The coddling of the neoconservative mind

As a man of a certain age, I’ve seen many things come and go. Age gives you wisdom because you can see just how stupid and credulous you were.

One of the strangest things that seems to be a common phenomenon on the modern cultural Left is the idea that to engage with ideas and thoughts which you stridently oppose, even to understand them, is “problematic.” Giving them a platform. To give a concrete example at one point I saw a discussion about whether Immanuel Kant was kosher to read and understand, given his straightforward racist attitudes. As if reading and citing Critique of Pure Reason somehow imparts the taint of the author’s racial attitudes (or whether you should read a biography of Madison Grant).

This all strikes me as very familiar. As some of you know, I grew up in a very conservative and religious area of the United States, and the general concept of “forbidden books” was in the air with some of my friends. To give a concrete example, I was reading a biography of Charles Darwin once, and a good friend saw my copy and almost recoiled. He didn’t want to touch the book. He literally didn’t believe that the book was hexed or anything, but the associations with Darwin was too much for his psyche.

Perhaps a more clear and distinct illustration of this tendency is what happened in the 2000s when you attempted to understand the roots and causes of violent terrorism. Periodically we would post things on this weblog trying to be dispassionate and analytical. Inevitably, regular readers and even some contributors would lose their shit. The issue is that 9/11 was still raw and visceral. A non-trivial number of people in the greater New York City area had lost people. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the broad public support for it was in large part simply due to the need to “do something.” The events around 9/11 broke the American sense of control and comprehension. Focusing on Iraq refocused us. In the early years critiquing the rationale for the invasion, and even attempting to understand the causal basis of terrorism, were seen as what we’d now call triggering.

People who in other circumstances were entirely rational would just lose their shit if you attempted to understand the issue analytically. Osama bin Laden, like Adolf Hitler, had become a legend, a monster in the dark. An agent of evil that was supernatural. Perhaps more precisely, terrorism had become a supranatural phenomenon. Above analysis.

The echoes of that period in American history are striking to me today, except in a different guise. Neoconservatism is moribund. We don’t have the same sensitivities and concerns in that area. We can actually moot the idea of cost vs. benefit when it comes to foreign intervention. But now the cultural Left engages in the same sort of behavior, but about different phenomena.

Related to all this, check out this rebuke from the socialist Left against the “1619 Project”, The New York Times’s 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history. Obviously, I don’t agree on every single detail, and I’m very much not a socialist. But I think the piece captures the myths of the moment. These few sentences in particular strike at the heart of the matter:

The methodology that underlies the 1619 Project is idealist (i.e., it derives social being from thought, rather than the other way around) and, in the most fundamental sense of the word, irrationalist. All of history is to be explained from the existence of a supra-historical emotional impulse.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of American social and economic history could see that the 1619 Project was an exercise in propaganda. Too much “did not compute.” But most of the criticisms I saw were from the Right, and so were dismissed or ignored. The usual “historian here” Twitter stars were quiet. The 1619 Project was presenting sacred truths, outside of the purview of analysis. Facts were not going to get in the way of the idea. And that idea fed upon and nourished by emotions.

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29 thoughts on “The coddling of the neoconservative mind

  1. The USA will tear itself from the inside. Maybe I should welcome my Chinese overlords who don’t suffer from this degree of national hatred.

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  2. RF, even i could have written something. but if i did i’d be accused of being a white supremacist conservative, so why bother? kind of tired of arguing tbh.

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  3. Points of disagreement on the neo-conservative approach to terrorism. I once considered myself one (and still may), but I will concede with 20/20 hind sight that the approach was naive.

    However, I don’t think the neo-conservatives sought to suppress the understanding of terrorism and its roots. As I recall, the even led to a mini-boom in Orientalist literature. I myself recall reading Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami.

    The knee-jerk reaction was against the “root causes” crowd which explained everything through poverty and colonialism. I still think that those explanations were wrong. I did not read your blog back them, but assuming that your arguments were not these.

    A point of agreement on the modern left / progressives. In a different time they would belong to a religious cult. I view all the 20th 21st century utopian movements (Communism / Nazism / Gretaism) as cults. When you are in a cult, analysis is forbidden because it may lead to heresy or apostasy. So your Darwin analogy is very appropriate.

