Are young 20- and 30-something conservatives whiners and conformists? It’s hard not to draw that conclusion when reading some of the supposedly “cutting-edge” writing by young hipster cons, many of whom strike a pose of pseudo-intellectual disillusionment with “the movement.”
Consider, for instance, Michael Brendan Dougherty and Conor Friedersdorf. Dougherty has a piece in in The Awl in which he complains that the conservative movement is so intellectually stultifying that “the smartest people on the Right are basically ashamed to be associated with [it].”
Friedersdorf, likewise, has published a series of articles in which he laments what he perceives to be the sorry state of the Right. “I am profoundly disillusioned by the state of the conservative movement,” young Friedersdorf writes in An Open Letter to [National Review Editor] Jonah Goldberg.
That’s why I am sympathetic to the ‘conservative dissidents,’ despite my many policy differences with them — [because] unlike the base, I don’t think politicians who are squishy on substance did in Republicans.
I think what brought down the Right is a corrupt conservative movement, without insufficient capacity for constructive criticism, and beset by heretic hunters who denounced anyone engaged in critical thinking.
Long live the dissidents. Long live debates. Long live partisan and ideological disloyalty if it means routing out corruption.
Am I wrong?
Goldberg, I don’t think, ever bothered to answer young Friedersdorf’s question, but I will: Yes, Conor: you’re right about dissent, but wrong about the conservative movement. Dissent absolutely is helpful and important. That’s why the American conservative movement was founded upon vigorous intellectual disagreement and debate.
Indeed, read through some of the earliest issues of National Review circa 1955-1965, and you’ll witness stunningly open, contentious and freewheeling debates: Frank Meyer vs. L. Brent Bozell; Whittaker Chambers vs. Ayn Rand; Harry Jaffa vs. Russell Kirk, et al.
It simply isn’t true that dissent is discouraged and unwelcomed on the Right. The Conservative Movement, in fact, was founded as an intellectually dissenting movement, which vigorously argued amongst itself from the very beginning.
Dougherty and Friedersdorf counter: that was then; this is now. Today, Dougherty writes,
young conservatives hate themselves. They live in fear that if they do state their actual views, they’ll be forbidden from any meaningful work in the future outside the movement.
Bright young conservatives, Dougherty continues, have two equally bad and unpalatable choices: “Sell out to the movement” ( by which he means they can prostitute themselves to the Republican Party) or “ Sell out the movement” (by which he means they can cozy up to the liberal cultural elite by trashing conservatives in Lefty “mainstream” venues).
Friedersdorf and Dougherty protesteth too much. If they were issuing their complaints in 1950 (before the rise of National Review) — or even 1990 (before the rise of the internet), then I’d be far more sympathetic. In 1950, after all, conservatives had few serious places to think, argue and publish. That’s why, in 1955, William F. Buckley, Jr. founded National Review.
Similarly, in 1990, the internet didn’t yet exist (or it wasn’t yet a mass communication medium). Consequently, writers, activists and policy entrepreneurs couldn’t simply build a website to develop and to espouse unpopular or neglected ideas. No, sir, they had to suffer — and often in relative silence and isolation.
But it’s not 1950, and it’s not 1990; it’s 2010. The internet is now thriving — and so virtually anyone with an idea can now build a website to champion their idea, and at a really minimal or negligible cost.
What’s more, many of these new internet sites — the Huffington Post, Red State and Hot Air, for instance – are tremendously popular and growing in stature and influence. By contrast, the old-line legacy media — the New York Times, the network news, your local newspaper — are dying media brands.
Yet, Dougherty, Friedersdorf, and other young hipster cons pine for mainstream liberal-left respectability. They want to so much to be a part of the older and more established crowd; hence their lament, their complaint, their whine.
Their problem isn’t that they can’t dissent; they quite clearly can. In fact, thanks to Silicon Valley, Apple, and Microsoft, there are today more publishing venues available for dissenters than at any time in human history.
But Friedersdorf, Dougherty, and other young hipster cons don’t want simply to dissent. That, after all, is something they already can do perfectly well and often — and with potentially great influence, thanks to the information revolution of the past quarter-century. No, sir, they want their dissent to become accepted, mainstream, and cool. They want to be liked and not “stigmatized” for their dissent.
Thus Dougherty informs us that 30-year-old New York Times columnist Ross Douthat
won’t share his views on gay marriage in detail is simple. He knows gay marriage opponents will be portrayed as the Bull Connors of the near-future. And he wants to keep writing film criticism and noodling theology for educated readers.
How many times did William F. Buckley have his tepid, once-moderate sounding defense of segregation quoted to him? A million times. By liberals, and paleo-conservative racists both. But Buckley was indestructible. Douthat and the rest of us aren’t. We know that for the foreseeable future, liberals have the whip-hand in forming the ‘prevailing structure of taboos.’
So there you have it. Young hipster cons like Dougherty, Friedersdorf, and Douthat apparently lack the courage of their convictions. They’re intellectual cowards because they don’t want to be castigated as outcasts by the liberal elites who, Dougherty explains “have the whip-hand” in deciding what is and is not politically correct.
