Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gersonism and Conservatives

I confess: I am going to break one of my own rules. In general, I make it a practice to refrain from criticizing books I have not read. But after perusing Michael Gerson's column archives at the Washington Post, well, readings of Heroic Conservatism are starting to look like a viable alternative to waterboarding. Still, the world doesn't need me to read the book and criticize it, because Gerson is absolutely getting hammered.

Start with the personal stuff: The Atlantic published an article by Gerson's former White House colleague Matthew Scully which accuses Gerson of self-aggrandizement and exaggeration of his own role in various matters. And of taking credit for other people's work. David Frum weighs in, saying:

I worked closely with Gerson and Scully, and I know both men well, as I do the third member of that once-intimate band, John McConnell. I witnessed the events Scully chronicled, and I can attest to the accuracy of Scully's account.

Frum then goes on to accuse Michael Gerson of plagiarism, which is a pretty serious charge. I mean, you've got to be pretty desperate to plagiarize David Frum.

While this bickering among former Bush Administration insiders is undoubtedly amusing, it isn't of great import. Of course Gerson is a climber who exaggerates his own importance and shades accounts to make himself look good. This distinguishes him not at all from his fellow members of the political caste.

In addition to the nasty, vindictive personal stuff, the book has attracted a lot of substantive criticism as well, particularly from conservatives. George Neumayr at Human Events referred to Gerson's "Heroic Liberalism," and characterized the whole Gersonian enterprise as a "cowardly retreat from conservatism." Jonah Goldberg asked "Why is This Man Called a Conservative"? Even Ross Douthat, who is the sort of squish who might be susceptible to Gerson's style of argument, penned a negative review for Slate, and he's had a couple of blog posts following up on it.

So what, exactly, is Gerson's philosophy? What is "Heroic Conservatism"? Well, as I said, I haven't read the guy's book, and I have no intention of doing so. But it's not clear that such exertion is really necessary. Gerson is the sort of intellectual who would only be so-classed because he's a member of the political caste. Gerson's "Heroic Conservatism" is a warmed-over version of Bush's "Compassionate Conservatism." In his column, he tells us that he cares a lot about the poor, and that people who disagree with him on this or that are uncaring.

In this column, for example, he goes after Dick Armey and Phil Gramm, before going after his real target: the libertarian-leaning wing of the Republican Party. Typical Gersonian rhetoric:

But the moral stakes are even higher. What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all.

Ross Douthat quotes him as saying fiscal conservatives are "small minded, cold and uninspired," and Gerson's columns are imbued with this sort of rhetoric. Gerson is very comfortable sitting astride his moral high horse.

Gerson takes pains to distance himself from traditional big-government statist liberals, but, in practice, his arguments has exactly the same form as do theirs: I care about the poor and dispossessed, while you small-government types don't. He doesn't seem overly concerned about whether his favored nostrums actually achieve their stated goals, whether they have unintended consequences, or whether market solutions are indeed a superior alternative. But, for Gerson, it's not about that. Matt Kibbe's scathing review is worth reading in full, but he absolutely nails it, when he says of Gerson:

But what’s important to note is that it’s indicative of Gerson’s worrisome approach to governing. In his world, it’s not just about creating policy that works, but policy that makes him feel good. He doesn’t want government to get out of the way; he wants to use it to help him find meaning.

The urge to find meaning through politics is one of the most pernicious and destructive urges in human history. At its worst, it leads to atrocities: the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Gulags, death camps. In its most mundane form it leads to bad policies. It's what is wrong with liberalism in its modern sense, and, for that matter, a lot of what's wrong with the Presidency of George W. Bush.

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