Entry from July 9, 2012

The “Opinionator” blog of The New York Times the other day ran a piece by Cynthia Wachtell, the author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, 1861-1914, repeating Mark Twain’s facetious claim that Sir Walter Scott was responsible for the American Civil War but without the facetiousness. What lies behind so extraordinary a claim is the now familiar but absurd idea that people only fight wars when they have been deceived, or when they have deceived themselves, about how horrible war is. Scott, by helping to create — as I write in my own book — a more up to date conception of honor is widely thought to have “glorified” war and, therefore, contributed to (if not solely created) that deception by which alone a war is entered into by its combatants.

The real division between anti-war and pro-war parties is not between the clear-sighted and the deceived. This is itself (in my view) a pretty obvious deception. It is rather between those who think that war is chosen from a range of better options and those who think it is the only option consistent with self-respect. The latter sort of people naturally cultivate the sense of honor and so create an honor culture in order to make what they regard as necessity more palatable, as well as to explain why it is necessary. The “glory” that the anti-warriors see as a deception and a mere mask to conceal war’s ugliness is to them, rather, a palliation of and a compensation for the ugliness that they are only too well aware of but that they believe is unavoidable.

But it is a common tendency on the left to blame the right for being so obviously wrong that they must be self-deceived. The funny part is that this is the very fault of which they accuse others. Jacob Heilbrunn’s book of 2008 about those he calls “the Neocons,” for example, was titled They Knew They Were Right. Now he — or someone on his behalf — is at it again. In yesterday’s New York Times Book Review he reviewed David B. Frisk’s new biography of William Rusher, the long-time publisher of National Review. The headline? “He Knew He Was Right.” Anthony Trollope wrote a novel with the title He Knew He Was Right, which was dramatized by the BBC a few years ago, but that was about a young man driven to madness by jealousy. In Mr Heilbrunn’s case, by contrast, the formulation suggests a genial contempt for his subjects’ perverse persistence in obvious error. It’s the same in his review of the Rusher book. Here’s his payoff: “Like his father, Rusher was a successful salesman. Whether the brand he helped to create is a reason for satisfaction is another matter. But anyone interested in understanding its rise should read Frisk’s highly informative study.”

“Understanding its rise” also presumably means understanding that where it went wrong was in knowing it was right. But you’ve got to sort of wonder about this way of characterizing one’s ideological opponents. Doesn’t saying of someone that “He knew he was right” imply that you know better — and that he isn’t right? And doesn’t that mean that you know you are right? As a criticism of someone this seems hopelessly compromised from the outset and something you can’t really say without accusing yourself of the same thing. Anyway, don’t most people know they are right, even if they aren’t? How does this distinguish the Neocons or Bill Rusher, who could hardly have qualified for that title, from anyone else? Or from Jacob Heilbrunn?

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