by Jon Winsor
In Monday’s piece on Rush Limbaugh, Chris mentions Rush’s confidence—that Limbaugh has psychologically “seized and freezed” on “climategate”, using it for his go-to excuse to end all discussion on climate.
It’s true that Rush is nothing if not confident. But this is partly a matter of what Rush Limbaugh does all day, nearly every day. As Nate Silver pointed out, there are certain demands that the medium of talk radio makes. Uncertainty and shades of grey don’t play well to Rush’s audience, who are often mowing their lawns and channel surfing through stations. So Rush has developed certain professional skills and habits to give his audience what it wants, which isn’t trenchant analysis of a topic, isn’t a discussion informed by reliable sources–Rush is above all an entertainer, as he often reminds us. And it seems he doesn’t feel he owes his audience much more than that.
…Which has me thinking of the conservatives who didn’t think of themselves as entertainers, who probably served as Limbaugh’s inspirations, and who originally worked in the medium of the essay and op-ed, not radio. Recently, a number of columnists have been reflecting on the work of the late Irving Kristol (whose work will be published soon in a new collection of essays). Most of the columns I’ve read make the following two points: 1) that Kristol was immensely influential (and not just an essayist–the word impresario often crops up), and 2) that Kristol continually drew conclusions that oversimplified his subjects—but drew those conclusions in so confident a way, so unacknowledging of other views, that his work seemed designed to simply end productive discussion.
George Scialabba in The Nation is the most scathing on Kristol:
Matisse said he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. Irving Kristol seems to have wanted his writing to have the effect of a good martini on a beleaguered corporate executive. The executive’s prejudices, widely scorned among the young and the educated (in the 1960s and 70s, that is, when Kristol began offering this therapy), were eloquently reaffirmed; his feelings, wounded by impertinent criticism, were tenderly soothed; his conscience, feeble but occasionally troublesome, was expertly anaesthetized. The executive’s gratitude knew no bounds; in return, he and his foundations showered their faithful servant with the money and favors that made Kristol so prominent a figure in American intellectual life.
…Kristol’s breezy certainty… is a thing to be envied. His ideological comrade Joseph Epstein wrote wonderingly of Kristol’s “commanding tone, supremely confident about subjects that are elsewhere held to be still in the flux of controversy, assuming always that anyone who thinks differently is perverse or inept.”
Kristol’s readers were decidedly not mowing lawns. They were donating to the then-fledgeling conservative foundations. He was also inspiring the next generation of conservative figures (like Limbaugh). Schialabba calls Kristol, despite his shortcomings (or perhaps because of them), “one of the most influential minds of his generation.”
Of course, you could argue that the job of someone writing for the Nation is to polemicize, and perhaps even build up some straw men. But we can also quote Karl Rove:
Karl Rove… called Mr. Kristol an “intellectual entrepreneur who helped energize several generations of public policy thinkers.” Through editing, writing and speaking, Mr. Kristol “made it a moral imperative to rouse conservatism from mainstream Chamber of Commerce boosterism to a deep immersion in ideas,” said Rove.
Franklin Foer at the New Republic has a similar opinion of Kristol’s influence:
Kristol’s significance to the movement very nearly matches [William F.] Buckley’s. The latter re-launched American conservatism in the 1950s, bringing the disparate forces of reaction and libertarianism under one anti-communist, anti-statist banner. But under Buckley’s leadership the movement remained raw, disorganized, apocalyptic-minded, delusional about the prospects of repealing the New Deal, and poised perennially to suffer Barry Goldwater’s fate. Kristol did more—as an ideologist and an institution builder—to solve the engineering problems that plagued Buckley’s contraption, and to burrow the tunnel through which conservatism entered its triumphal era.
On the quality of Kristol’s work, Foer writes:
For better or for worse, he would make his case by issuing categorical judgments, without expending much effort to provide bolstering evidence. Nathan Glazer titled his contribution to one Festschrift “A Man Without Footnotes.” At his best, this liberated Kristol to render broad judgments about history, politics, and life—the timeless questions of philosophy, which genuinely animated him…
But he also played the part of the counter-establishment pundit, the ideological provocateur, and in that role his pronouncements feel significantly less monumental. As he assumed his place as the “godfather” of a movement, bromides increasingly displaced his fine judgments, and his essays lost the vitality that came with his struggle to define a new politics. His thinking calcified into aphorism, and the aphorisms were often caricatures of ideas designed to rally the troops. He felt comfortable quipping, “It is the selfimposed assignment of neoconservatism to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.”
The part about “without footnotes” seems crucial (most of Glazer’s essay can be found here). Yuval Levin’s attack on Chris’s work a few years ago cried out for footnotes. Reading Levin’s essay I found myself asking something like, “He seems supremely confident. But strangely, there are absolutely no science references. Isn’t he even going to drop Bjorn Lomberg’s name?” Or with George Will’s disastrous op-ed, I found myself asking, “just what are those ‘20 Internet reference links’”? These kinds of referenceless assertions seem similar to Rush Limbaugh’s “exchange” with NH resident Michael Hillinger, where there was no good faith attempt to publicly justify a case, just a flat assertion and a cut to a commercial.
Of course, the phrase “without footnotes” is mostly figurative here. No one expects a newspaper columnist to literally use footnotes. But still, footnotes exist for a reason. They are like the grade school math teacher who requires her students to “show your work,” partly to make sure students aren’t just giving someone else’s answers, but partly because mistakes can be instructive. When you see how someone came to a wrong conclusion, there’s often something to learn.
Being “without footnotes,” or not being forthcoming with sources of information, can be a sign that you’re not playing the same good faith game as everyone else. You’re not willing to lay down your marker on the table and have it discussed. It seems to show a lack of respect for values that a country founded on Enlightenment principles should hold dear. And Kristol certainly wasn’t holding up those values when he at one point called talk-radio populism “the ‘last, best hope’ of contemporary conservatism.”