Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Conservative Soul, part 1

I really don't understand the political views that people describe as "conservative"; I describe my political views as liberal and progressive.

I want to understand conservatives. To that end, I'm reading two books: The Conservative Soul[1], by Andrew Sullivan and The Conscience of a Conservative, by Barry Goldwater.

I'm starting with Sullivan's book. I've just begun; I'm halfway through the second chapter. But I've already found so much to say that I'm just going to jump in and write down my notes as I read the book. With all good luck, I'll be able to pull it all together in a coherent review when I finish the book.

Before I begin, I should note that I have a lot of preexisting opinions about Andrew Sullivan, mostly on the basis of his website and published articles.

As a self-described liberal and progressive, I have an immediate bias against anyone who calls himself a conservative: I consider conservatives to be both evil and often stupid[2], whereas I consider self-described liberals to be sometimes good and usually at least considerably less evil, although almost as--if not equally--stupid. In any case, it's an open question whether the road to hell is most efficiently paved with good or bad intentions, so I try to keep an open mind.

No one can deny that Sullivan is a skilled and talented writer. Furthermore, although I dislike much of what he has to say, Sullivan is definitely not a wingnut in the mold of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. I admire his (hardly surprising) advocacy of gay rights and gay marriage, and his courageous stand against torture[3]. I appreciate that he supports abortion rights even though he personally finds abortion immoral.

On the other hand, Sullivan all too often makes statements--especially on his blog--which I find transparently vapid, delusional or just plain contradictory: It's simply beyond me, for instance, how anyone who approved of Clinton would support a reptilian buffoon like George W. Bush over Al "Bill Clinton without the Blowjobs"[4] Gore.

My overall impression of Sullivan is a guy who, if he gets a good idea in his head, can write eloquently and persuasively in support of it. On the other hand, if he gets a dumb idea in his head, he can support it just as eloquently and persuasively. On the gripping hand, it's my impression he doesn't appear to depend much on rational analysis to choose which ideas get stuck in his head; he seems to rely almost exclusively on "truthiness" in this regard.

These are just my impressions: I'm disclosing my own biases. The above isn't any kind of substantive criticism. As I read his book, I need to be consciously aware of my own biases and prejudices so I can at least have a chance of evaluating his work honestly. And my readers[5] deserve to know my biases in judging my review.

In my next post, I'll talk about the preface.

[1] Sullivan, Andrew. 2006. The Conservative soul : how we lost it, how to get it back. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[2] More precisely, as J. S. Mill put it, "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it."

[3] It's astonishing to me that in the 21st century a stand against torture justly deserves the praise of being courageous, even by a self-described conservative. Even John McCain, who's actually been tortured, is nowhere nearly as outspoken nor insistent as Sullivan.

[4] And without the charisma, of course. But a) one expects an intellectual such as Sullivan to see beyond superficialities, and b) Bush doesn't have all that much charisma himself.

[5] Well, I hope someone besides my wife will read this.

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