April 04, 2009

On Wednesday, Taki’s Magazine ran a series of articles from “€œNational Disgrace Online,”€ a satirical counterpart to National Review Online. An amusing conceit”€”but the critique underlying the satire falls short. 

Take the mock letter to President Obama by “Jonah Goldberg.” The letter”€”which is consistent with Paul Gottfried’s theories of mainstream movement perfidy”€”ridicules NR for things that either are not ridiculous or that do not characterize the institution.

First, faux-Goldberg says that NR has proclaimed Martin Luther King a “conservative thinker” and a “conservative Christian theologian.” The NRO article cited as evidence, however, expressly notes King’s unconservative championing the welfare state and even alludes (gratuitously) to King’s adultery and plagiarism. The article does not claim that King was a conservative but rather attempts to argue, narrowly, for some conservative aspects of King’s thought. One may disagree with the article’s interpretation of MLK, or even dispute that the aspects of King’s thought that the author takes as “conservative””€”e.g., invocation of the Western the natural law tradition”€”are so. The “conservative” defense of King is any case benign. Once a figure ascends into the pantheon, all movements from time to time will try to claim aspects of his legacy as their own.  NR has no more betrayed conservatism by discovering reasons to praise Martin Luther King than liberals have betrayed liberalism by discovering reasons to praise Barry Goldwater or Ronald Reagan.

Second, faux-Goldberg offers to sacrifice any principle for the sake of NR‘s favored foreign policy. NR is indeed deeply committed to an aggressive foreign policy, which doubtless accounts for its softness on, say, George W. Bush. To belabor the obvious, however, that does not make NRniks sell-outs. They really do believe simultaneously in, say, abolishing affirmative action and occupying Iraq. There is no contradiction between these policies; one may support one or the other, both, or neither. That NR may adopt a foolish position in one area does not invalidate its positions in other areas. Every man, and every magazine, has a right to have its beliefs judged one at a time.

Third, faux-Goldberg says NR welcomes indiscriminate violence in the service of democratic revolution”€”njust as it allegedly defends the fire-bombing of Tokyo and Dresden and admires Leon Trotsky.  But NR does not officially defend Allied atocities in WWII. Ramesh Ponnuru, for instance, has expressed his sympathy with the moral objections to Allied fire-bombings. To be sure, NRO published one egregious defense of Trotsky back in 2003. But, amusing as it is to link NR and Trotsky, there is simply no evidence that Trotsky”€”a communist”€”retains any hold over the imagination of the NRniks. When Trotsky’s name comes up at NRO, it is usually only as a punchline. The notorious Stephen Swartz piece is best viewed as a deliberate taunt directed at NR‘s critics.  In the context of the time”€”when debate over America’s war of choice in Iraq was in high season”€”the taunt was juvenile. Alas, I suspect NRniks are still yucking it up over how their critics, six years later, are still obsessing over NR‘s alleged Trotskyism.

As for violent revolution itself, there will always be some people (perhaps all of us at some point) who delight in destruction and the aesthetics of violence. Doubtless they include some who yearn for more American wars. Nonetheless, I fear that the truth is far more boring than that NR has adopted an evil and nihilistic ideology.  After 9/11, NR‘s editors, like so many other Americans, understandably wanted revenge on “them” or “the enemy.” Alas, the enemy wasn’t easily identified.  Lacking an obvious target for their wrath, they falsely attributed the 9/11 attacks to an entire civilization, and went on to conclude that the civilization as a whole must be punished (or “reformed”). Since then, NR been frantically trying to shore up its credibility. Dreams of global democratic revolution were in any case not the cause of their foreign policy views, and certainly did not stem from a close study of The Closing of the American Mind. Ordinary cognitive deficiencies and biases explain a lot more about NR‘s behavior than some hermetic ideology.


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