Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Damon Linker

Is blogging, this despite the fact that he is a "print snob."

To my mind, getting published in print -- whether in a book or a magazine or a newspaper -- confers a certain status on the author -- a status that cannot be matched by a blog. The latter is self-produced, demonstrating nothing at all about the quality of my ideas, other than my own fondness for them. A book or a magazine/newspaper article is different. Its existence proves that some small community of editors and other literary judges stands behind the quality of the ideas. That may not be much -- I may have merely flattered their prejudices, I may have merely affirmed the conventional wisdom in the most obvious of ways, I may have merely attacked widely accepted beliefs in order to gain attention -- but it’s something. Certainly something more than the purely subjective self-certainty of blogging.

I’ve never been an editor, except of a book, and my other editorial experience is limited to refereeing articles for professional journals. I like (some) editors, though I won’t name names in order to avoid offending those I don’t name. But the blogosphere exercises its own kind of discipline, some of it civil and incisive even. It’s much mroe of a two-way street than much of the editing I’ve experienced.

And then there’s this:

I tend to believe that political and cultural commentary is best when the critic stands back from the fray to meditate and reflect, to allow his passions to cool, and to gain some perspective. Needless to say, the Internet -- with its rapid-fire pronouncements and reactions -- makes such detachment difficult.

I wish I could regard Damon’s book as having lived up to this standard, but I discern a good bit of passion there, to go along with the intelligence, and sometimes even (I fear) to mislead the intelligence. But I can’t render a full judgment until I’ve finished the book.

Update: Damon links (how many times will I use that expression?) to Adrian Wooldridge’s review of his book, which is generally laudatory, though it says that DL overestimates the importance of his subjects:

In the end, the theocons are just too eccentric to exercise the sort of influence on America that Linker ascribes to them. Again and again — in their deference to papal authority, in their belief that American ideals and institutions derive from Catholic principles, in their willingness to sanction civil disobedience — the theocons come across not as harbingers of a conservative revolution but as a rather eccentric intellectual clique. Secular America has more potent enemies to worry about than the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus and his colleagues.

As a criticism of the book, this has to warm the heart of anyone who actually worries about the designs of DL’s subjects. As I noted above, however, I’m not as convinced as Wooldridge of DL’s "dispassionate tone." Well, maybe the tone is dispassionate, but not the thinking it expresses. As I read along, I keep thinking that Damon should know better than the framework he implicitly poses as an alternative to Michael Novak’s syncretism (which I’ll concede is at least sometimes a stretch) and the concerns that many of his subjects express that America can’t retain its identity and aspiration without a religious soul. There’s a long argument here that I don’t have time to make (I’m in South Carolina visiting with my parents), but I find myself wishing as I read the book that DL had actually seriously engaged that argument in the course of the leisure purchased by his advance. Instead, he seems to fall back on a kind of oversimplified secularism, worthy perhaps of
Michelle Goldberg, but not of someone with his learning and experience.

Update #2: The more I think about it, the more ambiguous Wooldridge’s review seems. Does the threat to secular America come from Americans other than the folks at FT, or from genuine theocrats overseas? I vote for the second, but those who know Wooldridge’s work and perspective better than I do may have a different view.

Discussions - 16 Comments

The test of blogging is whether you develop a significant following. You get in print because your editor likes your ideas, but he may be a shallow ideologue. The paper in which your work is published may be the only option in the town where it is published, so there is no way of knowing whether anyone is reading your column. Seems to me the case is the opposite of what Linker is trying to make out.

I see no need to ignore Damon the guy or Damon the blogger. Clearly studies show that blogging helps book sales, though (My shameless self-promotion via the Damon review the other day gave me a pronounced if brief amazon spike.) There’s nothing more boring than a theory of blogging! Blogs are full of baloney! Film at 11!

Who cares what a self-promoting backstabber like Linker thinks? This guy is a tick sucking sustenance off First Things then hopping to another host when it seemed most opportune. What a repulsive human being.

So let me get this straight: I’m a repulsive, self-promoting, bloodsucking, parasitic backstabber?

If you say so.

Yes, yes I do say so. The only question I have is whether you joined First Things with your "expose" in mind or decided to stick your "friends" for profit and trendy blue state plaudits after a season or two at the magazine. Neither reflects well on you, but enjoy riding this political season’s "theocon" alarm wave. I am sure you will find a well-earned place next to David Brock on the remainder shelves. (If you are really Damon Linker)


I assure you I am Damon Linker -- as much as you’re "wm."

I know I’ve used this line before, but it’s so fitting that I can’t resist using it on you:

Your comments remind of the old line about an independent-minded parliamentarian. Accused by a political opponent of having changed his position, the legislator replied, "Yes, sir, when I discover I’ve been wrong I change my position. And what do you do?"

As someone who disagrees very strongly with where I’ve ended up intellectually, it must be very difficult for you to accept that a genuine disagreement inspired my break with First Things. It’s much more comforting to think that I was a mole who never believed anything the magazine stood for and planned all along to "stick" my friends for profit. But that’s simply not true.

Your comments remind of the old line about an independent-minded parliamentarian. Accused by a political opponent of having changed his position, the legislator replied, "Yes, sir, when I discover I’ve been wrong I change my position."

You did not just change your position, you cashed in. Your self-serving analogy to the old parliamentarian left out the nice advance, the invitations to better Manhattan cocktail parties, and column inches at the flagship journal of the American left. There is no need to psychoanalyze what I can or cannot "accept." What I can see plainly is that an editor and editorialist few had heard of at a small but influential Catholic journal is now published at the New Republic and fast becoming a well-known "authority" on the "theocons." I can plainly see someone hoping to defuse the obvious criticisms by covering himself in the blanket of hip irony and calling his blog "the apostate." Enjoy the plaudits. Rather than your old parliamentarian, what I first thought of when I heard what you did to Father Neuhaus was Canto XXXIV of the Inferno. Perhaps you should worry less about getting in print and worry more about the fate of traitors to their benefactors.

