U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Kevin Mattson on his own behalf

(Guest post.)
Returning to the debate…

Andrew Hartman’s a smart guy.  He wrote a thoughtful critique of my work (here and here).  But his timing, at least for me, was poor.  He posted just as I was leaving for a two and a half month sojourn into the wilds of Oregon and Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail with my wife, kid, and dog (for those who want a bit more, see these photos).  Now back, I appreciate the opportunity to reengage the debate that Hartman sparked.
Though I agree with much of what Andrew said in his pieces, it’s probably no surprise that I also disagree.  I’ll be roundabout in engaging his arguments, starting in one place and circling out to others and then coming back to the debate he most wanted to prompt.
Hartman fails to mention something crucial in the Old Right constellation (let’s say the early 1950s to demarcate the time-frame here) when he contrasts it to the neoconservatism of the 1960s: The centrality of McCarthyism and the heated rhetoric used against Adlai Stevenson and liberalism during the 1952 election.  I deal with this in greater detail in my book, Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952, and so allow me to elaborate to begin our debate.

The conservative mind has always been hell-bent on tracking down a betrayal among elites (that’s why a “populist turn” was not that difficult to make early-on).  During the 1950s, the target became “eggheads” – Harvard-centered liberals (think Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. or John Kenneth Galbraith) giving advice to the king egghead of them all, Adlai Stevenson.  Nixon accused Stevenson of holding a “Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s Cowardly College of Communist Containment,” an alliteration that pummeled Stevenson as a traitor to his country.  America needed to elect a “real man,” another term Nixon used.  Adlai Stevenson, Nixon said numerous times, lacked “backbone.”  Joseph McCarthy (the gruff ally of Richard Nixon in 1952 and a man who had campaigned for him earlier during his 1950 Senate-run) talked about physically assaulting the “debonair” Democrat (no “ic” added there) candidate for President.  McCarthy, like Nixon, loved a good fight – a tough fight.  Liberals had silver spoons in their mouths and were sissies.  They were indecisive and wimpy.  Both Nixon and McCarthy conflated a real communist sympathizer, Alger Hiss, with an anti-communist and fairly conservative-leaning liberal, Adlai Stevenson.  That was a part of their intellectual-political toolkit and worldview. And it became a central feature of so much conservative political thought during the postwar years.
Enough about political campaigns.  Consider, in light of where we’re having this debate, two intellectuals.  First and foremost Whittaker Chambers, whose book Witnesscame out in 1952 (Nixon did what he could to promote his ally’s book).  Witnessderided “the most articulate section of mankind” (codeword: educated) for betraying the country by ceasing to “believe in God” and giving into communist dreams of remaking the world.  Alger Hiss was the icon here.  The book set the tone of so much conservative work from that point onwards – apocalyptic, melodramatic, and grandiose.  Central in it was something Chambers overheard from a friend of Henry Luce’s: “In the United States, the working class are Democrats.  The middle class are Republicans.  The upper class are Communists.”  
The second intellectual, and this starts getting us to the point that Andrew wanted to engage the most, is Irving Kristol.  Writing about “liberals” in 1952 (seemingly he still was one – though it depended on what the term meant), Kristol contrasted them to Joseph McCarthy.  In one of the most quoted lines from the essay (used in the documentary, Arguing the World, and Neil Jumonville’s The New York Intellectuals Reader), Kristol worried: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist.  About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.  And with some justification.”  The person he cites to make his case is Henry Steele Commager, professor of history at Columbia University and one of many eggheads who would later go on to protest Eisenhower’s run for the presidency.
Kristol’s point, I think, was that the style mattered – that it was McCarthy’s gruffness that attracted many to his side.  Liberals lacked the spirit of the fight, because they also worried about something called “civil liberties.”  McCarthy’s assured style mattered in the common perception of him as a fighter against liberal pansies who had too many self-tormented doubts.  Kristol wasn’t endorsing McCarthy here, but he was putting an idea on the table that neoconservatives would come back to later after the sixties: That liberal elites (the term “new class” wasn’t used at this point – the huge explosion in higher education was still emerging as a major social factor) betrayed their country and lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the American public.
Style versus substance and good versus bad presentism…

