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The Reactionary Mind
Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin

by Corey Robin, 2013

In the New Your Review of Books, Corey Robin writes:

My book argues that conservatism is a reaction against movements of the left – from the French Revolution to feminism.

Conservatism is a moral vision in which excellence depends upon hierarchy.

The fact that conservatism is reactionary doesn't mean it is always the same. To the contrary, it changes across time and space, in response to the movements it opposes.

Individualism has been a big part of conservative and liberal thought. Robin devotes all of his Chapter Three to the extreme individualism of Ayn Rand. Rand's hero in her book The Fountainhead says:

The great creators – the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors – stood alone against the men of their time. Every new thought was opposed.

Ayn Rand saw herself as one of the great creators – while eager to have a following despite her hero standing alone. She spoke against those she saw as society's unproductive elements: intellectuals, bureaucrats, and middlemen. Robin wrote also of her confusions about Aristotle and her super tough stance against altruism. The benefits of cooperation and sharing were not big in Rand's thinking. Her loathing of altruism and anything socialistic created her political philosophy.

Rand's hero was an individualism expremist. The were the collectivists on the left: Stalin and Mao among them. And we have people in the middle, who support a lot of free enterprise and public welfare – as does Sweden and Denmark. Rand's simplistic individualism ignores that Einstein's ideas came when they did rather than centuries or a millennia earlier because they were built upon the work of others. Rand's extreme individualism wasn't big in recognizing that individualism can bring disaster to a community. For example, Greece crashed economically as many of its citizens escaped paying taxes. Corporations today benefit from infrastructure and other benefits from outside themselves. The US Constitution, by the way, is a cooperation manual, and civilization is built on cooperation – this paragraph a series of old stuff not mentioned by Robin.

Corey Robin includes in his discussion descriptions of Phyllis Schlafly, who died recently (September 5.) Schlafly's conservatism has a lot of differences from Rand's. Part of Schlafly's conservatism was a reaction to advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. Rand was an atheist. and Schlafly was a Christian immersed in ancient Biblical culture that included women subordinate to men. Robin describes Schlafly posing as a defender of women's rights and believing that the ERA took away women's rights: the right of a woman to be supported, the right to an "ongoing marriage" – that women were wives and mothers first.

Schlafly was against abortion, civil or same-sex marriages, and against immigration reform proposals. She had a new book on the market entitled The Conservative Case for Trump, and in it she supports the building of a Wall, and she is described as wise and Trump is said to be as wise to the foolishness of the global warming scam.

I did not find in Robin's book what connects reactionary minds to climate-change denial – perhaps because I did not look hard enough. His index didn't help. My impression is that playing a role in climate-change denial, among a few at least, is the belief that God alone creates changes in nature.

Nor did I find mention of Biblical culture having influenced Schlafly regarding abortion and same-sex marriages. There are religious people to the left-of-center, but we have on the political-right Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell Jr, Rick Santorum to name a few. Robin's book doesn't dwell on the political-right's claim to be defending against "secular progressives." Secularism has been growing since the Middle Ages, and some people on the right feel threatened by the trend against their brand of spirituality.

Robin does discuss Joseph de Maistre's reaction to the French Revolution, Edmund Burke, Thomas Hobbes and others from the past – without adding much understanding as to what is on the mind of today's reactionaries. How many Republican politicians have been moved by de Maistre's writings or have been inspired by primarily by Burke?

A political scientist, Mark Lilla, has evaluated Robin's book. He writes:

Robin can be insightful when he writes profiles of some individuals on the right [Ayn Rand, for example?]    ... my main point: when it comes to thinking about "the right" he's hopelessly confused. The main confusion is conceptual and arises because he has no clear idea of what he means by "conservatism."

D. Donaldson comments on Amazon:

Robin's book is a collection of recent essays. As such, it's focus can wander.

And, there is a tendency for Robin to present conservatism as oddly immutable, and only partly, or not at all a capable of introspection and change. This may be true, but I doubt it. Conservatism is not a reflection of Nietzsche's "Eternal Return of the Same". But Robin seems to want to frame the emergence of the Tea Party as part of an immutable template.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.