What kind of men our enemies are

We conservatives are used to having our views attributed to either our stupidity or to our selfishness and cruelty.  It was, I believe, Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality–one of the most pernicious books ever written–that started this trend of replying to ones opponents not by addressing their arguments but by slandering their personalities.  The contempt directed at us personally, as opposed to being directed at our beliefs, angers us, but it does succeed in causing self-doubt.  Most conservatives, I suspect, would desperately like some intellectual and moral self-validation.  The temptation is strong to turn these personal attacks against our enemies, to say that they are the stupid, cruel, short-sighted, mindlessly conformist ones.  This is a temptation that must be resisted.

The first and best reason we should not say that liberals are stupid or wicked is that it’s not true.  Since I turned 18, I’ve been living in university towns, working in academic environments.  Practically everyone I know is on the far Left.  One advantage of keeping my beliefs secret (besides the obvious career advantages) is that I’ve gotten to interact with liberals as coworkers and friends rather than adversaries.  Encountering someone only during confrontations doesn’t give one a balanced view of that person.  The many liberals I have known have been, by and large, very decent, responsible, and pleasant people.  They’re kind and considerate to family, friends, and strangers–to anyone who’s not a conservative, in fact.  They tend to be intelligent and open-minded on any subject that doesn’t touch PC dogma.  As long as the conversation stays off politics, I always enjoy their company.  Fortunately, politics doesn’t come up much; the average liberal isn’t obsessed by it.  It does come up often enough for me to know how I would be hated if I were ever discovered.

The second reason we shouldn’t follow the Adorno strategy and accuse our enemies of having warped personalities is that it’s just a rotten thing to do.  Logically, these ad hominem attacks carry no weight.  Having been so often victims of them, we know very well that they hurt but don’t persuade.  Plus, this strategy arguably rests on noxious philosophical premises.  “You believe in God just because your father beat you” is materialist and determinist as well as obnoxious and stupid.  It would be just as bad to say “You don’t believe in God just because your father beat you.”

One difference between liberals and conservatives is that the latter know what the former believe, but the reverse is rarely true.  Many (most?) readers of this blog, I expect, have read Locke’s Second Treatise on Government and Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and could intelligently summarize their content.  We know what liberals believe; we just don’t share the belief.  Listening to liberals rant about conservatives, though, I’ve yet to see any evidence that they have the slightest idea what we believe.  Part of that is our fault; we haven’t written great go-to books like Locke and Rawls have for the other side.  Partly, it’s liberals’ fault; they start out with the assumption that conservatives have no arguments for their positions, so they don’t bother to look for them.  In the academic, urban, and professional worlds, one will live one’s entire life with encountering conservative arguments unless one seeks them out.

Because the liberal doesn’t know anything about conservative beliefs, he attributes conservative actions to personal stupidity and malice.  Hence the Left political culture relies heavily on hate objects, people who are hated personally.  We all remember the murderous hatred that was directed at George W. Bush for a decade.  Bush wasn’t just wrong, you’ll remember, he was a Nazi and a subhuman primate.  He didn’t just deserve to be voted out; liberals fantasized about killing him.  This same hatred was then displaced onto Sarah Palin, and the disproportion between provocation and response became really striking, because Palin was neither ideologically very radical nor did she ever hold significant power.  Today, the liberal/MSM hatred machine is like a fly buzzing around the room looking for a place to land.  Perhaps when the Republican primaries are over, we’ll have a new Goldstein for our two minute hates.

It seems to me that, because we know what liberal beliefs are, are we understand how someone can be sincerely motivated by them, this is one vice we can avoid.  I don’t feel any hatred for President Obama, for example.  He seems like a decent man who’s motivated by some very wrong ideas.  (That was my impression of Bush too, by the way.)  It’s true that there’s some Obama-bashing on the Right, but I get the impression that “Obama” is just being used as a shorthand for a whole political program that is disliked.  It doesn’t feel personal like all the “Bushitler” drawn as a monkey stuff did.  Even so, I wish Republicans would show more respect to their opponents.