Andrew suggests I pick up on style too much rather than substance.  I realize I’m not in great standing if I defend style over substance.  Nonetheless, my undergraduate students have taught me that style and substance are inseparable every time they complain that I’ve graded their essays on writing (usually my “awkward prose” comments litter their margins) rather than their ideas or arguments.  Over and over, I have to explain that how you communicate your ideas – your tone, clarity, verve or lackthereof – is wedded to substance.  “If you can’t state your case, you don’t have a case,” I have said to many a perturbed younger writer.  There’s of course a fancy tradition of linguistic philosophy I could cite here, but why bother?  What I suggested in Rebels All! is that the style of contemporary conservatives – apocalyptic, fabulist in orientation, insular, aggressive – tells us a great deal about the substance of their ideas.  Hard right writers create hard right prose and communicate the nature of their ideas in doing so.  Andrew wants to separate out these two areas too quickly (and I should point out that one of the commenters on Andrew’s piece pointed this out better than I can).
This style argument is also tied to my defense of the liberal tradition in American ideas.  I must take aim at Hartman’s conflation of my interpretation of postwar liberalism with that of Peter Beinart (author of The Good Fight).  Indeed, I reviewed Beinart’s book in the Boston Review.  I spent a great deal of time showing that Beinart’s book was sloppy and full of historical analogies that didn’t work.  I am by all means a presentist, but I also see the inherent dangers of writing presentist history.  It’s rather easy to conflate the 9/11 period with the early years of the Cold War and to do so in a bad, sloppy, and rushed way.  Personally, I was shocked by Peter Beinart’s shock in the opening pages of The Good Fight where he confessed that he overvalued America’s legitimacy abroad and underestimated George W. Bush’s incompetence.  This coming from someone who had read Reinhold Niebuhr?!  Good presentism would have raised more doubts about our prospects of exporting democracy.  It would make us appreciate an insight of postwar liberalism: That irony and humility are necessary guards against self-assured expansion of American power.  That style, the way you hold your ideas and worldview, often guide the way you do things in the world.
So, yes, I’m a presentist less concerned with historiography and academic debates than I am in understanding the world I occupy.  On that, Andrew is certainly right.  I have just assigned George Orwell’s essays on writing for an upcoming graduate student course.  I am reminded in rereading Orwell that his motivation in writing – political and engaged – was always mine.  I cut my teeth and came into a great deal of my knowledge not from academe but from activism.  I learned to write for political publications and punk rock fanzines.  I also am suspicious that “new” ideas in historiography are as important as they often appear.  When I entered graduate school, there was still a great deal of interest in the prospect of labor and social history saving the historical profession as well as growing interest in Western Marxist theory to orient historical explorations (I was at the hotbed for that project during graduate school – the University of Rochester).  Remember how feminist historians touted the virtues of deconstruction as a method for rewriting history – a la Joan Scott (for more on this point, I point readers here)?  What happened to all of that, I’m left wondering today.  Historiography is largely a dustbin of trendy ideas that get put on for a number of years and then discarded.  The only thing we have left today, as far as I can tell, is a bricolage of ideas and orientations, none of which promise to orient our intellectual work with assuredness.  Perhaps such a statement consigns me to being on no graduate reading lists, as Andrew suggests.

A simpler and cleaner point.  I sense Andrew and I disagree on politics.  He appears much more of a leftist; I’m a liberal.  Some of his criticisms seem less about the substance of my own argument and getting things wrong and more with my own political conclusions.  As I recall, he didn’t care for my critique of Howard Zinn and other far lefties that I made a number of years ago.  It’s not about the popularization but about the conclusions you draw and where they point you politically.  Andrew goes much further in a left direction than I do.  This is not the place for me to elaborate on all of the ins and outs of the differences between liberals and leftists.

