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Elizabeth Corey On Oakeshott And Life

Elizabeth Corey On Oakeshott And Life

We chat about my mentor, philosopher Michael Oakeshott, and his many intimations about the world.

Elizabeth Corey is an academic and writer. She’s an associate professor of political science in the Honors Program at Baylor University and the author of the 2006 book, Michael Oakeshott on Religion, Aesthetics, and Politics. She also writes for First Things and serves on the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. After many of you asked me to do a podcast on my intellectual mentor, we delve into the thinking and life of Michael Oakeshott — the philosopher I wrote my dissertation on.

You can listen right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on the genius who shirked fame, and my sole meeting with Oakeshott — pop over to our YouTube page.

Other topics: Elizabeth born and raised in Baton Rouge; growing up to be a musician with Bill Evans as her idol; her father was an econ professor at LSU and part of the conservative intellectual movement; Baylor is a Christian school with thought diversity; Eric Voegelin; Hannah Arendt; Friedrich Hayek; how Elizabeth first stumbled upon Oakeshott; his critical view of careerism; living in the now; a champion of liberal education; opposing the Straussians and their view of virtue; individualism above all; how he would be horrified by the identity politics of today; calling Augustine “the most remarkable man who ever lived”; Montaigne not far behind; the virtue of changing one’s mind; how Oakeshott was very socially adept; conversation as a tennis match that no one wins; traveling without a destination; his bohemian nature; his sluttiness; Helen of Troy; early Christians; the Tower of Babel; civil association vs enterprise association; why Oakeshott was a Jesus Christian, not a Paul Christian; hating the Reformation and its iconoclasm; the difference between theology and religion; the joy of gambling being in the wager not the winning; the eternal undergraduate as a lost soul; politics as an uncertain sea that needs constant tacking; the mystery of craftsmanship; present laughter over utopian bliss; how following the news is a “nervous disorder”; why salvation is boring; how Oakeshott affected the lives of Elizabeth and myself; and the texts she recommends as an intro to his thought.

Browse the Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy (the first 102 are free in their entirety — subscribe to get everything else). Coming up: Tim Shipman on the UK elections, Erick Erickson on the left’s spiritual crisis, Lionel Shriver on her new novel, Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy on animal cruelty, Van Jones, and Stephen Fry! Send any guest recs, dissents, and other comments to

Here’s a listener on last week’s episode:

I enjoyed your conversation with Nellie Bowles. Newsroom dynamics are one of the topics you repeatedly address about which I’m wholly ignorant, so thanks for continuing to educate me.

But I write to raise a quibble about the conversation. The topic of “disinformation”, what to do about it, and whether it has become a covert tool for censorship is important. One issue you repeatedly discuss (this time with Nellie) is the “lab-leak hypothesis” for Covid-19. I don’t think anything incorrect was said, but there's something wrong with the tone in the discussion — more so in previous Dishcasts, especially the one with Nicholas Wade.

I likely know a lot more about the topic than either you or Ms. Bowles, and I probably know more about the underlying science than does Mr. Wade. The reality is that NOBODY — with the theoretically possible exception of a handful of Chinese — knows where the virus originated. That the possibility of a lab leak was treated by US officials and mainstream media as a dangerous lie is lamentable at best, but that does NOT mean that the virus originated from a lab. I’d say a strong preponderance of well-informed opinion is against that hypothesis. It’s not impossible, but I’d be very surprised if it turns out to be correct.

Our point was simply that the question should not have been preemptively closed or deemed dangerous to ask. Another reader has questions for me:

Listening to you and Nellie proudly recall the movement to convince Americans to allow gay marriage, I wondered about your personal opinion regarding Obergefell. Are you disappointed that the Court took the issue away from the people? The decision declares that there never was a reason for you to convince others — gay marriage was enshrined in 1865 when the 14th Amendment was ratified — so weren’t you just wasting all that energy? Now that gay marriage has been forced on the remaining states, does it feel like you have been robbed of a vindication that you were working toward? 

On a totally separate note, your unease with Biden regarding trans issues made me remember that I once heard Konstantin Kisin say that he would never vote for a man who endorses child mutilation; he would vote for that man’s opponent even if he had to plug his nose to do so. Not a crazy position, in my opinion. 

