In Search of the Conservative Intellectual

Shortly after the much-touted “red wave” of the 2022 midterms turned out to be little more than a trickle, the lofty National Review published a piece written by one Scott Howard lamenting the dire future of American “conservatism” — which he largely attributed to the sorry state of the “conservative movement” on college and university campuses. The writer, himself a student at the University Of Florida, naturally works in the obligatory trope about how his kind are supposedly subject to persecution and repression by the left-wing cabal that dominates institutes of higher learning — which he declares, without a hint of irony or self-awareness, are “hostile to conservative ideas”.

He seems quite oblivious to the possibility that there just might be good reason for this — even though the reason is right under his nose. Indeed, he thrusts it right under his own nose at least a couple of times. For one thing, he mentions that the leading right-wing voice on campus is Turning Point USA, which he rightly characterizes as an “unserious organization”.

Furthermore, he bemoans that there is “intense anti-intellectualism in some prominent parts of the movement”. You don’t say. And as such, these “prominent parts” (i.e., the GOP mainstream) frequently wage war on America’s educational system.

Academia, of course, is not the same as intellectualism, but the two are intertwined. Not every intellectual has a degree, and by no means is everyone who possesses a sheepskin an intellectual. But anyone who appreciates intellectual acumen is also going to appreciate the benefits of an education. And conversely, anyone who despises one is going to despise the other.

And then there are those who, like Mr. Howard, aver that they appreciate both, but their actions indicate otherwise. When they claim that they value the personal enrichment opportunities an education provides, chances are they mean that they are looking for reinforcement for their beliefs. A few years ago, the National Review actually fielded a discussion about which campuses offer “conservative courses”.

PragerU, which fancies itself a medium for cutting out the middleman and injecting the gospel directly into the veins of gullible young people, has often repeated the line — again, with no trace of irony or self-awareness — that “a student can spend four years on a college campus without ever being exposed to a conservative idea”. Well, yes, that’s true enough. But it’s not the fault of the campus, its instructors, or its student body. There’s simply no such thing as a conservative idea. (For that matter there’s no such thing as a “conservative movement”, an oxymoronic combination of words.) Conservatives on the whole don’t have ideas. They have beliefs and reactions.

Every “conservative idea” began its life as a liberal idea, and was accepted by conservatives only after it was accepted by everyone else. (Right-wingers once raged against rock and roll as the voice of Satan; now, they commonly incorporate it into church services.) But while reasonable people discard ideas that prove to be harmful or ineffective, conservatives hang onto anything that makes them feel comfortable or, more to the point, superior. One of their primary gauges of a belief’s validity is simply how long it’s been around.

Don’t believe it? Then consult someone who ought to know. Like, say, William F. Buckley, the godfather of neo-conservatism and the founder of the National Review. He defined a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history yelling Stop”. And he reinforced this by defining conservatism thus:

Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them.

Hard to believe that anyone actually would intend such a grim vision as a good thing, but there it is. For him and his flock the “great truths” are to be found exclusively in the past. So riddle me this, Bill: At what point does the past become The Past? What year should we designate as the end of the Golden Age? 1900? 1776? 1492? It can’t be later than 1959, since that’s the year in which the above definition was propounded. So everything that’s happened since then is unimportant? This is conservatism in a nutshell. It’s also anti-intellectualism in a nutshell, no matter what kind of pseudo-intellectual twaddle is concocted to excuse it.

Indeed, Buckley himself was walking, blathering proof that intellect and education are not synonymous. He was a highly educated man, and exquisitely eloquent. And yet he used his book-learning, and his lofty vocabulary and rhetorical prowess to champion white supremacy and other intellectually and spiritually bankrupt creeds.

He would be very proud of the legacy his cranium child has carried on. Through the years, National Review has been under the stewardship of a long line of equally vapid writers and editors — e.g., Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Byron York, Rod Dreher, Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza — who, ahem, was singled out by Scott Howard as being one of the vacuous personae associated with Turning Point USA. It seems the right hand doesn’t know what the right wing is doing at NR.

And the supposedly intellectual PragerU (which has argued with a straight face that the Electoral College makes it harder to “steal” an election) has frequently afforded a megaphone to D’Souza and just about every other element of the right-wing loony fringe: Charlie Kirk, Matt Walsh, Ben Shapiro, Candace O, Kanye West, and on and on and on. One of the Right’s most celebrated “intellectuals”, and a frequent darling of PragerU, is Jordan Peterson, who has built a career on serving up pretentious word salad that seems to have been generated with refrigerator magnets.

You don’t have to be such a dim bulb to be a conservative, though it certainly doesn’t hurt — Howard himself comes across as a bright enough lad. What you do have to be is severely deluded. Deluded enough, for one thing, to believe that there really was a time in the past when conservatism was more intellectually viable, on campus or elsewhere. Howard cites as an example of campus intellectualism in the recent past the Federalist Society, which was founded by students at three major universities; and as an example of its heady success, he cites the overturning of Roe. That’s right: the great intellectual achievement of conservative intellectualism is bequeathing us Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh; and ramming down our throats an egregious specimen of judicial activism under the delusion that it’s going to reduce abortion. Conservatism has a bleak future because it’s had a bleak past, and it has a bleak present.

But Howard is also drunk on the delusion that there is such a thing as conservative intellectualism. There isn’t. It’s impossible to build a culture of ideas when you’re antagonistic toward ideas that are new — because every idea was once new (“liberal”). Intellectualism is more than having knowledge or rhetorical skill or even intelligence at your disposal. It’s being able to use those tools to construct sound, cohesive and coherent arguments. Instead, conservatives (all too few of whom possess any of those talents) construct straw men and specious Rube Goldberg attempts to justify bigoted and egocentric beliefs. Conservatism compromises the intellect just as tobacco compromises the lungs. The more conservatism, the less intellectualism.

Yes, it’s theoretically possible for the same individual to engage in both intellectualism and conservatism. It’s also possible for the same person to be both a smoker and a scuba diver. But not in the same breath.

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3 comments

  1. You look at the educational background of some of the opinion leaders on the right, Tim Pool dropped out of high school at 14. Matt Walsh never went to college. Candace Owens dropped out of college.
    I know formal education isn’t the be-all, end-all but but how could they possibly have a thorough enough understanding of the issues of the day to be the kind of people that can speak with any credibility about the events of the day?

    • Exactly. The people you hear attacking climate science or vaccines have no training in those respective areas, and in many cases nothing more than a high school science class or two.

  2. Sometimes they sound sort of scientific and believable, unless you google (critique of whoever’s study). Then you find that they are usually disgraced academics or people whose conclusions do not pass muster with known science. Or else, they will characterize a 50 page or more study, by cherry picking a few things that scientists are not yet 100% certain of.

    If anything, the right is usually anti-intellectual, and seems to think that saying so, is an intellectual Treatise?

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