Are Conservatives Fair Game?

One of our readers, John Haley, has blasted me for my recently posted comments about Peter Hegseth and other Fox News celebrities. Since Mr. Haley probably took considerable time to prepare his response to what was admittedly an unkind blog piece, fairness requires me to provide his entire text:

Gottfried’s writings, such as have come to my attention, are curiously directed at others clearly on the same side of the cultural divide as he and Chronicles. This inclines me to view him as [a] huge ego directed primarily by—what?, call it envy—of other stars on the right. The best characterization of this would be that he is a purist, insisting on showing the other members of his team the error of their ways. Even that comes across as snobbish, and in a cultural war as important and desperate as ours, it is badly misdirected fire. Chronicles is quite a good site, so it is strange that it’s editor-in-chief rubs me so wrong. That—the above—[is] my general take. Specific to this article, two points I would make: Why does he go behind the public persona of his targets into their personal lives? What does that matter? If Bob Dylan’s personal life is a mess, does that make his music bad, we shouldn’t listen to it? If one of the best players on your sports team has some off-field vices, do you cut him? We are all weak, and some hypocrisy can be found in us all. This is reminiscent of going through Sarah Palin’s garbage looking for something to attack her on. The second point I would make is that “things have changed” in the century (almost) that has passed since the Frankfurt school days. Comparing behavior as to divorces and sexual mores between then and now without this consideration is very unfair, invalid.

According to Mr. Haley, I went after Hegseth’s personal life because I suffer from a “huge ego” and am driven by envy of “other stars on the right.” But I doubt the media celebrities whom I castigate would consider me an ally, assuming they’re even vaguely aware of my existence. Certainly, these celebrities have never given any indication of friendship, just as it is clear from my remarks that I don’t view them as my comrades-in-arms, although more often than not, they and I may have voted for the GOP (in my case usually without pleasure). 

Moreover, since the conservative establishment, including its media presence, has unceremoniously purged what used to be the Old Right, the true conservatives with whom I identify, I find even less reason to cut these personalities any slack. All the same, they do claim to represent the right. Therefore, when I see, for example, Dana Perino drooling all over the parents of a young child who is “transitioning,” I may be justified as a traditional conservative in expressing my displeasure. Mr. Haley is free to champion anyone he wants, but that puts me under no obligation to accept his choice of leaders in a “culture war as important and desperate as ours.”

More importantly, however, I am accused of going into “the personal lives” of those whom Mr. Haley has chosen for us as allies. This is impermissible because it means that I would discriminate against those on my team whose personal lives may not be as virtuous as I would like them to be. Allow me to retort by making two points. One, neither Hegseth nor I imagine we’re on the same team, and so I can’t possibly end my relationship to someone with whom I have no relationship to dissolve. Two, and even more relevant, I entirely agree with Mr. Haley’s warning about not reducing the value of someone’s achievements by looking at his personal weaknesses or vices.

In fact, I have spent much of my life debating others on precisely the point raised by my critic. We should judge thinkers and artists by their work, not by whether they treated their spouses well, doted on children and dogs, or protested some supposed injustice. I recall reading Paul Johnson’s “conservative” potboiler, Intellectuals, and being nauseated by how the author dismissed Marx, Rousseau, and other figures he didn’t like on the basis of their personal habits or vices. That should be irrelevant for evaluating someone’s thought, unless the person being judged is engaged hypocritically in moral self-justification or getting on a high horse to attack someone else’s morality.

What makes Hegseth and his pals fair targets is that they belabor us with their pretense of being our moral defenders. If Hegseth were engaged in some less offensive activity—e.g., discussing electoral polling or the cost of living—I wouldn’t bother to go after him or his alter ego, Dennis Prager. Making the target particularly tempting is that Hegseth is now milking a ghost-written book attacking “radical” thinkers who may have been, on most moral issues, somewhere to the right of Fox News. Thinkers and scholars are entitled to personal vices without incurring my anger, but when they start to lecture the world on morality, that’s when they lose their exemption from judgment. And when TV personalities cash in on their celebrity to present themselves falsely as scholars, that’s when I hit the roof. I know real scholars on the right, here and in Western Europe, who are still looking for publishers and positions.    

Image by Mohamed Hassan / via Stockvault, Creative Commons CC-0

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