The predictable response to Nathan J. Robinson’s Current Affairs article arguing that “the right has nothing to offer beyond grievance and hate, and the left is actually putting forward serious ideas” would be to argue that the right has all the serious ideas and the left has base emotions. This would also be dull, boorish and unreasonable.
First, there are serious intellectual leftists. I enjoy reading Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Richard Seymour, Freddie De Boer, China Mieville and Robinson himself. I believe that they are wrong but they are interesting writers who challenge my ideas.
Second, the right does have problems with articulating substantive ideas. I have a few theories as to why:
For all the sectarianism among progressives they have more agreement on their basic premises than thinkers of the right: a commitment to the possible existence of egalitarianism and the righteousness of its establishment. Yes, they disagree on the extent to which it can be realized, and the means by which its realization should take place, but right wingers do not even have this fundamental unity. There are liberals, conservatives and reactionaries, with distinct, significant national, cultural and ideological traditions that affect their ideas and attitudes. These mean thinkers are more diffuse. There is less conversation, never mind conformity, and it is hard to build up our ideas and institutions. I have some opinions on what values should be held, and what goals should be pursued, but this is not the place for them. I shall only suggest that this impairs our intellectual progression.
Robinson mocks media platforms such as Breitbart for offering “little more than a litany of cultural grievances.” Of course there is a place for expressing grievances. Progressive websites like Buzzfeed, Jezebel and Salon are full of articles expressing outrage about politically incorrect epiphenomena. Yet it is true that grumbling about this or that insult to one’s ideals and preferences can become a futile, impotent exercise in scab-picking. As well as mere grievances, one must have explanations and solutions or one is moaning on the deck of the Titanic.
If right wingers dominate one platform it is YouTube. Browse the website for a while and you will find countless videos with titles like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism.” There is a place for the crowd pleasing Oxford Unionesque rhetoric Christopher Hitchens did so much to popularize, with its sharp retorts and performative moralism, but it is entertaining more than it is intellectual. Hitchens, whatever one thinks of him, made his name through criticism and reportage. At its worst, debateism encourages a plunge towards the lowest common denominator as insults and cliches are greeted with applause. Its nadir is Tomi Lahren smirking on a “Turning Point USA” poster next to such insights as “crying doesn’t solve problems.”
Provocation, in itself, is not a bad thing. Leftists are provoked by the mildest forms of conservatism so offending sensitivities is unavoidable. It can also be a fun, rhetorically effective exercise. Yet mere provocation is worthless. At its most malign it is degenerate sadism and at its most pathetic it is smug, self-indulgent snickering about safe spaces and other trivialities.
Genuinely intellectual conservatives succumb to a milder form of crowd pleasing. Conservatives nostalgic for more genteel times have a weakness for writing as if the last decades never happened: chuntering nod words like “tradition” with little or no effort to connect them to our economic, demographic, technological and environmental circumstances.
Yet the right still has intellectual life. Robinson contrasts its most clickbaity end — Breitbart and the Daily Wire — with leftist journals and books. The National Review is the only magazine he mentions which even aspires to offer intellectual conservatism. What about the literary and cultural essays of First Things and The American Conservative? The social criticism of The New Atlantis? The philosophical and political analysis of American Affairs?
I can be more specific. Just this month these journals offer Reno on liberalism, Bentley Hart on consciousness and Dworkin on capitalism. If detailed policy analysis is what you want there is Richwine and Wax on immigration, Campbell on the Rust Belt and Krein on tax reform.
More esoteric journals are revitalizing staid platforms of conservatism. Jacobite has offered whip-smart essays such as Razib Khan’s on demographics, David Hines’ on activism and Oliver Traldi’s on the amateur philosophy of, well, Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs. Conservatives and liberals have been exchanging articles on open-minded websites like Quillette and Areo.
I am not, it must said, a fan of libertarianism but if Robinson believes that everybody on the right is “half-hearted” about free-market economics he should check in my friends at the Adam Smith Institute, who, having mischievously appropriated the term “neoliberal,” and are buzzing with detailed and optimistic ideas for free-market solutions to contemporary woes.
For all I admitted there are serious intellectual leftists, the left has anti-intellectualism of its own. It has grievance-mongerers, as I pointed out. It has the worthless snark of Gawker castaways. It has the unhinged ranting of professional diversocrats. It has the smug self-assurance of failed comedians.
There are deeper problems, and Robinson illustrates them. In an essay mentioning Ben Shapiro he bunches together “prominent public spokesmen for the right’s ideas… Milo Yiannopoulos, Charles Murray, and Dinesh D’Souza” and characterizes their significant beliefs as “Feminism is cancer,” “Black people are dumb,” and “Democrats are Nazis.”
This does a gross injustice to Murray. To support his claim, Robinson links to his own essay on the man. It is a parade of fallacies. One can think the idea that different ethnicities have different levels of innate intelligence is wrong and dangerous yet accept it is a judgement on the average intelligence of groups and not on the intelligence of individuals. “Dumb,” meanwhile, is wrenched from its context elsewhere in Murray’s book, where, obviously, it is never applied to black people.
Robinson displays an even more impoverished understanding of the subject than I have. “There is no reason why a person’s IQ should matter any more than their eye color,” he insists. Stuart Ritchie’s excellent book Intelligence: All That Matters details how IQ predicts academic success, occupational achievement, income, physical and mental health, and mortality, even after controlling for social class. The likes of James Flynn, who think intelligence evolves according to environment, do not deny that IQ is significant.
Robinson, however, suffers from leftist intolerance and closed-mindedness; an automatic rejection of displeasing ideas — so violent that he does not even do his best to understand them — and an urge to demonize and not just criticize those people who propound them.
Leftist vices are in evidence elsewhere. Robinson mentions Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review observing: “some conservative publications seem to be giving up on capitalism altogether.” Ponnuru was being hyperbolic. They were challenging free-market capitalism. Yet why is debate between conservatives a sign of intellectual ill-health? There are, as I have said, too many different opinions on the right, but better this, flawed as it is, to the progressive conformity around discredited ideas. From Marxism to the tabula rasa, leftists have shown a remarkable degree of accordance around irrational and outmoded perspectives.
Thanks to Mr Robinson for his concern, then. He is right that there are problems which have to be addressed. There is much to please us, though, and there is much to trouble him. Perhaps we can learn something from each other.