In Yiddish, “frum” is a word denoting someone who is religiously observant and pious. David Frum is not, as far as I can tell, a frum in the literal sense but he has been a leading frum of the American conservative movement. Like the theologies of most religions, modern conservative thought is a farrago of inconsistent, ad hoc positions: “national security” (i.e., a foreign policy of militaristic nationalism), “traditional values” (i.e. 1950s-style patriarchy and heteronormativity) and “free enterprise” (i.e., the hegemony of corporate capitalism in the economy and society). Like a prize yeshiva student, Frum has faithfully adhered to even the most esoteric of the 613 commandments of conservatism and at times has been a more hardline frum than the chief rabbis themselves (i.e., he criticized Reagan for being a foreign policy squish when the Gipper decided, quite wisely as it happens, to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev).
Because of his long history of ultra-orthodoxy, Frum’s firing from his cushy sinecure at the American Enterprise Institute has provoked a tremendous amont of chatter. To switch religious metaphors, it’s as if a cardinal who had long been groomed to assume the papacy had been excommunicated. What’s shocking is that Frum was fired not over a major issue of doctrine but rather a relatively trivial question of tactics. He thought that the Republicans shouldn’t have opposed Obama’s health care reform effort outright but that they should have tried to water it down by co-operation. The American conservative really has become a fanatical sect that won’t tolerate even the smallest dissent from orthodoxy, not just in thinking but even in the minutiae of behaviour.
Here are a few thoughts on the matter:
An Embarrassment. AEI has embarrassed itself. Although allegedly a “think tank” with “scholars” AEI in fact a haven for highly partisan political actors, many of who have been disgraced by their time in government. Current “scholars” at the think tank include Lynne Cheney (who has written some cheesy novels), Newt Gingrich (another writer of schlock fiction), John R. Bolton, Charles Murray, Richard Perle (also a terrible novelist), Michael Rubin, Paul Wolfowitz and John (“torture memos” ) Yoo. These are not, to be as polite as humanly possible, figures that command respect for their scholarly achievements. There are a few worthwhile people at AEI: Norman J. Ornstein always merits attention if you want to know about the ins-and-outs of congressional politics and Roger Scruton (when he’s not working as a shill for the tobacco industry) has written some fine essays on aesthetics. On domestic policy at least, Frum stood out from the partisan hacks who dominate AEI by trying to grapple with actual policy issues in an innovative way (however wrong-headed his solutions might be).
A Conservative Worth Reading. At his best Frum is the type of figure that John Stuart Mill was always on the look out for, a conservative who is intellectually challenging enough to make liberalism stronger. Following Millsian principals, I myself always want to read smart conservatives, who in recent years have been few and far between. Aside from Frum, only a handful of names come to mind: Christopher Caldwell, Andrew Coyne, Scott McConnell, Gertrude Himmelfarb, John Lukacs, Andrew Bacevich, and Joseph Epstein. Frum was an ornament to the AEI and his firing disgraces them.
The Limits of Pity. Having said all that, my heart is not so large that I can weep any tears for Frum. To paraphrase Paul Krugman, when there are 20 million Americans unemployed it doesn’t make much sense to worry about David Frum, who was born to great wealth and will die in luxury. To sharpen the point: those 20 million unemployed (and the millions of under-employed) are suffering in an unconscionable way because the United States has a particularly stingy social safety net. The American welfare state has been kept Scrooge-ly small in part because of the policies advocated by Frum and the AEI.
A Frum Dichotomy. Frum is worth reading on domestic policy but not on foreign policy. His worst book is the foreign policy manifesto he co-wrote with Richard Perle, An End to Evil. He actually brings a completely different intellectual outlook to the two realms. On domestic issues Frum always applies a cost-benefit analysis: policy X will bring these benefits but what are the costs, both in the manifest price and in terms of lost opportunity. When writing about foreign policy, Frum never asks what the costs of policies are (in terms of blood, treasure, and America’s reputation) but rather views everything as a morality play, where the children of light (America, Israel, “the West”) do battle against the children of darkness (tyranny, radical Islam, “the East”). In light of recent comments by General Petraeus, Frum might want to ask himself what are the costs of Israel continuing to build settlements, and whether it is appropriate for American and Canadian soldiers, and soldiers from the other Nato countries, to bear these costs.
Frum’s Employment History. “David Frum really does have a hard time holding down a job,” a friend remarked. It’s true that Frum this is the third time in a decade Frum has had an abrupt parting of the ways with an employer (he left his White House speech writing post and a position at National Review). Of course, having money allows Frum the flexibility to offend employers. In many ways, it’d be better if he were poor, or even just middle-class. Then he’d know what it means to have to grovel in front of a boss. That might temper his enthusiasm for capitalism.
Charles Murray Weighs In. When he was a high school senior, Charles Murray took part in a cross burning. He freely admits to the act but says he didn’t understand the racial implications of cross burning (“It never crossed our minds that this had any larger significance.”) Now Murray is a “scholar” at the AEI, where he writes extensively on racial matters, often to argue for the inherent genetic inferiority of black people. Murray has offered his two cents on the Frum controversy and writes: “AEI has a culture, the scholars are fiercely proud of that culture, and at its heart is total intellectual freedom. As for the reality of that intellectual freedom, I think it’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about.” I’m not sure I understand what Murray is getting at here. It’s true that at some institutions, Murray’s views on race would be controversial. But AEI is financed by rich, white conservatives. In my experience, rich, white conservatives are happy to believe that the dark-skinned races are inferior (it relieves them of the burden of trying to create a more just society). There is nothing in Murray’s great volume of work that challenges the long-held beliefs of AEI’s donors or organizers. I’ll simply note that major conservative journals – National Review, Commentary, The Public Interest – have promoted Murray-style racial pseudo-science decades before The Bell Curve was published. The fact that Murray is a “scholar” at AEI says nothing about the institution’s commitment to intellectual freedom and everything about how pervasive racial pseudo-science is among elite conservatives.