The Agonist Journal

Although the judgment may have seemed strange to some, when I wrote in the spring issue of this journal that I prefer the Marxist intellectuals of my youth to the far less well-educated lackeys of Conservatism Inc., I was being entirely honest. For those Marxists examined social contexts scrupulously and never yapped about decontextualized “values” and “permanent things,” the nature of which remain ill-defined or seem to change depending on whom is funding what. Moreover, none of the Marxists I conversed with as a young man considered homosexual marriage to be a family value. Unlike Fox News producers, who proudly parade married and unmarried gays before their low-brow viewers, even the members of the Frankfurt School who were deviationists or weirdos held admirably to Sigmund Freud’s position that homosexual behavior is aberrant. To their credit, Marxists were also inexcusable sexists by current “conservative” standards, and so never would have made it on to The Ingraham Angle or The Story with Martha MacCallum along with the “moderate” and not so moderate feminists whom I observe on these chick-friendly programs.

"Compromise does not work well in moral confrontations, precisely because neither side is made up of relativists. Conflict is of the essence, and that many do not like this does not entail the ability to change it."

One of the most tiresome and misleading untruths spread by conservative “intellectuals” is that they are at war with “moral relativists.” Not only historical thinkers of the right but also Marxists would have ridiculed the idea that their opponents are “moral relativists.” I recently read an insightful book, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything. The author, Robert R. Reilly, is a Catholic moralist who deals critically and incisively with the gay lobby in Western countries. Most of the book is a thoughtful refutation of pro-gay public relations, and there is little in Reilly’s work, including the prose, which I am not prepared to praise. But toward the end, while lamenting the lack of “virtue” in our post-Christian society, Reilly accuses the cultural left of “moral relativism.” Of course, I strongly agree with Reilly’s call for a return to what earlier generations understood as “virtue,” but I do not think that those who are battering it are really moral relativists.

There are two obvious problems with this denunciation of relativism, to which I have been calling attention (alas, unavailingly) for the last twenty years. One, moral relativists are no more common than unicorns. Anyone who engages in moral or cultural disputes thereby affirms his own position. No one thus engaged believes that what he is railing against is as valid as what he is defending. Plainly, a person who thinks that white lives are less important than black ones, or that homosexual marriage is desirable, seeks to advance a particular attitude or action. And however unavowed or evaded, there is always some concept of objectivity in the background, because otherwise the value judgment would be without justification.

A person engaged in value struggle may want to treat the opposing position as “relativistic,” or claim that “freedom” is his highest value. It is significant, in any event, that someone who is committed to a particular moral position, even after his own side has prevailed politically, typically endeavors to weaken even further the defeated side. After all, a strong moral advocate is never neutral or just a lover of freedom, but a partisan of his own absolute morals, which he hopes to impose universally. This advocate may continue to tolerate heterosexual marriage or white identity in some limited way, but since he was always a committed actor, he will go on trying to render less respectable or less admirable the position taken by his opponents. Compromise does not work well in moral confrontations, precisely because neither side is made up of relativists. Conflict is of the essence, and that many do not like this does not entail the ability to change it.

Second, partisans of a position are never acting in isolation from a social context and from a particular set of interests. Thus, a wealthy, educated Asian or Jew enjoys multiple benefits from his social position, but still feels anxious and insecure in what he continues to view as a foreign, gentile culture: and note that even in 2019, Asians and Jews alike overwhelmingly continue to vote Democrat. He therefore supports the cultural left as a safeguard against a possible assault on his wealth and status from the surrounding society, one from which he feels in varying degrees threatened. The Protestant corporate capitalist, too, opts for the left, because he considers Third World immigration and the endorsement of transsexual rest rooms beneficial to his economic enterprise. Furthermore, his wife belongs to a social or political organization that favors those fashionable leftist opinions that college-educated women are now likely to hold. For the sake of domestic peace, and suffering, perhaps, from a lack of testosterone[1], hubby uses his influence to advance his wife’s pet causes.

Here, then, is the relativism we should be looking at, namely, those relational circumstances that prompt someone to opt for one moral position over another one. To be sure, this has nothing to do with believing that all moral stands are equally valid, a position that no one whom I have ever known or read has taken seriously. Indeed, even the person who sacrifices certain moral verities for his economic interest or conjugal tranquility is not suggesting that all moral positions are equally valid or invalid. He is making a moral choice based on what he considers, rightly or wrongly, to be his higher interests.

