Fisking Jonah

Readers who are not interested in the debate over "The Conservative Soul" and conservatism in general should skip this very long post. I think it's worth doing because it helps illuminate a review of my book that is designed to discourage conservatives from reading it, and profoundly misrepresents its contents. So here's Jonah Goldberg's review of "The Conservative Soul" in National Review, fisked by yours truly. Goldberg's review is in italics; my comments are not:

Nrcover Why did one of the clearest conservative voices after 9/11 go so far off his feed? In 2001, Sullivan spoke passionately against the fetid moral equivalence that saw no difference between Islamism and an America rightfully aroused to defend itself.

That is still my position. If Jonah knows of any softening of my view, then maybe he could cite it. Perhaps the clearest expression was my 2001 New York Times Magazine essay, "This Is A Religious War" which pitted the American constitution against fundamentalist Islam. There is no question which side I favor. That essay, in fact, is integrated into the second chapter of the new book (pages 61 - 65). So much for my "change". My view of this fundamental struggle is literally unaltered from 9/11. And it is reiterated in the book under review.

President Bush was once the right man at the right time.

Indeed. And in the book (page 157), I explain why:

What the American people needed after 9/11 was clarity, purpose and a vision for a proportionate response. And this was what the new conservatism was almost designed for. Its sweeping faith in American exceptionalism, its natural, unforced patriotism, its ease with religious belief at a moment of national shock and mourning: all these were immense gifts to the country at the time. Maybe any president would have rallied to the occasion. Bush faltered at first, but then soared, with one of the most moving addresses to Congress ever given by an American president. Bush's capacity for the sweeping vision, the bold stroke, the simple, unifying message met its moment.

But as time went by, it also became clear that this was not enough to manage the war in Iraq. In fact, the initial strengths became subsequent weaknesses. The fundamentalist certainty that helped Bush rightly diagnose the problem made an aggressive but nuanced and flexible war close to impossible. So the question is not: what happened to Sullivan? The question is: what happened to Rumsfeld? That's a question for which Goldberg has never had an answer. So he targets me instead.

Today, [Bush] is the idiot-savant godhead to a fanatical cult of “Christianists” — indistinguishable from Islamists in the ways that matter ...

Hold it right there. You can see what Jonah is trying to do here. He deploys an artful phrase designed to make it seem as if I equate the American religious right with Islamist terrorism. Here's what the book actually says in this respect (page 120). It's important to make this clear, so bear with me:

Tcscover_22 To equate the astonishing rise of evangelical and Catholic fundamentalism in the contemporary West with these monstrous [theocratic] regimes would be absurd. There are a few fringe groups in America - the Christian Reconstructionists, for example - who would like to replace the United States constitution with a Biblical law, a Christian version of Sharia. But they are marginal, extremist and largely disowned by the fundamentalist mainstream. Evangelical and Catholic fundamentalists have largely engaged in America in completely legitimate and democratic activity: voting, organizing, campaigning, broadcasting, persuading. Even where they disagree with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, they do not question that Constitution's legitimacy (although a few have indeed walked up to the brink of declaring the United States an illegitimate "regime" because of the Court's rulings). They constantly use religious language to defend their political positions - but so did Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Lincoln. The political methods of the new fundamentalists are overwhelmingly democratic ones.

I would say that this difference is indeed one that matters; which is why I take pains to draw a very clear line between Islamism and Christianism in this respect; and why Goldberg takes pains to blur it. His goal is to deter Christian conservatives from reading my book. I suspect they may find more in it to agree with than they might suspect. Back to Goldberg:

— who may have already established a “thinly veiled military dictatorship” in the United States.

Nrcover_1 I have now word-searched the entire book for the phrase "thinly veiled military dictatorship." So far as I can tell, it doesn't appear anywhere. Have I missed something? Or is this a blatant mispresentation? Could Jonah point out the reference?

Once a voice of restraint and reason, Sullivan now specializes in shrill panic: mercurial ranting full of operatic arguments, steeped in bad faith, aimed at people he once praised (including yours truly). Agreement with Sullivan bespeaks courageous enlightenment, disagreement advertises that you are a knave or ideological lickspittle.

I think "ideological lickspittle" is a little de trop for Goldberg myself. I'd rather describe him merely as someone unwilling or unable to take on his own party with sufficient vigor when it mattered. On the question of the abuse of executive power, my concern has indeed grown since the days after 9/11. But it was there in the beginning as well. On 9/11 itself, on this blog, I wrote in my immediate response to the massacre:

"The one silver lining of this is that we may perhaps be shaken out of our self-indulgent preoccupations and be reminded of what really matters: our freedom, our security, our integrity as a democratic society. This means we must be vigilant not to let our civil liberties collapse under the understandable desire for action. To surrender to that temptation is part of what these killers want."