The debate about neocons that Andrew wanted to have…

Finally, the chief point that Andrew wanted most to debate, and this brings me back to my opening.  Andrew doesn’t like that I conflate the neoconservative critique (1960s onwards) with the Old Right intellectual hatred of liberal elites (1950s).  There are rarely direct lines in history (unlike Corey Robin, I don’t see straight lines, for instance, from Burke to Palin), but I’m pretty sure about thisdirect line.  I admit to a suspicion when anyone claims they are a “new” or “neo” anything.  I think that’s probably a historian’s natural inclination.  No doubt, the neoconservatives Andrew has in mind claimed the altar of uniqueness.  They felt uncomfortable being associated with WASP or Catholic curmudgeons, like Whittaker Chambers or William F. Buckley.  They were Jews educated in an urban milieu.  They believed in “social science” rather than purely moralistic arguments.  They had been mugged by the sixties.  They had “new” ideas to add to the debate.
True, true, true.  The “new class” conception had its own roots.  An entire book could be written about the idea (hell, an entire edited book was published about the idea).  Indeed, the conception of a new class had much deeper roots than the sixties.  Andrew knows that many of its roots went farther back to Thorstein Veblen’s idea of “engineers” clashing with capitalist owners, to the Trostkyist critique of Stalin’s supposed “betrayal” of the Soviet revolution, to Lionel Trilling’s conception of modernism’s “adversary” tendencies.  Daniel Bell – the sociologist who helped neoconservative arguments along the way until he balked at Kristol’s ideological hardening and recognized his own liberal beliefs – knew about all of these different roots and called the concept of a “new class” a “muddled” concept.  He was right.
My point is that the “new class” idea mimicked and helped reproduce, much more than the neoconservatives might have thought, that older idea of educated elites selling out the country to communism.  Who was Alger Hiss and who was Dean Acheson and who was Adlai Stevenson?  Well, they were all men who attended good schools because their families could afford them and yet who betrayed the ballast of western civilization.  The terms “egghead” and “new class” share more than we might at first think if we think about how the terms operate in political debate.  Most important of all, hardening a critique of a “new class” helped someone like a Kristol create a more populist tone to his work – a tone that he had once rejected during the mid-1960s and early 1970s (for more on this, see my essay about Kristol here).  Neoconservatives might have thought of themselves as social scientists in the pages of the Public Interest, but that would never have satisfied Kristol.  He wanted a movement, based around certain moral and political ideas, to take back the country from the liberal new class.  And who could blame him, if such ideas were always supposed to be about more than just academic ponderings?  Social scientific arguments weren’t enough.  He returned to the language of the Old Conservative right – one that was charged and moralistic – in order to fuel a political agenda.  I would suggest that the idea of a new class helped him get to this point.
So too Norman Podhoretz in the realm of foreign policy.  He would return to the spirit of Joseph McCarthy by the late 1970s, suggesting that a liberal elite (effeminate, perhaps even homosexual, and certainly cautious) had lost the Vietnam War.  That echoed the war at home that worried Irving Kristol once the Cold War had ended. In 1993, Kristol wrote, “My cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector of American life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at political and social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchy on the other.”  The language of war was the language of politics, of course.  Social science wouldn’t win a war.  But a class warfare argument just might.  And so the neoconservatives were right back to the language of Nixon (the 1952 Nixon, I would argue, as much as the 1972 Nixon who Kristol supported) and McCarthy as they vocalized a politics they thought could win the nation back from the perils of liberalism.  The 1960s and the culture wars mattered here for sure.  But my point is that the lineage was there to build upon already.  

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m a big fan of REBELS ALL and rely on it pretty heavily in my own book. To Andrew’s point about disjuncture between the neoconservatives and the 1950s “new conservatives” (Taft is Old Right, not Buckley, right?), what about in the realm of foreign policy? The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) looked alot like Burnham’s THE STRUGGLE FOR THE WORLD (1947).