I was always leery of exactly this kind of judicial intervention, and it was the one area of acute disagreement I had with Evan Wolfson, the real hero of the marriage movement. I wanted to win the battle state by state, legislature by legislature. But it’s in the nature of American politics that marriage is a civil right rooted in the Constitution, if not the Declaration of Independence. So its legal and constitutional aspects were always there, and had to be resolved at some point. Social change in America often includes court rulings, and given that we had already moved public opinion dramatically, Obergefell did not seem to me to be that big a stretch. Would I have preferred to have had more legislative and state court gains before SCOTUS weighed in? Yes. But in retrospect, it does not seem the most egregious case of judicial activism, especially because some kind of federal settlement had to be achieved once individual states had begun to issue marriage licenses.

From another fan of the episode:

I adore Nellie, and I like the Free Press. I fear, however, that she and Bari will — like so many disaffected liberals — fall into the trap of conservative audience capture. I’ve seen it too often of late.

It goes like this. Frustrated with the orthodoxies and insanity of progressive politics, a liberal quits (or gets fired from) a mainstream publication and starts an independent newsletter or podcast that reports on the excesses of the left. Instead of persuading former allies, the newsletter or podcast cultivates a populist right-wing audience that only wants to hear bad things about people they already hate (establishment liberals) without being challenged on their own biases and delusions about the 2020 election, Trump, or vaccines. Eager to please the new audience, the disaffected liberal focuses more and more on criticizing liberals and, over time, sounds increasingly MAGA or MAGA-adjacent.

The Free Press isn’t there. Eli Lake, for example, recently wrote an excellent piece attacking Tucker Carlson. But the Free Press does publish far more articles attacking the left than it does articles attacking the right. Scanning recent articles, I would say the ratio is somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1, and I couldn’t find one article that even mildly criticized Trump. And based on the comments, I think its audience skews right and even MAGA.

You (along with Bill Maher and Sam Harris) are among the only few who remain immune to audience capture and consistently attack both sides. I do hope the Free Press follows your example. 

In a highly polarized political culture, what I used call the “neocon slide” is very common. You start with dissenting with your own “side” on one issue, then endorse the other “side”, then end up with full-on partisan switching. Going thus far and no farther is difficult psychologically. I’ve done my best to resist these things — and being a “parish of one” helps. October 7th obviously galvanized my friends at FP, but I hope it won’t obliterate intellectual diversity in its pages.

Another listener responds to both Nellie and our recent episode with George Will:

Will’s upbringing is striking. His life began as a beneficiary of postwar industrial policy, especially the GI Bill and other subsidies that flooded into public institutions like the University of Illinois, funded by high taxes that also built infrastructure like the Interstate Highway System (his revered Eisenhower’s project), unions that supported middle-class prosperity, and everything else. Granted, there were economic and social downsides to that era, but it’s the closest that any modern, multiethnic society has come to reasonable distributions of wealth and opportunity.

But George Will and Milton Friedman’s side won! Since 1980, we’ve largely deregulated the economy, destroyed the unions, let the infrastructure crumble, spiked inequality, and let the market decide — thus destroying the postwar world that raised up Will. Yeehaw!

So what is there for Will to complain about? Yes, the culture also became more libertarian, but if you want Las Vegas economics, you get Las Vegas culture along with it. 

I really enjoyed hearing Nellie Bowles as well. The one element I don’t hear in your or her critiques of “woke elites” is the fact that many of these people are hypocrites. You think they refrain from calling the cops if they need help? (Which is seldom if ever, when you’re well off.) Do they send their kids to public schools with poor or even middle-class students?

Of course they love solutions to racism or inequality that involve changing and policing language, because it makes them feel righteous even as they live lives largely untouched by either. NIMBY liberals carefully use the word “unhoused” — but do you think they’ll support affordable housing in their neighborhoods? They love reading land acknowledgments, but do you think they’re offering their own property to Indigenous people??

