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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

8/5/09 10:29 PM

Grasping Reality with Both Hands The Semi-Daily Journal of Economist Brad DeLong: A Fair, Balanced, Reality-Based, and More than Two-Handed Look at the World J. Bradford DeLong, Department of Economics, U.C. Berkeley #3880, Berkeley, CA 94720-3880; 925 708 0467; delong@econ.berkeley.edu.

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives Matt Zeitlin writes: Smart People Making Bad Arguments  Matt Zeitlin: Impetuous Young Whippersnapper: Robert George is a very smart and accomplished man. He makes his arguments honestly and rigorously. So, when he goes to the Wall Street Journal to make an argument against gay marriage, it’s probably a good idea for gay rights defenders to perk up their collective ears... http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/08/matt-zeitlin-needs-to-learn-to-stop-respecting-social-conservatives.html

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

8/5/09 10:29 PM

ears... Matt Zeitlin forgets the Iron Law of Intellectual Conservatism: intellectual conservatives are not smart and accomplished, and so they only sound smart and reasonable only for a particular historical instant--and then they are clearly seen as silly and stupid. Jacob Levy: Jacob Levy: Conservatism and Its Absence of Contents: Tyler Cowen... makes the insightful point that "none [of the 20th century American conservatives] have held up particularly well..." It's a real problem.... [T]here's no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what's interesting about Burkean or social conservatism.... [H]istory keeps right on going--and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling "stop!" tends to date badly to any modern reader.... This is a particular problem because of race in America--no mid-20th c[entury conservative] work is going to endure as a real, read-not-just-namechecked, classic of political thought that talks about how everything will go to hell if the South isn't allowed to remain the South.... Oakeshott has his own version of these problems; doesn't "Rationalism in Politics" end up feeling faintly ridiculous by the time he's talking about women's suffrage?... Indeed, as Matt writes immediately afterwards: But what’s interesting about his pretty simple natural law argument for why gay marriage is a bad idea is how, well, silly it is. This isn’t really his fault. Natural law is a silly concept, and it’s often times just a cudgel used by conservatives to deny the rights claims of minorities. But anyway, here’s George: Opponents of racist laws in Loving did not question the idea, deeply embodied in our law and its shaping philosophical tradition, of marriage as a union that takes its distinctive character from being founded, unlike other friendships, on bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life. This unity is why marriage, in our legal tradition, is consummated only by acts that are generative in kind. Such acts unite husband and wife at the most fundamental level and thus legally consummate marriage whether or not they are generative in effect, and even when conception is not sought. What makes George’s natural law argument better than most is that he points out how our current legal understanding of marriage is premised on some sort of possibly procreative sexual union between the two opposite-sex people. But this only gets you so far. All he’s established is that the institution of marriage... formally, embeds some assumptions about the gender and behavior of the couples. What George can’t prove is whether this set up currently meaningful or if it’s in accordance with our ideas of justice. Historians and social scientists who actually study the empirical reality of what marriage is today don’t agree with George. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson... characterize modern marriage as “hedonic marriage.”... [T]he language and formal institution of marriage may not have catched up with the changes we’ve seen since, say, the 1960s, but those changes are real.... [A]side from any flaws in George’s description of how marriage actually works... there is the sheer lack of recognition of how gays are disadvantaged because of their sexuality by not allowing them to marry. As Jon Chait pointed out, conservative arguments about social policy tend to absolutely ignore the welfare of gay citizens, and instead make tendentious or speculative arguments about why affording them equal rights willhurt everyone or will irrevocably damage our institutions. This seems like the insurmountable challenge for opponents of gay marriage. The institution has already changed into one that is no longer based around procreation. Also, we are approaching a societal consensus that discriminating against gay people just because of they’re sexuality is bigoted and wrong. Lots of gay people want to get married and abide by the standards, rules, regulations and expectations of married people. So, it’s going to take a lot more than a legalistic, nostalgic definition of marriage combined with a slippery slope argument about polyamory to deny a strong claim from fairness and equality about why a group of people should enjoy some rather basic rights... I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE SOCIAL CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!! http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/08/matt-zeitlin-needs-to-learn-to-stop-respecting-social-conservatives.html