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  4. re: neoconservative. i’m not talking about the intellectuals. i’m talking about the neoconservative-ish cultural zeitgeist of the period before 2005 or so.

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  5. Razib, fair enough — there was an awful lot of “if X happens then the terrorist would have won” stuff going around…

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  6. @Eric K:

    Shortly after 9/11 I did some digging and found that:

    1) Al-Qaeda was traced to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, not Iraq. So why were we not focusing our forces there? Why were we focusing them on Iraq? Don’t we want to get Osama bin Laden?

    2) Al-Qaeda was pretty clear in stating that 9/11 was retaliation for the US’s foreign policy. It’s not like it was some random attack. They were wrong for attacking us and should be dealt with, but we need to look at our own policies too.

    When I tried talking to people about that, they would treat me like I was crazy.

    Some of the sources:
    https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/testimony/al-qaeda-international
    https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/stats-services-publications-terror-terror00_01.pdf

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  7. @Z

    1. No disagreement here. I think that most of my neocon friends and I would have preferred to focus on Saudi Arabia. Iran was my second choice. I think one mistake Bush made was to try do this on the cheap (politically) and go for an already targeted country.

    2. This is bit of a BS argument, no? Didn’t the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in “retaliation for the US’s foreign policy”? Ditto for the Soviet posture during the Cold War. Modern Russia, Venezuela and China hate us too. In fact, I would bet the majority of the world disagrees with our foreign policy. Call it the hegemon’s burden. Who should we listen to?

    The problem here is what is known as moral hazard. If you only listen to those who hurt you, then you are inviting more hurt.

    I also did some digging and understand that bin Laden is supposed to have said “when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Now, I hated the guy, but he was pretty smart and I happen to agree with him on this point.

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  8. RK: yeah, it’s not a “good faith” discussion. everyone has chosen a team (red or brown) and isn’t interested in the pursuit of Truth anymore. it’s a lonely world…I’ve made it through 160 non-fiction books in the last 2 1/2 years, plus thousands of articles. does it matter? no.
    very disappointed that you only need to know one opinion from someone and you can fill in the rest. like talking to zombies.

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  9. 2. This is bit of a BS argument, no? Didn’t the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in “retaliation for the US’s foreign policy”? Ditto for the Soviet posture during the Cold War. Modern Russia, Venezuela and China hate us too. In fact, I would bet the majority of the world disagrees with our foreign policy. Call it the hegemon’s burden. Who should we listen to?

    yeah. this is a rabbit-hole. that being said, we were the ‘hyperpower.’ it was inevitable.

    also, bin laden was particularly butt-hurt about iraq war 1 when USA came into KSA. as you may know there was a big debate in violent salafi circles about ‘near enemy’ vs. ‘far enemy.’ bin laden circle was weirdly fixated on latter…and the over-rxn to that probably ended up justifying this move. you can kill tens of thousands in algeria and egypt, no one cares. kill 3,000 in USA, and you are famous.

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  10. When I say foreign policy, I don’t think the US’s relationship with Japan, China, Russia, or Venezuela has ever been anything like its relationship with Saudi Arabia, or all the Islamic militant groups the US has used for proxy wars and regime changes. If I’m missing something, I’d love to see the evidence.

    Otherwise, it’s only a BS argument if you think US actions like Operation Cyclone lacked a direct benefit to the Taliban or an indirect benefit to Al Qaeda.

    That said, I get it. I get why the US continues to use a light touch with Saudia Arabia’s propagation of Salafism and Wahhabism. I get why the US does covert regime change operations and proxy wars through otherwise hostile Islamic groups. That’s just how it is as long as world trade runs on oil and the petrodollar system exists. It’s indeed inevitable.

    But damn, do I look forward to the day when the middle east is no longer pivotal to world trade and stability, though that time will bring its own problems.

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  11. Eric K – Attack on Pearl Harbour was not really ‘retaliation’ as such; more ‘pre-emptive’. The US and allies had imposed an oil embargo on Japan, so it needed to make a run to capture the Indonesian oil fields to sustain its war effort. Pearl Harbour was meant to be a pre-emptive strike to discourage the US from entering the war, as they were the only power who could stop them getting and holding on to Indonesian oil. Plus they knew that if/when the US entered the war in the Pacific, they were screwed – they didn’t have the resources to fight a long war against a power with the resources and industrial might of the US.

