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« Elsewhere | Main | Q & A With Jim Kalb, Part One »

January 19, 2004

Adventures in Rightie Thought

Dear Friedrich --

As you know, I'm anything but a PPP (Primarily Political Person). In fact, I've always been suspicious of PPP's. Politics has never seemed like anything but an unfortunate necessity to me, and -- deep character flaw, I suppose -- I have zero instinctive sympathy for anyone who would want to get involved. "What kind of weirdo would want to do that?" -- that's more or less how I respond to anyone who's in politics. Heck, all I had to do was leave the Republican small town where I grew up to discover that I was an arty guy, not a political guy.

Nonetheless, there politics was, always demanding attention. For a long time, I figured myself for a lefty, if of the dissenting-from-within variety. It's a given in the world I inhabit that arty, far-out people (like me!) are lefties. Arty equals lefty; creativity owes its very existence to leftiness -- these are foregone conclusions both.

The fact that there's little that annoys me as much as socialist (or socialist-esque) approaches is something I found inconvenient -- but, hey, that's why extremist organizations exist. So, where politics was concerned, I found inspiration and company among anarchists and environmental radicals. (I ran into simpatico and interesting people in both camps, BTW.) My thoroughly unexamined conclusion about my political convictions was along the lines of: I guess I'm just a truer lefty -- a leftier lefty -- than the people I spend nearly all my time among. But what did I care anyway? The point's to get on with life.

But something kept nagging at me. It was the voluptuous pleasure so many of the lefties I knew took in demonizing something they called "the right." They'd get this gleam in their eyes; they'd start muttering about racism and sexism; they'd start feeling all rabid and charged-up ... It seemed like the behavior of lunatics; what it reminded me of most was the way depressed people try to raise their spirits. (Interesting how many lefties -- so pleased with themselves for being so liberated -- turn out to struggle with bad, long-term depression.)

Anyway, it bugged me. I started paying attention, and I started noticing something else dismaying: the righties who were being denounced, ripped apart, and cursed were often my people -- "my people" in the sense of my family, my childhood neighbors, my friends from public school: the kind of people I grew up among, Republicans almost to a soul. People I love, in other words, and who (whatever their faults) are among the kindest, most pleasant and generous people I've known. I've never seen them not wish other people well; whatever voting lever they pull, on a person-to-person level they're far more human and welcoming than many of the vain, cockatoo lefties I now live among.

The time had come, I knew, for me to plunge into rightie-ism. What the hell is it, anyway? And not, "What does rightie-ness symbolize to a convinced lefty?" That was a question I could answer at all too great length. What I wanted to find out was, "What is rightie-ism in its own terms? And what is it as a political philosophy?"

Since no one in my arty, big-city circles could give me any guidance -- most looked at me in horror when I raised the subject -- I took the bull by the horns and gave myself a whirlwind self-education. I quickly found some good sources. My tips for beginners: try Roger Scruton's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (buyable here) and An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy (buyable here) -- the terrible titles are the fault of the publisher, not Scruton. Also terrific is Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit (buyable here), Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions (buyable here), and Brad Miner's wonderfully browsable Concise Conservative Encyclopedia (buyable here). I read the work of a fair number of the classic marble busts: Adam Smith, Oakeshott, Burke, many others. I even took a deep breath and attended some rightie events. Where, by the way, I met many bright and pleasant people who seemed to wish the world well. Where were the demons, gorgons and fascists my lefty circles had led me to expect? (Hey, here's a long interview with Scruton, and here's one with Sowell.)

I was also lucky enough to stumble across the extensive websites run by the traditionalist conservative Jim Kalb. (Here's Jim's main page; here's his blog.) They were as spectacularly good a resource as any of the books I've listed above. Jim's got a searching, informed mind; his voice is modest, helpful, and quiet. Yet he's a ferocious reasoner -- not in the usual, driving-towards-a-foreordained-conclusion way, but in a respectful-of-common-experience, open-ended way. He'll forgive me if I say that I'm amazed by how meticulous and organized his thought processes are; they make me even more aware than I usually am of what a hummingbird brain I've got. Jim's both brilliant and solid, a much-too-rare combination.