To answer this post’s question, our enemies are, by and large, good men.  But they’re still wrong.

27 Responses

  1. Everything you say about civility in discourse is true, but I’m going to raise an Aristotelian quibble over your last line, that our enemies are good men in spite of being wrong. As I recall Aristotle, a good man is a man possessed of all the virtues, among which justice is cardinal. If we are correct that liberals are wrong, their error arises from failure to correctly judge the data. In fact, we reactionaries tend to accuse them, not of stupidity, but of suppressing evidence in order to preserve their ideology. Since we accuse them of injustice (to the evidence), we can’t call them good.

    What I think you mean is that they are, by and large, nice guys. Like you, I’m an academic with plenty of uber-liberal friends, and they are generous, caring, honest, decent people. In many ways they are really too nice (not good) for this world. They just refuse to see how many innately not-nice people there are in the world, or the amount of not-niceness in their own souls. When we reactionaries talk about the incorrigible nastiness of people and things, they see us as nasty. (I know, the nastiness is not quite incorrigible, but this post is political, not theological).

    I’d like to say something in defense of the much maligned ad hominem attack. The test of a moral truth is very often found in practice. I’m not arguing pragmatism here, just the old gospel doctrine, “by their fruits you shall know them.” A person who lives their life according to a perverse doctrine will, presumably, lead a rater repulsive life. The best argument against erotomania, for instance, is not logical, but rather the example of persons who lived by that doctrine.

  2. Working, as a conservative in the academic world. You observe regular displays of hate speech directed against your people and your ideals, and the crowds just laughs along or amplifies them.

  3. An interesting and thoughtful post.

    The salient point for me is that an individual’s character is largely independent of their political beliefs. I would find it very difficult to guess (say) which way someone voted, or what they thought about the monarchy, simply from socialising, or even maintaining a friendship, with them.

    I would say, however, that the tribalism and ad hominem stuff is not a monopoly of either side. I’m not an American, but I seem to remember that Bush Derangement Syndrome was preceded by Clinton Derangement Syndrome (complete with references to KKKlinton, Hitlery, and so forth). There are, unfortunately, plenty of liberals who caricature conservatives as malevolent, sadistic sociopaths, but there are not a few conservatives who just hate those pinko sodomite-loving culture-killing scumbags on the liberal side. I don’t think that this stuff correlates with left or right.

    As for liberals not understanding conservatives’ arguments, I suspect that that depends on what you mean by “conservative”, and whether you have in mind the Throne and Altar tradition or Anglo-American conservatism. I would expect an educated liberal with an interest in political ideas to have read, or at least to be familiar with, Burke, Disraeli, Oakeshott and Scruton (I know this is a British-centric list, but you get the idea). I would not expect him to have read Maistre, Bonald, Maurras or Lefebvre, because those figures are coming from an alien tradition.

  4. This is a good post. Interesting and thought-provoking. I am like Bonald in that I have spent a lot of time around academia, since I was 0, in fact. Both parents were academics, and I am an academic. It is clearly true that most academics are decent folks. It is also clearly true that most of them (especially outside some toxic disciplines) are fundamentally apolitical. They are interested in turbulent flow or Aristophanes or the demarcation problem in the philosophy of science or whatever. They are liberal because that’s what makes the least trouble for them, and they (or, more properly, their analogous successors) would have our politics if we were in power. It would be wrong to hate these folks.

    But this argument gets us nowhere, practically. Overwhelmingly, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were fine folks. And we dropped white phosphorus on them and thought we were right to do so.

    We must resist Father Flake of the AmChurch of Ecumenical Niceness urging us to skip ahead to the conclusion “therefore we should be nice to them.” It just doesn’t follow. Admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy. It is no kindness to let them marinate in their error. And their error hurts other people, innocents. Finally, they have an obligation to figure things out, and they have failed to discharge it. And they’re academics, for cryin’ out loud, so these considerations apply with particular intensity to them (something about millstones).

