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Responding to My Critics
Today and over the course of the week or so, we will publish a series of essays by C. Bradley Thompson in response to the critics of his much talked-about essay published at The American Mind on "The Rise and Fall of the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans." In this series of essays, Thompson deepens both his critique of the various factions of the reactionary Right and his understanding of the principles of the American founding as presented in his book “America's Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It”.
The American Mind is happy to play host to the important debates raised in the below essay. We do not necessarily endorse one side or another, and will, of course, invite responses — Eds.
I begin by thanking the editors of The American Mind for publishing my essay on “The Decline and Fall of the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans.” As a reminder, the essay is a critique of two rival factions on the reactionary Right: the so-called Catholic TradCons (e.g., Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Dan DeCarlo, and Adrian Vermeule) and the online dissident Right most commonly associated with the followers of the pseudonymous Mencius Moldbug (MB) and Bronze Age Pervert (BAP). The theme of my essay was the anti-Americanism of the reactionary Right. The essay also pointed toward a defense of what I call the philosophy of Americanism, which is laid out in my book, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It.
TAM editors did an excellent job of promoting my essay by first adding a disclaimer at the beginning of it and then a second disclaimer as they Tweeted the essay to the world. Disclaimers almost always signal controversy, which in turn generates clicks. TAM editors also did an excellent job of dog whistling the guttersnipes who inhabit the Twitter latrine, which of course unleashed a love fest of hate. I think I have now been called just about every name in the book. My intelligence, sanity, masculinity, sexuality, age, and even my clothes have been called into question. Best of all, I’ve been described as “cognitively female” and told that I must “poast fizeek” (ToadTwitter lingo meaning to post a half-naked photo of my overly muscle-bound, Boomer physique!)
By far, the most common criticism is that my viewpoint is irrelevant in 2020 and for four reasons: 1) I am a Boomer; 2) I am an immigrant to the United States; 3) I defend America’s founding principles as true; and 4) the founders’ philosophy offers no guidance on how to actually win political battles against the cultural Left.
My more astute critics, particularly those on the BAPtista Right, want to know how and why I think the founders’ philosophy can actually defeat cultural Marxism. This is not an unreasonable question. They think it can’t, and so they are done with the stale bromides of Brooks Brothers conservatism, and they are appalled with postmodern libertarianism. They mock the paint-by-numbers conservatism of the Heritage Foundation and the white-paper libertarianism of the Cato Institute. They have rejected what they see as the desiccated and impotent ideological idols of their youth, and they have crossed their psychological-ideological-political Rubicon. They want to fight.
I get that the Left would reject my defense of the philosophy of Americanism, but never did I think it would come under attack from alleged conservatives or people on the Right. One might have thought that a Boomer immigrant defending the principles of the American Revolution would generate wide support from conservatives, but that seems no longer possible in today’s world. Such principles are now thought of as at best passé (see BAP) or, worse, as the source of all that is rotten in the modern world (see Deneen).
I now recognize more clearly than before that the great task for those who still want to defend the founders’ philosophy of Americanism is to answer the challenge posed by the Fight Club Right. We must demonstrate that the classical-liberal tradition of the founders is not a philosophy for perpetual losing, nor is it a Zombie-like philosophy for the walking dead. Instead, we must demonstrate how and why the philosophy of Americanism can actually win the twenty-first century Kulturkampf.
Ironically, though, for an “irrelevant” essay that supposedly fell stillborn from the press (at least according to some of its critics), it generated a great deal of fear and loathing on the reactionary Right. Indeed, it triggered a collective psychological meltdown in the heads of some reactionary cognoscenti and their Tea(_) WALLAH followers. Some five months after the essay was published, they’re still responding to it in one form or another, and they’re almost all writing from the same playbook. (Curious how that works!) The sound of my irrelevance is deafening.
In addition to the Twitter hate, the editors of The American Mind also lined up nine respondents to my essay (e.g., Sohrab Ahmari, David Azerrad, Francis J. Beckwith, Timothy Sandefur, Rebeccah Heinrichs, Erik Root, Richard Samuelson, Clifford Humphrey, and Christopher Flannery), for which I am grateful. Eight of the nine responses to my essay were interesting to one degree or another, and they raised a few important questions that I shall address. One of the essays, however, is little more than an incoherent string of psychologically unbuttoned Twitter rantings.
There have also been at least eight additional essays or reviews challenging or attacking me published at other online magazines and websites. At The American Conservative magazine, for instance, a writer attempted what I’m sure he thought was a DEFCON 1 smear job, the purpose of which was to discredit both my “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay and my book (which the author clearly did not read, otherwise he could not have said such infantile things about it). His essay was little more than a run-on sentence of incoherent, ad hominem, non sequiturs that ended with a predictably Wile E. Coyote result.
In the end, my essay served as a kind of ideological Rorschach Test for the American Right. The overly emotional reaction of some of my critics revealed all kinds of subterranean psychological, moral, and political fault lines along the broader conservative-libertarian-classical liberal axis. The hostile responses were scattered like a whiff of grapeshot, each seemingly triggered by a particular phrase or sentence, and they varied in their level of panic and hysteria. A few of my critics responded with rational and probing questions but others demanded an auto-da-fé. Possibly the worse thing to come out of the 17 responses was the overwhelming sense that the American intellectual Right today is suffering from terminal mediocrity. There is just no other way to describe the emotionalism and irrationalism, particularly of the Catholic TradCons. I have been actually quite surprised and of course pleased at the number of top-shelf conservative Catholic intellectuals who have contacted me to show their support for my essay and their contempt for the banal mediocrities of the Ahmari-Deneen-Vermeule bloc.
