Thanks to everyone who linked approvingly to last night's post. I honestly didn't think it would be so popular. I was just working something out to my own moderate satisfaction. I figured the inordinate length would ward off all but a few fanatic ASD (attention surplus disorder) sufferers. Honestly, the thing has overstatements and distinctly imperfect formulations and, in an attack piece, that's not such a good thing. Clean kills are humane. Winging the beast and just letting it stagger around gouting blood in front of a crowd? Ah, well. I did my best. Let me make a few points on Frum's behalf. Josh Marshall writes in his original post: "[Frum has] been kind enough to help me understand certain aspects of the Iraq-hawks' thinking on democratization and change in the Middle East." No doubt there is a touch of irony here, since I'm sure Marshall does not agree with Frum's views on Iraq. But it makes perfect sense to me that Marshall would have respect for Frum as a worthy interlocutor regarding complex foreign policy and political questions. The man is smart. And he is most definitely not ignorant. Most of the chapters of his book are interesting to read not just as fodder for overgrown screeds like mine but for the information and analysis they contain. (It's not heavy duty stuff, by any means. And I violently disagree with much of it. But it's substantive, as popular political books go.) Frum is a shrewd observer and analyst of many of the foibles and failings of his fellow conservatives. The portions of his book I seize upon and savage are comparatively small bits from the very beginning and the very end. But: they are the important bits. They are the reasons for all the rest. If they turn out to be utterly hollow - and they do - the whole balloon just deflates with a gentle, flatulent sigh.
My post reads sort of angry. Actually I wasn't angry at all when I wrote it. The urgent, hopping from foot to foot quality was just me trying to find the words. As usual, Mill put it well, well in advance. I quoted this passage in a post weeks ago, actually, but it's worth requoting:
"All that makes existence valuable to any one, depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed, by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. What these rules should be, is the principal question in human affairs; but if we except a few of the most obvious cases, it is one of those which least progress has been made in resolving. No two ages, and scarcely any two countries, have decided it alike; and the decision of one age or country is a wonder to another. Yet the people of any given age and country no more suspect any difficulty in it, than if it were a subject on which mankind had always been agreed. The rules which obtain among themselves appear to them self-evident and selfjustifying. This all but universal illusion is one of the examples of the magical influence of custom, which is not only, as the proverb says a second nature, but is continually mistaken for the first. The effect of custom, in preventing any misgiving respecting the rules of conduct which mankind impose on one another, is all the more complete because the subject is one on which it is not generally considered necessary that reasons should be given, either by one person to others, or by each to himself. People are accustomed to believe and have been encouraged in the belief by some who aspire to the character of philosophers, that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary. The practical principle which guides them to their opinions on the regulation of human conduct, is the feeling in each person's mind that everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom he sympathizes, would like them to act. No one, indeed, acknowledges to himself that his standard of judgment is his own liking; but an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person's preference; and if the reasons, when given, are a mere appeal to a similar preference felt by other people, it is still only many people's liking instead of one. To an ordinary man, however, his own preference, thus supported, is not only a perfectly satisfactory reason, but the only one he generally has for any of his notions of morality, taste, or propriety, which are not expressly written in his religious creed; and his chief guide in the interpretation even of that. Men's opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their antisocial ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority. The morality between Spartans and Helots, between planters and negroes, between princes and subjects, between nobles and roturiers, between men and women, has been for the most part the creation of these class interests and feelings: and the sentiments thus generated, react in turn upon the moral feelings of the members of the ascendant class, in their relations among themselves. Where, on the other hand, a class, formerly ascendant, has lost its ascendency, or where its ascendency is unpopular, the prevailing moral sentiments frequently bear the impress of an impatient dislike of superiority. Another grand determining principle of the rules of conduct, both in act and forbearance which have been enforced by law or opinion, has been the servility of mankind towards the supposed preferences or aversions of their temporal masters, or of their gods. This servility though essentially selfish, is not hypocrisy; it gives rise to perfectly genuine sentiments of abhorrence; it made men burn magicians and heretics. Among so many baser influences, the general and obvious interests of society have of course had a share, and a large one, in the direction of the moral sentiments: less, however, as a matter of reason, and on their own account, than as a consequence of the sympathies and antipathies which grew out of them: and sympathies and antipathies which had little or nothing to do with the interests of society, have made themselves felt in the establishment of moralities with quite as great force."
I quote the whole thing because I think the whole thing - every sentence - is about Frum. He's a seething mass of potent preferences and aversions, which are after all merely customary observances: some reasonable, most groundless and arbitrary or outdated. But it is intolerable to him to check and see which are which, because he is powerfully attached to the whole set - even the teeny, tiny aesthetic ones. (Cut your hair, damn hippies!) Yet it is necessary for Frum to produce reasons, because he is also powerfully determined others should share his preferences. And he is averse to authoritarianism. He does not wish to impose his mere private preferences tyrannically. As Dostoyevsky's Underground Man puts it: all should be compelled to bow down before me voluntarily. This entails tortuous, self-deceptive mental gynmastics.
Mill tags out. Nietzsche tags in. (My translation of Gay Science, §29. I posted this one weeks ago as well, as part of what has proven to be my ongoing series on conservatism.)
§29 Add lies. – In France, when the Aristotelian Unities were attacked, hence began to be defended, one could see again something so often seen, but so unsightly: - men lied, made up grounds for these laws, simply to avoid admitting they were used to the laws and no longer wanted them to be different. And so it goes, and always has, within every established morality and religion: the grounds and reasons for a custom are always lies added on only after someone begins to attack the custom and inquire after its justification and point. Tucked away here we find the great dishonesty of conservatives of all ages: they add lies.
This is painfully acute. A perfect example because, after all, the Unities were the tipmost taper on the candelabrum of arbitrariness; even their ancient pedigree a sheer forgery - Aristotle never believed in the Aristotelian Unities. But people were attached to them and defended them to the death with made-up reasons. This is Frum all over. It's not good enough just to say he hates hippies and leave it at that. Oh, no. There needs to be a huge reason why hating hippies is justified and vastly important and culturally if not cosmically vital.
This psychic need to fabulate reasons for customary preferences is especially striking in Frum - as it would not be in an ignorant dullard - because he is otherwise observant and basically analytic in his approach.
So where does this leave us? Or me, anyway. What do I actually believe? I have been posting about conservatism for some time because I'm a liberal who is very strongly - maybe just temperamentally - inclined to the outlook implicit in Mill's twin essays on Bentham and Coleridge. The progressive and the conservative mind complement each other. This viewpoint is even more strongly and subtly worked out in Trilling's The Liberal Imagination, one of my favorite volumes of essays. But that's too much for today. I'll just quote again from Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil, §155):
"Madness is rare in individuals - but in groups, parties, nations it is the rule."
Well, individuals are mostly mad as well. But otherwise he's totally right.