In a certain respect, I sympathize with the young hipster cons. There are certain issues, mostly certain social issues involving so-called gay rights, which are very difficult for us conservatives to argue and discuss. Our arguments run up against a rights-based political culture which too often neglects the importance of cultural capital and social norms. And our desire to uphold a standard of moral excellence is too easily caricatured and trivialized as an attitude of intolerance and exclusion.
But as my Marine Corps drill instructors often reminded me, “No one ever told you it was going to be easy.” The fact that making an argument is difficult and may not make you Mr. or Ms. Popularity is no reason to whine about the supposedly sad state of the Right.
The fact that America’s cultural elites are moral and social libertines who dogmatically oppose social and cultural conservatism is no reason to abandon the fight. The fact that most conservatives seem unwilling to accept your dissenting (but still right-leaning) views is no reason to cast aspersions upon the conservative movement.
In short, stop whining, young hipster cons, and pick up the mantle of change. Don’t just curse the darkness, light a candle and show the way. Do something! Fight. Build a website. Argue your case in the court of public opinion. Show us the error of our ways. Explain where we’ve gone wrong and tell us how we can do better.
And please, whatever you do, don’t worry about your popularity, or whether the “in-crowd” (either liberal or conservative) in New York, Washington, and Hollywood likes you for what you do or do not say. Any intellectual worth his salt must freely speak his mind.
Indeed, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes as they say in the Navy. “One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up,” said the late great Arthur Koestler.
Exactly so. Dougherty says that “Buckley was indestructible,” and thus could not be destroyed by the slings and arrows of the liberal-left cultural elite. That’s true, but it wasn’t always that way. Buckley, remember, took the establishment by storm when, as a young unknown college graduate and World War II veteran, he penned God and Man at Yale, a blistering attack on his alma matter’s studious left-wing bias.
God and Man at Yale is now a conservative classic; but it’s important to remember that, when initially published, the book and its author were pilloried by the regnant liberal-left establishment.
The reaction from the academic elite was conducted, in the words of one reviewer, ‘with all the grace and agility of an elephant cornered by a mouse.’ One unenthusiastic observer called Buckley a ‘violent, twisted, and ignorant young man’; another referred to him as ‘Torquemada, reincarnated in his early twenties.’
But even these personal attacks were not enough. His ideas were labeled ‘intolerant dogmatism,’ ‘pure fascism,’ an ‘ignorant attack,’ a ‘philistine crusade.’ Even his religion — his ‘special allegiance,’ it was called — was dragged in.
But when these rhetorical shots were fired at him, Buckley, fortunately, didn’t shrivel up into a ball and retreat; he fired back, and with devastating effect. And soon, his brilliance could not be denied; and the merits of his arguments could not be ignored.
You, young hipster cons — and yeah, I’m talking to you, Dougherty; and I’m talking to you, Friedersdorf ; and probably you, too, Douthat — are fortunate to be living at a time in history when the tools of mass communication are available to literally every American citizen and a great many people the world over — so you have no excuses for not speaking out. In fact, you have a moral and intellectual obligation to make your voice heard.
So stop whining and do something! Build a website and join the fray. Demand a seat at the political, intellectual, and policy table. Marshall your arguments and organize like-minded writers and thinkers. Pick a fight and come out swinging. Recall the stirring example set by a young William F. Buckley, Jr. at a time and place when the opportunities for bright young conservatives were far fewer and far less significant than they are today.
In short, if you think the conservative political and intellectual movement is bankrupt and lacking, then change it; own it; make it yours. That’s what the editor of this website, David Frum, has done.
Frum grew disillusioned with the conservative movement. He saw it becoming increasingly cloistered and politically and culturally out of touch with a rapidly changing American populace. He saw loud and boisterous voices spouting off noxious and idiotic half-baked thoughts and said to himself: “We can do better, and we must. I can do better, and I must.”
And so he founded this website, FrumForum. He invited and courted writers and activists, soldiers and journalists, citizens and politicians to join him and to contribute. He cogitated and agitated; wrote, thought and provoked. And yeah, in so doing, Frum has ticked people off; he’s named names and made (political) enemies.
Frum, consequently, is not the most popular figure on the Right. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he’s despised by many grassroots and Netroots conservatives who view him as an apostate and a traitor, a “squish” and a “RINO” who has sold out the movement and his principles.
I disagree with this criticism and Frum’s critics, even as I sometimes disagree with David. Frum, I believe, may be the most important and most misunderstood living conservative — and for precisely the reasons heralded by Friedersdorf:
Friendly and thoughtful dissent is important. Debate and disagreement do make the movement stronger and better. We conservatives should be forced to think and rethink our assumptions and ideas. Placid dogma and conventional wisdom, whether on the Right or the Left, is the enemy of real progress and reform.
That’s why I am a proud contributor to David’s site. That’s why I write and argue. That’s why I’m building my own (military modernization) website: Because America is worth fighting and arguing about; because the conservative movement is worth fighting and arguing about; because fame, riches and popularity are not what life is all about (or should be all about).
David Frum knows this; I know this; and, deep down, I think, the American people know this. However, Dougherty, Friedersdorf, Douthat, and other young hipster cons, do you know this? And if so, what are you waiting for? What’s your excuse for silence and inaction?
Read Conor Friedersdorf’s response here.