• September 1, 2015

Why Conservatives Love War

Inherently Violent: Why Conservatives Love War 1

Patrick Baz, AFP, Getty Images

Enlarge Image
close Inherently Violent: Why Conservatives Love War 1

Patrick Baz, AFP, Getty Images

This year is the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Authoritarian Personality. Once this was the most famous of Theodor Adorno's works. Today it's largely forgotten. With one exception: its indelible portrait of the "pseudo-conservative." Although Richard Hofstadter is often credited with the term—his essay "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt" appeared in 1955—it was Adorno and his three co-authors who first identified the type: that vengeful and violent citizen who avows his faith in calm and restraint while agitating for policies that "would abolish the very institutions with which he appears to identify himself." The pseudo-conservative, in other words, is no conservative at all. Prone to "violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness," he loves war and longs for bedlam in the streets. He has "little in common," in Hofstadter's words, "with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism."

Musing on those passages last June, Andrew Sullivan wrote on his blog, "It all sounds weirdly familiar, doesn't it?" He was talking about the predatory revanchism that has stalked the Republican Party since 9/11 and now consumes it. "The Bush-Cheney presidency," wrote Sullivan, was "the perfect pseudo-conservative administration." The White House and its neoconservative enablers celebrated war and torture, shredded the Constitution, and bankrupted the nation. "Throughout all this," Sullivan pointed out, "the Tea Partiers supported them." Merely the latest in a long line of pseudo-conservatives, the Tea Party backer is "the opposite of a natural conservative at peace with the world as it is."

It's hard to disagree with Sullivan's characterization of the American right. But he—like Hofstadter and Adorno before him—is wrong about its lack of conservative credentials. Today's winger, like yesterday's, is not a pseudo-conservative; he's the real deal.

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn't read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative "wants peace and is content only with peace." The true conservative's endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he'd like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it's true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. "I enjoy wars," said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. "Any adventure's better than sitting in an office." The conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It's philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, "Only the dead have seen the end of war," or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.

Pithy or prolix, the case boils down to this: War is life, peace is death.

Encoded in the conservative movement's DNA, the argument for violence derives from Burke himself, specifically his A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Written long before he articulated the elements of a proper conservative philosophy, The Sublime and the Beautiful is about aesthetics, not politics. Yet Burke develops there a distinctive moral psychology, in which the self is desperately in need of negative stimuli of the sort that can be provided only by pain and danger. Some dismiss the work as apolitical juvenilia (Burke wrote it in his early 20s, and its publication in 1757 predates his entry into politics), but elements of its argument appear too often throughout the conservative canon—in Joseph de Maistre's meditations on the executioner, in de Tocqueville's memoir of the Revolution of 1848, in Theodore Roosevelt's speeches, the treatises of Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, Churchill's histories, Barry Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative, and Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man—to step past it so lightly.

The Sublime and the Beautiful begins on a high note, with a discussion of curiosity. The curious race "from place to place to hunt out something new." Their sights are fixed, their attention is rapt. Then the world turns gray. They begin to stumble across the same things, "with less and less of any agreeable effect." Novelty diminishes: How much, really, is there new in the world? Enthusiasm and engagement give way to "loathing and weariness." Searching for experiences more sustaining and profound, Burke moves on to pleasure. But pleasure offers more of the same: a moment's enthusiasm, followed by dull malaise. It "quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference." Quieter enjoyments are equally soporific; we "give ourselves over to indolence and inaction." Burke turns to imitation as another potential force of outward propulsion. Through imitation, we learn manners and mores, develop opinions, and are civilized. But imitation contains its own narcotic. Imitate others too much and we cease to better ourselves. We follow the person in front of us "and so on in an eternal circle."

Curiosity leads to weariness, pleasure to indifference, enjoyment to torpor, and imitation to stagnation. So many doors of the psyche open onto this space of inertial gloom that we might well conclude that it lurks not at the edge but at the center of the human condition. Here, in this dark courtyard of the self, all action ceases, creating an ideal environment for "melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder." Suicide, it seems, is the inevitable fate awaiting anyone taking pleasure in the world as it is.

If the self is to survive, it must be aroused by an experience more vital and bracing than pleasure or enjoyment. The mind must be quickened, the body exerted, the whole made taut and tense. What most arouses this heightened state of being is the confrontation with nonbeing. Life and health are pleasurable and enjoyable, and that is what is wrong with them: "They make no such impression" on the self, because "we were not made to acquiesce in life and health." Pain and danger, by contrast, are "emissaries" of death, the "king of terrors." They are sources of the sublime, which is "the strongest"—most powerful, most affecting—"emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."

One of the reasons the sublime is so powerful is that it both minimizes and maximizes our sense of self. When sensing pain or danger, the "motions" of our soul "are suspended," and "the mind is hurried out of itself." We feel ourselves evacuated: The external is all, we are nothing. Paradoxically, we also feel our existence to an extent never felt before. Our "attention" is roused. Our "faculties" are "driven forward, as it were, on their guard." We spill out of ourselves, fully inhabiting not only our bodies and minds but also the space around us. We feel "a sort of swelling"—a sense that we are greater, our perimeter extends further. Whether it is possible to occupy such opposing poles of experience at the same time—crushed and enlarged, compressed and unbounded—it is precisely this contradiction, this oscillation between wild extremes, that generates a strong and strenuous sense of self. Sublimity "in all things abhors mediocrity," Burke reminds us. The extremity of opposing sensations, the savage swing from being to nothingness, makes for the most intense experience of all.

The question for us, which Burke neither poses nor answers, is: What kind of political form entails this simultaneity of—or oscillation between—aggrandizement and annihilation? One possibility is hierarchy, with its twin requirements of submission and domination; the other is violence, particularly warfare, with its rigid injunction to kill or be killed. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are of great significance to conservatism as a theoretical tradition and historical practice.

Consistent with Burke's argument, however, the conservative often favors the latter over the former. Once we are assured of our power over another being, says Burke, it loses its capacity to harm or threaten us. Make a creature useful and obedient, and "you spoil it of every thing sublime." It becomes an object of contempt, contempt being "the attendant on a strength that is subservient and innoxious." At least one-half, then, of the experience of hierarchy—the experience of ruling another—is incompatible with, and indeed weakens, the sublime. Confirmed of our power, we are lulled into the same ease and comfort, undergo the same inward melting, that we experience while in the throes of pleasure.

Rule may sometimes be sublime—our power is not always so assured or secure—but violence is more sublime. Most sublime of all is when the two are fused, when violence is performed for the sake of creating, defending, or recovering a regime of domination. But history does not always present such opportunities. The conservative must settle for the lesser good of war, pure and simple. Thus, when Carl Schmitt declares that the fundamental distinction in politics to which all "actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy," he merely formalizes an axiom that had been stirring the conservative mind for more than a century.

In this age of terror, it's easy enough to identify this strain of thought in parts of the conservative movement. Even the sunniest of neoconservative spirits can't get enough of the dark arts of war. "We have traded the anxieties of affluence for the real fears of war," a fizzy David Brooks wrote after 9/11. Channeling not only Burke—a patrimony he would be only too happy to claim—but also Schmitt and a great many other fascist and proto-fascist writers, Brooks welcomed "the fear that is so prevalent in the country" as a "cleanser, washing away a lot of the self-indulgence of the past decade." Being attacked, it seems, and attacking back, is like that bracing slap of after-shave in the morning.

But today, with neoconservatism in bad odor everywhere, save at the highest reaches of the culture industry—Brooks was just inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—has the conservative infatuation with war come to an end?

