February 11, 2007

Of Winters and Discontents

I almost included this stylistic criticism of George Will's column in this AmSpecBlog post, but thought better of it. I have to say, though, that it kind of bothers me when a writer alludes to the opening line of Richard III in a way that depends on "the winter of our discontent" meaning something other than what it means in the play.

Posted by John Tabin at February 11, 2007 04:24 AM
Comments

John,

I don't think you're going to be able to read George Will out of the conservative movement.

Best, Jeremy

PS: You're right about that "winter of our discontent" bit. I vote for, should have included it in the AmSpec post.

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 11, 2007 10:04 AM

I wasn't trying to read him out of the conservative movement (am I even part of the conservative movement?), just pointing out the weakness of his prescription. I would point out that conservatives seem a lot more likely to reject George Will than Ronald Reagan, though.

Posted by: John Tabin at February 11, 2007 01:40 PM

1. >I wasn't trying to read him out of the conservative movement

That's how I read this: "[I]f Will's conservatism is one that finds the very notion of liberation 'preposterous,' it neither has nor deserves any future in American politics."

2. >am I even part of the conservative movement?

Yes.

3. >I would point out that conservatives seem a lot more likely to reject George Will than Ronald Reagan, though.

And if Will was calling conservatives to reject Ronald Reagan, you'd have a point. But here's Will:

"Because of Reagan's role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Diggins ranks him among the 'three great liberators in American history'... -- and among America's three or four greatest presidents."

"[The Republican Party should] leaven its reverence for Reagan with respect for Madison."

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 11, 2007 03:18 PM

Hmm. "Reagan's theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke's nemesis, Thomas Paine" sure sounds to me like Will is saying that Reagan isn't a conservative. The fact that he goes on to praise Reagan in the same breath as FDR (you ellipsis'd that part out) doesn't seem to mitigate that much.

I'm not a conservative, though I am a respectful political ally of conservatives. I'm just saying I'd be much less of an ally if conservatism came to mean pessimistic fatalism about the human condition, which is where Will's line of thinking seems to lead.

By the way, I think Jim Antle successfully scales Will's point back to reasonableness.

Posted by: John Tabin at February 12, 2007 12:27 PM

1. You're ignoring the fact that this is a book write-up column, in which Will tells you about what a new book has to say.

2. >I'm not a conservative, though I am a respectful political ally of conservatives.

I didn't call you a conservative. You asked if you were "part of the conservative movement." I said yes. So we're just going to have to agree.

3. Do you think that Burke's conservatism consists of "pessimistic fatalism about the human condition"?

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 12, 2007 03:08 PM

1. Intentionally so-- Will's obviously giving his opinion, so I'm engaging Will rather than a book that I haven't read.

3. No, but I can't shake the impression that Will does.

Posted by: John Tabin at February 12, 2007 05:28 PM

1. >Will's obviously giving his opinion, so I'm engaging Will rather than a book that I haven't read.

Department of missing the point: The purpose of a Will book column is to throw ideas out there from some new volume. Will obviously has to be somewhat sympathetic to the argument in order to run with it but he isn't endorsing all of the particulars. He's saying, "Hey, there's this new book and here's what it argues."

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 12, 2007 05:51 PM

No. He's using the book as a jumping off point to make his own argument; he's not just relaying its ideas.

Posted by: John Tabin at February 12, 2007 06:24 PM

> "In this winter of their discontents, nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become for many conservatives a substitute for thinking. This mental paralysis -- gratitude decaying into idolatry -- is sterile: Neither the man nor his moment will recur. Conservatives should face the fact that Reaganism cannot define conservatism."

Q: The above, Will or Diggins?

A: Well let's look at the next line:

"That is one lesson of John Patrick Diggins's new book..."

The original line that got you so worked up was "Reagan frequently quoted [Thomas] Paine's preposterous cry that 'we have it in our power to begin the world over again.'"

That was preceeded by these lines:

"The 1980s, he [that is, Diggins] says, thoroughly joined politics to political theory. But he notes that Reagan's theory was radically unlike that of Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, and very like that of Burke's nemesis, Thomas Paine. Burke believed that the past is prescriptive because tradition is a repository of moral wisdom..."

So was it Will that you were upset with, or Diggins?

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 12, 2007 07:17 PM

Interesting stuff, guys, but how do you miss Will's final paragraph:

"If the defining doctrine of the Republican Party is limited government, the party must move up from nostalgia and leaven its reverence for Reagan with respect for Madison. As Diggins says, Reaganism tells people comforting and flattering things that they want to hear; the Madisonian persuasion tells them sobering truths that they need to know."

A reviewer tells us what he thinks by what he focuses upon. Here, Will's letting us know he thinks Reaganism is largely shallow and unsubstantial, with its focus on "comforting and flattering things" the people want to hear and pines for more emphasis to the "sobering truths."

This is consistent with the turn I've seen in Will over the years - he's become ever more negative, pessimistic, crabby, etc.; sometimes I think that, but for the bow tie, he'd consider joining Buchanan's Pitchfork Brigade.

For what it's worth, he's also full of it. Reagan said lots of "uncomforting things":

Here's my plan for the Cold War: We win, they lose;

The Soviet Union is an evil empire headed for the scrap heap of history;

We're going to deploy the Pershing II's regardless of the protests in the streets of Europe;

Libya made a mistake;

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall";

just to name a few.

Mr. Will's allowed himself to be distracted by style - apparently, Conservatism has to be preached by men (and women) whose shorts are three sizes too small.

Posted by: BD57 at February 12, 2007 07:41 PM

Jeremy: I don't know how you can read any of that as anything other than Will's opinion. Having not read the book, I don't even know if his characterization of Diggins is accurate, but everything in his phrasing tells me that Will thinks he's identifying insights that are correct.

Posted by: John Tabin at February 13, 2007 10:59 AM

John: Suggestion (and there is no intended snark here): Read the book and review it for somebody.

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at February 13, 2007 03:59 PM