The upshot? Well, I'm better informed than I once was, and that's probably a good thing. Unlike nearly all my lefty friends, I'm familiar with what rightwing political philosophy actually consists of. I confess that I hadn't really known there was such a thing as rightwing political philosophy. I guess I'd always supposed righties were benighted souls who didn't know better; I didn't realize they have their own insights and arguments. A side benefit of this: demonstrate to your arty friends that you've read some rightwing thought and enjoy the expressions of embarassment, panic and horror that appear on their faces. Fun!

I was amazed by how much I got out of wrestling with rightie thought, as well as by the pleasure I took in seeing what the thoughtful righties have to say get expressed. Part of the pleasure came from the novelty; I'd been turning circles off in lefty-ville for too many years. Some of the pleasure certainly came from seeing taboos broken -- or what to Lefty Me had been taboos. An example is common sense. It's a given in lefty-ville that common sense is an awful, oppressive, misleading thing in need of relentless undermining; we have to dismantle it in order to be able to glimpse and participate in the Truth. To righties, common sense is an evolved (and evolving) body of experience-based, informal knowledge that helps many people make their way through life. Hard to describe the thrill I felt on seeing common sense -- which I'd always been a closet fan of -- described respectfully and appreciatively.

Two things of substance took me by surprise. The first was how often I found the same difficulties that I'd always had with lefty-ism expressed by righties -- and expressed far better than I'd ever managed to do. Good lord: the people who were most articulate about the problems with mainstream lefty-ism weren't the lefty extremists, they were the righties. The second surprise really shook me; it was on how many issues I found myself flat-out agreeing with rightie arguments and views. Much of what Burke and Oakeshott have to say, for example, strikes me as self-evidently -- and inarguably -- wise and trustworthy.

Though I'll never be anything but a non-PPP, I hereby proclaim what a wonderful thing it has been to have gotten over my fear of rightie-ness. I move more freely, with eyes that are more open; my thinking and my reactions are looser and more freewheeling than they were not so long ago. I discovered that I'd been spending nearly all my time inside a church -- the Church of Lefty Artiness. What a pleasure to get up off sore knees and enter the larger world instead. It's a little sad the way a few lefty friends make the sign of the cross when I walk in the room these days. But, you know, they're the wild-eyed fanatics, not me.

Looking back, I once again marvel at what a brainwashing you and I were given at our Lousy Ivy University. Allowance made for stuffy old farts who were being pushed aside, I don't remember much being taught in the artier parts of the school that wasn't Marxist/Freudian/modernist nonsense, do you? Crippling rather than helpful stuff. And, not for the first time, I marvel at what a narrow mental world most bigcity artsies inhabit.

But this posting is really meant as nothing but a long, self-indulgent build-up to an announcement. In the hopes that a few visitors are curious about what it might be like to get over the fear of rightieness -- as well as, as ever, just for the sake of giving the artworld pot a good stir -- 2Blowhards will be presenting a three-part q&a about conservatism with the terrific Jim Kalb. It's a first-class interview; Jim gave a lot of dumb questions far, far more respectful thought than they deserved. He's even generously agreed to respond to readers' questions and remarks in our comments section.

Please don't miss this chance to find out from an expert what conservatism really is. Take the challenge! If you're already familiar with conservatism, visit anyway; it's a great pleasure to watch Jim's thought-processes and words in action. I guarantee plenty of brain fodder for everyone.

Our q&a with Jim Kalb begins tomorrow.



posted by Michael at January 19, 2004


What never seizes to amaze me about political discussions, is that people always want to take sides. Whereas I - granted, as a trained historian - always just see both left and right getting things wrong.