    We should do whatever non-evil thing seems most likely to work. Calling them mentally ill is stupid, because they are not mentally ill; they know they are not mentally ill; and doing it just makes us look like kooks. I personally think pricking their self-conception is a good idea. Calling them “mindlessly conformist,” for example, may very well be a good idea. First, it’s true. Second, it hits very close to their utterly erroneous self-conception as bold, radical, just-the-facts-ma’am thinkers. “Historically ignorant” is another good insult. “Intellectually shallow,” “derivative,” “vapid,” and “intellectually lazy” are all also good.

    Everything Bonald says about academics is true. However, as I said at another site, it is also true to say that an academic cocktail party is a room full of people looking around to see what they are supposed to be saying.

  5. Your right in saying that there are chauvinists in every movement, but Bush Derangement Syndrome was really something new. I was living in Washington D.C. in the early 1980s, and many of my friends were congressional staffers working on the Hill for liberal Democrats. They really hated Reagan, and they let you know it. But I recall nothing like the eruptions of rage one saw during the Bush administration. And by that time my peer group was mainly middle aged and mostly sober. I wasn’t a fan of Bush, so these people were not raging at me. Just raging.

    These rants could get started in the middle of faculty meetings! If the photocopier jammed, it was Bush’s fault (O.K., that last sentence isn’t quite true). But, to be honest, political discussions in my conservative, blue-collar parish are pretty calm compared to those at the university. Of course a lot of that is because we academics enjoy listening to ourselves roar.

  6. A man’s character is intimately tied to political beliefs, the politics derive from his character. How can a man who calls evil good and good evil (character) have proper notions about the common good (politics)? A bad man’s politics will be perverse.

  7. Agreed. My rule when talking to liberals is to be perfectly polite up until they say something facially absurd, ignorant, or stupid, then to call them out for their error and firmly correct it. Where the error is compounded with the belligerence, I compound the correction with scorn.

  8. I remember that there were people going to support groups to figure out how to deal with Bush’s existence.

    There really has been something broken in our society, in a deeper way than ever. I think this is what happens when “good is evil and evil is good” becomes the spirit of the age and official policy.

  9. Hi Reggie,

    Bush hatred seemed a lot more virulent than Clinton hatred. On the other hand, there was some real ugliness in the opposition to Clinton. What really pissed me off was when people would make fun of his wife and daughter. (It didn’t happen often, but it happened.) Folks should leave a guys family out of it. (Of course, now that Hillary is a politician in her own right, she’s fair game. Anyone who goes after Chelsea will answer to me, though.)

    Actually, I’d be really impressed with a liberal who had a real familiarity with Oakeshott or Scruton. I think you’re pretty exceptional. Whenever I hear liberals attacking the Right, it’s all Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and “W”.

  10. Hi JMsmith,

    The only trouble with that is that these liberals seem to be leading pretty normal lives.

  11. The confusion is caused by the difference between the modern and Pagan definitions of a “good” man. We moderns think a “good man” is a man who does no harm, is indeed benevolent. In speaking of a “good man” Aristotle meant something much more like what we mean when we speak of a good horse, or a good knife. He’s good at doing the things a man is supposed to do, forming just opinions being right at the top of the list. So a man who has a cockeye view of the world is no more good than a knife that won’t hold an edge is good. He’s not rotten, just normal. If liberal atheists are correct, I’m even farther from being good than I think I am!

    It is of course wrong to imagine that all liberals are vicious. Vice takes effort, and like the rest of us the sin they are most addicted to is sloth. (I sometimes wonder how much of my “virtue” is really sloth.) The difference is this: when a liberal gets the itch and cranks up the energy, there’s not much standing in his way. Certainly not his liberal friends. Is a man who won’t condemn his friend’s sin a “good” man?

  12. To be on the Right is natural and spontaneous, and it was all there was for most of human history.

    There is therefore no ‘explanation’ for why people are on the Right, just as there is no explanation for being religious.