    Seriously misjudged. It was reported that Admiral Yamamoto knew that attacking Pearl was a big mistake, but did it anyway because he was ordered to.

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  12. Is this the first ever propaganda piece published by The NY Times?

    Why does this particular propaganda piece stand out for condemnation?

    Why shouldn’t black Americans be entitled to write their own history?

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  13. @Z

    As Razib points out, bin Laden was most upset about the presence of US troops in the Muslim Holy Land. I would argue that the US has a much more central presence in other countries. Our military is currently occupying parts of the UK, South Korea, Germany, and Japan. The latter two are the result of wars they lost. There are and were groups in those countries who resent the occupation. Some of those groups have resorted to terrorism and violence (thinking of the Red Army Faction here). We can not possibly listen to all of these.

    A similar argument can be made for Operation Cyclone. Any action by a powerful state will have repercussions — you just have to choose. There is a good argument to be made that the US involvement in Afghanistan was part of what finally broke the Soviet Union. Which is a pretty good result in my book. Furthermore, our intervention helped many locals including Ahmad Shah Massoud, who I believe was far less anti-American.

    But damn, do I look forward to the day when the middle east is no longer pivotal to world trade and stability

    Amen, brother – me too!

    @John Massey

    I think we agree on the facts, but whether something is a reaction or pre-emptive does depend on the beholder. You can also couch al Quaeda’s actions as pre-emptive. It becomes a children’s game of “he started it!”

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  14. I just finished Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter (really more about Galileo than his eldest daughter). There was something distressingly modern about it.

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  15. Razib — I’m sure you are aware of the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books, but others might not be so I though I’d bring it up here. According to Catechism (if I remember correctly), to read a book on the list without permission was to endanger your soul, and to willfully endanger something as precious as your soul was an offense against God so serious that it was sufficient to damn your soul to Hell forever. (Interesting logic!)

    The Index was finally abolished in 1966, but even today the Church apparently considers it to have moral force.

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  16. @Robert Ford, that Jacobin piece gets an “F” from me for failing to understand the 3/5ths compromise. Its effect was to reduce national political power of slave states. It’s reversal was a contributing factor to the end of Reconstruction because it gave Southern states an extra 40 electoral college votes and a corresponding increase in representation in the lower house.

    I realize that you aren’t necessarily endorsing the piece, but that discussion is so full of thin, anachronistic understanding that Lincoln would be turning over in his grave if all that steel-enforced concrete wasn’t in the way.

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  17. The 1619 stuff is a ‘Zinn’ type book. It’s a saying, or at least I read somewhere it is, is that the approved way of killing a tribe is with books.
    The thought behind that is that one usually doesn’t kill a tribe (or nation/people/identity… or any other synonym for tribe) by physically slaughtering it’s members, one does it by destroying the tribal feeling the members might have. Then you get them to join your tribe, usually at a low rank, chiefs need indians in order to be chiefs. One does that by more or less saying said tribe is whatever pejorative things one can make sound convincing. Then no one wants to be in said tribe, or identify as a member.

    The new tribe whose members in the US are trying to displace the ‘Americans’, and their fellows in Europe who are trying to destroy the various nations or tribes in Europe like the French, the English,… more or less using the same methods, have been at it since the birth of said new tribe in the 60’s. It’s not new, though it does seem to be picking up steam recently.

    Lastly, per the Galileo stuff, in the past people didn’t identify as a taxpayer to a certain government, as in a Frenchman or an Englishman, or an American, said tribes being the ‘nation’ part of the nation state, their tribe was their religion. The Galileo stuff is Zinnified history about the RC Church explicitly designed to turn Roman Catholics into Frenchmen, Americans, Germans and the like. This process has happened before, as in there is very little tribalism based on religion in the Euro world, it was stamped out and replaced with the nation part of the nation state, sometimes very violently, like during the French Revolution.

    The word ‘nationalism’ is usually used here, though ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’ are perfect synonyms, and any tribalism is ‘nationalism’. The word is tossed around this way since the new tribe currently making its bid for dominance weirdly doesn’t think of itself as a tribe, tribes, or ‘nationalism’ is something other people do. The new tribe’s thinking on this score is quite ridiculous, but it is something its members fervently believe, it’s a badge of membership.