This doesn't mean I don't have opinions, but it does mean they're not fixed, or known beforehand when I've never given the matter any thought.

I guess I am with Mencken, when he stated: "Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under."

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 19, 2004 2:49 AM

Hmm. I'm just slightly puzzled as to why a non-Primarily Political Person would find it necessary to define themselves by a political direction. I incline more lefty than otherwise myself (you may have noticed), but I can't say I find my leftiness a particularly important part of my life or anything...

Posted by: James Russell on January 19, 2004 2:56 AM

IJSbrand -- Mencken's the man. I think I'll put that quote on my door. And I share your amazement at how many people seem to taking sides and blasting away at each other. Give me a good, open-ended discussion instead.

I'll be interested to hear how you respond to Jim, who I find amazingly open and searching -- though, like you, not without strong convictions and opinions. A fun and interesting guy to have a discussion with.

James -- Here's hoping I don't define myself by anything political, and sorry if my posting suggested I do, or that anyone should. I just personally found that the time had come to learn something about rightie-ness. The vehemence against it -- the prejudice, really -- in arty circles is so irrational but so fundamental that I had to know what the reality of rightieness was. My lefty friends certainly had no idea, despite their addiction to throwing stones at it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2004 2:58 AM

I used to be a very political guy, but I got tired of trying to micromanage a government that was, in turn, trying to micromanage my life. That's when I became a limited-goverment conservative.

I like to think of my view as anti-political and anti-ideological, an attempt to make social and governmental concerns less relevant to individual life.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 19, 2004 3:20 AM

A mistake people often make btw: if you're politically bent to the right, they soak your entire brain in it and think you're a righty in almost everything.

I bend to the right politically speaking, but where religion is concerned I'm fully liberal. My approach to driving, very conservative, but with sex ... you get the picture.

I'm sure that when the discussion begins on Tues, we'll assume that POLITICALLY conservative people may have just that one thing in common.

Posted by: laurel on January 19, 2004 7:41 AM

Michael: I understand this dilemma all too well, and Iím looking forward to the Q&A. I am thoroughly immersed in academia, and my NY-centric circle of friends is laden with writers, filmmakers, artists and designers. I like that world and prefer to reside within it Ė most of the time.

However, I am also a political animal, and read incessantly about most political topics. I tend not to enter policy debates, because they often (but not always) deteriorate into flaming accusatory sessions. My political curiosity might surprise my art-world friends, since I hold centrist views on many issues (including war). My thought processes have sharpened considerably since I broadened my reading to include conservative and right wing points of view. Iím better off for it, I think, and I will continue my political education by searching all over the spectrum of thought. But itís still a POV that dares not speak its name, at least in wealthier left wing gatherings. For example, I was at dinner with several friends recently, one of whom is a well-known designer. He espoused a somewhat unexamined left wing knee-jerk response to many political topics that I found distressing and disheartening.

For the record, Iím still to the left on most issues, but have become quite interested in the foundations of conservative thought and want to resist the destructive polarization that has seized contemporary political discourse.

I welcome this discussion and Iím very pleased that Michael has raised the issue.

Posted by: Maureen on January 19, 2004 9:30 AM

Isn't this exactly what South Park Republicanism is? Common sense is coming back into fashion, and as you so correctly point out, by definition it is a conservative phenomenon.

This site is nearly as good as Arts & Letters Daily (which is the best site on the web so high praise indeed!). Looking forward to the interview.

Posted by: Toby on January 19, 2004 9:53 AM

I'm looking forward to it! I have no idea what rightie-ness means anymore, anymore than I really have the vaguest idea what leftiness is, in terms of PHILIOSOPHY. When Dean said, "I'm tired of talking guns, gays, and abortion," I thought well, so am I! But neither side right now seems to be doing a very good job of moving past individual PAC related issues. Bush & Co. DO seem to have a vision and an agenda---I am unconvinced they've really shared it with us. The Dems don't seem to even have that.