So, again, I have not changed my principles since 9/11. It simply never occurred to me at the time that an American president would tear up Geneva, and authorize torture and abuse of military detainees. And faced with atrocities committed by presidential order, yes, I found myself having to amp up the rhetorical volume. What would Jonah have me do? Ignore the excesses of a unitary executive, its claim of a right to name any person anywhere in the world an "enemy combatant" and to disappear him or her into secret CIA prisons? How is one supposed to respond to the mountain of evidence that the Bush administration has authorized torture and abuse of military detainees? Change the subject?

There are many theories about what “happened” to Sullivan. They vary wildly in charity.

I am in no need of charity. What "happened" was history and the execution of the war. Has it occurred to Jonah that his own ideology might need some adjustment to reality in the past five years? Since November 7, it is patently clear that plenty of Americans have now reached the same conclusion as I have, leaving Goldberg isolated, not me. The question is not: What happened to me? It's what happened to Goldberg to allow him to ignore or finesse grotesque violations of conservative principle and simple decency in the last five years?

Tcscover_23 But it’s fair to say that for many conservatives, Sullivan has become the intellectual equivalent of a write-off. He has not quite reached Kevin Phillips or John Dean territory — where only the New York Times takes it on faith that he is a conservative — but for many conservatives the chaff long ago swamped the wheat. Which is why most conservatives won’t buy, or read, his book; it will instead be read and lionized by liberals eager to paint Sullivan as a maverick-martyr to a “real” conservatism that has never existed, and could never exist, in the U.S.

This is not a review of the book; it's a diagnosis of the closed mind of many movement conservatives. Notice how it conforms to an ideological mindset: dissecting the world into the outer heretics, the lesser heretics, the faithful and the heroes. It actually confirms my diagnosis that conservatives have stopped thinking and fallen into the trap of policing their own fixed ideology. That's their problem, and Goldberg is part of it. But I hope they recover. We need a thinking conservatism, not this brittle ideology.

To a certain extent, this is a shame, because the book has merits: It’s often elegantly written, and contains moments of impressive lucidity. Many conservatives — particularly younger ones with a shallow appreciation of the important distinctions between conservatism and Republican politics — could benefit from reading the best parts. Self-described members of the Christian Right could also stand to take a swig or two from Sullivan’s tonic. Though there should be a warning label: Don’t gulp too much, because beyond small doses The Conservative Soul transmogrifies from tonic to snake oil.

According to Sullivan, the benighted American Right has misplaced the epistemological savoir-faire that comes with skepticism. We’ve lost the sense that we are fallible, that God’s will is never truly known. Conservatism has become shot through with a theological and political absolutism he calls fundamentalism, theoconservatism, and sometimes “Christianism.” To demonstrate this, he unleashes the usual parade of horribles one can find in dozens of left-wing polemics: Pat Robertson, James Dobson, et al. He pastes these bits and pieces of flesh upon a grand effigy, a towering straw man he calls American conservatism.

Because James Dobson is indeed featured in left-wing polemics, does that make him off-limits for conservatives? Like Dick Armey? Or legions of real conservatives appalled by the fundamentalist hijacking of their party and tradition? There's no way I can counter Jonah's description of my book as a sally against a "towering straw man." I leave that to readers to decide. But I might add that a whole chapter of "The Conservative Soul" is devoted to a painstaking dissection of the arguments in favor of "natural law," as espoused by Robert P. George, Rick Santorum, and other theocons. The words and arguments of these people are fairly presented and countered. If that chapter is devoted to a "straw man," then it behooves Goldberg to say where I have misrepresented them. He doesn't.

The Conservative Soul is something of an homage to Sullivan’s second favorite thinker, political philosopher Michael Oakeshott (his favorite: Andrew Sullivan). Oakeshott was a brilliant advocate for a small-c conservatism of temperament, one that placed trust in institutions, trial-and-error, and muddling-through without iron-clad dogma. This was hardly a unique contribution. Burke, Hayek, and Kirk all made similar or related arguments — indeed, Kirk liked to quote H. Stuart Hughes’s aphorism that "conservatism is the negation of ideology." But Sullivan loves Oakeshott’s emphasis that we cannot rely on books and theories to guide us. One cannot walk upright as a human being while constantly looking down to read a book, goes the Oakeshottian line.

