Thursday, November 8, 2007

Gordon Brown and Himmelfarb

I am glad to see I am not the only one to be disturbed by Gordon Brown's enthusiasm for the writing of Gertude Himmelfarb, right-wing neo-con and Victorian-style moralist, wife of Irving Kristol ("the Godfather of neo-conservativism") and mother of William Kristol (editor of Murdoch's neo-con magazine The Weekly Standard) [for wikipedia entry on this Fox-News-style publication, go here].

I devoted some of my book The War For Children's Minds to exposing the feebleness of Himmelfarb's thinking on the social need for traditional, authority-based religion (in my view, she's a light-weight: her books are heavy on quotes and historical references, which can disguise the flimsiness of her actual argument).

I like Gordon Brown, as it happens, but his enthusiasm for Himmelfarb's reactionary writing is a bit worrying.

A typical bit of Himmelfarb:

[i]t is not only conservatives... who now deplore the breakdown of the family; liberals do as well. [Few today] seriously doubt the inadequacy of education at all levels, or the fragility of communal ties, or the coarsening and debasement of the culture, or the 'defining down' of morality, public and private. It is no mean achievement to have reached at least this point of consensus.

Himmelfarb's cure for this moral malaise? Himmelfarb wrote an approving preface for Digby Anderson's This Will Hurt, a collection of essays by various neo-cons recommending we bring back the social stigmatization of unwed mothers, gays, etc. etc.

As American Prospect points out,

even a parody could not come up with chapters like "Administering Punishment Morally, Publicly, and Without Excuse," "Uniformity, Uniforms, and the Maintenance of Adult Authority," and "Ostracism and Disgrace in the Maintenance of a Precarious Social Order."


I can confirm that Digby Anderson's book is indeed unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps someone should slip a copy of the weirdly sadistic, Monty-Pythonesque, and Himmelfarb-approved, This Will Hurt into Gordon's Christmas stocking.

P.S. Digby Anderson's own contribution to this volume is "Ridicule as a Means of Resisting Outlandish and Socially Damaging Ideas". Yes indeed. I suggest we take the piss out of his book.

11 comments:

Hugo Hadlow said...

Hi Stephen,
I don't know much about the subject matter, but I'm disappointed to see you use the word "reactionary" ("Himmelfarb's reactionary writing"). What do you think it means? I don't think it means anything.

In "Interventionism, An Economic Analysis" (1940), Ludwig von Mises wrote:

"The usual terminology of political language is stupid. What is 'left' and what is 'right'? Why should Hitler be 'right' and Stalin, his temporary friend, be 'left'? Who is 'reactionary' and who is 'progressive'? Reaction against an unwise policy is not to be condemned. And progress towards chaos is not to be commended. Nothing should find acceptance just because it is new, radical, and fashionable. 'Orthodoxy' is not an evil if the doctrine on which the 'orthodox' stand is sound. Who is anti-labor, those who want to lower labor to the Russian level, or those who want for labor the capitalistic standard of the United States? Who is 'nationalist,' those who want to bring their nation under the heel of the Nazis, or those who want to preserve its independence?"

Stephen Law said...

Then substitute "backward-looking, desirous of a return to the old order" or whatever.

anticant said...

Some of Himmelfarb's stuff is worth reading. Digby Anderson is a pompous twat.

Anonymous said...

Gordon is looking for strengthening potions. (I have a sneaking affection for him too.)

p.s. I'm a reactionary, but now paranoid about my own existence...

Hugo Hadlow said...

Okay, that's fine. I still wouldn't have used it. It's a word that sounds bad, and "progressive" is a word that sounds good. Calling oneself a progressive is (too) often an excuse not to offer any justification for one's views or explain further. Similarly, people are often content to call someone a "regressive" and leave it at that.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to be "backward-looking, desirous of a return to the old order" if the old order was good. One needs to back up calling someone a reactionary with an explanation of what, in this case, they are reacting against (because one might be "reactionary" on some things and "progressive" on others), and why this reaction is bad.

This isn't much of a criticism of you, Stephen, because in the past you have indeed argued against Himmelfarb (in your book) (although in this post there wasn't much (any?) argument mentioned against her).

But in that case, why use the word at all? I propose we stop using "progressive" and "reactionary".

Hugo Hadlow said...

