Like many leftwing intellectuals Mattson makes a federal case out of a little essay I wrote ten years ago called “The Art of Political War.” An excerpt from the essay appears as the epigraph to his chapter on “Post-Modern Conservatism, the Politics of Outrage and Mindset of War.” Mattson even exaggerates my role in the conservative intellectual movement in order to make my essay seem more influential than it was: “The 1960s had become a permanent fixture of Horowitz’s identity, as it had for the country as a whole. Horowitz was the Sixties hipster marching in line with the ‘Reagan Revolution,’ and he determined the future of the conservative intellectual movement more than [Hilton] Kramer’s or [Irving]Kristol’s anguished, highbrow concern.”
The fact is I wasn’t even a hipster in the 1960s – I was a Marxist who didn’t smoke dope, didn’t live in a commune, missed Woodstock, never went to a Grateful Dead concert or the Fillmore, didn’t riot or throw stones at cops, and inhabited a nuclear family. Moreover, my little essay on The Art of Political War was not a working manual or political guide for intellectual conservatives or for the conservative movement. It was very specifically and explicitly a guide for conducting electoral campaigns before mass audiences where the contending parties are limited to 30-second TV sound bites.
I have been attacked with the identical misconception before by leftists who want to turn The Art of Political War into a credo, which it is not. In fact, I devoted a whole chapter of my book Indoctrination U to refuting this claim when it was the focus of an attack on me by The Dean of Faculty at Reed University. In responding to this attack I wrote: “The ‘politics” to which “The Art of Political War” is addressed is electoral politics (or politics before masses), which would not include the controversies I normally engage in as a public intellectual or in the many other books I have written, or in the academic freedom campaign itself.” What could be clearer? Unfortunately, Mattson hasn’t read this book either, though it is entirely about The Academic Bill of Rights.
But he has read “The Art of Political War,” which makes the same point. Here is a passage that Mattson elides from the very excerpt he uses as the epigraph for his chapter: “You have only 30 seconds to make your point. Even if you had time to develop an argument, the audience you need to reach (the undecided and those in the middle who are not paying much attention) wouldn’t get it…. Worse, while you’ve been making your argument the other side has already painted you as a mean-spirited, border-line racist controlled by religious zealots, securely in the pockets of the rich. Nobody who sees you this way is going to listen to you in any case. You’re politically dead.” This is quite obviously advice to Republicans running for election, not conservative intellectuals engaged in intellectual debates.
Even more important, the “Art of Political War” does not argue that approaching (electoral) politics as war conducted by other means is a conservative idea. It argues that it is a necessary idea because the left sees politics as war and, if conservatives don’t also see it that way, they are going to get “killed.” In my text, the principles of political war are introduced with these words: “Here are the principles of political war that the left understands but conservatives do not…” [emphasis added]
The overarching thesis of Mattson’s book is an attempt to connect the conservatism of William Buckley and his generation with conservatism like mine. There are obvious connections between the two but Mattson is ultimately so uninterested in conservative ideas that the connections he makes are an impenetrable mosh. “Horowitz sees himself as a rebel today as much as he was in the 1960s. [No I don’t. — DH] And he shares the same enemy conservatives chastised in the past – the ‘liberal establishment.’”
No I don’t. The so-called “liberal establishment” today is a leftwing establishment. Unlike Buckley, I identify with 50s liberals like John F. Kennedy, whose politics in my view were identical to Ronald Reagan’s. My political enemies today — Ward Churchill, bell hooks, Cornell West, Nicholas DeGenova, the editors of the Nation – have views of the capitalist and individualist West that are identical to those of the cold war “progressives” who supported the Communist bloc and its cause and who have absolutely nothing in common with JFK or the liberal establishment at Yale in the 1950s whom William F. Buckley opposed. Mattson treats Buckley as the avatar of the conservative rebellion and I share that view. But I have never embraced a theo-centric conservatism such as that common to Buckley, Kirk and Whittaker Chambers. These three anchor their conservatism in a religious faith. I do not. I am an agnostic. I have outlined my own conservative philosophy in The Politics of Bad Faith – a book Mattson also has not read. My conservatism is conceived as an effort to defend the principles of the American Founding. It is true that according to the Founders we derive inalienable rights from “Our Creator.” I agree that rights have to be derived from a source other than human will. If Mattson has another way to ground rights that are inalienable without invoking a “Creator,” I’m all ears, but until then this agnostic will defer to the Founders.
Here is Mattson’s vision of the conservative movement as expressed in his book and summed up in his Frontpage interview:
“Postmodern conservatism takes from Buckley’s model of the conservative the stance of the rebel… From the Sixties, postmodern conservatism takes ‘hipness’ and the ‘new sensibility.’ And then it bundles these things together with an interest in the postmodern ideas of ‘diversity’ and ‘anti-foundationalism.’ Consider the use of the term ‘diversity’ in the original Academic Bill of Rights. The justification for ABOR also argued that ‘there is no humanly accessible truth that it not in principle open to challenge.’ The argument is thus infused with postmodern theories about knowledge – knowledge as contingent, grounded in language games, never foundational, etc. But the conservative weds this postmodern outlook with a stance of war – the ‘political war’ that Horowitz outlines in one of his more popular books (popular among elected Republicans).”
As I have demonstrated this summary is a hodge podge of misunderstood and misrepresented ideas, some of it insightful, most of it misleading and downright wrong. And it all could have been corrected if Professor Matson had done his homework, or picked up the phone and asked me what I meant.