“The Ad Hominem Attack and the Rise of ‘Left-Wing Conservatism’?”

Jack Kerwick

11/9/2013 5:10:00 PM - Jack Kerwick

Upon my recent review of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America, some readers expressed some choice words for the book’s author, Paul Gottfried.

Though his is a critical appraisal, Gottfried’s treatment of his subjects is unfailingly respectful. No one who has read his book can doubt my assurance that both the substance and tone of Gottfried’s analysis epitomize the ideal of agreeable disagreement.

As for those who have not read it, however, matters are clearly otherwise.

Gottfried is consumed by “anger,” some commentators wrote. Others indicted him for “defending” the “anti-Semite,” the late Joe Sobran.

That Gottfried’s critics here are doubtless people of the right, self-avowed “conservatives,” is a tragic commentary on the times. More specifically, it is a tragic commentary on just how successful the left has been in commandeering our culture, for the insults that now bombard Gottfried are textbook exhibitions of precisely the sort of ad hominem attack that the left has always wielded to terminate debate while destroying—professionally, politically, and socially, destroying—its opponents.

It is bad enough that Gottfried’s detractors readily substitute insult for argument. Far worse, however, is that in addition to being anti-intellectual in character, his critics’ insults are baseless.

The most casual perusal of any of Gottfried’s books immediately exposes the suggestion that their author is blinded by rage for the self-evident nonsense that it is.

As for the attempt to discredit Gottfried by linking him with the “anti-Semite” Joe Sobran, more can be said.

The saga of the fortunes and misfortunes of Joe Sobran is a story for another day. For now suffice it to say that if Gottfried is somehow disreputable for having befriended or “defended” Sobran, then so too are Bill Buckley and Ann Coulter disreputable for doing the same. This long-time National Review writer was both a friend and protégé of Buckley. It is true that he and Buckley had a parting of the ways at one juncture, but not long before Buckley’s death, he and Sobran had reconciled. When the latter died three years back, Coulter eulogized Sobran in one of her columns, referring to him as her “friend” and the world’s “greatest writer.”

Moreover, considering that Gottfried is a Jew whose family was forced to flee the Nazis, attempts to somehow associate him with “anti-Semitism” are, at best, laughable; at worst, they are offensive.

Ultimately, though, neither Gottfried’s background nor that of Sobran is of any relevance to Gottfried’s argument.

And this is the point.

Ever growing numbers of self-declared “conservatives,” whether in the media or elsewhere, no longer think twice about assaulting the characters—rather than the arguments—of their opponents. Equally disturbing is that it is virtually always other conservatives for whom they reserve their vitriol.

The reaction to Gottfried is a classic illustration of all of this.

Mainstream conservatives tirelessly—and rightly—complain that they are denied a voice in much of the popular culture, the news media, and, particularly, academia. For instance, not long ago the syndicated talk radio host and self-described conservative Dennis Prager lamented that while those on the right are always willing to debate at any time and place their leftist counterparts, the reverse is never the case.

But when it comes to supplying those to their right with the same “equal time” for which they beg the left, these very same personalities are having none of it. Those with any doubts on this score will have them quickly dissolved by simply recalling the last time they heard an exchange between, say, Prager, Bill Bennett, or Hugh Hewitt, on the one hand, and Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul, on the other.

This is an impossible task.

There are plenty of extraordinarily insightful, Constitution-adoring, right-leaning libertarians, classical conservatives, and other assorted figures on the right that promise to enrich the dialogue within the conservative movement. Yet the latter’s more visible (or audible) representatives treat them as if either they didn’t or shouldn’t exist.

In other words, toward those to their right they express the same contempt and incivility routinely shown by leftists toward their enemies.

During this time when the conservative movement appears to be undergoing an identity crisis of unprecedented proportions, when lines are being drawn in ways that perhaps they haven’t been drawn before, this crude conduct on the part of self-sworn conservatives has no place. What’s needed is dialogue that is at once civil and rational.

What’s needed are people with the intellectual and moral temperament on display in Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America.