    What requires to be explained is Leftism and (which is indeed itself a major explanation of Leftism) atheism.

    What is profoundly un-natural about Liberals is precisely that they have reached a psychological state when they regard Atheist Leftism as the natural and default state, and therefore see the Right and Religiousness something to be explained – yet the correct explanation is denied, so the Right is seen as sinister, alien, weird, dumb, evil etc.

    Some people on the Left are good but mistaken, others are unwitting tools (in thrall), others are active agents of evil. I think these latter demonic types can be seen at the milder end by their habitual, pervasive dishonesty; and at the severe end by their nihilistic delight in encouraging hatred, envy and destruction.

  13. You’ll probably know that CS Lewis was writing 60-plus years ago that kindness/ niceness was the one virtue in which we surpass all previous civilizations; in all others we are deficient – most notably courage.

    Things have continued since CSL wrote – as a civilization we are even kinder, even more cowardly.

    The kind of people you describe are among the least courageous in the whole of human history.

    And as Lewis also said – without courage none of the other virtues are worth anything at all; since they will be abandoned in favour of expediency immediately they are tested.

  14. Hello, Bonald.

    It’s probably best for me not to comment on US domestic politics, except to say that my impression is that there’s plenty of partisan tribalism to go round – just as there is in European politics. I absolutely agree that bringing members of family like Chelsea into the political arena is quite disgraceful.

    As for Oakeshott and Scruton, they would be on undergrad reading lists in the UK (well, Oakeshott would be, anyway), but perhaps I am showing my British chauvinism here….

  15. Would it be your view, TCO, that, if you befriended a man whose conduct gave every appearance of being responsible and virtuous, you would have confidence in predicting that his political views were conservative?

    The really invidious question would be whether, when meeting a professed liberal, you would feel free to infer that his character and behaviour were in fact depraved.

  16. Mr Smith – My view is probably slanted by my British perspective. The nearest equivalent of what you describe is anti-Thatcher sentiment, and Thatch lost office a long time ago (almost a lifetime ago, for a present-day undergrad).

  17. In face-to-face interaction I’ve typically been conciliatory and open to “dialogue” with people holding radically different positions than mine. I’ve often acknowledged they are “nice” people and exhibit qualities I admire. In these kinds of dialogues, our common ground is niceness and everything else is up for grabs.

    However, there’s been a dawning suspicion within me that these dialogues are futile. That entering into a dialogue with such people is playing their game by their rules. This seems unwise.

    I’m not going to keep fighting the same battles at the same fundamental levels with the same persons.

    “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.”

    A person who methodologically excludes consideration of the Divine in his thinking is a fool. Liberalism is the wisdom of fools by this definition.

    Agreed, it is appropriate to employ persuasision and mild rebuke:

    “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.”

    “Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.”

    Similarly, in statements directed to communities at large, the Church speaks hopeful words, eager for the reconciliation of all things to God.

    Different settings / situations call for different strategies. When first presenting the truth about something to a person, the message should be positive and hopeful. Ultimately, we’re representing the Gospel.


    “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.”

    Once individual persons, after being presented with the truth, demonstrate systematic dishonesty in their refusals to accept it, the time for dialogue has passed. They should be warned and left alone.

    Bonald, you have the right to set the tone you want on your own blog, since you know the audience you are addressing. Being better situated to evaluate the openness and honesty of the commenters here, than occasional contributers such as myself, I accede to your judgment.

  18. Mr. Perrin–yes. Liberals may be well-behaved, but they are entirely incapable of resisting evil, which is part of being responsible and virtuous. In fact they seem to accommodate themselves quite comfortably to it. Pip pip cheerio and all that.

  19. I love how Dr. Charlton cuts to the heart of the matter. I’ll be buying the book and flaunting it around liberals.

  20. Thank you for being so honest. As for resisiting evil, I think I will refer to my wife’s capacity to judge my abilities on that score.