Consider the "Pledge to America," the 45-page manifesto the Republicans recently issued in their campaign to take back the House of Representatives in the midterm election. A reprise of the 1994 "Contract With America"—which netted the Republicans their first House majority in 40 years and provided the party with a road map for governing during the remainder of Bill Clinton's presidency—the document seems about as useful a guide to contemporary conservative thinking as any.

"We are a nation at war," the Pledge declares at the outset of its discussion of national security. That's true, but here's where things get interesting: Only once does the Pledge mention the two wars the United States is actually fighting, in Afghanistan and Iraq. We get lots of discussion of border security, missile defense, supporting the troops, and Iran (site of a potential third war that some neoconservatives and influential Republicans wish to wage). But for a document that insists upon confronting "the world as it is, not as we wish it to be," there's a profound air of unreality (literally: China and Russia don't appear at all) hovering about its discussion of national security.

Is this a new turn, in which conservatives quickly dispense with the necessary formalities (we are at war) in order to change the subject to less martial themes? For a party that not so long ago saw military matters as its great strength, its raison d'être, it is remarkable how little space the topic occupies in the Pledge. Sandwiched between a chapter on reforming Congress (snooze) and another on "Checks and Balances" (snoozier), "A Plan to Keep Our Nation Secure at Home & Abroad" takes up exactly two pages, one of the shortest discussions in the document.

Or perhaps the Pledge is just the incidental propaganda of a party seeking its way back into power—and in the legislature, no less, which is ultimately not responsible for the conduct of foreign policy. But even when Republicans are responsible for fighting an actual war, as the Bush administration was in Iraq, they tend not to pay attention to the details. They like the words—"We will never apologize for advancing the cause of freedom and democracy around the world," says the Pledge—and the gestures of war, as Bush showed when he piloted his way onto the USS Abraham Lincoln. But its specifics are of little interest. And peace? That's just how folks in the biz say, "Show's over."

Far from challenging the conservative tradition's infatuation with violence, however, this indifference to the realities of war is merely the flip side of the Burkean coin. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, Burke was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers "press too nearly" or "too close"—should they become real threats, "conversant about the present destruction of the person"—their sublimity would disappear. Burke's point was not that nobody, in the end, really wants to die, or that nobody enjoys excruciating pain. It was that sublimity depends upon obscurity: Get too close to anything, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. A "great clearness" of the sort that comes from direct experience is "an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses the thrill you got when it was just an idea.

Since 9/11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives—or their sons and daughters—to fight the war on terror themselves. For many, that failure is symptomatic of the inequality of contemporary America, and it is. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea—a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24—it is sublime. As soon as it becomes a reality, it can be as tedious as a discussion of the tax code or as cheerless as a trip to the DMV.

Corey Robin is an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York's Graduate Center. A collection of his essays on conservatism will be published by Oxford University Press next year.


1. blog21 - October 25, 2010 at 08:24 am

So, FDR is a conservative, then?

2. lostfox - October 25, 2010 at 08:33 am

Oy. I had come to enjoy attributing this sort of demagogy to the Right. Now, we have our own Glenn Beck. How disappointing.

3. jdbeatty - October 25, 2010 at 08:44 am

I find it hard to believe that any free-living person should be so vehemient in their denial of the reality of life on earth: all life is based on a life and death struggle, and just because you can build a cathedral it does not mean you have to stop fighting for life--turf, resources, whatever. Branding "consevatives" as "lovers of war" is simply a ludicrous excersize in academic posturing. If a liberal is a conservative who's been laid off, then a conservative is a liberal who's home has been invaded.

4. bobbyfisher - October 25, 2010 at 09:14 am

Robin's indulging in a favorite liberal pastime of self-congratulations and name calling. In regards to names, let's recall that neo-conservatives are liberals after they were mugged by reality.
What defines a conservative is a conservative view of human nature, that it is flawed beyond (non-supernatural) redemption. Hence, conservatives admit of the likely necessity of war, but also see that it creates it's own problems.
Burke may have implied the things that this tortured article suggests, but a conservative may not always have conservative opinions. Conservatism may come to one later in life after much bitter experiences.
This article avoids comparison. Liberals will naturally resort to violence, lying and every sort of immoral act because they do not have a conservative view of human nature. As liberals, they think that human nature can be redeemed. Hence, they will not stint the sacrifice of lives. How many did Mao kill? See here:
How many did Stalin kill?
See here for a full accounting.
Lest you think this is exceptional, see here for the quotes from Marx about the necessity of the great destruction of life.
It also has quote from Hitler regarding the lessons he learned from Stalin.

5. bizdean - October 25, 2010 at 09:16 am

"We are a nation at war..." The Constitution says we ain't at war unless Congress declares war. Any conservative ought to respect that.
Want pain and danger? Try extreme sports.
The most reprehensible oversight in Corey Robin's essay is that war is not just danger and mystery for the first-person actor; that person will kill other people. Isn't there something about that in the Ten Commandments? And shouldn't a conservative sort of like the Ten Commandments?
What I just called an “oversight” is really the worst kind of solipsism.

6. lucapacioli - October 25, 2010 at 09:20 am

Pol Pot and Mao Zedong were conservatives? (That would be the same Mao who declared "Political Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.") The author declares that "pseudo-conservatives" are 'Prone to "violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness," he loves war and longs for belam in the streets.' The great murderers of the 20th Century were communists and National Socialists, and now I learn they are "pseudo-conservatives." I now have a whole new view of the SDS, the Weather Underground, and other "pseudo-conservative" groups of the recent American past. I am rethinking Bill Ayers and Angela Davis too.

7. ghmus7 - October 25, 2010 at 09:32 am

A typical silly liberal article full of psuedo-intellegence and psudo-hip terms.. Conservatives are dumb warmongers, confused and contradictory. Liberal love peace and the good, they are all hip and intelligent - that must be why they fill up academia!
Oh by the way, your audience is the same 10 people who read your article in college political science departments last year!
It must be nice to make your own reality year after year.

8. rurbane - October 25, 2010 at 09:56 am

What a mess of progressive gibberish - the author can't even execute a logical inversion with any finesse or conviction. Gives progressives a bad rep, and only incites conservatives to existential awareness.

9. mainiac - October 25, 2010 at 10:03 am

Geez, I thought we were engaging the new post marxist paradigm! The left and right make love to great dead ideas, but the left recycles the corpse somewhat more sensually.

10. j_leatherwood - October 25, 2010 at 10:10 am

Lots of 'liberal' and 'conservative' labels being hurled around on this discussion. Honestly, do we really want to use murderers such as Stalin or Mao as poster-children for liberalism, any more than conservatism wishes to own Hitler's bizarre pagan obsessions that would have destroyed all good religions? Until we can get over this "Commie vs. Nazi" mindset, I vote we officially remain in the 20th Century, instead of moving on to the future.

11. jack_433 - October 25, 2010 at 10:18 am

Let's see:

WWI: Woodrow Wilson
WWII: Franklin Roosevelt
Korea: Harry Truman
Vietnam: Lyndon Johnson
Iraq and Afghanistan: George W. Bush

Score: Liberals 4, RINO's 1

12. malvais - October 25, 2010 at 10:37 am

Mao and Stalin weren't liberals. That's ridiculous.

Being very familiar with Burke's ideas of the sublime I know what Robin is getting at. However, I'm surprised he didn't discuss Burke's shifting sands in terms of the French Revolution and his supposed abhorrence of the violence of the Reign of Terror. In his comments on the French Revolution, Burke clearly endorses traditional hierarchies--the British monarchy--as stabilizing forces.