"Neoconservativism"

"Gertude Himmelfarb... neo-con", "the Godfather of neo-conservativism", "Murdoch's neo-con magazine".

At the moment, I'm reading "Neoconservatism: why we need it" by Douglas Murray. He has a section at the beginning about how "neo-con" is another word which people seem to think abrogates the need to explain what's bad about someone (if anything). Just call them a neo-con and no further criticism is necessary.

Now, again, of course you did add further criticism, Stephen. But then why mention neo-conservatism in the first place? Your first paragraph is an ad hominem attack.

Political labels are rarely helpful.

What do you think "neo-conservatism" is?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Hugo. The first para is not really an ad hominem. For "neo-con" is a label that these individuals regularly apply to themselves. I was not intending to use it insultingly, just descriptively, so people get a rough idea of the kind of position I am talking about.

Ditto "reactionary", really.

There is an interesting question about where a negative connotation enters into meaning. "Reactionary" probably does have a bit of a negative connotation. But then, for many Americans, so does "liberal". So should we stop using "liberal"?

It's true that many of these political labels are hard to define very precisely. Still, "reactionary" and "neo-con" do have fairly clear meanings. They give a ball-park indication of what someone believes in a given area. That was what I intended.

Hugo Hadlow said...

Hi Stephen,
Good answer. Whenever I see the words "reactionary" or "progressive" I wonder whether the person using them has considered what they (the person, not the words) mean. They are usually used quite flippantly.

'It's true that many of these political labels are hard to define very precisely. Still, "reactionary" and "neo-con" do have fairly clear meanings.'
I'm not so sure. I think if you took a random sample of some people and asked them what they thought, say, "conservative" meant, there wouldn't be much overlap/agreement. Or, if you asked them what policies a "conservative" would support (perhaps gave them a list and asked them to identify the conservative ones), I think there wouldn't be much overlap/agreement.

I'm a bit of a policy nut: "if you don't have a policy, I don't want to know". So I get a bit frustrated with political labels: I tend to ask "so what does this mean in terms of policy?" Even if someone explains a label with something slightly more specific, I still get a bit frustrated. Like "I'm in favour of smaller government". I ask "so what does this mean in terms of policy? Cap on government spending? Close down department x?" etc.

I've been wondering about "neo-conservative": it seems that I can find "neo-conservatives" who support smaller govt, larger govt, dislike gay people, happy to let gay people get on with their lives just like everyone else, etc etc, just like you can find with plain "conservatives". As far as I can see, the only defining characteristic of neo-conservatism is support for invading dictatorships for two reasons: "spreading democracy and freedom" and getting rid of perceived foreign threats. I.e. support for offensive military, not just defence. But then you can find people on the "L/left" who support that too. "Is neo-conservatism 'right-wing'? Discuss."

I probably should have asked you from the start, and to clarify:
What do you think "neo-conservative" means?

Stephen Law said...

Hi Hugo

You say:

I think if you took a random sample of some people and asked them what they thought, say, "conservative" meant, there wouldn't be much overlap/agreement.

My guess is there would be considerable overlap. It's an empirical question though. Maybe we should do a poll?

Stephen Law said...

What do I mean by "neo-con"? The sort of views promoted by Irving Kristol, I guess. You know: spread democracy through invasion, aggresive foregn policy,etc. Straussian views about social need for religion, de-regulators, tax-lite, stress on getting people to fend for themselves, anti-welfare dependency, etc. etc. I guess neo-con is what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. There need be no one thing all neo-cons have in common!

Of course, if being a family resemblance concept makes a concept illegitimate, then probably most of our concepts are illegitimate.

Hugo Hadlow said...

"I guess neo-con is what Wittgenstein calls a family resemblance concept. There need be no one thing all neo-cons have in common!

Of course, if being a family resemblance concept makes a concept illegitimate, then probably most of our concepts are illegitimate."

Quite. Though compare "chair" or "game". We're pretty good at identifying and agreeing on what are chairs and games. But I'm not so sure about "neo-con" apart from the military side of things. On the social side of things, I don't see much difference between conservatism and neo-conservatism: lots of differences of opinion on both sides.

How about "Irving Kristolism"?


"Straussian views about social need for religion"
I haven't read any Strauss, though I've read a little bit about him and Allan Bloom. It seems there's a lot more to it than people think.