What is the intention of Bradley Thompson’s mysterious pajama essay? Late in the article, he says: “Careful readers of [my book] America’s Revolutionary Mind will no doubt see its kinship with Harry V. Jaffa’s A New Birth of Freedom.” He tells us we must read his work carefully at the same time that he classes himself with the famous founder of West Coast Straussianism. He intentionally links himself with Straussians–known for esoteric reading and sometimes for esoteric writing–and he selects an impish title for his essay. Both deeds prepare the reader to think that Thompson’s rhetorical strategy will be more complex than meets the eye; and, indeed, he does not disappoint!
The surface of his essay is designed to promote a “philosophy of Americanism” based on what he takes to be the intention of the American founders. After concisely stating core tenets of the American project, he turns his attention to laying out and dismissing “the aims and tactics of the reactionary Right.” I say that this is the exoteric surface of the essay, because Thompson fails so spectacularly in his attack on the post-liberal Right. When an intelligent writer manifestly fails to accomplish the goal he explicitly sets out for himself, we are compelled to ask: is he foolish, OR, is he trying to accomplish something else? Taking Thompson not to be a fool, I will attempt to disclose the hidden esoteric core of the essay. Thompson’s hidden intention is not to refute the thinkers he discusses, but, rather to encourage conservatives and lovers of liberty to pay closer attention to them so as to be able to harness their insights for the sake of civic renewal. Thompson needed to write in this manner in order to avoid persecution for admiring such unorthodox thinkers.
For the sake of brevity and my own greater familiarity, I will turn most of my attention to his accounts of Mencius Moldbug and Bronze Age Pervert (BAP).
One major clue that alerts the reader that Thompson is up to something strange is his consistent failure to try and refute the ideas of those whom he opposes. When he turns his attention to Moldbug, he briefly summarizes a couple points from the first part of “A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations.” At the conclusion of this summary, he exclaims: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
One doesn’t require a deep knowledge of forensic rhetoric to see how facile of an objection this is. Indeed, those who think that contemporary conservatives lack the moral courage required to face up to the dire character of our present situation would expect nothing less than a toothless hand wave from a man like Thompson. By expertly meeting this expectation, Thompson conceals his admiration for Moldbug. He signals to other conservatives that: “there is nothing to see here.” But, the attentive reader who has not yet encountered Moldbug, who reads the article with an open mind, will be encouraged to find out who this strangely named man is. Thompson points the attentive reader further down the road while also protecting his reputation as a good establishment conservative academic.
Bronze Age Pervert
Thompson’s approach to describing and dismissing BAP is even more puzzling than his dismissal of Moldbug. It appears that he draws his account of Bronze Age Mindset (BAM) almost entirely from Michael Anton’s review of it (he even describes the position he carves out as: “Anton’s BAP”). That is to say, he almost gives the impression that he has not read the book (he does though, eventually quote BAP’s dismissal of rights in the American founding). This is perfectly consistent with what we have seen so far. Thompson maintains the appearance that he is keeping his distance from BAP in such a way that careful readers might be enticed to learn more about BAP; they will wish to see the fire that has caused so much smoke.
Here is perhaps the most striking claim from Thompson’s article:
“Unwittingly (no doubt) and rather quite tragically, Michael Anton is the super carrier who brought the virus of the reactionary Right into the bloodstream of the conservative intellectual movement. To be more precise: by giving a platform to BAP and various other BAPsters, the CRB and TAM appear to have forgotten or abandoned the founders’ classical liberalism and sanctioned (at least indirectly) the deviant views of the Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans.”
We cannot take this passage as straightforward either, insofar as it massively undercuts its own intention. He claims that the CRB and TAM have betrayed their core values–and yet, what else will his article accomplish other than to bring more attention to Moldbug and BAP? Indeed this attention will be intensified precisely because Thompson did so little refutative work. Admittedly, he took on a rather large task by commenting on so many authors, but this was his decision. And, by making this choice, Thompson was compelled to write a provocative piece that serves the purpose of rousing controversy which can only brighten the spotlight on Moldbug and BAP. As far as I can tell, this must have been his cleverly concealed purpose all along.
Concluding Remarks: Why We Should Read Moldbug and BAP
Undoubtedly, there will be readers who take Thompson’s essay completely at face value. For those who do, I implore them to take seriously the possibility that there is enormous value in studying Moldbug and BAP, even or especially if they are concerned with promoting civic renewal along the lines of classical liberalism.
Moldbug is an outstanding diagnostician. He points out that it is a very strange thing that universities, newspapers, and massive NGO’s all seem to effortlessly coordinate to make the world more progressive (his idea of the Cathedral). There is no one person in charge of this decentralized apparatus, but it keeps moving Left, gathering immense social authority. This is especially the case since the only acceptable allegedly non-partisan source of knowledge “science,” has given its blessing to the Cathedral–or was it the other way around? The election of Donald Trump has done nothing to slow this down, though it has potentially helped some people see the situation more clearly. At any rate, Moldbug’s blog, Unqualified Reservations, is a vast reservoir of incisive anti-progressive thinking. It truly will help the open minded progressive purge himself of many fallacious teachings. Moldbug’s ebullient (though admittedly lengthy) prose encourages readers to deepen and widen their political imaginations. Even if most conservatives would reject the constructive side of his project, they can profit from encountering it, for it presents a renewed opportunity to think through the fundamental tensions between necessity and law as well as between wisdom and law.
BAP shows us how ugly and small many of our souls have become. For those with the ears to hear, his exhortations have produced fires in many young men who feel that they inhabit a world that is constrained and that has loudly said: we don’t need you anymore. He stands against the religion of our time, equality. If that puts him at odds with the founders, so be it. Why wouldn’t conservatives benefit from re-thinking whether or not natural inequalities should matter politically, instead of just churlishly saying, “muh, tyranny”? BAP has been accused of having no positive project and of only seeking to destroy. But what do you find when you turn to his suggestions for action in BAM? He calls on men to become friends, to study, and to grow beautiful under the regime of Sun and Steel. He calls on us to create associations at the local level that will strengthen our communities. He steers us away from poison. He wonders why on earth bloated parasitic bureaucrats have been allowed to take away so much of our freedom. Even if one finds himself terrified at some of BAP’s claims about justice and nature, the vast majority of what he calls on good men to do will only make those men better citizens and human beings, by the standards that the founders themselves established.
However these things may stand, I thank Thompson for his provocative article.