Paul Johnson: The Double-Edged Sword Of Character Mattering


I was once startled to hear the late Christopher Hitchens support the view of President Bill Clinton-era conservatives that “character matters.” As with everything else, Hitchens used impeccable logic in defending its application to those either campaigning for or already in power. Because the candidate’s “personality” was literally created based on what characteristics played best with voters (this method most recently and perhaps the most energetically thus far to create a “human” personality for the robotic Hillary Clinton), the only means available for voters to see the person behind the spin was through the unscripted behavior of said persons evident in scandal and corruption.

But there is a yin to this yang, especially if such standards are applied to those not in power, but those who traffic in political theories. Character matters so much to those who examine the personal traits of intellectuals that whatever flaws uncovered affect the validity of the thinkers’ ideological conclusions.

Conservative Paul Johnson, astute and on-target in so many ways, nevertheless is a practitioner of this method toward leftist intellectuals. For him, the morality, or lack thereof, of these leftists poisons their philosophical conclusions. Rather than attack the ideological foundations of Marxism, Johnson instead indirectly attacks it by revealing that Marx had an affair with the family maid and was a heavy drinker. Ditto with literary critic Edmund Wilson whose penchant for light bondage Johnson links to the former’s admiration for the totalitarian Bolsheviks. Johnson includes Ernest Hemingway in his list of intellectuals (although what Hemingway was intellectual about escapes me), and links the writer’s naming of his penis to his admiration for the macho Fidel Castro.

But this method of using personal characteristics as a means to invalidate an individuals’ politics is a double-edged sword, especially for those on Johnson’s ideological side of the spectrum. As George Orwell, no Marxist once noted of Karl Marx, “Marx’s motives may have been envy and spite but that doesn’t make his conclusions wrong.”

Using Johnson’s script, an argument could be made that Ronald Reagan’s anticommunism was invalid because Reagan was divorced (he was the first divorced president elected to office) and bed-hopped from starlet to starlet in Hollywood Days. Orwell’s anti-Stalinism was monstrous because the writer had an undoubted streak of sadism in his character. Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler Jr’s philosophical anticommunism was unraveled by his use of physical coercion and even rape in his sexual approach to women.

In the case of those in power, especially those who wield it dictatorially, it is valid to show how the terror policies of Mao, Lenin, Stalin and Hitler were a reflection of their homicidal personalities.

And intellectuals certainly deserve a drubbing. Their snobby hypocrisy is often expressed in their actions (if one considers Michael Moore an intellectual, his supposed championship of the worker is corrupted by his love of creature comforts such as flying first class), and they are sheltered to the point of being out to lunch. The most recent example of their lack of contact with reality was intellectuals’ confident assertion that their standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton had the presidency in the bag; thus missing what the less pedigreed predicted—that middle and red-state America supported Trump in large numbers.

But attaching characteristics to political beliefs is tricky. Throughout history, it was the spoiled and immoral—Winston Churchill and President John Kennedy spring to mind—who frequently advanced the cause of freedom by standing up to totalitarians.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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