This article originally appeared at FrontPage Magazine, on October 15, 2008.
In the introduction to Rebels All!,Kevin Mattson’s unconventional look at conservatives, the historian acknowledges that conservative ideas need to be taken seriously. This is a refreshing departure from the wish of most liberals and all leftists that conservative ideas would just disappear. It is also the reason I asked FrontpageMagazine editor Jamie Glazov to interview Mattson and promote his new book. Readers of Frontpage know that I have conducted a five year campaign to urge university professors who are almost universally on the left to assign conservative texts in their courses so that there might actually be two sides to the controversial issues they address. For my pains in conducting this effort to support an intellectual dialogue I have been rewarded with the sobriquets “McCarthyite” and “chief organizer of the campus thought police” by academic leftists who want to teach their political prejudices as though they were scientific facts.
Kevin Mattson is unwilling to acknowledge his colleagues’ role in this problem. Instead he lays the blame for the lack of intellectual dialogue at the door of conservatives and their “shrill rhetoric.” I suggest that he pay more attention to his colleagues’ discourse when they pretend to deal with conservative ideas. He might also pay more attention to what conservatives actually do. This conservative magazine has invited numerous leftists like him to come into its pages and promote their ideas and work; and we have treated them respectfully when they do. At the same time, there has been no reciprocity from the other side.
Speaking just from personal experience, I have written ten books in the last decade, nine of which were dedicated to the analysis and refutation of leftwing practices and ideas. Only one of these nine books – The Professors – was reviewed or even discussed in the leftwing magazines for which Mattson writes – and then it was hardly to engage my ideas. “Ignore This Book” was actually the title of the review by Professor Cary Nelson that appeared in Academe, the official publication of the American Association of University Professors of which he is the head. Another leftwing “critic,” Professor Michael Berube, has publicly explained that he only writes about my work to “ridicule” and “discredit” it. I am not alone as a conservative in being treated this way by intellectuals of the left.
As it happens my name appears prominently in Professor Mattson’s new book, where I am described as an exemplar of “the post-modern conservative intellectual,” and a leader of the contemporary conservative movement. What follows is my response to his portrait. (As a courtesy, our editors informed Professor Mattson that I would like to respond, once we had showcased his book, and he graciously accepted the offer).
Let me begin by noting what is valuable in the portrait of modern conservatism to be found in Rebels All!. Unlike most writers of the left, Kevin Mattson notices that there is a rebel element to contemporary American conservatism that distinguishes it from the status quo Toryism of the past. Fifty-five years after William Buckley’s protest against the liberal establishment at Yale, and 45 years after the Goldwater movement launched a revolt against the Republican Party’s political establishment Professor Mattson has finally recognized these facts and attempted to make a thesis out of them. Unfortunately, in doing so, he regularly confuses style with substance, and tactics with strategy and generally fails to take conservative ideas seriously enough to understand them and therefore to make his book the interesting and rewarding read it could have been.
The profile Mattson has drawn of me, for example, is a caricature not a portrait. I do not subscribe to many of the views he attributes to me – post-modernism being the most obvious — and he seems entirely ignorant of the books I have written to explain what I actually think. This is no small fault in a historian. Disregarding all that I have written and stood for, Mattson describes me as an “anti-intellectual,” a “relativist” and an “extremist.” A characterization which reflects of course on all contemporary conservatives since I am held up as an “exemplar” in his text. I am in fact a defender of intellectual standards, an anti-relativist and a supporter of moderation in intellectual enterprises. Each of the labels Mattson ascribes to me, if true, would render my campaign for intellectual standards in the university and my efforts to open a dialogue with dozens of intellectuals of the left in the pages of this magazine simply inexplicable. But they are not true. The books I have written, if he would read them, are hardly the works of an “anti-intellectual” or “an extremist.” They are sustained civil arguments with leftist ideas and authors. If he had cared to look, Mattson could have found on my website archive tens of thousands of words I have written responding to leftist attacks, and tens of thousands more defending intellectual standards and the values and virtues of a liberal society, something he claims to cherish.
Because he has not read relevant texts I have written, Mattson picks up and repeats canards from the left that I have been forced to respond to and that I have refuted time and again. Instead of taking on the actual arguments I have made and trying to understand what I believe, Mattson writes sentences that describe me as “fighting the culture wars by writing numerous autobiographies about how he shed his sixties radicalism, arguing that slavery benefited African Americans [and] sponsoring a Student Bill of Rights that would have state legislatures police classrooms for purported liberal content,…” To which I can only say: “No I didn’t.” I wrote one autobiography. I have never argued that slavery benefitted African Americans, and if Mattson had just taken the time to read the little book I wrote about my reparations campaign – Uncivil Wars – he would know this.