  21. Yeah? Where is she, I’m all ears.

  22. The incomprehensibility of the Right to the Left is precisely analogous to the incomprehensibility of Gandalf’s motivations to Sauron in Lord of the Rings; or the incomprehensible behaviour of The Enemy (i.e. God) to the demon Screwtape and the Lowerarchy of Hell in Screwtape Letters.

    Good comprehends Evil, but Evil does not, *cannot*, comprehend Good – Evil will therefore *necessarily* misrepresent Good.


    (The Right is potentially Good, the Left is necessarily Evil; but of course this does NOT apply to their human adherents (although it may apply on average to their orientation and tendency). Right Left adherence is obviously not dividing humankind into Sheep versus Goats, for the line between Good and Evil runs through every human heart; however – could we discern it – not equally so between people; and the line is always moving towards the side either of more Good or more Evil. That is the importance of ideology – which direction is it pushing?)

  23. I have a lot of time for CS Lewis. He’s right enough about courage. Few of us in the modern west are called upon to show that virtue (though my friends who have served in the military might disagree).

    I see a lot of people who regard their preferred form of society as being “natural”. I see it on the traditionalist right, and I see it on the Rousseauian left. Some would argue (I would not) that most social roles, functions and hierarchies are inherently unnatural. Insofar as anything is “natural”, it must be hunter-gatherer society, which tends to have both “right-wing” and “left-wing” traits (traditional gender roles, but a largely egalitarian structure among the male tribe members). Both sides can appeal to historical precedents – for example, classical Athens was a radical democracy but also a patriarchal, slave-owning society. The arguments from human experience cut both ways.

    As for explanations, I’d have thought that it is elementary that some people have a psychological predisposition towards (e.g.) respecting authority, while others have a disposition towards (e.g.) individual freedom. I don’t endorse Adorno, who has been superseded by later researchers, and I’m not in the business of claiming that my political opponents are psychologically damaged, but I have no difficulty with the idea that there are conservative and liberal personality types (and have been in every age and culture).

    I would respectfully dispute that liberalism and atheism are necessarily linked. On a personal note, I can honestly say that my faith is the single most important thing in my life. I simply happen to believe that it is perfectly consistent with supporting constitutional democracy, equality and civil rights, and I know that millions of others would agree with me. Having said that, it is never wise to claim that God is on our side – all we can do is hope that we are on God’s side. I’d also note that there are plenty of conservative atheists, in the Action Francaise mould.

  24. In this context, I always rather liked Fr Richard John Neuhaus’s,

    “the dull herd of independent minds”

    Or Mgr Ronald Knox’s biting satire on some Oxford theologians,

    “When suave politeness, tempering bigot zeal
    Corrected ‘I believe’ to ‘One does feel”

    He also wrote of one biblical scholar (Dr J M Thompson of Magdalen College, Oxford)

    “Who, setting out the Gospel Truths t’ explain,
    Thought all that was not German, not germane”

    And of the Rev A E J Rawlinson, an undergraduate of Corpus Christi College and fellow of Keble College and something of a precursor of Post-Modernism

    “Corpus had trained him Reason’s Truth to doubt,
    And Keble added Faith, to do without.
    What matter, whether two and two be four,
    So long as none account them to be more ?
    What difference, whether black be black or white,
    If no officious Hand turn on the Light?
    Whether our Fact be Fact, no Man can know,
    But, Heav’n preserve us, we will treat it so.”

    This is the kind of satire that leaves the man himself uneasy

  25. Those are nice, thanks.

  26. […] Our enemies are not evil – and even if they were it wouldn’t make their arguments invalid. But their ideas are still erroneous, even if (more often than not it is the case) their intentions are good. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in English and tagged liberalism, morality, philosophy, politics by deplevna. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  27. […] Our enemies are not evil – and even if they were it wouldn’t make their arguments invalid. But their ideas are still erroneous, even if (more often than not it is the case) their intentions are good. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in English and tagged liberalism, morality, philosophy, politics by deplevna. Bookmark the permalink. […]

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