I'm also surprised that he didn't reference John Dean's recent book, Conservatives without Conscience, which also discusses the authoritarian personality and its influence on conservatives today.

I'd have liked to have heard more about the relation between authoritarianism and this desire for the excitement of violence implied in the sublime. Also, as he points out, the sublime as an aesthetic means that it is not about experiencing actual violence, but must be distanced. And the sublime as Burke discusses it is something that happens TO the spectator; he doesn't discuss how to create the effects of the sublime in others so much.

13. chefdujour - October 25, 2010 at 10:40 am

Based on the description of conservative, would not the fundamentalist of any culture, philosophy, faith, or politic be included? Are we not currently the recipient of these attitudes from other sources outside our own borders? So, as long as there is the freedom to hold our own unique personal or cultural traditions, there will always be a conflict of ideology. Only a homogenous world view would negate the environment for conflict. And who would be the one to decide what that world view would be. It does not seem so much a conservative viewpoint, but one held by anyone who is passionate or convicted of a truth, and who is dedicated to its preservation, if not its propogation. Those who stand for nothing create "an ideal environment for "melancholy, dejection, despair, and self-murder."

14. albertov05 - October 25, 2010 at 10:46 am

Suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli.
To the other commentators: you should read this peice more carefully. The author has taken up a critique of certain strands of conservatism- that is clear from the title, yet you cannot bear the premise- that conservatives may have a problem with violence. Such a problem may not be exclusive to conservatives, but the notion that some on the left may have a similar problem does not negate the point of Robin's article. Many have pointed out the similar authoritarian impulses of both the far right and the far left. That doesn't excuse the right's current infatuation with, for example, torture. And I find the strident ad hominem attacks mean spirited at best. Alas, here we can see the vengeful spew!

15. cb_10 - October 25, 2010 at 11:45 am

So this is the kind of politicized psuedo-psychological claptrap that the Chronicle wants to publish these days? Where to begin?
Theodore Roosevelt was a progressive, not a conservative. Andrew Sullivan is the poster boy of psuedo-conservatism. It makes no sense to spend a large chunk of the piece analyzing an early work of Burke when the author admits that Burke wrote it at an early age and that some scholars don't see it as typical of his political philosophy.

Add to those (and other) errors the fact that the Progressive movement has long had little problem with warfare (Dewey's support for WWI for example - See Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism for numerous other examples) or authoritarianism.

This is just another in a long, recent line of attempts to psychologize conservatives as the "other." Rather than deal with political differences and a political philosophy that 40 percent of Americans self-identify with, the author would clearly much rather pretend that conservatives are represented by a shallow, inconsistent stereotype.

Most ignorant is the suggestion that conservatives aren't sharing in the war on terror. Sarah Palin's son served in Iraq and there are countless other examples.

Even more distressing is that there seem to be plenty of people who are happy to uncritically agree with Robin's "analysis." This sort of wish-fulfillment thinking is distressing to read in an educational journal. It only seems to confirm the accusation that there are all too many in the educational world who want lockstep groupthink, and who can neither comprehend nor tolerate viewpoints from without.

16. jc100 - October 25, 2010 at 11:57 am

@ jack_433: LOL. Jeez don't hit this column with FACTS... You're supposed to nod, smile, and harrumph hearty agreement to the sage's wise comments no matter how ridiculous, inaccurate etc. You need a PC refresher course!

17. greenhills73 - October 25, 2010 at 12:00 pm

What a totally idiotic, biased headline. That was all I needed to read.

18. getwell - October 25, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Hey, if NPR can fire Juan Williams for an opinion, than I suppose The Chronicle can push it's agenda too!

So much for fair and balanced media in the 21st century...geez louise!

Can we get past this polarized bandering and try to come together with real solutions to real world problems?

19. unusedusername - October 25, 2010 at 01:02 pm

I saw this article right after I saw "Why Do They (Still) Hate Us?" I think the question has been answered.

20. crunchycon - October 25, 2010 at 01:04 pm

#19 unusedusername -- Well said!

21. henr1055 - October 25, 2010 at 01:28 pm

My beef with these conservatives is that for the most part they did not serve (check the www site who served) You will find the Deferment Dick had 5 deferments a marriage and a "in the nick f time conception" to avoid service because he had important things to do. W spend 3 years idling on the runway in an aging interceptor to avoid Vietnam, Karl Rove finished 15 hours in two years had deferments until rescued by the lottery. I had no such luck. The problem is not whether liberals or conservatives love war it is whether any of them or whom wanted to be in the war themselves or who just chickend out and got a note from their doctor that they had a mole on their back.

22. henr1055 - October 25, 2010 at 01:29 pm

Conservatives - They hate people and love humanity - thats the group of people that qualify as being part of "thier humanity"

23. softshellcrab - October 25, 2010 at 01:47 pm

Gee, a totally liberal, anti-conservative diatribe in the Chronicle... Huh! Who'd a thunk it? Sure blows all my theories about the Chronicle being far left!

24. neoconned - October 25, 2010 at 02:24 pm

"I find it hard to believe that any free-living person should be so vehemient in their denial of the reality of life on earth: all life is based on a life and death struggle..."

Er, no: the reality of life on earth is that it is based on symbiotic relationships, between species and both cooperation and competition within species.
As I tell my students: it's not a "dog-eat-dog world." It's a dog-eat-bone world."
The problem with the "common sense" that grounds much populist conservitism these days is that is manifestly false. Start with a series of false propositions and what kind of conclusion will you get?

25. rdittben - October 25, 2010 at 02:36 pm

I was surprised to see Adorno's seminal work appearing in an article in The Chronicle. I could not be more pleased. This work, and that of his contemporary scholar, Stanford's Gabriel Almond ("The Appeals of Communism"), did much to enlarge our understanding of link between political extremism and personality. Most alarming, the political appeals that resonate with extremists of both left and right share many similarities and but a few differences. Your article does an excellent job in seeking to link that intellectual stream of thought with contemporary political discourse. Well done. I am sorry to see the rants above. If it is any consolation, Adorno was attacked and Almond derided as outside the mainstream of social psychology and political science thinking at the time. Adorno's and Almond's words and analysis live on and have infused our understanding and ability to decipher the deeper implications of later works by others. Samuel Huntington's, "The Clash of Civilizations," is a case in point. In turn, it was a codec to understanding the upcoming role of "neocons" discussed in a series of articles in The Christian Science Monitor prior to the election of George W. Bush. That "liberals" were surprised about the adventurist US foreign policy in the Mideast and elsewhere should not have been a surprise. The article brings the reasoning of Adorno and Almond full circle.

For the same reason, it should not have been a shock to Iranians to find that their theocratic state was the result when they tossed out the Shah in favor of a religious purist. Had Iranians bothered to read the writings of the ayatollah in Paris who became their first supreme leader, all unfolded as he intended for it to be. The same occurred with regard to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." It was the clear blueprint for the National Social Party's goals for a nation.

So it has been in the US. Destructive political ambition and infliction of pain have always been the goals of the ultra-right and ultra-left.

Keep up your excellent writing.

