An oddity for me about this year’s National Review cruise is that the thing I find myself thinking about most is something that was said last year.
I had heard Victor Davis Hanson on the radio a few times, his sonorous, deliberately paced voice and sparkling erudition causing the mind’s eye to conjure a professor’s unathletic demeanor -- slight, brainy, unremarkable.
I would not have guessed that the fellow with the broad forehead, carved features and meaty, workman’s hands, the one who could easily be mistaken for a West Virginia coal miner, or maybe a ranch hand or crusty oil rig worker, was Hanson. As he listens to his fellow panelists, he looks skyward, thoughtfully; not because he isn’t paying attention, but, it seems, so that he can fit what he is hearing carefully into the constellation of ideas that circle above, forming and reforming as new concepts arrive, find their place, or are set aside.
I jotted down what he said last year and I’ve thought about the words frequently as our political tides have washed over us. I especially thought about them as it became clear that the results would not be what we had hoped for, worked for, wished for, and (in some cases -- foolishly as it turns out) expected.
Here’s what he had said, this Victor Davis Hanson:
“An argument should not only be persuasive, it should be beautiful…”
Just so. Spoken by a man who is a professor of classic and a writer of note -- the kind other writers pay attention to. When he speaks, he makes arguments that are careful and, indeed, persuasive and, yes, beautiful.
Over the last year I have wondered often, as I listened to the arguments being made by those I hoped would be persuasive, if the reason they were not persuasive was because they were not beautiful — or were they not beautiful because they were not persuasive?
We lost the argument.
And now we are arguing about whether we should make our arguments as un-beautiful as those of our opponents.
This year on the NR cruise there were several newcomers to the speakers list, one of whom was Brian Anderson, who is the editor of City Journal, Manhattan Institute’s cultural and political journal. Doing a little research, I came across his book review of Charles Kesler’s I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism.
Anderson’s review is one of the finest short exegeses on the Progressive movement and philosophy I have ever read. It is an argument. It is persuasive. It is beautiful.
In its beauty and in its persuasiveness it represents a small piece of a very large puzzle—but a piece nonetheless. We are not incapable of making arguments that are both persuasive and beautiful. Surely we are not.
Call me crazy—or, perhaps more accurately, call Victor Davis Hanson crazy—but I think he may be more right than even he knows. It may just be that as we dust ourselves off and regroup for future battles, we should ask of our arguments, each one, “Is it beautiful?” If it is not, it is unlikely to be persuasive. If it is, it may be more than persuasive—it may be true.
We must find the people who can make these arguments. Brian Anderson is one. There are others who were gathered on the NR Cruise, and there are still others elsewhere, many right here on Ricochet.
Maybe it is only there, in that spot, that hope resides ...