I recently had a written exchange on political divisions in my academic subfield. My correspondent was, by the standards of the subfield, a moderate. By the standards of the contemporary United States, center left. By the standards of historical humanity, or even educated opinion of the past century, completely barking at the moon. Party-line hard Left with a vengeance just about sums it up.
There is a possibility that this exchange will someday be published (perhaps in the bright dawn of the Sanders administration), so I won’t steal the thunder of that blockbuster event by disclosing its content. But I will relate three jujitsu moves that my correspondent made, as these are commonly made by Leftists when debating a conservative, and should therefore be known to every conservative. I will also comment on the difficulty conservatives have in blocking these yami-uchi (which is a sneak attack or sucker punch in the argot of jujitsu).
I call these three forms of yami-uchi the Black Sheep, the Cuckoo’s Egg, and the Looking-Glass World. Each is designed to make a conservative look like a fiendish scoundrel in the eyes of uncommitted readers or auditors. We must always remember that the uncommitted are the intended audience in any public debate, since only they are open to suasion; but we must also remember that the suasion to which the uncommitted are open is in most cases rhetorical rather than rational. The uncommitted are, after all, uncommitted because they lack the interest, information, and perhaps intellect, to have formed a rational judgment. As William Samuel Lilly puts it,
The vast majority of men, and almost all women, are swayed by rhetoric rather than logic, by the emotion more than the intellect . . . . The number of people who are capable of following—to say nothing of judging—a sustained argument is not large. But an apt phrase goes home to the dullest with singular persuasiveness.” (1)
In making a conservative look like a fiendish scoundrel, the Leftist does two things. First, he arouses in the uncommitted a feeling of shame for being uncommitted. It’s disgraceful, he implies, for anyone to dally on the sidelines when good men are doing battle with fiendish scoundrels. Second, he arouses in the uncommitted a feeling of fear by suggesting this particular fiendish scoundrel is within an inch of doing some very fiendish things. Were it not for the plucky Leftist, he would be hurting people, or humiliating people, or taking away their toys. This is why, when the uncommitted come down off the fence, they so often come down on the left side.
Unfortunately, it is easy to make a conservative look like a fiendish scoundrel because the rules of discourse are stacked against him. The very words the conservative uses have been intentionally blunted, dinged and sullied by distasteful associations, whereas the ideas he calls into question are protected by suits of shining armor. Try to use words like piety, reverence, honor, or authority; try to criticize ideas like equality, freedom, or democracy. The authorities to whom a conservative appeals have been obscured and defamed. Try quoting Orestes Brownson in opposition to Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Thomas Carlyle in opposition to John Stuart Mill.
Conservatives are for the most part aware of this handicap, and too many of them overcompensate with an excessively ingratiating politeness. We should avoid outright rudeness, since this simply confirms the prejudice that we are fiendish scoundrels, but ingratiating politeness is equally mistaken. If a person has been conditioned to suspect you of being a fiendish scoundrel, ingratiating politeness comes across as oily dissembling.
The best course of action, as every conservative knows in his heart, is hard blows honorably delivered with a smile. No hysteria; no metaphorical rolling of the eyes; none of that “Wow, just wow.” For the truth is, there is no stupidity or skullduggery of which we think the Left incapable, so there is no stupidity or skullduggery by which we could possibly be surprised. Hit him hard, hit him clean, and make it look like you are having fun.
Now for the three Yami-uchi, or sucker punches that Leftists use in debate.
The Black Sheep sucker punch consists of pointing to one the conservative’s disgraced ideological kinsman and demanding that he either denounce this kinsman unreservedly or confess to agreeing with him in every particular. Since the conservative is in some way loyal to the beliefs and institutions of the past, and since there were in the past more than a few black sheep, finding one is not difficult. “How,” the sly Leftist inquires, “do your opinions differ from those of fascists, or Klansmen, or the more zealous agents of the Inquisition?” All of these characters are, of course, strongly identified in popular discourse as the blackest of black sheep, so any attempt to extenuate or mitigate their crimes will look like the hypocrisy of a fiendish scoundrel. At the same time, conservatism is nothing if it is not loyal, so it would be dishonorable to simply, as they say, throw these people under the bus.