Rich Dittbenner, J.D.
Emeritus Professor of Law
Crisis Management and Communications Consultant
San Diego, California USA

26. anonscribe - October 25, 2010 at 03:56 pm

WWI: Woodrow Wilson
WWII: Franklin Roosevelt
Korea: Harry Truman & Eisenhower
Vietnam: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon
Panama & Granada: Reagan
Iraq I: George H. Bush
Iraq and Afghanistan: George W. Bush & Obama

Score: "Liberals" 6, "Conservatives" 5

And, apparently, if we combine this silly exercise with other comments from this discussion, it's mostly "liberals" fighting other "liberals." E.g., Roosevelt fighting the "National Socialists", i.e., fascists, and Truman fighting communists in Korea.

Real point: this article, and the comments following it, are pretty silly. I'm sure most of us would rejoice if we were given the choice between FDR (a "liberal") and Eisenhower (a "conservative") on our next ballot. If Republicans were putting up people like Ike and George H. Bush for office, they could actually swing my vote. Of course, they're putting up people like Dubya, Palin, Boehner, and other psychos. Please take your party back, so we liberals actually have a civilized choice to make again.

27. rambo - October 25, 2010 at 03:57 pm

why do liberals hated war, the military, business, capitalism, families, children, straights, etc???

28. ledzep - October 25, 2010 at 04:36 pm

In other political contexts, academics are highly unwilling to say that anything is "inherently" [insert negative descriptor here]. I wonder why all nuance and contextualization is out the window in this case? How to explain why the most reactionary conservatives are the most isolationist? If the foreign policy disasters of recent years are uniquely conservative, should one at least proffer an explanation as to why our foreign policy has hardly changed with the change of presidents? Perhaps it would look too question-begging if the author had to have recourse to identifying "conservative" strains within squarely liberal politicians as well. Better not mention it, then.

Surely there are some important things to be said about the misuses of the ideology of conservatism, and how starkly unconservative self-styled conservatives can be. But the tendentious association of the (badly defined) conservative intellectual tradition with a work that doesn't even associate well with Burke's mature writings - well, that's a stretch. What's worse, at key points there is simply the bare, recurring suggestion that the record of conservatism (which is, again, not defined, even tentatively or roughly) is uniquely associated with actual violence in history. Note how absurd it is to build one's case on an imagined undercurrent running through Burke's juvenalia through something like de Tocqueville's ruminations on the 1848 revolutions, as opposed to looking at, you know, the actual 1848 revolutions.

More generally, is a theoretical fetishization of violence the property of conservatism? Prof. Robin's own essay on counterrevolution and conservatism states otherwise - conservatism, he says, adopts violence and the tactics of revolution from its opponent. So does this just boil down to the fact that humans are prone to violence, and humans theorizing are prone to exalting violence. How very informative! What would we do without this timely reminder?

29. katisumas - October 25, 2010 at 04:38 pm

Jack @ 11,

WWI: Kaiser William II

WWII : Hitler

Korean War: Kim II Sung

Vietnam War: Eisenhower (by going along with the "domino theory")

Afghanistan war: Osama bin Laden and Bush

Iraq war: Bush

There is no score to be kept in the tragedy of war. You just proved Corey Robin's point by your excitement and your imagining of wars that caused millions of dead around the world as a game between two US political parties.

As "actions speak louder than words" (that is, louder than ideologies), there is no real difference between "pseudo conservatives" amd "pseudo progressives". You must have noticed it, right? The key word here is "pseudo".

30. katisumas - October 25, 2010 at 04:40 pm

Corey Robin, your article is insightful and interesting. Much food for thought in it. I'm looking forward to reading the book.

31. 11134078 - October 25, 2010 at 04:59 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton):I am afraid that that confirms that the modern Conservative party is the stupid party of British politics. Hansard 9 Jan 2001.h ttp:// And not only in British politics.

32. gadget - October 25, 2010 at 07:05 pm

Adorno et al found that just as there were pseudo conservatives on the right, there were false egalitarians on the left, reflecting the different ways the same personality traits express themselves politically.

The tension between the brand of conservatism that espouses societal disruption, violence, and distruction (an explicit part of the neoconservative canon) and the conservatism of Burke, based on respect for tradition and one's historical and cultural ancestor's accomplishments and creeds, has been apparent during the past ten years. The balance orchestrated in the Republican Party between social conservatives and neoconservatives is now falling apart, hence the rise of the Tea Party activists, who take to the streets and yell incoherently (occasionally literally bashing an opponent) against various scapegoats, which now include traditional Republicans as well as immigrants, Mexicans, and languages other than English. As Adorno and the other refugee researchers discovered, the inchoate anger, belief that life is not fair, and that one is a victim of injustice, only needs a target, whether that be the intelligentsia or immigrants, Jews or welfare recipients.

For Adorno, understanding why people turn to fascism was paramount. He argued that there were left wing as well as right wing individuals who had the personality traits necessary to become fascists, given the right social structure and loss of common mores. At the time the research was published, the deeds of Stalin were not yet known and the deeds of Mao were yet to come. The deeds of Hitler were all too well-known, however.

Thank you, Corey Robin, for your thought-provoking piece.

33. realitychick - October 25, 2010 at 07:09 pm

Both the Democrat and Republican Parties support US Imperialism. Historically, the 'Liberal' Democrats have provided as much support for US Imperialism as the Republicans. Both the Democrats and the Republicans believe in the myths of American superiority and the USA's Manifest Destiny to rule the world.

Actually there is no viable 'Liberal' opposition Party in the USA except for the marginal Socialist Workers Party and the Greens.

Most Americans are aggressive, egotistical wankers who believe they have a God-given right to rule the world by force. If it were otherwise, the USA, bordered as it is by two wide oceans and two friendly neighbors, wouldn't be continually starting wars all over the globe.

34. ledzep - October 25, 2010 at 07:43 pm

Just to re-emphasize how slender a reed it is that supports this line of argument:

Burke once wrote something that can be interpreted as saying that the proximity of danger is the route to the experience of the sublime - we'll just acknowledge and then pass over the fact that this is an obscure work, not part of his mature thought; We will also pass over the long line of left-wing thinkers who are fascinated with violence and its place in "positive" human experiences; Adorno said some things about people he called pseudo-conservatives, and we'll just accept that he nailed down the essence of this personality type, and ignore what he says about pseudo-egalitarians; Neo-conservatives liked the war in Iraq (as did many liberals, but we won't talk about that either); What's that you say? Some conservatives aren't preoccupied with war these days? Well, they must be the flip side of Adorno's coin (argument by authority and metaphor in one line, yielding a completely unfalsifiable thesis - brilliant!) - they must be actively distancing themselves from the very violence they voyeuristically desire. One wonders what could not be explained by this type of argument - it is flexible enough to prove anything.

Call me crazy, but it might be just a little bit more significant that our more left-wing party continues to wage both of our wars, than that a professor can make a convoluted diagnosis of non-warmongering conservatives as subconscious warmongers.

Kudos to the commenter who compared this to Glenn Beck. All the elements are there: it's vaguely conspiratorial, in that the inherent war-philia of conservatism is insidiously at work even in conservatives who are not warmongering, it depends on a loosely structured appeal to obscure or disconnected texts in the opposing tradition that are credulously supposed to constitute an undercurrent of thought, it relies on a convenient failure even to attempt to define what counts as liberalism/socialism/conservatism/fascism, and it imputes certain widespread vices to the opposing ideology as distinctive characteristics. Now if we could have some on-air crying and emoting, the parallel would be complete.

35. studentsuccess10 - October 25, 2010 at 07:48 pm

I just can't think of a good religion!! What are you talking about!?