My admiration for Oakeshott is due not only to the brilliance of his political thought, but to the integrity of his entire worldview, one that reconciles human freedom with modernity and tradition in ways that few since Burke have attempted. But Goldberg hasn't read much of Oakeshott. Has he read 'On Human Conduct"? Or "Experience and Its Modes"? Er, no. But he can discern "the Oakeshottian line."

One of the things that lent panache to Sullivan’s writings is that he has something of an outsider’s perspective (cultivated to a high sheen). A gay, Catholic, British expat who was the in-house conservative at The New Republic, Sullivan often has a certain visitor-from-Mars credibility. Because he sees things from outside, his approach can be the source of fresh and interesting observations. But it can also be the source of much silliness. A visiting Martian might spot some underappreciated social dynamics; he also might think humans are slaves to dogs because we pick up their scat.

We need to consult Cosmo on who really rules the Goldberg household, I guess.

Sullivan sees religiously motivated political activists running around Washington and a president — “the most powerful Christian fundamentalist in the world” — fighting a war against a demonized enemy and thinks that because he has never seen such a thing before it must be unprecedented. “Until recently,” Sullivan writes, “American evangelicalism tended to keep some distance from government power.” Many on the left work from a similar assumption. All of them would be well served by studying the “Christianist” roots of American Progressivism, which make President Bush’s compassionate conservatism seem like the weekend hobby of a lapsed Unitarian. Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that every public servant must make Jesus his model, telling one youth group, “There is a mighty task before us and it welds us together. It is to make the United States a mighty Christian Thatcherreagan Nation, and to Christianize the world.”

I am aware of that history. I have never argued that the fusion of Christianity with a political or partisan agenda is brand new in America. I shudder at it nonetheless - now and in the past. But my own point about the apolitical nature of American evangelicals for much of the twentieth century is not exactly controversial. It's a historical truism.

What makes this history especially ironic is that Sullivan’s own project is basically Progressive. To understand why this is so, we must examine his argument in detail. Sullivan holds that “fundamentalism” — a term that includes the pope, most Republicans, the Taliban, and tens of millions of ordinary Americans — is sinful, inorganic, and an illness of the mind.

Here is what I actually wrote about the fundamentalist psyche (page 26):

"Fundamentalism succeeds ... because it elevates and comforts. It provides a sense of meaning and direction to those lost in a disorienting world. It does this by taking you into another world, immune to the corruptions and compromises of this one. The rigid recourse to texts embraced as literal truth, the injunction to follow the commandments of God before anything else, the subjugation of reason and judgment and even conscience to the dictates of dogma: these can be exhilarating and transformative experiences. They have led human beings to perform extraordinary acts of benevolence; and we would be foolish either to condescend to or to under-estimate their appeal."

"Sinful"? An "illness of the mind"? Those are Goldberg's words, not mine. Another direct misrepresentation.

In this, Sullivan sounds very much like self-parodying liberal Anthony Lewis, who has explained that the primary lesson of his career is that “certainty is the enemy of decency and humanity in people who are sure they are right, like Osama bin Laden and John Ashcroft.” Of this principle, both Sullivan and Lewis are as certain as any “Christianist” is about the Resurrection.

The fact that evil is rarely defeated by people who are unsure they are right is lost on Sullivan. FDR was certain we needed to defeat Hitler; the civil-rights movement, too, was driven by religious certainty. Were FDR and Martin Luther King enemies of decency and humanity? Please.

Please yourself. It is perfectly possible to believe in any instance that you are right and still not succumb to the temptation of fundamentalism. To quote Berlin citing Schumpeter, "To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian." It is also true - and I would think that this is the key tenet of any conservatism - that far greater evil has been committed by those who are absolutely certain than by the modest and skeptical.

Rovemanuelbalcecenetaap Obviously, Sullivan would object to this because he believes nothing if not the moral superiority of his own position. But how to determine moral superiority? To answer this question, Sullivan takes us through feats of rhetorical prestidigitation — with his magician’s assistants Oakeshott and Montaigne. At the end of the magic show we are left with the assertion that conscience, rooted in every manner of skepticism, is our only guide. Fundamentalist “diktats” from the pope or The 700 Club are ultimately forms of spiritual oppression. The individual can either be guided by conscience or slavishly submit to fundamentalist overlords. If the former, you are like Sullivan himself, a decent person bravely struggling to reconcile the world with your beliefs. If the latter, you’ve outsourced your humanity to a bunch of priests and preachers.

