Monday, June 29, 2009

Daniel Larison, 'Prefab Conservative'

Is Daniel Larison a "prefab conservative"?

Drawing on
John Schwenkler, Conor Friedersdorf suggests that "prefab conservative" is the hot new term of day. It describes a kind of "off-the-shelf" right-wing talking head, prepackaged, like a home built with prefabricated construction (via Memeorandum):
The prefab conservative, or prefab-con, brings the same attitude to political discourse: rather than using reason and critical thinking to craft arguments that fit the real world, he trots out prefabricated memes, arguments and conclusions that are passably functional at best. All too often, they are even worse: the typical prefabcon lives in an intellectual house of ugly, wobbly walls that collapse on themselves in slight gusts. Undaunted, he throws up another structure on the same spot, though that wolf named reality is standing right there, ready to huff and puff again.
For his key example, Friedersdorf offers up conservative talkshow host Kevin James, who came up empty-handed in a May 2008 appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews. James' problem was that he clearly didn't know the history of the Munich crisis - you know, that little bit about "peace in our time" that has come to define craven diplomacy in the face of unspeakable evil. Yeah, Chris Matthews pounded Kevin James for ignorant posturing, and rightly so.

But staying with the World War II historical frame, perhaps
Daniel Larison, Schwenkler's buddy over at the American Conservative, should throw his hat in the ring for nomination as the "prefab conservative" standard bearer. Few "intellectual" conservatives have abused the history of interwar European diplomacy as well as Larison.

I distinctly remember a dramatic post Larison wrote last year during the campaign, "
Avoiding Key Details Is Essential In Warmongering." In apparent classic "prefab conservative" form, Larison wrote:
People will endure remarkable hardship, at least once, to expel an invader from their country. Like France after Verdun, the horrific experience might be great enough to force a nation into a purely defensive posture, but even post-WWI France, which is a better comparison with post-1988 Iran, did not sink into pacifism.

Indeed, the occupation of the Rhineland, security guarantees to central European states and the building of the Maginot Line all point not to pacifism, but to an assumption that another war might come and France should be prepared for it. The Maginot Line came out of the experience of Verdun, which was that the defensive position held the overwhelming advantage in modern warfare; the problem with the Maginot Line was not that it was defensive and therefore somehow “weak” or pacifistic, but plainly enough that it did not guard the entire border.
This was a breathtaking revision of history, especially Larison's analysis of the Maginot Line and French pacifist public opinion. As I wrote at the time:
Historians have long since shown that "pacifism" in the interwar context is captured by the entire collapse of social will that indicates a stage existential crisis far beyond numbers of men under arms or military armaments. The French case is even worse than the British, for as Eugen Weber has shown in his book, The Hollow Years: France in the 1930's, the entire national posture in France in the face of the rising Nazi challenge was one of national decay, moral laziness, and cowardly inaction. If anything, the Maginot was the greatest French symbol of the refusal to fight. I mean, really, the Maginot Line was a huge national system of underground bunkers within which French troops could hide from German Panzer divisions! There was no "overwhelming" advantage to defense on the eve of World War II. It was the opposite, as the German High Command's blitzkrieg strategy was to illustrate in the rapid defeat of the French in 1940. Basic books of French interwar history have covered the theme of French pacifism and moral decay for decades. William Shirer's The Collapse of the Third Republic is the central first-hand journalistic account, and the outstanding scholarly synthesis of the historiography can be found in Robert Young's, France and the Origins of the Second World War. Young's theme is strategic "ambivalence" rather than pacifism, so if folks want to quibble with details, you might be able to throw Larison a bone with that.
The exact historical debate on the origins the French collapse in 1940 is less important than discerning the countours of the "prefab conservative" template.

If historical cluelessness is a top criteria, Daniel Larison ought to be a frontrunner.

But wait!

If it's really as Friedersdorf suggests, that "the prefabcon's core flaw is a misunderstanding of what it means to be principled," then it frankly seems that Friedersdorf himself should be in running as well! Hey, maybe Andrew Sullivan and the boys at Ordinary Gentlemen are "prefab conservatives" too. They seem to be, to a man, supporters of Barack Obama and the diplomacy of deceit and weakness, not to mention the abandoment of democracy and human rights. On that point, maybe someone who is a "prefab conservative" isn't conservative at all. Maybe "prefab conservative" is just another nifty little attack slogan that these "neoclassicons" have invented to advance the cause of postmodern hypocrisy. "Prefab conservative," as a term, is similar to "Rovian Islamist". It's not a term of meaningful debate. It's a moniker of excoriation, an attack grenade in the left-libertarian rearguard battle against the current top conservative on the American right.

If that's the case, no worries: Idiots like Larison are already totally marginalized. And folks like Conor Friedersdorf are simply chumming the waters to build a personal sinecure as a "house conservative" at some liberal mainstream journalistic outpost. Thank goodness the inane hypocrisy of these folks is so transparent. Let them stay over at American Conservative and the Atlantic. That way they won't bother anyone of real credentials on the genuine conservative right.


UPDATE: Dan Riehl
links, and adds an interesting take on the "fundamentally flawed" languaged behind Friedersdorf's notion of "prefab-cons". See, "Pre-fab Isn't An Insult."


Old Rebel said...

Stop picking fights you can't win.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Mr. Rebel. Makes you wonder which side Douglas is on!