Disappointingly, there were only two respondents to my “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay that take up my discussion of the dissident Right and Bronze Age Pervert: Erik Root and Clifford Humphrey. I had hoped for more because I find BAP, curiously enough, to be a deeper, clearer, and certainly a more interesting thinker than, say, Patrick Deneen. The entire thesis of his book is borrowed from Leo Strauss but without proper attribution. BAP, by contrast, actually gets a few things right, whereas Deneen gets virtually everything wrong.
Part of the challenge in responding to my critics (some friendly and some hostile) is disentangling the nine official responses published at TAM from each other and then from the eight additional essays and reviews that have appeared in different venues. To compound matters, some critics responded directly to the “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” essay, some responded to what they think is in my book (without having read it in most cases), and some discussed both the essay and the book. Sorting, cataloguing, and responding to all 17 essays has been a challenge. Obviously, it is not possible to respond separately to each of the nine TAM respondents (or the eight others) systematically, so I have mostly tried to identify certain common themes that have emerged from the responses that I think are worthy of further consideration.
There is one complaint against my essay by the Catholic TradCons that I think is fair, and I’d like to offer them some kind of recompense. They object to being lumped under the label of “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans.” I agree. Justice demands that they not be unfairly lumped in with the Nietzschean element of BAP and his followers. Let me say this loudly and clearly: Catholic TradCons are not Nietzscheans. They do share some important things in common with the online dissident Right but Nietzscheanism is not one of them. I therefore think it fair and just to label them as “Pajama-Boy Papists.”
So, how are we to understand the breathless hysteria surrounding my essay?
Clearly, the essay hit a raw nerve, the cause of which was twofold. Stylistically, Francis J. Beckwith described the essay as a “rhetorical masterpiece” and Richard Samuelson described it as a “brilliant and amusing polemic.” Substantively, Rebeccah L. Heinrichs declared that I had dropped a “MOAB” on the conservative intellectual movement. The title of the essay referencing “Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans” created an unforgettable image that made some heads explode. In the immediate aftermath of the essay’s publication, I was clearly living rent-free in the minds of Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari judging by their Twitter feeds. (Though Deneen refused to mention me by name, my presence loomed large over his Twitter account for several days, and he has since published an essay attacking George F. Will and myself at the American Compass site.)
Likewise, the BAPsters were clearly enraged at my suggestion that, despite all of their titillation with photographs of half-naked men with eye-popping “bis,” “tris,” “pecs,” and “abs,” they’re really just sissies with their carrot-salad diets and their 175-pound bench presses. But, most of all, the essay exposed the anti-Americanism of the reactionary Right, which hitherto they only wanted whispered about amongst themselves. Now it’s out in the open and that genie won’t go back into its bottle.
Only two of my TAM respondents, Richard Samuelson and Christopher Flannery, actually understood the deeper purpose of my essay, which is to challenge Galaxy Claremont (i.e., The Claremont Institute, The Claremont Review of Books, and The American Mind) to make a choice—a choice between the reactionary Right (either Catholic TradCon or BAPtista) and the principles and institutions of the American founding as explicated and defended by Harry V. Jaffa and myself. Professor Jaffa would no doubt be rolling in his grave if he were to learn about some of the anti-American ideas being showcased by the Claremont Institute through its various publications.
Though I strongly suspect the editors of The American Mind agree with my critics (e.g., two TAM editors signed a public declaration at First Things magazine in support of a Catholic TradCon manifesto and the greater Claremont world has clearly been flirting with the ideas of the Bronze Age Pervert), they did, to their credit, publish my essay in order to provoke a long overdue conversation on the state of the intellectual Right in America and its relationship to the principles of the American founding.
Unlike the Catholic TradCons and the followers of Bronze Age Pervert, I am an unrepentant Boomer-immigrant. I came to this country at age 19 because I believed then, as I do now, that United States of America is the greatest country in world history, and, as maudlin as it might sound to the Millennials and Zoomers, I will plant my flag on the hill defending the principles and truths of the Declaration of Independence. To that end, my critics should know this: I am more than happy to take on the entire reactionary Right if necessary. I started this little contretemps, and I will finish it. Promise.
The most common challenges to my interpretation of the American Revolution claim that it is too Lockean, too libertarian, too secular, and that it doesn’t sufficiently take into account what some political philosophers call the theological-political problem, i.e., the role of Christianity, the “common good,” and morality in American society and government. Put differently, most of the questions raised by my more thoughtful interlocutors are the predictable “what about” questions, such as:
Wasn’t the American Revolution a Christian Revolution?
Weren’t notions of the “common good” integral to society and politics in early America?
Weren’t the founding fathers for the common good?
Didn’t the founders’ principles precipitate the moral nihilism of modern America?
Can there be a free society without morality and religion?
Don’t you understand that the founders’ philosophy is useless to fight the political battles of the twenty-first century?
By addressing these questions, I hope to revivify and indeed save the intellectual Right from the anti-intellectual, anti-American currents that presently run through it. I am particularly sensitive to the intellectual and political needs of the Zoomer generation, who feel abandoned by the establishment Right. They deserve better. But I am insistent that we not abandon truth for power. We must not live with lies and illusions. Instead, we must live first and foremost, as the great Václav Havel once said, “within the truth,” which means that we must be committed to pursuing, identifying, explicating, and defending it.
In our post-truth world, our first and most important task must be to “Make Truth Great Again!” Once committed to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, we will be locked and loaded for action, but not the kind of weak-kneed, hand-wringing, me-too-ing, compromising, and appeasing action that defines Conservatism and Libertarianism Inc. That will not do. We must think and act on principle. We must also think entrepreneurially and develop new cultural and political tactics for combatting and ultimately defeating the totalitarian Left. Surely, we can all agree on that.
Dr. C. Bradley Thompson is the BB&T Research Professor at Clemson University and the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.