and instead focus on advancing calculated positions that E.D. Kain regards as the wisest way forward for conservatives (if only folks like Rod and I would get busy putting ourselves into a position of manipulating them into doing what’s best).
Now you might immediately associate the Trojan Horse with duplicity. Fair enough. Bad analogy, like I said, and I’ll have to find some other flippant thing to call it. I’d say the Trojan Horse is more of a tactic than anything – and asking dissidents to infiltrate the movement and change it for the better is not necessarily the same thing as asking them to be duplicitous.
But aside from simply using the title as a leaping off point we could look at substance of the post itself.
First – where on earth have I asked that dissidents not argue their “true beliefs”? Seriously. Quote me. Please. And where did I advocate “concealing” those beliefs? Sure, I said we should use calculation and tact, but I never stated once that I think we should conceal our beliefs or lie. Unless, of course, your beliefs amount to little more than a belief that Rush Limbaugh is bad, and Mark Levin is rude.
I said, quite simply, don’t attack the pundits because it will backfire. Offer alternatives, but don’t play personality politics. You can still be yourself, so to speak. And you can be a part of the solution! ( just to drag another cliche into the ring.)
What I’m saying is this: inhabit the trenches. Don’t be some abstract outsider taking pot shots at radio hosts while never taking any sort of responsibility for the actual direction and implication of conservative ideas and policies. The misapplication of these policies has done great harm, and the misinterpretation of these philosophies has been used to the detriment of good governance and responsible politics. To the detriment of America and her people. As William notes in a comment to his latest excellent post:
But I’m asking: what if the thing you’re supposed to take responsibility for isn’t conservatism as a whole, or even conservative policies, but rather your advocacy itself? What does it mean to be a responsible advocate? In part, it means that if you’re having to distance yourself from how your philosophy’s played out in reality, then you have ask yourself whether that’s due to some structural flaw in the philosophy.
And if it’s not due to some structural flaw in the philosophy, then it must be due to some flaw in how that philosophy is translated into real life – which is exactly why I’ve been advocating center-right wonkery lately. I followed a few of the more abstract philosophies to their natural conclusion and what I was left with was tangled paradoxes, questions, ideas without any indication of how they ought to be applied. Inherent problems with how the philosophy of limited government can become the efficient governing force so many conservatives believe it will be. And talking about Burke is simply not good enough at that point. You have to start talking about practical applications in order to determine whether or not the conservative project is even doable. (I think it is, by the way.)
Anyways, back to Conor. This first, and one more after:
Consider my most recent piece on Rush Limbaugh. It offered an ironclad argument that he constantly accuses people of racism. [….]
There’s a fair chance that someone on Mr. Limbaugh’s staff saw the piece. I received a dozen or so e-mails from people who described themselves as conservatives, and said they enjoyed the piece, and several more from independents who said it made them better disposed toward conservatives to see folks on the right acknowledging Mr. Limbaugh’s hypocrisy. [….]
Will a popular column at The Daily Beast, a mild rebuke from a writer at The Corner, and e-mails from some probably small, inherently unknowable number of conservatives and some greater number of independents and liberals make Mr. Limbaugh marginally less likely to race-bait so frequently or shamelessly in the future? I hope so. Will a subset of his audience be more attuned to his behavior and dismissive of it if he does persist? Yes. Perhaps it’ll take another blogger who remembered my piece criticizing Mr. Limbaugh after his next tirade to make any significant difference. I don’t know.
Side-stepping claims of ironclad arguments, I’d just like to point out that it’s a pretty big hope to think that a Daily Beast column will make Limbaugh “marginally less likely to race-bait” in the future. I mean, Limbaugh has no shortage of critics. He revels in criticism. Some suspect that he may not in fact need any other sustenance to survive. And no, I highly doubt that any subset of his audience will be inspired by this column either, whatever else its merits. They listen to Limbaugh for a reason, after all. No brilliant critique of Stephen Colbert’s antics will get me to stop watching him. I see no reason why Conor’s critique of Limbaugh will have some different effect on his far more devoted fan base.
What columns like Conor’s do achieve is lots of attention; plenty of high praise from liberals and non-Limbaugh-listening dissident conservatives; and apparently the impression that you’re changing the world for the better. And maybe that’s all fine and good in and of itself. The problem really kicks in here:
I am a writer, one who happens to subscribe to many tenets of the conservative political philosophy, who is invested in many of its insights being implemented in public policy, and who aligns myself with “the conservative movement” only when I think it is in the right, and rejects it when I think it is wrong.
See this gets back to the responsibility question. And I see this attitude as one of fairweather fealty. Conor is saying that he is above politics. He’s above the real-life implications of conservative policy. When they get it right, he’ll “align” himself with them. When they get it wrong, he’ll reject them.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t criticize bad policies. I’m not saying you shouldn’t oppose the movement when it’s wrong. But you can’t sit in your own little philosophical perch, divorced from the political realities of your chosen philosophy, and think that merely taking down the big, bad radio talk show hosts is enough. It’s not enough. It let’s conservatives off the hook, because they can go on with that dreaded “movement” and make foible after foible and you’ll never have to take any blame or really do much to right the course beyond saying “I subscribe to this philosophy but these guys, they’re just the movement which co-opted this philosophy. They’re not the real thing.”
Indeed, taking this position, a dissident conservative can actually benefit from the failures of real-world conservatism. It gives them more material to work with.
Nor am I advocating that conservative dissidents should be duplicitous, or that they should abandon their philosophy texts for charts and wonkery exclusively, or even that they should join the Republican Party. I certainly haven’t. But what I am saying is that simply advocating the “conservative disposition” is not enough. It just sounds good on paper. It takes no account of where that disposition might actually lead us as a society. And that’s why this project Conor is engaged in – of being aloof and distant from the actual political trenches – strikes me as not only futile, but as the easy way out.
And now for something completely different:
I have every respect for both Conor and Rod Dreher and many of the other dissidents of the right. I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying otherwise. This is merely to say that I think they’re missing something vital in their approach. I don’t want them to quit dissenting at all.