36. maxweber1903 - October 25, 2010 at 08:17 pm

Quite difficult to take any of the above seriously--I started to drift when noted brain surgeon Andrew Sullivan was cited approvingly but this occult interpretation of Burke's "moral psychology" was too thin to sustain my interest past the third, fourth paragraph. If there is a straight line between little platoons and fascist perpetual war I'd like to see that. Meanwhile you invoked Fukuyuma for some reason, never to be substantiated. Was he just in your Bad-Guy Rolodex? In 1998 this might have made a really outre Salon column; now it seems like dimestore social-media whingeing.

37. jwgilley - October 25, 2010 at 09:31 pm

Yes Ike pulled the plug on the Korean war the minute he took over from Dem Truman. And Ike did more for he first identified the problem we have now. In his final address to congress Ike said that the "military industrial complex" was a greater threat to America in the long run than communism etc. And how that hhas proven true. NO draft so we hire people for pay...many hired guns make $200 grand a year in the middle east. And the owners of these companies make money just ask Dick.
We have members of the military in 39 different countries. We provide security for places like Japan and Germany to our own economic deficit.
In the 1890s when we sent 100,000 troops to the PHilipines it was cheered on by people like Hearst as being necessary to access the Chinese market...yes in the 1890s.
Ike was the only true military man in the White House in the past one hundred years and he said, it is the military/industrial complex that we have to fear...and was he ever right.

38. ledzep - October 26, 2010 at 12:50 am

I can't help myself; this is the gift that keeps on giving. "Encoded in the conservative movement's DNA..." - nice cliche, helpfully obviating the need to show any path of transmission whatsoever between something that didn't even make it into Burke's later writings, and domestic policy-minded conservatives in 2010. It's ok if there's no plausibility to the historical thesis, Prof. Robin knows how to reify with the best of them. The mere idea that negative stimuli are necessary to bring out the most vehement level of activity in human beings is pretty anodyne, really; there is no reason to believe Robin when he calls this a "distinctive moral psychology."

39. francishamit - October 26, 2010 at 03:12 am

Conservatives are eager to fight and use violence as long as they don't have to do it themselves. Example: Dick Cheney, who avoided the draft because he "had other priorities".

I am not a conservative. I am a liberal hawk.

40. elbow - October 26, 2010 at 04:56 am

Bring back the draft.

41. pertinax - October 26, 2010 at 06:14 am

This is a very silly article.

The author defines Conservatism in terms of a love of violence and then declares those who love violence to be conservative.

He cites the young, rather liberal Edmund Burke on aesthetics and ignores the older more conservative Burke on political philosophy.

He latches onto some obscure off-the cuff comment by Harold Macmillan and ignores his continuous efforts, as Prime Minster, to bring about detente with the Soviet Union and limit nuclear testing.

He fails to mention the greatest of twentieth century conservatives, Konrad Adenauer, but would, no doubt, discover some wayward, violent yet hitherto unremarked reserve of violence in him as well.

Yes, there are a lot of people in the United States who love violence and call themselves Conservative. But most of these aren't conservative at all. The are, instead, populist nationalists, militarists, libertarians or religious extremists. They do not wish to conserve but to tear down, in the name of some quaint eighteenth century abstration.

42. rjensen65 - October 26, 2010 at 08:04 am

Faithful Conservative Christians, Jews, and Muslins especially love war because the Bible, Tora, and Qu'ran want faithful followers to love their wars

Atheist liberals are less likely to love war. Three cheers for atheist liberals.

43. texastextbook - October 26, 2010 at 08:24 am

"Prone to 'violence, anarchic impulses, and chaotic destructiveness,' he loves war and longs for bedlam in the streets."

The describes the journalist who doesn't name his sources.

Andrew Sullivan wrote stories in favor of war against Iraq, but Sullivan, possessing no evidence in favor of anyone's writing such stories, wrote without naming sources.

Journalism doesn't police its own. Andrew Sullivan feels something other than a demand that he step down, resign.

44. corey_robin - October 26, 2010 at 08:48 am

Thanks for all the comments. I appreciate folks taking the time to read the essay and write about it.

I think some folks, though, have misunderstood my point here. This is an essay about conservative political argument, not conservative personality types. I'm not interested in whether conservatives as individuals are more prone to violence or not (the title of the piece, which I'm not responsible for, notwithstanding). My assumption is that people individually are more or less prone to violence across the board; it's hard to generalize about inner psyches. And I'm not at all interested in arguing with those psyches, since I don't know what's in people's inner hearts. I'm talking about the types of arguments that are made by conservative intellectuals, particularly conservative political theorists. So it's really irrelevant to my piece whether or not more Democrats or Republicans started wars in the twentieth century or whether or not liberals are violent people too.

What I was trying to take on in my article is the notion, popularized by Andrew Sullivan and others, that the neoconservatives or the Tea Partiers or other recent conservatives are somehow out of synch with the conservative intellectual tradition, particularly as it pertains to violence. I was trying to show that the valorization of violence is central to that tradition, going back to Burke. That was my goal here -- not to lay blame for wars on one party or another.

Some folks raised a legitimate question as to whether Burke's "Sublime and the Beautiful" is a part of the conservative canon and how it relates to its later works. If you read his mature works -- particularly his "Reflections on the Revolution in France" and his "Letters on a Regicide Peace" -- you'll see a fairly similar argument as what you find in "The Sublime and the Beautiful." While's he clearly hostile to the revolutionaries and their violence, he suggests at several points that one of the problems with the monarchy is that it lacks the capacity for terrifying awe that the revolutionaries are in a position to exercise. The question for him is how can the monarchy achieve some of that. Also his critique of the revolutionaries' violence is very much in keeping with what he says in "The Sublime and the Beautiful": that is, rather than offering people a theater of violence, where violence is performed and fantasized, they engaged in actual violence. And his critique of that actual violence is that NOT that it is cruel or hurtful or anything like that: it's that it removes the mystery and obscurity that is necessary for the sublime. Actual violence entails bodies touching bodies (specifically, the mob's handling of the queen), and when that happens -- when we get too close to each other, or see each other too nakedly -- sublimity disappears.

Now were the "Sublime and the Beautiful" just a random text with no successors, people would have a legitimate beef. But it's not. There's a glut of conservative texts that make similar arguments. I've written a long academic article on this, and if anyone wants me to send it to them, I'd be happy to do so. I just didn't have the space here to get into that all.

One last thing: people seem to be under the impression that I am arguing that only conservatives care or are taken by violence. Or that I'm saying that what makes a conservative a conservative is his or her position on violence. That's not the case. The left has its own tradition of thinking about violence, but it's a very different tradition. The kind of arguments one sees in Burke are, for the most part, not found in the left canon (with the possible exception of Fanon). Most leftists take their cues from what is often called the "realist" tradition -- where violence is viewed as a means to an end, an instrument or resource, and a fairly scarce resource at that. The whole question of violence for the left, particularly when it is part of a revolutionary or guerilla movement or even a collection of terrorist cells, is how to maximize the effectiveness of this scarce resource (revolutionaries often have to husband their instruments of violence and use them prudently and carefully). In addition, the focus of discussion on the left is on the objects of violence -- the victims -- not because the left is filled with humanitarians but b/c it has to make a very little go a long way: it has to make sure that its violence does what violence is supposed to do (subdue one's enemies). If this all sounds fairly military-like, it should. Lenin was a great reader of Clausewitz; Gramsci was a great reader of Machiavelli, particularly his writings on war; and even Foucault, who occupies a weird space in all this, was very interested in early modern, realist theorists of warfare. All this is quite different from the right, where the focus is on the wielders of violence (what will violence do for us and our decaying or decadent society), and where the purpose of violence is less utilitarian and instrumental and more symbolic and rejuvenative.

I'm sure this won't make anyone feel better, but I just wanted to make sure people were arguing with my article and what it says.

Thanks again for the comments.


45. cb_10 - October 26, 2010 at 09:53 am

Dr. Robin,

With all due respect, I don't think your clarification helps a great deal. The central problems as I see it:

1) From your own descriptions, Burke is dealing with the practical aspects of violence in the two additional sources you've mentioned. It's also hard to distinguish what you describe as a liberal/left tendency towards "means to an end" from Burke's observations that the monarchy would benefit from the same capacity for violence as revolutionaries.

If Burke were expressing a pure love of war or violence then how could he be, by your description, hostile to the revolutionary approach? There is much that is self-contradictory here.

2. Your (and others) continual conflation of terms like "neo-conservative, Tea Partier, etc. does little to support your case. It's mere buzzwording. Neo-conservatives are, specifically, former leftists who turned to conservatism (or classical liberalism in it's historical sense) in response to concerns about or disenchantment with Communism and the left. It's hard to see how that specific group can be so easily generalized within a supposed historical tradition that stretches back to Burke. As for Tea Partiers, their concerns are primarily economic. Even the claims made in the mass media (without significant evidence as usual) conflates the general public opinion about issues such as illegal immigration with the specific complaints Tea Partiers have about the size of government and federal spending.

To be sure there is some overlap in personalities among these strands of conservatism, but to lump them together in a supposed analysis about the conservative conceptualization of war is just sloppy. We're (very) used to this from Andrew Sullivan (and knee-jerk commenters). Less so from academics attempting to make a nuanced analysis (but sadly, only just so, these days).

3. The article and your rejoinder (a friendlier one compared to the original piece, to be sure) also overgeneralize in regards to conservative thought on war. There are certainly conservative pragmatists where war is concerned (Eisenhower, for one, as another commenter mentioned.) There are also a number of Progressives who have referred to war in terms you have ascribed to conservatives. Again, Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, contains a number of well-researched instances of this phenomenon, whatever you may think of its polemical attributes.

4. Finally, it's hard to accept that there was no intent to address the "conservative psyche" given that your article begins with a quote from Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality.

Given that war and violence are a part of our world and our history, it's natural to want to understand the various philosophies and theories regarding why violence is used, for better or worse. I think it's also understandable for a political science researcher to ask whether there are significant differences in such thinking within various political philosophies. What is not helpful is political oversimplification. Generalization (of political theory as well as psyche) is sometimes necessary to understand trends, but often is only the easy and comfortable process of confirming one's prejudices.

In an article titled "Why Conservatives Love War" it's difficult to see the former for the latter.

46. corey_robin - October 26, 2010 at 10:18 am

cb_10: Taking your last point first, I think it's clear enough from the article -- i.e., where I say, "Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense....the conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It's philosophical." -- that I'm not interested in the psychic dimensions of this question. I'm not a fan of *The Authoritarian Personality*; just I begin with it as a way into an argument hardly means I subscribe to its tenets. And though there's no reason you should know this, my first book was dedicated in part to taking down the framework of *The Authoritarian Personality* and other similar texts from the 1960s, includign Hofstadter's. Again, no reason you should know that: I just tell you to provide some context.

Regarding your third point, I've heard it said many a time that progressives make similar arguments for violence as conservatives. I've rarely seen the actual evidence for such claims. I'm still waiting.

Regarding your second point, it's true that we should be careful not to generalize too hastily about conservatism. That said, it's almost like shooting fish in a barrel to draw linkages between Burke, for example, and the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol, whatever his sins, was a great reader of Burke and makes many Burkean arguments. Francis Fukuyama's take on war in "The End of History" -- representing a next generation of neoconservative thinking, which was mostly influenced by Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom (though Kristol was also influenced by Strauss) -- is straight out of the Sublime and the Beautiful. I think the much harder case, where you have more grounds, is that of libertarians. It's something I've been mulling over of late, though there's some very interesting stuff on the sublime (not as it relates to war but as it relates to the market) in Hayek and von Mises.

As to your first point, I have to confess I didn't really understand it. I read it a few times and I'm still not clear on what you're saying. As I say in my article, Burke has a critical caveat regarding violence and the sublime: as soon as we get too close to violence, and actually experience it, it loses its sublimity. Now on the one hand, Burke actually appreciates the violence of the revolution: he says early on in the Reflections that it has "alarmed us into reflexion" (or something like that; I don't have the text in front of me). He sees at as a theater of moral education and awakening. But on the other hand, when he's forced to actually confront the violence, and describe it in detail, he's horrified by its actuality. I think that's fairly consistent with the earlier work.


47. littleredhen - October 26, 2010 at 10:48 am

Politics isn't encoded in anyone's DNA. This article is a fabulous example of how academics demonstrate their inability to elucidate fundamental qualities of human beings, because they do not understand biology (though they may imagine they can because they use hackneyed phrases like "it's in their DNA").

Violence will always be an option for human beings: it will occur sooner to some than others. Let me clue you in: that bit happened before politics. Unless you can demonstrate that politics tracks that decision-making rather exactly, you are on a fool's errand.

48. oxhole - October 26, 2010 at 11:26 am

As someone (a military veteran as it happens) in their final year of a degree at an 'elite' university I have just decided not to do a Dphil because I don't think I'd be happy in the political climate of academia. Articles like this, and the works it sites, demonstrate the ridiculous and uninformed bent against anyone who doesn't fit the 'liberal' stereotype. It's a shame this fear-based view of people with different views about the world excludes so many who might make real contributions to their fields. A greater shame that so much faux-scholarship is used to make the point 'we don't like people who vote differently to us.' Beware that you make yourself less relevant to the world the more you choose to vilify one half of it's population.

49. redviking - October 26, 2010 at 11:30 am

I'm not sure why I bothered to read to the end of this highly tendentious, exceptionally biased and ill-argued screed, which more or less just says "conservatives = bad warmongers". This reduces the complexity not only of arguments about political differences, but also about the causes of warfare, to the most simplistic of levels. I'm downright depressed that the Chronicle would even print something of this quality. And I'm not conservative. (I'm an urban Canadian academic!)

50. albertov05 - October 26, 2010 at 11:32 am

Corey- stop wasting your time.

This is not a forum for intellectual debate, nor is it at all useful. You cannot defend your argument from a million chuckleheads (Left or Right, whatever that means...). Let them read your book and ruminate, fulminate or expectorate on their own time.

Personally, I find the essay fascinating (whether or not I ultimately agree with it, regardless of my supposed political sympathies- I find it incredible that anyone can avoid complete cynicism regarding current US politics). And it is mostly clear that the folks who are most agitated are the least informed or coherent. It would be hoped that mature intellectual analysis and debate from various points on the political spectrum could help us understand and move forward toward a presumably desirable and reasonable consensus. But the polarization and stridency has reached too high a pitch- hence my earlier observation: the "conservative" voice in the commentary has been angry, accusatory, baiting and vitriolic. Which rather neatly fits the description of the "pseudo-conservative." That sentiment exists and its direction by pseudo-conservative propaganda works, apparently, and is readily observed here, in pseudo-conservative media, and across the stage of the American political theater. Let the thoughtful and engaged read your book and enter the debate in other more costructive ways.