Although Marxists are reductive in their views about why ruling classes act as they do—as if moral values were nothing but the effects of power relations—they are certainly correct that material concerns play a leading role. Thus, without considering their funding sources and the relatively progressive social views held by many of their celebrities, it is impossible for me to understand why the conservative media place relatively little emphasis on questions of social morality but much more on Israel, national security, and fighting “socialism.” Again, this taking of sides has nothing to do with moral relativism, but everything to do with material interests and moral choices that have been made largely on the basis of material interests.

Finally, with respect to their examination of social phenomena, Marxists are correct in positing both a superstructure of ideology and an underlying material structure. As the author of multiple works on the American conservative movement, I am struck in a quasi-Marxist way by how thoroughly donors control what conservatives purport to believe. Since donors tend to be culturally on the left but keen to promote their corporate capitalist interests, and since defense industries figure prominently in the funding of media conservatism, one can accurately predict which issues will come up repeatedly in lectures to the faithful. Since, moreover, Zionists such as Rupert Murdoch, Paul Singer, and Sheldon Adelson have lavished their fortunes on media conservatism, I am by no means surprised by the slant that characterizes “conservative” reporting on Arab-Israeli relations.

I am open to the possibility that every authorized conservative holds the same views out of conviction. Still, I am ineluctably drawn to the money trail that accompanies the prominence given to certain recurrent opinions by Conservatism, Inc. Positions that are not well-financed—for example, the defense of traditional gender roles or what is quaintly called “traditional marriage”—are given short shrift in “conservative” discussion in favor of more lucrative talking points. True, material considerations may not be the only reason that media conservatives stress or ignore certain question—for social acceptability also enters into this picture—but one is nonetheless compelled to notice the direct relationship between funding and advocacy. The conservative movement is a rhetorical superstructure that covers up particular material interests and specializes in accommodating funders. Therefore, it has a long but well-concealed history of purges that consists of dumping and discrediting those who may be anathema to funders and business associates.

One may also understand the triangulation in which media conservatives often engage—most tastelessly, perhaps, at National Review—as being driven by the desire for new professional outlets as well as by financial incentives. For building harmonious and sometimes profitable bridges to the center left has been almost as significant a priority for the conservative movement as drawing funds from sympathetic sources. Since there is no professional advantage to cultivating a serious or hard right, which has already been removed as participants in the public discussion, efforts are focused on making friends and influencing people on the other side. Such relations, as amiable and as manly as a Facebook boardroom meeting, provide designated conservatives with opportunities to appear in the national press and on network television, where, on Sunday mornings, fresh from Church or the synagogue, many an ardent moralist appears as enthusiastic as a high school prom queen. Having well-disposed leftist colleagues enhances the social respectability of conservative outliers (who are not really outliers) in a preponderantly leftist profession. “Moderate” conservatives distinguish themselves from “right-wing nut jobs,” from Deplorable-types who defend Confederate memorial statues, while media conservatives ostentatiously decry such intransigents, particularly in the presence of socially acceptable friends.

It is easy, in the present intellectual climate, for such virtue-signalers to render themselves believable as “conservatives.” Appearing on Fox News, editing National Review, having columns syndicated on Republican websites—these are undoubtable credentials, comparable to proving that one was a member of the Church of England circa 1800. Being an “occasional conformist” by attending an Anglican Communion service once a year was enough to allow the attendee to hold political office or attend Oxford or Cambridge. More proof was not required, for the purpose of the Test Act was not to show who was a devout adherent of the Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles, but rather who was politically and socially acceptable. Thus Rich Lowry and Jonah Goldberg, who are frequently on Fox’s All-Star Panel, enjoy “conservative” accreditation, while a brilliant intellectual of the right such as Peter Brimelow is kept out of the club, as unacceptable to media conservatism as he is to the left. No wonder that Fox News and National Review share sponsors and funding sources. No wonder, either, that they both engage in triangulation.


[1] A common affliction among Beltway conservatives and the editors of leading conservative journals.