    Lastly, the one thing that recent events seem to have made perfectly clear, is that democracy and the nation-state tribal scheme are almost joined at the hip. At present ‘tribal politics’ is decried. One cannot get rid of ‘tribalism’ it’s a fact about humans. The way to get rid of ‘tribal politics’ is to make sure that everyone who can participate in political life is in the same tribe. Then democratic politics become rational.

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  18. The way to get rid of ‘tribal politics’ is to make sure that everyone who can participate in political life is in the same tribe. Then democratic politics become rational.

    If only.

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  19. The 1619 stuff … The new tribe whose members in the US are trying to displace the ‘Americans’

    Black Americans have been Americans for quite some time. The 1619 Project is an attempt to carve out and strengthen the Black American identity by laying exclusive (righteous?) claim to certain aspects of American history. There is also quite a bit of denigration of historical aspects that are seen to have excluded black Americans.

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  20. That is a bit of an overstatement. Perhaps more than a bit of an overstatement. Like a huge overstatement. Point taken.

    US politics wasn’t tribal before in the way it is now though since ‘after all, we’re all americans’ and all that. Now we’re not.

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  21. US politics wasn’t tribal before in the way it is now though since ‘after all, we’re all americans’ and all that.

    Maybe not politics, but the people were tribal. The elites took pains to cover it up and push it off stage and out of the MSM. Now it seems that the elites are pushing identity politics, or at least are indifferent.

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  22. Razib,

    Not sure if you noticed this before (I’m pretty sure you have, but just in case), but compare and contrast the reaction of the cultural left (in Anglosphere) to Islamic terrorism v.s. white nationalist/neo-Nazi terrorism. When the former happens, it’s all about understanding the “complex” and “nuanced” origins of terrorism (for very recent example: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/dec/02/johnsons-response-to-london-bridge-attack-ignores-complex-reality), and everything must placed “in context”. When the latter happens, it’s all out Inquisition time in the mold you described above.

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  23. @PD Shaw “that Jacobin piece gets an “F” from me for failing to understand the 3/5ths compromise. Its effect was to reduce national political power of slave states.”

    Compared with what? The slave states had less power with the 3/5ths compromise than with a 5/5ths compromise, but more than with a 0/5ths compromise.

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  24. @Miguel: The first obstacle to understanding the compromise is that it wasn’t reached with respect to representation. It was a compromise reached prior to the Constitution to establish financial contributions from each colony to fund the confederate government. Given the limited administrative capacities of the colonies, the easiest tax system was on a per capita basis with each colony contributing in proportion to its population. Representatives from colonies with substantial slaveholding interests believed that slaves, as property should not count, any more than other sources of wealth would not be counted. Again, all of the colonies treated slavery as chattel. This was about pecuniary self-interest, not a commentary on the humanity of slaves.

    Ultimately, they compromised at counting slaves as three-fifths for the tax, but New York and New Hampshire vetoed the measure, which was a weakness of the confederate system, any colony could block an agreement. When the new Constitution was debated and the issue of representation in the new government arose, states with large numbers of slaves wanted slaves to count just the same as any other person. Slaveowners represented the interest of their wifes, their children and their slaves. Northern states wanted representation to only be apportioned based upon a count of free people, and when they lost that motion, the three-fifths compromise was quickly resurrected. And once this was agreed to the ratio was extended to taxation as well.

    The Jacobin piece wants the reader to believe the compromise originated with the Constitution (false), that it favored the South (false), and that it originated amidst concerns about abolition (false).

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  25. As someone who’d be considered lefty compared to commenters here, I’d be interested in links to well-reasoned critiques of the 1619 project. I haven’t read the project, although I’ve meant to – the idea that slavery was very bad and deeply integrated in American history seems pretty non-controversial to me. I assume it ignores the rest of the world and the history of slavery, but that’s generally the case for anything written by us Americans. I’m usually unimpressed with conservative commentary (except for Razib and a few other honorable exceptions) but maybe others have sorted out the chaff.

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  26. the critique of 1619 isn’t conservative. it’s mainstream economic historians vs. ed baptist. at one point baptist claimed that slavery was responsible for 50% of the american economy in early 19th-century. he made a calculation error. it was 5%.

    slavery was just not as important to the american *economy* in the 19th-century as 1619 implies. it’s impact was cultural and political (unlikely civil war would have happened otherwise).

    [also there’s a lot of other stuff like the erasure of white abolitionism]

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