(Early) Monday Joint Mark Helprin/Ross Douthat/Geoffrey Kabaservice Smackdown!

Clowns (ICP)

I find, on Twitter, the smart Geoff Kabaservice being just weird: Geoff Kabaservice: @RuleandRuin: "POLITICO asked me to expand my tweet previous thread about what liberal historians tend to get wrong about conservatism..." So I go read it, and find a list of 1990s "new voices on the neoconservative/neoliberal front like David Frum, Michael Lind, Andrew Sullivan, Francis Fukuyama, John McWhorter, Richard Brookhiser, Mickey Kaus, Michael Kelly, William Kristol and John Podhoretz..."

And I think: Huh! Wait a minute! Neoliberals aren't conservative! And I think: Mickey Kaus and Michael Kelly were mean and deranged. John Podhoretz and Richard Brookhiser were not smart. Andrew Sullivan and John McWhorter always struck me as more... performance art than anything else. William Kristol was a hack back when he smelled power, but now that he does not is a genuinely quirky, interesting thinker. So are David Frum and Michael Lind. And Francis Fukuyama is a genius—but not a conservative. In general, here—as elsewhere—those who are wise and conservative are not honest, those who are honest and conservative are not wise, and those who are wise and honest and thus worth reading rapidly cease to be conservative. It's like Lasalle's Iron Law of Wages. So I think: Geoff, that's two strikes.

And I read Kabaservice to the end, and find "liberal historians should consider subscribing to the Claremont Review of Books or National Affairs". So I surf on over, and start reading—first Mark Helprin on Charlottesville. And then I stop reading: Mark Helprin: Charlottesville One Year Later: "Enter Antifa, the Communist fascisti as invisible to the mainstream media as were Stalin’s and Mao’s genocides, Castro’s executions, and, with special mention to the New York Times, the Holocaust. They came in ranks: shields, helmets, clubs, etc. But unlike the idiots they came to fight, some of whom had firearms, Antifa had the best weapon of all—well-meaning, overprotected Millennials fed upon virtue signaling..."

I stop readin: when what really gets you mad about Charlottesville is not Nazis and the Klan and "very fine people on both sides", but is rather "Antifa... Communist fascisti... invisible to the mainstream media... well-meaning, overprotected Millennials fed upon virtue signaling..." there is something very wrong with you, mentally and morally—and with the editors who publish you. Denunciations of "virtue signaling" are what people who know they are villains start doing when they think they can no longer pretend to be the good guys.

So I complain to Kabaservice. I say: You tell me I should pick up the Claremont Review of Books. I just did. I read Helprin on Charlottesville https://t.co/WFJ03mOEuN. May I please have an apology? I mean "well-meaning, overprotected Millennials fed upon virtue signaling" are not the real problem, are they?

Geoff Kabaservice: @RuleandRuin: "But is your anger better informed now?"


It is not.

Kabaservice is engaged in both-sadism here: the vain claim that there are smart, honest conservatives—rather than a mix of dumb honest conservatives, smart honest non-conservatives, and smart conservative dishonest grifters in his mix. That's three strikes for Kabaservice. He shouldn't have wasted our time.

Much better to go back and reread one of John Holbo's—for Holbo is smart, honest, and witty—eviscerations of Helprin and Douthat:

John Holbo: Douthat On Digital Barbarism: "Matthew Yglesias goes way too easy on Ross Douthat’s book review of Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto...

...Let’s start with the book itself. It is, I gather, a grossly metastasized, page-wise, rewrite of his shockingly ignorant (it was widely and correctly noted at the time) NY Times op-ed from a couple years back, “A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn’t Its Copyright?”. And why exactly does it follow that terrible ideas deserve book deals, one might ask? (Here’s the exhaustive wiki-buttal that op-ed inspired.)... Having not read Helprin’s book–and I even read Jonah Goldberg’s book, sweet heaven help and forgive me!–I’m not in a position to add anything except that Lessig’s response leaves me in little doubt that Helprin has contrived to learn nothing from that initial op-ed debacle. He still has no idea whatsoever what the other side’s views are, let alone what the grounds for them might be. (I guess there’s something inadvertently apt about the ‘barbarism’ in his title, if it’s true that the term derives from some Proto-Indo-European speaker’s sense that foreigners are just going ‘bar-bar’, not actually saying anything.)

You think it’s unfair to speak so ill of a book I haven’t read? Perhaps you are right. But read this excerpt and judge whether even a saint with some actual knowledge of the issue could endure to read hundreds of pages more from an author who thinks his damn ear of corn anecdote makes any relevant sense. (We’re supposed to be bowled over by the insight that stealing food might be stealing? The Lessigs of the world must have missed the concept of private property, whole cloth? Nothing else could explain why they hold these strange views?)

?But I have read the Douthat op-ed, so let me complain that it is afflicted with the worst sort of higher-Broderism on stilts.... Douthat says Helprin... strong arguments... presention is cranky. But either the arguments are... old, bad... or they are new, in which case it would be a good idea to say what they are. Douthat: “it’s hard to imagine a reader new to this debate who wouldn’t find [Lessig’s] Free Culture more convincing than Digital Barbarism.” Yes, but it’s even harder to imagine a reader old to this debate who wouldn’t take Lessig’s side. That’s the real problem....

Douthat gives us phony difference-splitting.... If the argument is turning into some sort of suggestion that people shouldn’t be permitted to participate in Lessig-favored ‘free culture’-style activity (because no one’s arguing that you should be forced, after all), or even that these activities should be frowned on as less worthy than reading long Helprin novels, that’s hardly going to be an argument for individual freedom. So what the hell is the cultural malaise point even supposed to be, in relation to the copyright argument?Having set the ‘they’ve both got good points’ mood, by striking a note of cultural complaint–without actually stating the complaint–Douthat proceeds to the copyright issue proper:

On the narrower question of how and whether copyright law should be adjusted... there might actually be a middle ground.... Why not, then, simultaneously extend copyright and narrow its scope?

But why not, instead, NOT extend copyright and narrow its scope? Or contract copyright, while narrowing its scope? Why do we need a middle-ground between Lessig and Helprin? It’s not as though they are rough intellectual equals.... Some economists have indeed explored the idea that it might make sense to eliminate IP.... But mostly the likes of Lessig maintain, with what can only be described as exquisite moderation, that copyright is a good thing but it should be limited.... If Helprin has a fresh argument that careful students of this issue have totally missed, Douthat should be trumpeting it. Since he doesn’t, I’m guessing it reduces to Halperin’s grumbles about ‘barbarism’ which is, at best, utterly beside the point. The final graph is a gem of bizarro-world solomonic wisdom.

Maybe this sort of system would turn out to be impractical. But it’s only one of the many bridges one could imagine between a principled defense of artistic property rights and a principled defense of artistic freedom. It’s a shame that Helprin was too busy wrestling with the monkeys and mouth-breathing morons to try building it.

Douthat is laboring to give readers the impression that Helprin is in any sense holding the non-monkey higher ground, a proposition subject to grave doubt. What is worse: readers will come away with the vague sense that the Lessigs of the world owe us, for some obscure reason, fresh arguments against extending some (vaguely narrowed?) copyright yet further–200 years? 300? In perpetuity? The presumption should be in favor of extension? When, in fact, all serious students of this issue pretty much agree that, whatever is to be done, there is no reason why that should be done. Now I’ve got that out of my system. Thanks for bearing with me.