51. texastextbook - October 26, 2010 at 11:50 am

It's the reader's responsibility, maybe even her calling, to edit the writer, Mr. Robin. The fact that you're here, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and not in some blog and for free or in some encyclopedia of political philosophy and dead of old age, tells me that you're enough of a conservative, even if only a financial one, to know that.

In Post #43 I'm responding to the weakness you show, when, of all the worthy and 'pop' (as in "still talking") conservatives you might cite (and not excluding any active-duty soldier, chosen at random), you choose to cite Andrew Sullivan, a man whose greatest claim to fame is (or should be) the fact that he impeached himself.

Far as I'm concerned, if the only thing you accomplished here was to inspire maxweber1903 to write Post #36, you did better than most. I laughed.

If you desire more, you'll stop insisting that there can be nothing personal in your writing, and you'll take what you know and use it to prosecute Andrew Sullivan. Show me how Sullivan (you picked him, I didn't!) is not perfectly representative of the individuals who have caused all of the ills that, as things now stand, appear, like the remains of the planes themselves, to have fallen upon this country since the New York morning of 9/11.

Don't you know: we're in hell. There's nothing here *but* the personal. You sound like some sort of Adam, telling God that you don't want, can't use, an Eve.

52. cb_10 - October 26, 2010 at 12:11 pm


Regarding point 4, the context regarding your attitudes towards Adorno is helpful, but I feel it was largely missing from the article. The assumption that conservatives are committed/enamored to violence is clearly present ("the conservative's commitment to violence is more than psychological..."). for me, that assumption does much to poison any discussion of the philosophy regarding violence. The implication of psychology in four paragraphs (muddled a bit by the true conservative/psuedo-conservative thread) hardly frees us to regard the philosophy on its own. The response of some of your supportive commenters verifies this, I think. Though that is certainly not a reflection on your stated intent, it does seem an unsurprising product.

Regarding point 3, Jonah Goldberg's recent book is well-footnoted and contains a number of specific quotes form progressive figures. Progressives not only have advocated and supported war at times (Goldberg himself referred to Dewey's support for WWI in reference to your article here) but they have advocated a "war footing" even in regards to domestic issues. This goes beyond pragmatism to an appreciation for the nature and culture of warfare.

Regarding point 2, it's a very different thing to say that neoconservatives read and appreciate Burke than it is to say neoconservatives are directly influenced by certain Burkean observations about war, your assessment of Fukuyama notwithstanding. However, it's just as helpful to recognize that those most accurately described as neoconservatives were originally of the left and did not leave every single bit of their philosophical underpinnings behind. Indeed, the worldview of those specific neoconservatives can be said in part to be a reaction to their left-wing origins, including their ideas on the projection of American military power.

Joseph Knippenberg's post in First Things yesterday (http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/10/25/why-conservatives-love-war/), regarding your article, addresses the dangers of generalization in regards to other strains of conservatism. In addition to Libertarianism (which, as Knippenberg points out is related to conservatism more than being a strand of it), social and religious conservatives have various views on warfare.

As far as point 1, not being a Burkean scholar, I can only address what I see as the inconsistencies of your own argument (or perhaps language). You describe Burke as recognizing "that one of the problems with the monarchy is that it lacks the capacity for terrifying awe that the revolutionaries are in a position to exercise." Regardless of the aesthetic qualities of "terrifying awe," isn't this essentially a pragmatic observation, a comparison of the means between two very different ends? It's hard to discern otherwise from your description.

It's also difficult to see how Burke's view of violence as having "alarmed us into reflexion" or his horror at the details of violence translates to a love of war, rather than a regard for the products of war, both positive and negative.

To paraphrase a commenter at First Things, there is much confusion between an appreciation of the violence of war itself and the values which make people successful in conflicts: discipline, honor, valor, self-sacrifice. These are values of merit, but they are not exclusive to war.

From your language it's difficult to tell whether Burke is advocating or analyzing/appreciating. If it's the latter, in any sense, then the character of your general critique seems contradictory to me. That's what I was trying to get at.


53. humandignity - October 26, 2010 at 01:56 pm

oxhole - About your comment "I have just decided not to do a Dphil because I don't think I'd be happy in the political climate of academia."

As a military brat who is mostly conservative and who is working on a doctorate I would say the reason you cite for not going on for your Dphil is exactly why you should complete your doctorate.

Do you really want the only voice that the college age students of tomorrow will hear to be the liberal voice? In reality, we need to encourage every conservative preson we can to enter the academy. Ideally actively forcing intellectual engagement with ideas from both the left and the right should moderate the tone of the academy and actually produce a better richer form of knowledge.

The only other alternative is to just give us conservatives an intellectual Darwin Award because we have self-selected removal from the academic gene pool.

54. ledzep - October 26, 2010 at 02:00 pm

From his comments, Prof. Robin's views on the matter are far more nuanced and substantiated than this rather polemical piece would indicate. I recognize the difficulty of writing on such matters in short form for non-specialists, but I have to say that the comments by Robin exceed the piece in quality by several orders of magnitude.

55. cb_10 - October 26, 2010 at 02:15 pm


I agree regarding professor Robin and his willingness to engage the commenters (and rejecting albertoVO5's self-defeating advice). He's done it with some class and patience and I appreciate that. Especially considering my initial comment had a little snark in it ("claptrap" was probably a bit much, but I was going on the initial reading ;).

I think there's still a lot separating the viewpoints and that I disagree with, but Dr. Robin's comments reveal a more thoughtful and less judgmental approach than the article initially suggested.

That's a breath of fresh air in these times.

56. mainiac - October 26, 2010 at 09:49 pm

Cory Robin is spoken like a relatively intelligent drunk in New York bar! Let's call this what it is: election year "scholarship" propaganda, actually it's silly crap, but it makes him feel good. Democrats will still lose the House, perhaps the Emperor Jones will be impeached, Pelosi will have another face lift to calm down, and Reid will retire far from Las Vegas.

57. joe_in_decatur_ga - October 26, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Whenever I read the rants on these essays, I always have to wonder how many of you are actually academics?

58. nimrod - October 27, 2010 at 01:54 am

Beware of Intellectuals and their nostrums .

By Paul Johnson


We are now at the end of our enquiry'. It is just about two hundred years since the secular intellectuals began to replace the old clerisy as the guides and mentors of mankind. We have looked at a number of individual cases of those who sought to counsel humanity. We have examined their moral and judgmental qualifications for this task. In parti¬cular, we have examined their attitude to truth, the way in which they seek for and evaluate evidence, their response not just to humanity in general but to human beings in particular; the way they treat their friends, colleagues, servants and above all their own families. We have touched on the social and political consequences of following their advice.
What conclusions should be drawn ? Readers will judge for themselves. But I think I detect today a certain public scepticism when intellectuals stand up to preach to us, a growing tendency among ordinary people to dispute the right of academics, writers and philosophers, eminent though they may be, to tell us how to behave and conduct our affairs. The belief seems to be spreading that intellectuals are no wiser as men¬tors, or worthier as exemplars, than the witch doctors or priests of old. I share that scepticism. A dozen people picked at random on the street are at least as likely to offer sensible views on moral and political matters as a cross-section of the intelligentsia. But I would go further. One of the principal lessons of our tragic century, which has seen so many millions of innocent lives sacrificed in schemes to improve the lot of humanity, is - beware intellectuals. Not merely should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particu¬lar suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice. Beware com¬mittees, conferences and leagues of intellectuals. Distrust public statements issued from their serried ranks. Discount their verdicts on political leaders and important events. For intellectuals, far from being highly individualistic and non-conformist people, follow certain regular patterns of behaviour. Taken as a group, they are often ultra-conformist within the circles formed by those whose approval they seek and value. That is what makes them, en masse, so dangerous, for it enables them to create climates of opinion and prevailing orthodoxies, which them-selves often generate irrational and destructive courses of action. Above all, we must at all times remember what intellectuals habitually forget: that people matter more than concepts and must come first. The worst of all despotisms is the heartless tyranny of ideas.

