The American Conservative, April 2010

Pluto, no other label needed

My favorite read from the antiwar Right has undergone quite a few changes since it began in 2002.  Founding editors Pat Buchanan and Taki Theodoracopulos are long gone from The American Conservative, and the hard line those men have taken against immigration from poor countries to rich ones is no longer the magazine’s editorial policy.  Last year, the magazine scaled its publication schedule back from biweekly to monthly.  This issue suggests that some further changes are underway. 

For one thing, the editors seem to want short pieces to end with pungent epigrams.  So Stuart Reid’s column about Peter Hitchens’ less interesting brother praises him for the the fine satires he directed at self-important British Conservatives in the 1970s (Reid ruefully admits that he himself met Peter Hitchens’ brother’s sardonic descriptions perfectly at the time) and praises him also for a 1986 piece arguing that the word “terrorism” should be discarded as worse than useless.  Reid laments that Peter Hitchens’ brother has now become an angry voice calling for endless war and jeering at advocates of peace.  The pungent epigram at the end is this:

Some people say that Hitchens himself is now a conservative.  That is absurd.  But he might one day make a great police chief.

Eve Tushnet’s column about the contrast between “Washington the dateline,” where the US government is headquartered, and “DC the hometown,” where she grew up and lives today, also ends with a pungent epigram: “Official Washington can disappoint you, but only home can break your heart.” 

Not only is the magazine’s style changing; there are signs of further shifts on poitical issues.  A review of a new book by former Texas Republican Party leader Tom Pauken notes Pauken’s case for replacing many federal taxes with a border-adjusted Value Added Tax, a proposal that the magazine has looked on warmly in many pieces in previous issues.  This time around, the response is much cooler, even dismissive: “Would the harm to consumers be offset by the benefits to producers?  Even if so, it’s hard to imagine the consuming many making that sacrifice on behalf of the producing few.”  Perhaps it is hard to imagine, but I would join Pauken in saying that something like it must happen if the “producing few” are not to go on becoming fewer and fewer.   

Not everything about the magazine has changed, however.  Bill Kauffman’s column closes with his characteristic assertion that “small really is beautiful.”  The smallness he discusses is that of the planet Pluto and the resources available to its discoverer, the unlettered 24 year old farm boy Clyde Tombaugh.  Tombaugh’s formal education had ended, apparently forever, when he graduated from high school; there was no money to send him on to college.  Toiling in his family’s pasture, he built his own telescope and spent nights drawing freehand sketches of Mars and Jupiter.  On a whim, Tombaugh sent these sketches to Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.  The observatory operated on a shoestring budget; when its director saw Tombaugh’s sketches, he seized the opportunity to hire someone who might be capable of the drudgery involved in searching for a hypothetical “Planet X” beyond the orbit of Neptune.  After Tombaugh spotted Pluto on a series of photographic plates, he was awarded a scholrship to the University of Kansas, and began a distinguished academic career.   Kauffman points out that in a properly funded observatory today, “a 21st century Clyde Tombaugh would be wearing a hairnet and ladling mac and cheese in the cafeteria.”   I suspect that a 21st century Tombaugh would likely have qualified for a scholarship to the University of Kansas without having to discover a planet first, but Kauffman does have a point.  The bureaucratization of science, like bureaucratization generally, may be the road to efficiency, but there’s something to be said for the independent, uncredentialled researcher. 

I can’t resist mentioning that the Believer (aka Mrs Acilius) takes a keen personal interest in Pluto.  I read this piece to her; when I got to the bit where Kauffman says that the officials of the International Astronomical Union who in 2008 decided to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet were a group of “costive bastards,” she let out a war whoop that would have done her Cherokee forebears proud.  She was not satisfied with Kauffman’s conclusion that the label “dwarf planet” might “be okay” because “small really is beautiful,” however.  She wants it back on the list of full-fledged planets. 

The theme that “small is beautiful” comes up in another piece, Patrick Dineen’s “Counterfeiting Conservatism.”  Dineen traces many evils back to the introduction of primary elections in the USA in the early decades of the 2oth century.  While primaries were supposed to break the grip of political elites on the nominating process, in fact they merely replaced the old elite of local party bosses with a new elite of political professionals who operate on  a national scale.  This development has in turn led to the nationalization of elections, the rise of partisan ideology, and a new concept of patriotism.  Where a 19th century American might have thought of patriotism in terms of loyalty to a particular state and reverence for particular historical figures, the nationalized politics of the 2oth century pushed Americans to identify patriotism with enthusiasm for the nation-state and its expansion. 

I should also note a report on current US politics.  There’s an antiwar candidate running for US Senator from Indiana.  That isn’t the likely Democratic nominee, Congressman Brad Ellsworth of Evansville, but his predecessor in the US House, Republican John Hostettler.  Hostettler opposed the Iraq War from the beginning, and even wrote an antiwar book.  If Hostettler wins his party’s nomination, Indiana will see a conservative, prowar Democrat squaring off against an even more conservative, antiwar Republican in November.  I wonder how the Indiana contingent of Thunderlads will react to that choice.

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2 Comments

  1. cl

     /  March 17, 2010

    Problem with this commentary is that Ellsworth is NOT conservative. He votes the way Pelosi tells him to.

  2. acilius

     /  March 17, 2010

    Ellsworth goes along with his party’s leadership often enough to stay on their fundraising gravy train, that’s for sure. There’s no danger he’ll ever jeopardize his career prospects by voting his conscience, whether that means going to the left of the leadership or to their right. But I do think he’d like for the Democrats to be even closer than they already are to the Republicans.

    Of course, that doesn’t make Ellsworth “conservative” in any principled sense. Goldman Sachs, GE, etc, don’t want to conserve anything but their own wealth and their own control over the political system. And they obviously don’t want to compete in a free market. Their paradise is a planned economy where they do the planning. And that’s what both the Republicans and Democrats are committed to building and maintaining.

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