Another dissent over the George pod:

I listened to the episode while on the road and enjoyed it thoroughly. I have been a fan of George Will for 35 years. In college, his biweekly column at Newsweek was a significant influence on my perspectives and ways of thinking about politics and policy. And his writing affected my outlook not just on scholarly topics; his book Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball deepened my appreciation for the American pastime. I find him to be intelligent, independent in thought, and articulate beyond compare.

However, I think he grossly missed the mark with his dismissal of climate change and its impact. The very definition of conservatism is a desire to preserve that which we hold dear, and which has brought us prosperity and joy — whether it be laws, traditions, or ways of life. Thus, I cannot understand the hostility that members of the right seem to have towards trying to avoid the rapid climatic change that we are currently experiencing. What could be more conservative than wishing to preserve the world as we have known it for millennia?

He sadly tows the far-right party line and is shockingly ignorant on the topic, sounding more like Tucker Carlson than the well-read scholar he is. Will’s glib comparison of sea level rise in Miami to that of Amsterdam is a poorly thought-out analogy. What the citizens of one European city did over centuries to reclaim land from the sea is completely irrelevant to how humanity is going to deal with catastrophic and sudden sea level rise that affects the 10 percent of the world's population that lives in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level.

And his comment that we would be better off spending money on cancer research reveals his buffet approach to science. He trusts the scientists that are delivering cures for disease, but not those modeling the consequences of a warming planet?

I agree with him that we will adjust to climate change. We will not be extinguished. But it is not going to be a world that I want to live in, or pass to my posterity. Like him, I believe in the ingenuity of the human race and am quite convinced that we can fix the emergency we face. But we need sensible policy to catalyze this innovation, and markets alone will not solve this without incentives provided by governments. A simple, universal, and appropriately high carbon tax would provide the economic incentive to solve the problem almost overnight.

I couldn’t agree more. I should have pushed George on this some more, I guess. I think climate change should be a central issue for conservatives, for the reasons my reader suggests. For a deep dive into the debate over a carbon tax, check out the Dish blog archive. Here’s George on the crisis in the Ukraine:

One more on the George pod:

Really enjoyed your discussion with George Will. I wanted to mention one thing:  he is brilliant, and probably correct on nearly everything he says. But I just love and admire how you can speak with conviction without arrogance or smugness. You have this lovely way of stating your point but not bludgeoning your listeners with it. I would probably change my mind more readily in the face of an argument you make with your measured and generous approach. 

But another listener is over it:

I recently suspended my long-standing subscription to the Dish. I was invited in my cancellation confirmation to explain why — to “vent” — and while I assumed this to be merely a polite gesture, I felt perhaps it might be sincere.

You and I are exactly the same age, and I was first introduced to your perspective when we were both very young and conservative. We are no longer young, and I am sad to say you are less conservative — perhaps not at all, at this point. Evolving is of course admirable and laudable. I’ve always admired your desire to face head-on many challenging and nuanced issues, even when I was in disagreement. I have always perceived you as a straight shooter.

However, of late, your persistent railing against President Trump and your disdain for what you deem “Christianism” — of which I guess I belong to — has grown intolerable. You are, of course, at liberty to express yourself as you wish, but I needn’t pay to listen or read. Suspending my subscription, while insignificant to you, is a blow to me. I have long admired your positions even while in opposition, and I will miss your voice. Perhaps once we are past November — whether or not Mr. Trump is re-instated (which I hope for) — I will be able to re-subscribe. Until that time, I wish the Dish team well.

Thanks, I guess. I was more emphatic about Christianism a decade or so ago, so it’s odd that you should pick now to leave over it. And Trump? Sorry but not sorry. I’ve aired many, many discussions of the questions his candidacy and presidency has raised, and have always respected those aspects of populism that merit support. But support for Trump is not and cannot be a conservative sine qua non. Hope to see you back after November.

Another dissent:

I’ve been reading you since you blogged with The Atlantic. I love your interview style. I love that you ask your guests about their childhood. I love that you engage with ideas. This is why I subscribe.

But a few months ago on the Dishcast you were talking to Daniel Finkelstein, and he mentioned that one of his ancestors made great achievements and that the male ancestor could only have done so because his wife literally took care of every aspect of his life, barring his writing. The two of you chuckled about this and moved on.

I found this so profoundly dismaying.

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