If anyone thinks this is over the top, here is Father Neuhaus’s version of the genesis of Mr. Linker’s fashionable new career, retyped from the “While We’re at it” section of the August/September edition of First Things:

Mr. Linker worked for First Things from May 2001 to January 2005, first as an associate editor and in his last year as editor. He was a speech writer for Rudolph Giuliani when he first applied for the position as associate editor. At First Things he was a cooperative colleague and gave no indication that he was not completely supportive of the mission of the magazine. During his years with us, the only policy concern he ever expressed to me was that he thought the magazine should be more critical of U.S. actions in the Middle East. That is a question on which colleagues can and did disagree without personal rancor. In the Fall of 2004, he indicated to me that he was weary of the long commute to Connecticut and would like at some point to get a large enough advance for a book so that he could become a full time writer. I was entirely sympathetic. A few weeks later, he told me he was thinking of writing a book about First Things and its editor in chief. He explained that the book would be a critical appreciation of the achievements of the magazine. I said I would be happy to cooperate with such a project, but I didn’t think there would be enough interest in the subject to elicit a large advance from a publisher. Moreover, this would be a first book by a relatively unknown writer. In early December, he told me that several publishers had indicated intense interest in the book he was proposing and that Doubleday had offered an advance of $160,000 dollars. He wanted to leave at the beginning of 2005 to start writing. Surprised but pleased by his good fortune, I congratulated him and renewed my offer to be of assistance with the book. I then said it might be helpful in that connection if I could see the proposal he had submitted to the publishers. At this he blanched, and with obvious embarrassment said that would not be possible. This was the first indication that he had agreed to write what in the publishing business is known as an "attack book," which, unfortunately, is the genre to which The Theocons belongs.

There is a question of credibility here. Neuhaus has been absorbing the slings and arrows hurled at public figures for much of his adult life. He has established credibility. If Neuhaus’s version of events is accepted, Linker did not just "change his mind." In fact, Linker continued to accept payment from a publication he intended to viciously attack in print until he could secure a six-figure advance to make that attack.

Some of them lie flat, some stand upright,
One on his head and one upon his soles;
Another, like a bow, bends face to foot.

Mr. Linker - While I’m sure you are well to the right of me on most issues, it seems that you may have stumbled onto a site where most are to your right.

Your blog seems interesting. I particularly liked your analysis of George Weigel’s piece in the LA Times. A bit more thoughtful than the none-too-surprising thumbs up referral made here at NLT.

I’ll look for your book at my library, as well.

wm: Ah, the voice of sweet reason.

Craig: Glad you like the blog. But I’m well aware of where I am. I know some of these folks from my days as a political theorist.

wm - The New Republic is "the flagship journal of the American left?" Really??!!? Seems strange that the left would ignore their flagship journal’s position and opppose the invasion of Iraq.

So that’s it? You don’t want to deny you were shopping an attack book on First Things while you were working there? Nice.


No, rather, I feel no need to try to justify myself to someone who fantasizes about me being tortured in hell. That’s just a bit too much Christian malice for me.

It would be helpful if you could stop with the self-dramatizing. The fact is that you continued to serve as FT’s senior editor long after you had ceased to be in agreement with its broad intellectual orientation (and probably well after you had lost your Catholic faith). Wouldn’t resignation have been the honorable course of action rather pretending to be in agreement with a journal that you now (rather fantastically) consider to be a major, perhaps the major, threat to American liberty? And what good is served by cheap comparisons of Richard John Neuhaus with the Nazi apologist Carl Schmitt or petty assaults on one of the incontrovertibly great men of the twentieth century (John Paul II) a mere two or three days after his death. In my view, you have too good a mind to allow yourself to be disfigured by "anti-theological ire." And perhaps you ought to reconsider the possibility that philosophical reflection can give us access to humanizing truths rather than confirm us in the relentless affirmation of doubt.

boo hoo

If you don’t like the allusion to traitors, don’t build your career off stabbing people in the back and issuing smug defenses for the indefensible. When your rhetoric excludes invoking Nazi apologists, etc when writing about figures we admire and respect then maybe those of us who know your back story might be more interested in pulling our punches.

To Damon Linker and Craig Scalion concerning the pope’s speech and George Weigel’s analysis.

I endorse the pope’s speech and I am not a catholic. I believe the central ideas of the pope’s speech to be found in John Locke’s Essay On Toleration but also interestingly enough in David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. The pope’s main point deals with Ontological structures, in this sense then all the great questions in life are ultimately theological/or deriving from first principle. In so far as a message to modernity need simply to quote David Hume..."Addison will be read with pleasure when Locke is entirely forgotten." Because the main point of the pope’s speech is that there are core beliefs that underlie our systems...that shape our view of the world. That is to say that if by secular politics we mean politics without ontological/metaphysical/epistemologicalassumptions...then secular politics is impossible.

Thoughts please? Anyone?

DJM, whowever he is, is perfectly right that all this self-dramatizing is ridiculous and disconnected from any reality. The republic is not imperiled by RJN and I’ve never been moved by the America=Weimar image--and especially not when our Catholics=the Nazis. And John Lewis--the voice crying out from the wildnerness--your note really does make a lot of sense. It’s good to remember that both Locke and Hume wouldn’t dissent from the pope’s basic point. So I for one would ignore any piece of literature that use the often successful but still slimy method of conjuring up fake crises to gain attention.

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