Love to hear what "rightie" and "leftie" mean beyond "pro-choice" (no reasons) or "pro life" (the Bible---!!!!!) and "pro-war" (no clear reasons) and "anti-war" (no clear reasons).

Posted by: annette on January 19, 2004 9:57 AM

P.S.---I'm still laughing, though, at you description of the Left taking "voluptuous pleasure..." Now, taking voluptuous pleasure in hating doesn't seem very good. But right now, the Right doesn't seem capable of taking "voluptuous pleasure" in anything at all! Maybe Jim Kalb can correct me.

Posted by: annette on January 19, 2004 10:29 AM


I undersand what you're saying--and certainly, there's no one more "voluptuous" than Michael Moore--but come on!

What I'm saying is--just give your political support to whatever you agree with. Don't go giving the time of day to ridiculous non-solutions just because the people who espouse them are "decent folk"... I love my grandparents, and I think they're good people--but they're "afraid to ride the buses" in Toronto because there are "so many of THEM" (immigrants) around. There's no point in arguing with them--but there's no point in agreeing with them either for God's sake!!!

I don't want to play hearts with Michael Moore (or go see his shrill documentaries either), but then, I'm not a primarily "political person either"... I'm only "political" at the polls!


Posted by: David Fiore on January 19, 2004 1:03 PM

To paraphrase Plato: The price you pay for not getting involved in politics is having to obey dumbasses who you don't like and don't agree with.

If you are involved, you have some small, very small, miniscule say about which dumbasses you are forced obey.

Posted by: amos on January 19, 2004 1:25 PM

The above article touches upon how people can perceive the media to be left or right biased depending upon their own worldviews.

A person can be perceived as left or right depending upon who is viewing them. I am the kind of person who is viewed as conservative/right by environmentalists (for I am for business without dropping the concern for environment) and liberal/left by church goers (for I am pro-gay marriage). But on the other hand, I am very sensitive to the context in which these issues are played out, so my answer can flip-flop without feeling contradictory.

My standard answer to somebody who asks for my political view: It's opposite of yours!

Posted by: Bob Yu on January 19, 2004 2:09 PM

Apologies for the way half my posting disappeared there for a few hours. No idea what I did. Repairing it now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2004 2:46 PM

Repaired, more or less.

By the way, in case anyone thinks I'm trying to make political points here, or to convert anyone, I'm not. Happy to say that I've gotten a lot out of wrestling with rightie thought, though, and happy to suggest that others might find wrestling with rightie thought enjoyable. The good stuff (think Edmund Burke, not Bill O'Reilly) can be quite amazing and stimulating. 99% of the time, I'm more than content to leave the political head-butting to others.

Please do come by and check out Jim's thoughts and explanations starting tomorrow. He's really first-class -- helpful, modest, informed. It'll be a treat.

And apologies again for the way I seem to have left the posting hanging for a few hours. No idea what I did, though I suspect it involved unwittingly tapping the Delete key...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2004 3:14 PM

I have never been hyper partisan, but I actually used to work in Congress for a Southern Democrat (you will find there quite of number of non-hyper partisan people working for reps on Capitol Hill. Otherwise, the inter-office softball games would turn into bloodbaths!!).

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Russel Kirk's "The Conservative Mindset" and I realized that I was essentially a conservative. It solidified the problems I had with a lot of Dem policy. Since then the party's done so much to alienate Southern Dem's it's not hard to call myself a conservative at all.

Posted by: Twn on January 19, 2004 5:31 PM


Glad you will have Jim Kalb interviewed this week. You will be in for some good conversation, to say the least.

As far as myself, politically, I call myself a supporter of Distributism, co-founded by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. It is an alternative to capitalism, socialism, communism and fascism. It has elements in it that "leftie" and "rightie" folks can actually agree on.