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

8/5/09 10:29 PM

You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke and realize that Burke is by no means a social conservative. Burke does not think that Tradition is to be Respected; he thinks good traditions should be respected. When Edmund Burke argues that Britons should respect the tradition of English liberty they have inherited from the Ancestors, it is because in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise. Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice. In Reflections, Burke doesn't argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions--the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues--well, let's let him talk: Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: You [in France] might, if you pleased, have... given to your recovered freedom... dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution... suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. ... In your old [E]states [General]... you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General].... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage.... Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... a generous and gallant nation, long misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty... that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king?... Burke's argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its traditions. Burke's argument is that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were good, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn't an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground. What are good institutions? Burke is close to Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke's views on what good institutions are Enlightenment views--that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose. Because he finds that the English past is usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven views, Burke makes conservative arguments in Reflections. But whenever conservative arguments lead where Burke doesn't want to go--to Richelieu or Louis XIV or the plunder of Ireland or the Star Chamber or Warren Hastings or imperial centralization--Burke doesn't make them. For Burke, conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a principle. RECOMMENDED (4.94) by 5 people like you [How? ] You might like:

The fallacy of leveling (@The Shotgun) Hosted from Archives: The "Cognitive Elite" (@this site) 2 more recommended posts Âť Brad DeLong on August 03, 2009 at 08:54 PM in Philosophy: Moral, Utter Stupidity | Permalink TrackBack TrackBack URL for this entry: http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00e551f0800388340120a4c44a83970b http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/08/matt-zeitlin-needs-to-learn-to-stop-respecting-social-conservatives.html

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

8/5/09 10:29 PM

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Comments You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post. I think young Matt Zeitlin is my husband's second cousin, but my MIL is out of town and I cannot confirm. So what, you say? I dunno, I have this atavistic Middle Eastern/Southern desire to pin down all my family connections on the internet, even the ones by marriage and twice removed. If he is indeed from the Zeitlin branch I think he is, well then, his grandfather danced with me at my wedding and chatted about Beirut. Posted by: Leila Abu-Saba | August 03, 2009 at 09:41 PM Sometimes I think that Burke's argument canbe summed up in Fran Lebowitz's formulation: "The 3 questions of greatest concern are: 1) Is it attractive?, 2) Is it amusing?, 3) Does it know its place?" (cf. "There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.") Posted by: Delicious Pundit | August 03, 2009 at 11:28 PM Robert George is a very learned crackpot who privileges heterosexual vaginal intercourse as spiritually superior to all other forms of sex, which to him justifies anti-gay discrimination. Which leads him to head the National Organization for Marriage, a very unlearned crackpot organization that was responsible for the notorious "The Gay Storm Is Coming!" video appeal earlier this year. Check out the great parodies and debunking of said video on YouTube. Posted by: Daniel Marcus (aka dan'l) | August 03, 2009 at 11:29 PM Read Conor Cruise O'Brien. Burke actually believed in some of his whackier turns of phrase. "I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophists, economists and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is gone forever." His friends tried to remove this transcendental nonsense; Burke insisted that it stay in. Methinks that our host is happy to stand with Burke, but does not want to admit that Burke (and thus himself) is of the conservative branch of the Enlightenment. I think it is an honorable place to be: skeptical of all theory; respectful but not worshipful of the status quo; honoring the qualities of prudence and judgment. The left is also an honorable place to be: impatient with injustice; worshipping the dignity and welfare of the individual. What is not honorable are the feudalists and Brylcreem Talibans who masquerade these days as "conservatives." Posted by: Joe S. | August 04, 2009 at 05:14 AM Once again John Stuart Mill was far too generous. All conservatives really are stupid (and currently batshit crazy as well). Posted by: DrDick | August 04, 2009 at 06:01 AM "bodily unity of the kind that sometimes generates new life" Yow! I prefer to call it the rang dang doo! Posted by: Unlearner | August 04, 2009 at 07:02 AM I love it when you shout. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE SOCIAL CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

