Opinion

The sad, sorry decline of George F. Will

The longtime Washington Post columnist was once an intellectual force to be reckoned with. No more.

It's become a classic of political commentary: a center-left lament about the decline in the quality of conservative intellectual life. (Here's a recent example.) Where once William F. Buckley debated fellow intellectuals on Firing Line, where once richly erudite thinkers like Leo Strauss, Russell Kirk, and Milton Friedman crafted meticulous arguments in culturally literate essays, today conservatives either treat ideas as weapons to bludgeon their ideological opponents, or craft them into slogans to whip up enthusiasm at the endless populist pep rally on talk radio, partisan websites, and cable news.

As a former conservative who became disaffected with the right in the years immediately following the September 11 attacks, I've made a version of this argument myself. Though there are exceptions to the downward intellectual spiral on the right — Ross Douthat at The New York Times, the people involved in this reformist project, the writers associated with The American Conservative and Front Porch Republic, and the "Postmodern Conservatives" at National Review Online — the general trend on the right in recent years has been away from reflection on ideas for their own sake, and toward fashioning an ideology to galvanize the "conservative movement" and electorally empower its chosen political vehicle: the Republican Party.

In most cases, this shift has been generational: an older, more thoughtful group of conservative thinkers and writers has been replaced by a less deeply educated and more baldly partisan cohort of ideological foot soldiers. But there is a notable exception to this tendency: George F. Will.

Will has been an opinion columnist for four decades, writing highly literate commentary for The Washington Post, Newsweek, and many other outlets in syndication. Holding a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University, Will has often brought a rich knowledge of political philosophy and history into his columns — erudition that was recognized by his fellow journalists when he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Will has also shown an admirable independence of mind over the years: denouncing Nixon's corruption during the pre-resignation period of the Watergate scandal, when most Republicans were still defending him; calling Americans "undertaxed" during the early years of the Reagan revolution; criticizing the Iraq War at a time when dissent from George W. Bush's prosecution of the War on Terror was verboten on the right. And then there was his thoughtful 1983 book Statecraft as Soulcraft, which made a communitarian case for using government to instill civic virtue.

One wonders what the author of that book would make of the George Will of today — peddler of Tea-Party-approved libertarian bromides, promoter of know-nothing climate-change denialism, serial spewer of bile against the all-purpose bogeyman of "progressivism." (Reading Will's column these days, you get the feeling he thinks the Republican Party needs to position itself to the right of Theodore Roosevelt circa 1912.)

And then there's the notorious rape column — you know, the one that's inspired a Twitter-fueled flurry of outrage since it was published last weekend, in which Will asserts that (you guessed it) "progressivism" has made "victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges," thereby inspiring "the supposed campus epidemic of rape, a.k.a. 'sexual assault.'"

That's right: George Will, Ph.D., believes that under the influence of "progressivism," young women on college campuses across America are (en masse? individually?) seeking privileges (economic? political? cultural?) by getting themselves known as rape victims — because that is a "coveted status."

Now, I'm not one to restrain myself when it comes to ridiculing the silliness that periodically sweeps through universities in this country. And the last few paragraphs of Will's column, which focus on the plague of "trigger warnings" on campus, make a valid point or two.

But the rape business? Sure it's sexist, condescending, and callously dismissive, as thousands of critics have already noted. But here's what bothers me even more than that: it's outrageously stupid, transparently absurd — the kind of tossed-off, back-of-the-napkin theorizing one would expect of a guy who spends a little too much time in the make-up chair at Fox News.

Can Will truly believe that female college students are behaving the way he claims they are — faking sexual assaults because it confers benefits on them? If he does, what does that imply about his broader capacity to think, analyze, and opine? If he doesn't, what does that imply about his willingness to prostitute his intellect for the sake of rallying the right-wing rabble in the bleachers?

To be perfectly honest, I don't know what to think. Between those two unpleasant possibilities — intellectual breakdown or intellectual self-betrayal — I suppose I have to go with the first option. It was just five years ago, after all, that Will railed against the American people for wearing blue jeans. I find it hard to believe that a man so proudly and unapologetically elitist would deliberately slum it to prove his populist bona fides.

But that means that something just as troubling has happened: a once thoughtful conservative has undergone a marked intellectual collapse right before our eyes.

Maybe everyone would be better off if he just stuck with baseball.

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