    But my main question moves beyond the neocon question, so it can be ignored if it needs to be. If professing conservatives really aren’t conservatives, but radicals, populists, or postmodernists, then were there any real American conservatives worthy of the word in the twentieth century? Related question: I detected a covert sympathy in REBELS ALL, especially in the early chapters, for Nash’s so-called traditionalist conservatives, like Peter Viereck, Robert Nisbet, and even the early Kirk; am I wrong, or is Mattson fond of their reading of Burke? Jennifer Burns, in her essay in the Mattson and Jumonville edited collection LIBERALISM FOR A NEW CENTURY, notes Cold War liberal attention to traditionalist conservativism.

    One final point: Mattson and Robin were not the first to name new conservatives as radical iconoclasts; the ur-egghead Stevenson did so as well in the 1950s. Viereck in CONSERVATIVISM REVISITED (2nd ed.) and Clinton Rossiter in CONSERVATIVISM IN AMERICA both made much of stevenson’s speech in which he claimed that the Democratic Party was “conservativism at its best.” He charged opponents with trying to tear down entrenched, time-tested institutions like social security.

  2. I have been wondering why nobody has yet to pitch a fit and fall in sideways over this:

    Historiography is largely a dustbin of trendy ideas that get put on for a number of years and then discarded. The only thing we have left today, as far as I can tell, is a bricolage of ideas and orientations, none of which promise to orient our intellectual work with assuredness. Perhaps such a statement consigns me to being on no graduate reading lists, as Andrew suggests.

    But then I decided that this might just be a bit of, uh, acting up in the museum.

    To clear the air, I’d offer this somewhat different perspective, from T.J. Jackson Lears’s preface to the paperback edition of No Place of Grace:

    An anti-theoretical bias is particularly strong in Anglo-American historical circles: in part it represents a healthy suspicion of fashionable (usually French) slogans and catchwords masquerading as ideas. But the hostility to theory can also be rooted in a narrow and unimaginative cast of mind: Alfred North Whitehead called it “dustbowl empiricism.”

    I am not suggesting that Mattson is a dustbowl empiricist — he strikes me more as a polemical pugilist. And that’s fine — I appreciate and admire WYSIWYG discourse. Frank, open and fierce go a long way — but it helps to be right.

    Whether Mattson is right about why he’s not on graduate reading lists in general (if that’s the case), I can’t say. What I can say, from all my vast and doubtless universally applicable experience as a grad student (!), is that a big part of working through a reading list entails wrestling with methodological and theoretical problems.

    And for all that Mattson may be right here about Andrew’s too crude bifurcation of style and substance — with, I suppose, “substance” as the base and “style” as the superstructure? — he seems to do the same thing when it comes to historical argument and historiographic theory. They cannot be separated; they inform each other.

    Thus spake the grad student who is (happily) slogging through this reading list.

  3. Now I am guilty of crude bifurcation, LD? And here I was resisting harshly critiquing your celebration of style as a historical category. At least I now know how to frame my response to Mattson. Thanks!

  4. If my ideas could benefit from a harsh critique, then I would hope you’d offer one. I don’t know if my ideas can stand up to it, but I sure can. But maybe I am making a too-crude bifurcation between the thought and the thinker?

    I may or may not counter with a critique of my own, but I’ll do it openly and in good faith. That’s my style, as you know and (I think?) appreciate.

    And, yes, I think Mattson is guilty (in this post, anyhow) of a little bit of Livingston-esque provocation, as well as a (feigned?) naivete about the way that theory (and even, perhaps, Theory) forms and informs the writing of history.

  5. Well, they were all men who attended good schools because their families could afford them and yet who betrayed the ballast of western civilization. The terms “egghead” and “new class” share more than we might at first think if we think about how the terms operate in political debate.

    But there’s a huge difference between “egghead” and “counterculture.” And if I’m not mistaken, a lot of the basis for neoconservative attack on the New Class was its infiltration by the counterculture. This changed the cast of characters substantially, it seems to me. As Sam Tanenhaus noted, it expands the cast of suspicious characters considerably over for instance James Burnham, who he says was concerned more about policy people than the professions.

    What you constantly hear in Bellow’s *Mr. Sammler’s Planet* is that the conditions you have to react to are new. The “sex ideology” influencing Sammler’s niece is something new. The young man confronting him at Columbia, saying “Orwell is s&^t”, is new. There’s all sorts of imagery about newness. The first bubbles in a boiling pot are described as pioneers that others follow, eventually making a torrent of bubbles.

    Also, the political winds are new. Reagan is running against his own state’s university system. Nixon’s intellectual Kevin Phillips writes something that sounds exactly like the diatribe against the New Class in the Emerging Republican Majority (page 88-89 if you’ve got a copy). You could lift those paragraphs out of Phillips’ book, lop off the parts targeting the northeast as the seat of the intellectuals and urbanists allying with “the negroes” and you could mix and match it with passages in Irving Kristol’s essays…

    Another aspect is that when the counterculture wanes, or when another populist style overtakes it, there’s an expectation that intellectually honest neoconservatives (hypothetically) would change their tune. Mark Lilla noted this in a WSJ op ed: “Writing recently in the New York Times, David Brooks noted correctly (if belatedly) that conservatives’ ‘disdain for liberal intellectuals’ had slipped into ‘disdain for the educated class as a whole,’ and worried that the Republican Party was alienating educated voters.” It sounds like Lilla might say that Brooks is attempting an intellectual honesty that you would expect from students of Trilling, but wouldn’t expect from the rest?

  6. In my prep as the “commenter” on Andrew Hartman’s discussion of Mattson [USIH 6.5.12], I went to the historiographic dustbin to find Hofstadter setting the kinship of terms such as “style,” “culture,” “symbol,” and “identity” over against political “structure,” “distribution of power” and politics as the play of “interests.”

    With that familiar alignment in mind, I reacted to Hartman’s seemingly over-sharp distinction between style and substance, as he challenged Mattson’s view that “conservatives are the legatees of sixties radicalism,” in spite of being “rowdy anti-establishmentarians in style.”

    Contra Hartman, Mattson says that “style and substance are inseparable” and emphasizes the coherence and continuity of the conservative mind back to the 1950s, notwithstanding what in Rebels All! he calls the “neoconservative intervention and detour.”

    He also argues that the “sensibility” or “mood” of the 60s can be found on the left as well as the right, which leads to the idea that liberalism, “refusing to take up the extremes of either far Left or far Right,… is a political theory that champions social order and civility” — and cites Schlesinger, Jr. and Hofstadter, who worried over both violent student rebellion and right-wing backlash. [140]

    This suggests that left and right share a certain, call it extremist style, since their substantive ideological contents are presumably divergent. But in my mereological confusion, I wonder how the inseparability of style and substance can co-exist with stylistic parallels of left and right.

    Maybe we need help from some “fancy tradition of linguistic philosophy” that Mattson dismisses. I don’t know whether he is a strong inseparabilist, holding that meaning is the fusion of form and content, that the content of an ideology is bound up with or embodied in its expression; perhaps, since he says there’s such a thing as “hard right prose.”

    If so, how can we extract the beliefs and values of an ideology and discuss them, or compare and contrast them with those of another? How can we discuss the changing style of, say, a conservatism that persists over time?

    For Hartman, on the other hand, style and substance appear to have a weaker or conditional relation, so he resists assimilating neo-cons into the larger right on the strength of a stylistic connection. Such a move would disrupt the alignment of elements in his study of the culture wars — spirit of the ‘60s vs. anti-‘60s = neo-liberalism vs. neo-conservatism. [USIH 12.17.10 and 1.17.11]

    But, if neo-conservatives despise the adversary culture of the new class as embodying the ‘60s, and Mattson’s liberals oppose the ‘60s spirit embodied in both left and right, perhaps there isn’t much space between them.

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