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The classic is Phi Agre, "What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It?" which states almost at once: Q: What is conservatism? A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy. Q: What is wrong with conservatism? A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world. http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/pagre/conservatism.html Posted by: marc sobel | August 04, 2009 at 07:33 AM But modern conservatives are such firm supporters of checks and balances. They are always saying what big fans they are of the constitution after all. Posted by: John Whitesell | August 04, 2009 at 09:00 AM "For Burke, conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a principle." This seems to fall short. While less that a fixed principle, conservatism seems for Burke more than a rhetorical weapon. Burke is not a modern conservative, for whom things tend to be seen as useful only as weapons, never as tethers. For Burke, conservatism seems a sort of guide, a tether that may have to be eased if, in the end, it restricts you to a bad place. He really does want to look back, not to run into the arms of new ideas. If in looking back, we learn things that allow us to carefully get to know new ideas, that will do. Posted by: kharris | August 04, 2009 at 09:32 AM To Joe S.: Conor Cruise O'Beien was neither reliable nor honest in his post-progressive stage. His book, "The Seige" (1986) on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignored all the findings of the then "New Israeli historians". At some point in the roughly 3 to 5 years before the publication of "The Seige", he wrote a big magazine piece (I believe for "The Atlantic", but I cannot be sure), claiming that the South African Boers were the "Liberation Theologians" of their day. Many saw that as an attack upon the anti-apartheid movement. There were many other instances when he wrote stupid or dishonest claims. In fairness, that may have been due to the results of massive alcohol abuse. In London during lunch in August 1986, Edward Mortimer told me that if I wanted to speak with O'Brien, I should try to do it early in the day while O'Brien was still sober. (I doubt that Mortimer remembers me.) Posted by: Bill | August 04, 2009 at 10:33 AM I know, I should get over it, but I find it a strain to take seriously the arguments -- much as I am sympathetic to them, and to someone who unlimbers the big wood with "polyamory" -- of a person who writes "catched" and "they're" for the plural possessive. Posted by: DOW | August 04, 2009 at 10:49 AM Bill, Your examples accuse O'Brien of tendentiousness and bad political judgment. I'll agree with the latter, and will not take issue with the former. Your examples do not accuse him of making shit up. And I won't impute that to him unless I see some evidence. O'Brien's basic thesis on Burke, btw, was pretty similar to Brad's. Like Brad, he tried to establish that the Burke opposed to colonialism in America and India was the same Burke opposed to the French revolution. Unlike Brad, he did not view Burke as merely another Enlightenment figure. O'Brian's Burke, for example, was not very concerned with individual rights, and was no universalist. Posted by: Joe S. | August 04, 2009 at 10:54 AM " I know, I should get over it, but I find it a strain to take seriously the arguments -- much as I am sympathetic to them, and to someone who unlimbers the big wood with "polyamory" -- of a person who writes "catched" and "they're" for the plural possessive. " Isn't this, in a sense, the whole point of the conservative project? To mark "our" kids as the ones who studied Greek at school, who know which fork to use at dinner, who know which modern artists to praise and which to mock, to know all the things necessary to be http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2009/08/matt-zeitlin-needs-to-learn-to-stop-respecting-social-conservatives.html

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives

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know which fork to use at dinner, who know which modern artists to praise and which to mock, to know all the things necessary to be a "very serious person". Matt Y is interesting not least because he is a most amusing counter-example --- clearly someone a whole lot smarter than many of Harvard contemporaries (including those earning kazillions on Wall Street), yet doing an atrocious job of advertising all the signifiers that he is superior to `oi polloi. Posted by: Maynard Handley | August 04, 2009 at 12:43 PM Yeah, but this isn't Yglesias writing, is it? It's a different Matt, Zeitlin. Whose bona fides I don't know at this moment but probably will in a second after I wiki him. I take your point, though. MY is indeed a breath-takingly lousy speller. Brad has his moments too, however... maybe all haste and tech glitches in his case. Or maybe it's just, as I suspect [sneers], Harvard. Posted by: DOW | August 04, 2009 at 01:11 PM Many good points, however: I still don't think Gay marriage advocates clearly explain why their argument can show that e.g. gay marriage needs to be accepted, but not e.g. marriage between siblings. Posted by: Neil B ♪ | August 04, 2009 at 04:26 PM

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Matt Zeitlin Needs to Learn to Stop Respecting Social Conservatives Smart People Making Bad Arguments « Matt Zeitlin: Impetuous Young Whippe...

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