The Writer’s Vocation

Carl Eric Scott has done Shep Melnick and, less directly, your correspondent the honor of an extended critique in a recent essay for the “Postmodern Conservative” newsletter. There is a great deal about it with which I disagree, but one point bears particular analysis. Melnick and I, Scott suggests, are being “anything but strategic” in criticizing Trumpism given that no conservative coalition is possible without Trump supporters.

That may be so, and despite my rejection of Trumpism, I do not believe patriotic Americans can or should dismiss the voices of 74 million fellow citizens. But as to the charge of being anything but strategic, I plead guilty. At stake is whether the scholar’s or, if one prefers, writer’s vocation is to explore the truth as he or she sees it or to parcel out words tactically so as to advance political causes.

The point is evident in Scott’s critique of yours truly, in which he refers to our humble blog as well:

Or what does Greg Weiner, for that matter, in a just-published National Affairs essay about, of all things, “Honorable Partisanship,” hope to accomplish by opening it by cavalierly describing January 6th as a “Trump-incited insurrection?” Do these gentlemen not understand, regardless of whether Trump runs in 2024, that the conservative coalition in America, and in just about every other liberal democracy, will necessarily find the grouping “populist-conservative” to be its biggest member?  In America, what possible conservative-led coalition do Melnick, Weiner, most of the writers for the new website the Constitutionalist, etc., have in mind, that would somehow be formed without the Trumpists?

For the record, I was being concise, not cavalier, in describing the events of January 6. There is a difference. In any event, one of two conclusions with respect to Scott’s critique seems plausible. Either Scott believes what happened on January 6 was not a “Trump-incited insurrection,” or he believes that it was but that we should not alienate Trump supporters by saying so. If the first is Scott’s position, we will have to agree to disagree. If the latter, the disagreement runs deeper than Trumpism.

The vocation of a scholar or writer, at least for this one, is not to “accomplish” anything with respect to a political cause. That does not mean he or she should speak or write without regard to consequences. It does mean a certain call-it-as-you-see-it disposition that is different from the responsibilities of statesmanship or activism.

More to the point, withholding honest criticism is itself anything but strategic. Conservatives should beware the fate that Daniel Patrick Moynihan said had befallen Democrats by the late 1960s: “[T]he tenets of progressive government had been exempt from serious external or internal pressure. They had become overassertive and underexamined.” Defeat ensued.

Even to the extent a scholar or writer is aligned with a political cause, he or she does it no favors by refraining from criticism, especially on questions of fact (see “Trump-incited insurrection,” above). Whether avoiding saying the quiet part about Trumpism out loud is a recipe for success in the next election is for savvier heads than mine to assess. It is definitely a recipe for failure for any movement that depends on ideas.

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