It promotes both economic and political decentralization, sane environmental protection and defense of traditional families and morality.

There are two websites I would suggest to you if you are curious to find out more.

One, for intro info on Distributism:

Two, the American Chesterton Society:

It's president is Dale Ahlquist, author of "G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense", published by Ignatius Press. May I recommend your interviewing him in the near future to discover more about Chesterton, Belloc and Distributism.

Thank you so much for your time and attention.

Posted by: Roy F. Moore on January 19, 2004 10:05 PM

I find myself being very political since a lot of these policies are going to directly affect me. If people like me are being left out, and simply not considered to be part of the 'common sense' view of the world, that affects me because the things that will benefit me will be given short shrift. The problem with the idea of common sense is that everyone has a different common sense.

Among lefties, it is common sense that racism exists, that sexism is a bad thing, that women should be allowed to do whatever they want with their fetus(es), and that goverment regulation is better than just letting big buisness do what they want, and on the right, racism doesn't exist, sexism is a mandate from God, women shouldn't be allowed to murder their fetus(es) and priviatization makes everything better.

So there's no real common sense, as common sense is merely assumptions on what is true- especially when you start taking everyone into account as a real human being with worth, instead of only a certain subset of people.

Posted by: Shannon on January 20, 2004 5:42 PM

Among lefties, it is common sense that racism exists, that sexism is a bad thing, that women should be allowed to do whatever they want with their fetus(es), and that goverment regulation is better than just letting big buisness do what they want; and on the right, racism doesn't exist, sexism is a mandate from God, women shouldn't be allowed to murder their fetus(es) and priviatization makes everything better.

As a limited-government Gay conservative, I take exception to that. First of all, I acknowledge that racism, sexism and homophobia exist, though I don't think that government can do anything about them beyond guaranteeing all citizens equal access to public facilities and equal protection under the law. What's more, most of the conservatives I know agree with that.

As for privatization, I'm definitely in favor of it wherever possible, because private companies are more efficient than government bureaucracies, and because competition among private companies generally results in lower prices. (Those last two points are demonstrable economic facts.) Not all conservatives agree with me on this point, either -- they want the government to provide services (or, at least, give money to faith-based charities), because that way they can more closely oversee the moral values and religious ethos of these programs.

When it comes to abortion, I'm of the opinion that individual choice is preferable to governmental regulation. So I don't oppose abortion as such. But I also think there ought to be other options available to women -- such as Oregon's policy of "open adoption," in which a mother-to-be is allowed to choose the couple that will adopt her child, and even possesses limited visitation rights. (Again, private adoption agencies seem to function more efficiently than public ones, and given the state of government-run foster care, we might do well to privatize it, too.)

As for government regulation, I think it should be minimal and unobtrusive -- but that doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. The job of a government is to protect those within its borders from force, fraud, or some tangible harm. If a business engages in either one, we prosecute -- as we ought to do. If a business engages in practices that harm its neighbors or employees, they file suit, and the matter goes to our courts. That's all we really need.

What makes this stuff "common sense" to me is that it is both simple and empirically verifiable. I can "prove" that racism, sexism and homophobia exist, because I've seen several undeniable instances of all three. I can also prove that government can guarantee equal access to public facilities and equal protection under the law -- after all, we do have the Fourteenth Amendment. What I can't prove, though, is that governmental regulation can change individual opinions. And if I can't prove that government can do a thing -- and do it better than anyone else -- I'd rather not have it involved. (You see, giving a job to the candidate who has best proved his/her abilities is also "common sense," at least assuming that you want the job done as well as possible.)

Not everything is relative, Shannon, and knowledge is not infinitely mutable. There is a real world, with verifiable facts, along with empirical knowledge that we can base on those facts.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 20, 2004 9:56 PM

Thanks to all for comments here, and I hope you're enjoying the q&a with Jim Kalb. Skedaddle on over to those postings, willya?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 21, 2004 1:16 AM

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