This really is a straw man. It is true that the book argues that one's own judgment - having been informed by tradition, history, reason, empiricism, science and prayer - is the ultimate resting-point. Yes, I am an individualist in that sense. Yes, I am proudly a classical liberal in that sense. But I don't engage in the kind of crude dichotomy that Goldberg claims. I sketch two philosophical poles - certainty and doubt - but the point of the book is to explore how they inform each other, how the truth of any time is found in between, and how, in these dangerous, fundamentalist times, it is a conservative duty to re-energize the tradition of empirical doubt and spiritual humility.

To take another relevant passage, here is my account of a non-fundamentalist Christianity (pages 223 - 224):

"It doesn't try and secure itself in a single text. It doesn't obey a single authority. It doesn't go back in time to discover the perfect form or the infallible truth. It partakes of all these things in part. How could it not? How can a Christian exist without the Gospels? How can a Christian today believe without the church's centuries-long care in protecting an inheritance? How can a Catholic simply ignore the statements of those who have authority and leadership in the institution that baptized and educated him? He can do none of these things; and wouldn't want to. But he will subject all of them to scrutiny and will not stop at any of these points. Such a faith incorporates these things but aims to live them, to translate them into life, and to experience God in the living Goldwater_4 here and now."

Does that sound like the "divinization of conscience" to you? Or an attempt to turn dogma into a vital faith?

There are many rooms in this mansion of nonsense. Sullivan, for example, dismisses the possibility that “fundamentalists” actually do grapple with their consciences — because such a concession would explode the entire book.

Where in the book do I dismiss such a thing? My point is that for fundamentalists, their conscience must always conform to an exterior truth, in Scripture or papal authority. They often grapple with their conscience in this sense - when it pulls them toward sin and must be disciplined. This is another outright falsehood about the book's actual text.

So, the question “What Would Jesus Do?” is one that is never seriously asked by anyone Sullivan calls a fundamentalist. Judging from the “fundamentalists” I know, this smacks of pure bigotry.

Now I'm accused of being a bigot for saying something I didn't. My point - and it may be too subtle for Goldberg to grasp - is as follows (page 203):

"A Christian, in other words, is not a Christian simply because he agrees to conform his life to some set of external principles or dogmas; or because at one particular moment in his life, he experienced a rupture and changed himself entirely. He is a Christian primarily because he acts like one. He loves and forgives; he listens and prays; he contemplates and befriends; his faith and his life fuse into an unself-conscious unity that both affirms a tradition of moral life and yet also makes it his own."

Also, Sullivan would have us believe in an either/or choice: conscience or fundamentalist servitude. This is a false choice, one not found in American conservatism. Conscience is important, but conscience must be informed — not dictated to — by institutions, religion, tradition, and, of course, reason.

Do I have to repeat myself in bold for Goldberg to read what I actually wrote? Well, if I must:

"How can a Christian exist without the Gospels? How can a Christian today believe without the church's centuries-long care in protecting an inheritance? How can a Catholic simply ignore the statements of those who have authority and leadership in the institution that baptized and educated him? He can do none of these things; and wouldn't want to. But he will subject all of them to scrutiny and will not stop at any of these points. Such a faith incorporates these things but aims to live them, to translate them into life, and to experience God in the living here and now."

Who are you going to believe? Goldberg or your own lying eyes?

Delay_3 Which brings us to Progressivism. The Progressive ideology was born of Pragmatism — the idea that truths are subjective, and measured by their utility. Pragmatism, explained Horace Kallen in a proclamation Sullivan could have written, “dissolves dogmas into beliefs, eternities and necessities into change and chance, conclusions and finalities into processes. But men have invented philosophy precisely because they find change, chance and process too much for them, and desire infallible security and certainty.” But, for these early liberals, Pragmatism was a one-way street: a tool for destroying the dogma of the enemy, while enshrining their own unimpeachable authority. Certainty wasn’t the real enemy. The forces of certainty standing in progress’s path were.

Oakeshott stood against this sort of corrosive rationalism, famously denouncing “the pursuit of perfection as the crow flies.” Sullivan turns Oakeshott’s reverence for tradition and custom on its head: He enthrones the all-justifying righteousness of conscience, in particular his own, in a moral pragmatism that says that orthodoxies have no binding authority.

If Goldberg believes that Oakeshott argued that "orthodoxies" should have "binding authority" on the human mind and soul, then he is merely revealing he has never read Oakeshott, let alone understood him.  My Harvard doctoral dissertation was on the man's thought; it will be published next year. I'm happy to debate Jonah on Oakeshott any time he wants.