It should be noted that the Black Sheep yami-uchi doesn’t work against Leftists because very few people sitting on the fence have heard of their black sheep, and Leftist do not in any case hesitate to throw old Leftists under the bus. Danton? Who was he? Stalin? We repudiate him! Pol Pot! How could you accuse us of having anything whatsoever to do with a man like that? (Throwing ancestors under the bus is also common among the pseudo-conservatives known today as cuckservatives, which tells us all we need to know about who their ideological kinsmen really are.)
There is no easy way to block the Black Sheep sucker punch, since the options are: (a) to absolutely identify with the Black Sheep, and become thereby a fiendish scoundrel; (b) to absolutely repudiate the Black Sheep, and become thereby a treacherous blackguard; (c) to try to explain and add some of the Left’s beloved “nuance,” and run the risk of appearing to be a fiendish scoundrel who is also a hypocrite and an oily dissembler.
In the sucker punch I call the Cuckoo’s Egg, the Leftist will demand that you agree that some teaching of the Left is in fact true, or that the motives of the Left are at least good. This could also be called the “But Surly You Must Agree . . .” yami-uchi, since it is with these words that the punch is so often delivered. “But surely you must agree that democracy is the finest form of government!” “But surely you must agree that men and women have the right to be whatever they wish to be!” “But surely you must agree with the absolute separation of Church and State.”
The problem for a conservative is that he may be able to agree with some of these statements in some sense of the words, but he is in fact being asked to agree with the statement in the Leftist’s sense of the words. This is why I call this the Cuckoo’s Egg. The shell looks more or less like an egg that might belong in your nest, but when it hatches you are going to have a cuckoo (i.e. Leftist) idea on your hands.
This sucker punch is also difficult to block because the uncommitted do not see the complexities that are, as it were, inside the shell of the platitude. So the conservative’s options are: (a) accept the Cuckoo’s Egg, and very soon have an incongruent Leftist chick chirping away in your nest; (b) refuse the Cuckoo’s Egg, and appear at once a fiendish scoundrel; (c) qualify and modify the Cuckoo’s Egg, and run the risk of appearing to be a fiendish scoundrel who is also a hypocrite and an oily dissembler.
The yami-uchi I call the Looking-Glass World consists of the Leftist saying, if you do not agree with what I have said, you must believe the exact opposite of what I have said. So, for instance, if you do not agree that the working class should dominate all political institutions, you must believe that the working class should be excluded from all political influence, and indeed ground down, brutalized and oppressed. Or, if you do not agree that the rights and responsibilities of females ought to be identical to that of males, you must believe that females should have no rights and be responsible for only the most dismal sorts of drudgery. Or, if you do not lie awake at night grieving over the suffering of (insert victim group here), you must be utterly callous and indifferent to their suffering, and may even take sadistic pleasure in it.
Once again, we have a sucker punch that is difficult to block because the only honorable defense is careful explanation. One has to explain that a conservative does not inhabit the Leftist world of working class supremacism, female emancipation, or lachrymose victimology, but neither does he inhabit an inverted Looking-Glass World of tyranny, oppression and brutality. He inhabits his own world. Unfortunately a description of that world is tedious, particularly for the uncommitted, who are swayed by the “apt phrase.”
If you were hoping that I would end with surefire defensive moves against these yami-uchi, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. As a general rule, however, I recommend the attitude that conservative scholar Maurice Cowling described as “geniality and malice,” or “politeness and negative bloodiness.” He calls this “the antidote to liberal virtue.” The need for geniality and politeness is obvious enough, since, to the uncommitted, a rude and bitter men looks like a loser. Malice means aiming to win, not hold out for a few more years. “Negative bloodiness,” Cowling writes, “is not an end in itself but is instrumental to the assertion of a conservative moral order which needs active assertion when threatened by liberal institutions” (2). What is means by this phrase is, in other words, conservative intransigence.
And part of conservative intransigence is willingness to be bloodied by the sucker punches I have called the Black Sheep, the Cuckoo’s Egg, and the Looking-Glass World. The other part is hitting them hard, hitting them clean, and looking like you are having fun.
(1) William Samuel Lilly, On Shibboleths (London: Chapman and Hall, 1892), pp. 1-2.
(2) Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990 ), pp. xxx, xli, xlii.