59. shanewarner - October 27, 2010 at 02:24 am

When I always have to wonder

60. zaxarberkut - October 27, 2010 at 04:01 am

"Thus, when Carl Schmitt declares that the fundamental distinction in politics to which all "actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy," he merely formalizes an axiom that had been stirring the conservative mind for more than a century."

If I understand your argument correctly, the root of what you call "conservatism" comes from Burke's writings on aesthetics-- nothing in the thousands of years of human history before that, nothing from Burke's political writings on the French Revolution (the ones that today's conservatives actually read). You somehow consider Carl Schmitt an influence of American conservatives (meaning you don't explain how this is so beyond taking a David Brooks comment out of context), you lump anyone even casually called "conservative" in the American political vernacular together, you don't actually argue against the most common definition provided by Oakeshott, and you don't give any self-described conservative's arguments a fair examination.

There isn't a single conclusion you propose here that a reasonable reader could accept-- I don't even need to discuss "conservative" thought to understand this. I expect better from a professor.

61. raghuvansh1 - October 27, 2010 at 04:03 am

Western people`s psyche based on fear.West tyrannical father begets ignorance than does knowledge.A genocidal mentality is indubitably at the very heart of western people `s psyche. That is why they love war, they are eager to fight.Iam 100 p.c. sure within five or six year America find out new enemy may be Iran and start a war

62. mainiac - October 27, 2010 at 07:00 am


The method and timing here are what is in question. The selective use of political text, history, incendiary descriptions of a political/civilian class/citizens point to a grotesque political hit job. Robin should make a spot on the Olbermann or Joy Behar show: "....so you say tea baggers and republicans/conservatives are war crazy fiends, eh? Is it in the measure of the skull; are they all really genetically coded rednecks or a primitive variant of monkey as yet undiscovered?" Unfortunately for the scholar Robin, this effort devolves into political farce and self parody, with the author becoming, through his tortuous proofs, arguments and text, the main freak at a leftist small town carnival. There is not one shred of cultural value to these kinds of vicious attacks, except to intimidate and destroy.

Oops, almost forgot, more than likely George Soros is selling tickets at the carny gate!! Have an elephant ear?

63. pertinax - October 27, 2010 at 07:13 am

The spectre haunting this discussion is the fact that most Americans who think of themselves as conservative aren't conservative at all.

Most of them are panegyrists of the American Revolution and of the abstract eighteenth century, liberal individualism that it sought to enshrine in the institutions of a radical, new republic.

Many go further and believe in the absolute rule of market forces, and in that least conservative of doctrines, 'heroic destruction'.

And many of them are also, no doubt, in love with violence, nationalism and militarism.

But what have their restless fantasies to do with traditional conservatism, with its emphasis on the protection and enhancement of civilised government, its scepticism and its benign but unsentimental understanding of human frailties?

Precious little, in my view.

Meanwhile, the notion that the Left sees violence in purely instrumental terms and not in terms of myth, mystique and the alleged liberation of human potential, ignores the history of the French Revolution (the Girondins in particular)and of Anarchism and Syndicalism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe.

64. steve_gregg - October 27, 2010 at 07:17 am

Actually, progressives are traditionally the ones who love war, seeing it as the best environment to push their program through with the least resistance. It's also worth noting that it was socialist and communists, not conservatives, who started most of the wars of the 20th century and did most of the killing. In the 21st century, the warmongers are Islamists, who follow an ideology that is a fusion of Islam and Marxism, not conservatism.

65. fslady - October 27, 2010 at 07:42 am

For all those who use Karl Rove and Dick Cheney as examples of conservatives who avoid war, I have 2 words - Bill Clinton.

66. billl - October 27, 2010 at 10:23 am

Now all we need is a Theresa Ghilarducci (sp?) diatribe on economicis.

67. dvacchi - October 27, 2010 at 10:38 am

I would like to offer this to the author: "bloody hell, what planet are you from?"

68. bobbyfisher - October 27, 2010 at 11:06 am

To 58. nimrod.
Thanks! Great quote!

69. bobbyfisher - October 27, 2010 at 11:36 am

Dear Corey,

You said "Regarding your second point, it's true that we should be careful not to generalize too hastily about conservatism. That said, it's almost like shooting fish in a barrel to draw linkages between Burke, for example, and the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol, whatever his sins, was a great reader of Burke and makes many Burkean arguments."

You confuse conservative temperament with conservative ideologues, who may very well,nay must be liberal.

Liberals/Progressives/Leftists/Communists all have one important characteristic. They overestimate the power of reason, and hence are extreme, even in their adoption of conservative ideas.(Hence they denigrate tradition and want to improve upon market outcomes.) It's that overconfidence in their goodness and right thinking that makes liberals intolerant with whatever views they hold. It's liberal in neo-conservatives that would impose conservative institutions on everyone willy-nilly.

70. pertinax - October 28, 2010 at 06:26 am


You've got it!

I would go further and suggest that Americans are largely incapable of Conservatism. They are too restless, too intolerant of imperfection, too optimistic, too impressed with technology, too individualistic and too obsessed with change and modernity.

A true conservative doesn't want to go to the moon.

71. jchildre - October 28, 2010 at 01:21 pm

I am so deeply offended by much of what you said I don't even know where to begin. Go do some real PRIMARY research (i.e., talk to some military personnel and their families).

signed, one convervative military wife in academia

72. edwardseco - October 28, 2010 at 06:14 pm

This was a hard day for me. First I lost my wallet. Then I read this article. Apparently, what I lost in my wallet was worth more than the conscience of the Chronicle. This propaganda piece made me ashamed to be an academic.

73. tom27 - October 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Does an editor ever question crap like this? So Karl Marx with his ideas on class warfare was a Burkean conservative?

And I suppose that the good honest liberal's response to an Adolf Hitler is to make a polite request that he supply his firing squads with silencers to keep the noise level down? When I was in Afghanistan, we received weekly reports of the discovery of thousands of corpses, primarily women and children, buried in the sands of Iraq by Saddam Hussein. As far as I'm concerned, that justified deposing him whether he destroyed the weapons of mass destruction we know he had or merely hid them. But then, I'm one of those reactionaries who buys the line that good men need only do nothing for evil to triumph.

And by the way, I saw the sons and daughters of a lot of conservatives in uniform, but I don't recall seeing any whose fathers were professors at Brooklyn College or CUNY.

74. reality_chick - November 02, 2010 at 01:07 pm

The 'Conservative' Republicans and the 'Liberal' Democrats may have disagreements over domestic policies, but they act alike when it comes to US foreign policy. Although many naive voters had the misimpression that Barack Obama would be a 'peace candidate', Obama has continued the aggressive war policies of the Bush administration. Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo and Lyndon Johnson escalated the Viet Nam War.

The USA is ruled by a wealthy elite that controls both the Republican and Democrat Parties. It is that wealthy elite which determines US foreign policy, and the goal of US foreign policy is always to feather the nest of the wealthy elite.

Most Americans who call themselves 'Liberals' are actually 'psuedo-Liberals' because they support the foreign policy of US Imperialism. No true Liberal will support Imperialism.

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.