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Madison’s Notes is a good podcast, and the latest episode is an interesting one — interesting not so much for its content, but for what it reveals about the conservative intellectual establishment. What it reveals is, of course, futility.
This particular episode is a recording of an event held in September and sponsored by Princeton University. The event, which featured back-to-back talks by Robert George and Ryan T. Anderson, was titled “The Baby and the Bathwater: Toward a Recovery of the American Idea” and was pitched as a rebuttal to the growing contingent of post-liberals on the right: the likes of Sohrab Ahmari and Patrick Deneen. The right shouldn’t throw aside the small-l liberal constitutional tradition, argue George and Anderson. We must “stay the course” and “keep the faith.”
Now, as a purely practical matter, I agree that American-style procedural liberalism is necessary in a country as large and internally varied as ours. Still, however unworkable their schemes, the post-liberals see the world as it is with far clearer eyes. And what followed the lectures shows why.
In the podcast, the post-talk Q&A session turns into a lengthy discussion about the state of free speech on college campuses — and the sorts of policies colleges committed to freedom of speech ought to pursue. Robert George reveals that he chums around not only with Cornel West, but also Peter Singer, the utilitarian ethicist famous for promoting infanticide and condemning the eating of meat.
Once it’s established that Singer is okay, Anderson and George argue for a while about whether a university should be allowed to hire a racist professor. (Anderson says no; George says yes.) One of the moderators asks Anderson, “Why are social conservatives losing?” (Good question!) Anderson’s answer: because conservative think tanks aren’t hiring enough of them. The conversation turns to same-sex marriage. “I don’t know why we didn’t win that one! Our arguments were better!” huffs George. “I think it’s because we were vastly outspent.” George then decries companies for lacking the “courage” to send people like him more money.
By the end of the thing, my jaw had descended so far, it’d bored a hole through my apartment’s laminate floor. In case your jaw is still attached, allow me to explain: These are people deep inside the bubble of academia, with (evidently) no understanding of the real causes of the forces they lament. Like the corrupt American elite more broadly, they confuse their own institutional position with the good of society. And for all their complaints, they act like the stakes are low — because, in the academy, they are. This isn’t an overcooking turkey smoking up the kitchen. It’s a five-alarm fire.
Why are social conservatives losing? Well, it’s not because AEI hasn’t hired enough of Ryan Anderson’s friends. And sorry, Professor George, but social conservatives lost the SSM fight back in the 1970s (when the divorce rate skyrocketed), well before there was an SSM fight. After decades of treating marriage as a mere contract between consenting adults in a sexual relationship, to be dissolved at will, how could society not extend that contract to . . . consenting adults in a sexual relationship? And why donate money to a losing cause? Maybe the lack of financial support was evidence of the Christian right’s weak position, not the cause of it. It’s amazing that George, with his 46 doctorates, seems to overlook this.
Missing from the discussion — which, let me remind you, is subtitled “Toward a Recovery of the American Idea” — is a mention of civil society. Missing, also, is any recognition of the role social media plays in shaping our world. We hear nothing about peer culture. Nothing about corporate America (save, again, for some pleas for donations). No mention of the dissolving and atomizing effects of today’s economic reality. Not even anything about churches! Instead, the two (and especially George) display a naïve faith in the power of reason to form society.
In an especially revealing moment, George says something like, “If we all knew what the truth was, we’d just change our beliefs.” This is false. People, as a rule, are not reasoned into their beliefs, nor are they reasoned out of them. They believe what seems true and right, and what seems true and right has more to do with aesthetics, psychology, and social pressure than deduction. If Robert George thinks he can save the country by politely explaining to the radicalizing 20-year-old sitting in front of him, shiny new ring in her nose, TikTok notification dinging on her phone, why she’s wrong about abortion, then he’s deluded.
Perhaps I’m being too hard on George and Anderson. Perhaps I shouldn’t condemn academics for caring about academia. But, listening to them, I get the sense that however earnest their beliefs and noble their intentions, their experience of the culture war is that of an intellectual game. Comfortable in their positions, they can leave the classroom at the end of the day and enjoy a nice dinner with Cornel West or Peter Singer at that cute café in downtown Princeton — you know, the one with a rainbow flag hanging from the sign. They can stand around the palace window, peering out at Rome burning around them, stroking their chins, saying, “A fascinating phenomenon, this! What a great subject for a peer-reviewed article!”Published in