Pragmatism was built on the arrogance of intellectuals who believed they were smarter than anyone who lived before; Sullivan’s divinization of conscience performs a similar task, with similar vanity. He dedicates page after page to illuminating the grandest mysteries of existence with the only lantern Sullivan trusts: his own conscience.

And whose lantern should I borrow for such an endeavor? A writer, in the end, can only have his own mind to ask himself and others questions. I don't know whose conscience or judgment Goldberg would have me purloin for the purpose. The point here, moreover, is not my conscience - but anyone's conscience and judgment. In the book, I actually detail my own errors of judgment in the recent past, and what I now see as my own spiritual errors in the more distant past. I am certainly fallible. My Oakeshottcaius mentors - Montaigne and Oakeshott - were also self-confessedly flawed writers and thinkers. That's why they used the essay form, as I do (a form Goldberg reveals he has only the faintest understanding of). But they used the only thing they had - their own judgment - to make sense of the world. What else distinguishes a free person and a free mind?

Without this, we would all be lost.


Indeed, he seems to believe that his own intense internal struggles (Sullivan always wins these fights, by the way) are mirrored in the struggles of the Republican party — indeed, the nation itself.

Again, this is simply untrue and unfair. In the prologue to the book, I write (page 5):

"I am not naive enough to believe that what this book argues for will readily become the Republican or even Tory mainstream. So I understand why this approach may not work today in retail politics. But a conservative writer is luckier than a conservative politician. I have no primaries to win. What follows is simply what I have come to believe - useful or useless, central or idiosyncratic, feasible or out of touch."

Does this sound to you like someone who claims that his own philosophical struggles mirror those of the GOP or America? It sounds like someone who is conceding the opposite, but hopes his book has some use anyway. Why would Goldberg misrepresent the book so obviously in this way?

The cover of the book depicts two elephants tied at the tail, presumably fighting for the soul of conservatism. This is, among other things, evidence of an enormous category error in which Sullivan endeavors to make the conservative temperament the foundation of a political program.

I'm not debating a publisher's graphic. But in the final part of the book, I write the following (page 271):

[W]here we start from will always be changing. Each moment in history will suggest the pursuit of different intimations within any given society. That's why I cannot and will not propose a policy prescription for the present day - because there are several plausible alternatives and it is up to political actors, not writers, to intuit and develop them.

Tcscover_24 So I explicitly disavow making "the conservative temperament the foundation of a political program." I offer a few thoughts about broad policy outlines, but the book is about the deeper foundations of conservative philosophy, not its current policy questions.

And it is here that the mansion of nonsense most obviously implodes. The notion that certainty is at odds with a just constitutional order, decency, and All Good Things founders on Sullivan’s own hypocrisy. Not only is it a Monty Pythonesque absurdity to imagine a serious political movement founded on such bumper-sticker slogans as “We’re not sure!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, certainty has got to go!” Sullivan himself proves that a politics based solely on one’s own glorious conscience is just as capable of the sort of rigid, moralistic, self-righteous preening and us-versus-them logic that Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt claims to stand against.

Please. It is perfectly possible for a writer to pen a book about political philosophy that eschews policy prescriptions and yet also to blog on an hourly basis on the issues of the day. This is not hypocrisy. It is simply a distinction between forms of writing, between arguments for specific policies in the current moment, and the attempt to step back from the moment to see things from a distance. This is not hypocrisy, it is a recognition of differing spheres of discourse.

But I should concede this much. Yes, my own certainty about occasional issues - my view that the Iraq war was an absolute necessity, for example - has been at odds with a thoroughgoing conservatism of doubt. My own temperament is also often alien to such a politics. But that's the point. At one point in the book, I say that I am a conservative in politics so I can be radical in every other activity. Another way of putting it is: I'm glad the American constitutional order prevents passionate people like me from getting their way too often too quickly. Every now and again, it doesn't - like the Iraq war. And that is something we now regret.

This is the real point of the book. Its defense of doubt is not occasioned by vanity (although I'm surely no innocent in that area) but by its opposite: self-criticism. It is because I have experienced first-hand the dangers of certainty in myself and others that I have found new respect for the moderation and doubt at the heart of America's constitutional order. I have come to my conservative senses.

This book, in other words, is an atonement for my own certainty of the recent past in Iraq, not a celebration of it. That is what has "happened" to me: the experience of the past five years. I'm not the only conservative figuring out what to make of them. Goldberg, alas, appears to have learned nothing from the experience. One day, perhaps, he will.

(Photo of Rove: Manuel Balceceneta/AP. Photo of Michael Oakeshott courtesy of his son.)