strange criticism

John Holbo, in the lead up to an enjoyable dismantling of Ross Douthat’s views on the Catholic hospital birth control controversy, paraphrases a curious criticism of Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind:

Some reviewers have complained that Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind seriously overreaches when he writes stuff like this:

Conservatism is the theoretical voice of … animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite. (7)

He digs up fun quotes from old, odd sources.

“In order to keep the state out of the hands of the people,” wrote the French monarchist Louis de Bonald, “it is necessary to keep the family out of the hands of women and children.” (15)

At this point conservatives get ticked off: Louis de who?

Can’t pin us to some dead monarchist! Guy was French! Robin is guilty of tarring all of conservatism with the broadest, blackest brush. It’s paranoid stuff. Nasty sniffing around in the alleged id. No respect for the superego.

I wish Holbo had linked to some of these reviewers, because this is a strange criticism. Robin systematically analyzes the writing and philosophy of a broad swath of the biggest figures in contemporary conservatism: Barry Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Antonin Scalia, George W. Bush, John Ashcroft…. These are not fringe conservative figures. Yes, Robin casts pretty far back into the intellectual evolution of conservatism, but that’s kind of what it means to write a intellectual history.

Indeed, the criticism Holbo references makes the most sense to me if the reader has only read the introduction! I hope to write a full review of Robin’s book at some point– I know, quite timely and topical— but for now I’ll say that my only reservation so far is in fact the introduction. Not because it is poorly expressed or unconvincing, but precisely because, in its more global, less specific focus, it invites critiques of the kind Holbo mentions. At 35 pages, it perhaps delays the start of Robin’s more meticulous project a bit too long. But maybe I’m guilty of a service vision of political writing.

Update: Taking this a step further, in this exchange with Mark Lilla, Robin suggests that Lilla’s review is almost exclusively concerned with the introduction. I agree with that assessment. It’s a shame that such a careful book is being judged based on the broader strokes typical of an introduction.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *