© 2017 Thermidor Magazine.

Designed by Jonathan.

Reihan Salam: Decolonizer Of The American Right

In July of last year, our Dear Leader penned a piece asking the question, “Is there a more notable Conservative Wunderkind than Ross Douthat?” Your author has risen to answer this challenge and present for your reading pleasure, none other than Douthat’s own co-author, co-liberal, and we’re-just-chums-I-swear guy friend Reihan Morshed Salam. Salam has had something of a more illustrious career in the last year than Douthat—a nimble Abbott to Douthat’s bumbling Costello, he has somehow managed to whirl his intellectual dervish away from landmines like Douthat’s Final Solution to the Trump Question. He is intelligent as only a shrewd man of Asia can be, quick on his feet and steeped in a penetrating understanding of the Western world far more profound than the most introspective Sahib. Reading the American conservatives commenting on him and his work, your author kept calling to mind the hagiographies appearing in the liberal British press when a young South Asian attorney decided to stage a little protest over Indian passports in South Africa.

No doubt, Salam would find the comparison to Gandhi somewhat flattering, and many of you may be scratching your heads at the wisdom of making it. Suffer your author for a moment to protest: were the Liberal elites in London writing with foresight about the brilliance of Mahatma Gandhi, or were they merely fetishizing this young Mohandas Gandhi’s attempt to imitate their Liberal Order? Too struck with mystical fascination to recognise a budding politician exploiting a developing situation because of his youth and complexion, White Liberals often make this error—certainly when considering the talents of South Asians in particular (why else do we have yoga studios in every American metropolis?), and likewise they impute (sometimes literally) magical qualities to any number of dark-skinned people. Gandhi, of course, eventually got religion, and later got shot, forever etching his visage into the sainted halls of the History of Great Men. Salam has not yet shown sufficient mystical powers to achieve a similar end.

Just your average, completely platonic, Reformocon duo.

So the National Review can be proud of their “seditious fakir”, and the intent of this examination is not to diminish Salam or his abilities, but rather to remove the stars (or redness) from our eyes and consider precisely what he does believe and why the Neoliberal Elite have become so enamoured with him—it is not solely because he is brown (though that’s a bonus for them). Rather, it is because he displays an unrivaled ability to repeat their tired, debunked, and increasingly suspect doctrines with a sort of airiness and youth that fills them with hope for their post-colonial World. This is where Salam will increase as Douthat decreases: Douthat cannot decolonize himself, he cannot “complicate” the conservative message, for two reasons: first, he can never be the subaltern Salam represents and, second, he simply doesn’t have Salam’s intellectual prowess or agility. All Douthat can do is continue to look fat and absurd in the eyes even of Middle-Class Catholic America as he grasps at ways Trump can still lose the nomination for the presidency. To be sure, Salam has allowed himself to get sucked into the mire of the Never Trumpism screed in many of his recent submissions, but he has maintained social relevance and exploited what he calls “systems of mobility” with far greater aplomb than Douthat has managed. After all, nothing is sexier on the coastal catwalk than a young, single, brown conservative who talks very fast and is hip to Millennial ironies (he has referred to himself—born in 1979—as a Millennial, which is laughable at best). He is a knowing, willing tool whereby the Neoliberal Academe of the Outer Party participates in the process of decolonization—that is, the deconstruction—of the whole Western World which the Inner Party has gutted of its cultural and social supports. In a close reading of his writings, Salam reveals that he is a man deeply shaped by his personal history as a second-generation Bangladeshi immigrant, his academic training at Harvard and Chicago, and his engagement with chiefly neoconservative (Mt. 11:15) intellectuals, that has produced what is certainly the face of Neoliberalism as it passes beyond Fukuyama’s end of history.

Battling Begums and Buckleyite Bugbears

While it is true that Salam was born in the United States and raised in a particularly affluent atmosphere on these sunny shores, we would be remiss if we did not consider the ties that even a second-generation immigrant will have to his native land (a term I doubt Salam would protest since he himself opposes birthright citizenship). After all, even if he had never returned (statistically unlikely for South Asian immigrants), he would still have an image of this land from his parents, who arrived along with 590 other Bengalis in the United States in 1976. This imagined community of Bengalis or Bangladeshis (depending on their cultural and religious leanings) both desh (in their “family land”) and bidesh (in a “foreign land”) cannot but influence Salam’s own ideas and politics, any more than a Mexican born in Pennsylvania will escape his parents’ cultural proclivities, or, indeed, a child born in Alabama to parents from Massachusetts would be able to avoid his own parents’ New England experience. Especially when we consider that, according to Pew, second-generation immigrants are more likely to resemble their own immigrant group than the general public, and are in fact more likely to self-identify and vote as a group (for Democrats) than their parents’ generation. Not that we need any reminders that citizenship and identity are as East and West in Kipling’s poem, but it seems only fair to give thorough reasoning for the coming dalliance into Bangladeshi politics.

Bangladesh is, on the Neoliberal surface, a young country—after all, countries are made of laws, and Bangladesh’s constitution has only been in effect since 1971. Those readers not steeped in the Whig Interpretation of History will, of course, note that the Bengali people themselves have a deep and abiding history, one which your author hopes readers will not protest to hearing more about. A brief overview of Bangladeshi history certainly begins with the coming of Shamsuddin Ilyas Shah, a Sunni Muslim conqueror from Persian Afghanistan who established the Bengali Sultanate in the mid-14th century that would lay all the groundwork for the unique brand of East Indian Islam at the heart of Bangladeshi culture. Shah’s dynasty would rule until overthrown two centuries later by Munim Khan at the behest of Mughal Emperor Akhbar the Great, a mystic tyrant who got bored with Sunni Islam and invented his own quasi-Islamic syncretic cult (a sort of proto-Bahai’i) called Din-i-illahi. The experiment died with him and orthodox Sunni Islam (or a close approximation thereunto—this is, after all, India) was restored with great vigour throughout the Mughal territories, but the attempt was quite popular in Bengal. Bengal has also seen survivals of Hindu and Buddhist practice throughout this time, with some occasional spots of sectarian violence leading up to the 20th century, when the magic of liberal nationalism was introduced and people started killing each other at noticeable rates.

Things were particularly bad from 1947, when the Earl Mountbatten insisted on handing them over to the Pakistanis without even giving them a chance at referendum, until 1991, when the Bangladeshis finally decided it was possible to change governments without a military coup or assassination. Modern Bangladesh is the fruit of this seven-century history; moderate secularism is deeply attractive to those with long memories, and extremism of both the secular and sectarian variety deeply attractive to those without them. The politics of the rump state (Bangladesh does not incorporate all of historical Bengal) are dominated now by a softened-up version of the communist party that ruled Bangladesh from 1971 until 1975 and the Bengali Nationalist Party, a centre-right neoliberal enterprise that saved the Bangladeshi economy by exporting emigrants to Europe and the US to generate tax revenue on remittances.

Salam’s parents were part of this latter scheme, leaving Bangladesh in 1976 after the assassination of socialist president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. They were leaving a state in chaos, having tried martial law, then election, then single-party socialism, and then martial law again in the course of four years. The government of Ziaur Rahman, the military commander who founded the aforementioned BNP, seemed to be doing better until 1981 when he too was assassinated, only shortly after allowing Mujib’s exiled daughter back into Bangladesh. Since then, Bangladesh has settled into its present state of back-and-forth political machination by two women, Ziaur Rahman’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia and Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wazed. The so-called “Battling Begums” have swapped the presidency back and forth between each other since the late 1990s—meaning that Bangladesh, a purportedly Muslim country with otherwise strict norms and rules governing the sexes, has been ruled by women for all of Salam’s adult lifetime.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, before his assassination

A wave of Bangladeshi immigrants hit US shores in the late 1970s, fleeing the instability of their homeland, certainly, but mostly seeking to cash in on recent changes to US immigration law and especially the lucrative H1B visa program. Afloat this wave were Salam’s parents, who settled in New York and joined their co-ethnics in sending a wave of South Asian children to the prestigious Stuyvesant High School (a publicly funded, but exclusive, high school in South Manhattan with a reputation of discriminating against Non-Asian Minorities and being overwhelmingly Jewish.) Here he began formulating a contrarian personality and penchant to assert himself as a safe “rebel” voice arraying his formidable intellect against precisely the people his teachers and peers said were in control. In the process, he befriended a number of influential people whose co-ethnics were a dominating minority at both of his colleges, Cornell and Harvard. In 2001, he graduated from the latter with a stamp of approval from the branch of Frankfurt School deconstruction called Social Studies just in time for Al-Qaeda to redefine American conservatism for the next two decades. Under the immediate influence of his friends and colleagues, Salam waded into the correspondence wars as a decided neoconservative who could mark “support, with reservation” on a survey about the Iraq War.

While his immediate influences at Stuyvesant, Cornell, and Harvard placed him in a decidedly neoconservative direction, he was savvy enough to recognize that this was not going to carry him very far. After all, he had spent most of his education figuring out where the fence-posts of acceptable speech were and leaning on them, occasionally reaching over for effect. Settled into his new nesting ground as a conservative, he did the same thing, drawing on his ethnocultural background and experience of outlander status in cosmopolitan New York to fill a “maverick” position in an overwhelmingly White conservative establishment falling over itself to find a diversity hire. He saw all the threats they saw, from national security to worn-out Buchananite screed about the borders; he offered fresh perspective on the pesky non-conservative libertarians, even (reasonably, it seemed) extending them the occasional olive branch. He knew how to use the words “concern”, “fraught”, and “problematic” with appropriate illocutionary force, but could quote God and Man at Yale—better, he could have written it: another Ivy League conservative who could debate all the lefties he went to school with over a fine wine or at a friendly cocktail party.

Urbanite, Cosmopolitan, and Other Euphemisms

Salam has a reputation for mixing well—one does not earn the reputation for being the “favorite conservative of Brooklyn literary circles” without significant social and cultural capital to trade. His parents’ bourgeois New York lifestyle thrust him into the path of numerous potential friends in the high society of those who direct Cathedral operations. In an earlier era, when the coastal elite were still largely Anglo-Saxon by extraction and Protestant by confession, he might have cultivated his social connexions by mastering the sporting life—football at Harvard, for example, or at least golf. Instead, his father reports that Salam avoided sports, preferring to spend time with his sisters. He took feminine values unto himself to court the latter-day coastal elite of social outsiders who prefer the theatre to the arena. He did interpretive dance, improvisational comedy, as well as * ahem * straight theatre. As a New York Magazine exposé has introduced him,

The conservative writer and newly named executive editor of the National Review has always been drawn to high-density neighborhoods, but recently he moved to a relatively quiet carriage house in Dumbo, near Vinegar Hill. Guests milled about the adjoining courtyard, which Salam describes as having a “Melrose Place kind of feel,” and inside his two-bedroom home, which is decorated in primary colors, with mismatched furniture, large prints of paperback-book covers, and a William F. Buckley poster. Salam, who often favors fitted suits but was wearing a sweater, scarf, and beanie, all various shades of gray, spent much of the party facilitating introductions. Around the courtyard he went, connecting people who didn’t know each other — writers and lawyers and anthropologists and screenwriters — in remarkably flattering prose. “He introduces you, or anyone he’s friends with, and you feel like you’re being given the Nobel Peace Prize,” says Mina Kimes, a friend of Salam’s who writes for ESPN the Magazine. “It’s kind of embarrassing. But it’s also wonderful, and he does it for everyone.”

You could be forgiven for observing this scene and thinking you’re watching the work of a smooth operator: This sociability has helped make Salam — who is also a Slate columnist and CNN contributor — the favorite conservative of many liberals. In a professional network of strivers and cynics, it has also made him a source of endless fascination, from those who don’t trust his extreme extroversion to those who wonder, Does he really believe this stuff?

Living in his comfortable micro-villa, Salam writes about the virtue of high-density neighborhoods and urban lifestyles, certainly. Having exhausted our desire for technologies that make historical turning points, Asia’s chief cultural export has changed from the by-products of alchemy to exemplary urban planning. People live in Bangladesh stacked atop one another like Jenga blocks: and this is what gave rise to the native community Salam no doubt has deep affinity for. What better solution for the utter lack of community in the West than to introduce some Third World wisdom here? The rest of the scene, though, seems like it should be about a different man altogether. A carriage house with a courtyard? Wearing a scarf indoors? A single man in a two-bedroom house who makes casual reference to prime-time soap operas? Suddenly one ceases to wonder why this Brooklyn boy has written so much about San Francisco over the years.

Then again, Robin Williams did improv comedy and studied theatre, and he was also very gregarious but had a wife (occasionally) and children, so perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, but one inevitably pauses and thinks when one reads the gushing NYMag article. After all, what’s more admirable and exciting to the kind that writes for and reads the New York Magazine than the minority cities actively import to improve themselves economically. His particular brand of conservatism, however, might hold an attraction in its own right. A “leading conservative” who has been editor of The Atlantic, an author at The New Yorker and Slate, and who regularly retweets Ariana Huffington’s blog where Cathedral acolytes LARP as journalists now captains the S.S. NRO, the most honourable losers on the right-wing: what, to a lefty, is not to love?

Vice is an important and respected media organization for socially conscious millennials who appreciate hearing about edgy and provocative ideas, like Reform Conservatism.

Salam is known for his remarkable ability to form deep bonds of friendship with ideological opponents. Here he is seen sharing a hearty chuckle with outspoken lesbian MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow.

Reihan Salam: serious policy man

Really, though, Salam needs to do very little to court the approval he has gained because he is not an outsider going into this social club: he has been there since his youth, and his thinking reflects it. Part of what excited the Brahmins so much about Salam and Douthat’s so-called “groundbreaking” Grand New Party is the clear indication that both authors make that, to them, the strange species called “the working class” falls outside their purview of direct experience. To the coastal elites, the working class—the children and grandchildren of the men and women who lived and worked in places like Rochester, Gary, Detroit, and Scranton—is rather like a species of rodent: for some, a beloved pet, for others, a disgusting breed of under-evolved vermin, for still others an ideal test subject for social experimentation. That Salam falls into the first category does not divorce him from the general mindset of his adopted tribe. Douthat and Salam uphold the “working class” as a key to GOP electoral success, but most of the arguments they make for this are indistinguishable from those arguments that the gutter-dwellers over at Breitbart think they are clever to call “the Democratic Plantation strategy” in regards to Blacks. Here is not a group of people with which one feels kinship, but human resources that are being carelessly disregarded. One of Salam’s erstwhile underlings, Victor David Hanson recently wrote rather eloquently on this very phenomenon.

New Deal Conservatism and Soft Shariʿah

Your author was working through all of Salam’s ample corpus over the past weeks when the following untweeted tweet began to coalesce:

A Creed for the Grand New Party, by Reihan Salam:

War is Peace,

Freedom isn’t Free,

“The New Deal was a Conservative project to transform the country”.

After reading everything, though, it became clear that to understand Salam’s peculiar brand of Coastal Conservatism, one needed only to hear him speak on two occasions, the above link and his comments on immigration. Keeping with our Ivy League theme, let us “unpack” his claim that the immigration debate must take a backseat to “ethno-racial inequality” and “limited upward mobility”. He opens with “ethno-racial inequality and multi-generational poverty”, two phrases which present a factual but nevertheless heavily limited picture of actual economic realities in the United States. He goes on to paint a picture of a population of the poor who come from “underrepresented” groups—coded language here for People of Colour, probably largely Non-Asian Minorities since we’re talking about immigration. When, therefore, he asserts that immigration should be limited and that birthright citizenship should be ended, those claims do not exist apart from his insistence here that immigration policy is “secondary to the challenges of multigenerational poverty and ethno-racial inequality”. The captive audience obediently nods their heads at his “buzzwords”—and reacts, as so much of Salam’s audience reacts, with a sort of pleased amazement at the originality of his claims, because they either miss or disregard the implication here that immigration is not a concern for the natives of the United States—or any country—but a concern for the immigrant population. It is a policy that must be dictated not by the interests of the many at home but the interests of the few leaving their home—as “minorities” in America are already moving quickly into numerical majority.

When Salam talks about chronic poverty and limited upward mobility, the city-dwelling coastal elite calls to her mind a ghetto, an ethnic neighbourhood of unemployed or underemployed people who look very differently than she, and for some reason seem never to be able to crawl out of this social injustice of being unable to afford a decent apartment and the iPhone 7. This sort of uncomprehending urbanite pity is not new—one can already find it in the audience of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, perhaps the earliest photographic evidence of slumming in America. The young hipster racists in their trendy s-bend corsets or aesthetic dress could tour the tenements of New York just as their intellectual descendants today seek to move into said tenements and doll them up. The perception of the contemporary urbane Ivy League grad, however, is * ahem * colored by changing realities in city life. In addition to immigrants changing from Europeans to non-Europeans, official poverty records emphasize the poverty rates among non-Whites: consider federalsafetynet dot com, whose charting of poverty from 2014-2016 lists categories Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Children. In spite of the alteration in the image of poverty in the popular mind, though, Jacob Riis’ images have not vanished from the American landscape.

Out among the rolling hills and windy plains that we once romantically called America’s heartland, the image of poverty is much different: multigenerational poverty and ethno-racial inequality are often in the other direction: wealthy Asians like Salam’s parents become landlords for descendants of European settlers who have struggled to make ends meet since the Cathedral decided the West no longer needed to be the global leader in manufacturing to serve neoliberal ends. Here, depression and chronic joblessness have given rise to the opioid epidemic and a spike in fatherless households. Here dwells that strange species that seems so far beyond the understanding of Salam and Douthat, even as they conceptualize it: the working class. Here lesser cities die as deserts; the churches and bars that were watering holes of the community are abandoned and boarded up. Here graves go untended and forgotten by children and grandchildren who have moved across the country to find work helping others to buy things. Dickens is no popular author in reactionary circles for obvious and sound reasons, but suffer your author this analogy: does one not get the impression that Salam and Douthat belong to that class of person who would glance in Bob Cratchit’s window and wonder innocently why the Christmas goose is so small? Throughout his talk on immigration, one can sense those other buzzwords, “white privilege”, taking refuge in the space between his silver tongue and professionally whitened teeth, never passing his lips but never far from them either.

This is the essence of Salam’s brand of conservatism, in fact: on the one hand, VDH is correct to suggest a sort of elitism, but there is also something much deeper, an understanding on the part of emigrants from the Global South, no matter how impoverished or affluent, that they belong to a class of colonised and decolonised people, entering a still-colonised world. They are citizens of a British Empire of the mind, wherein they are deprived of their “cultural voices” because of the continued existence of that Western Civilization which was formerly wielded over them in the way belts are wielded around disobedient children: as a threat to direct them toward better behavior. What Salam is doing is asserting his voice—he is too intelligent to be ignorant of his token status among most of his neoconservative or Buckleyite patrons, and an interpretation of this condescension on the part of the political elite from his perspective can only encourage his sense of subaltern status. That Salam should have sought to brave the storm in the paper skiff of #NeverTrump should not come as a surprise, but his dedication to proving that Ted Cruz can still be president is not rooted in his failure to recognize what the practical application of his beautiful theories about the GOP and working-class look like. Rather, it is rooted in his ability to recognize Trump for what he is: a representative of the older class of liberally-minded imperialists, the starry-eyed children of Generation Mountbatten. This terrifies Salam for the same reason it disappoints Neoreactionaries, by the way. The paradigm of European-led decolonization keeps writers like Salam “subalterns” in their own minds: rather than being independent cultural agents, they are the * decolonized*, having an identity still thoroughly defined by their former colonial rulers.

The only option available to such as these is to destabilize the self-definition of the European colonizers and decolonizers and place everyone on an even playing field whence new, genuine identities can arise. Thus, the New Deal becomes a “conservative” program and Third World attitudes towards alcohol consumption are obscured by rational “conservative” arguments to shadowban booze. Much more revealing, America’s “largest gated community” must check urban sprawl with community-by-congestion. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a crusade to open up America’s “largest gated community” sounds very populist and likewise uncomfortably close to the dispossession of the kulaks (not to say that San Fransciscans resemble self-sufficient Russian peasants). It is in this context alone that his argument for ending birthright citizenship is consistent with his campaign of sympathy for the Devil. The deconstruction of Western self-identity (not identity politics, but the sort of unconscious, inborn sense of belonging) coupled with the reimagining of identity for the decolonised also explains why some Old World morality needs to be updated (actually he regards the homosexuality question with suspicious indifference).

This brand of conservatism is truly conservative in name only. Unlike the genuine conservatism of professional losers like Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, and Paul Ryan, Salam’s conservatism only wears the losers’ mantle—it is in fact, a potent cocktail of strong horse moralism and post-modern deconstruction that promises to make Conservatism, Inc. into even bigger losers than they are on their own. One cannot help but wonder if they see this themselves and it serves to fuel their enthusiasm to adopt him as a new hairshirt for VDH’s counterfeit elite.

Follow Thermidor Magazine: