The Old Right in the New Year

The current issues of The American Conservative and Chronicles appeared in our mailbox yesterday; here are my notes on them.

J. David Hoeveler, who in 1977 published the indispensable book The New Humanism: A Critique of Modern America, 1900-1940, contributes to this issue of The American Conservative an article about one of the main subjects of that book, Irving Babbitt (1865-1933.)  Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and the other critics in the New Humanist group were identified as political and social conservatives in their own day, and it has been conservative intellectuals who have kept their names alive.  Hoeveler argues that Babbitt would have been deeply uncomfortable with much that characterizes the right wing of today’s Republican Party.  Hoeveler identifies four major strands in this movement, which he labels “imperialist conservatism,” “”populist conservatism,” “libertarian conservatism,” and “religious conservatism.”  Since Babbitt was an outspoken opponent of all forms of military intervention the US undertook throughout his life, Hoeveler has an easy time showing that he would have been unlikely to support America’s ongoing current wars and level of military spending.    Nor would the Babbitt whose main political concern was saving democracy by reconciling it to the “aristocratic principle” have found much to attract him in the populist right’s denunciation of “liberal elites.”

Hoeveler says surprisingly little about Babbitt’s likely attitude toward the libertarian right.   To the extent that libertarians set up the unfettered operation of the market as an ideal, it should be clear that Babbitt would have opposed them.  In the opening of Democracy and Leadership, Babbitt’s 1924 political magnum opus, he mentions that one hears that the future will be taken up with “the economic problem.”  If so, Babbitt declares, “the future will be very superficial.”  Though his political attitudes were certainly conservative, in some ways even reactionary, Babbitt was leery of capitalism.  In social arrangements that separate economic activity from family relationships and community bonds, he saw a world grown cold and senseless.  Babbitt would not have denied that the market was competent to allocate resources for efficient production, but would have argued that outside the limits of that sphere its judgments were meaningless.  Seeing successful businessmen consulted as experts on education and public policy, Babbitt told an old French story about a butcher who suddenly found himself needing an attorney.  When several lawyers offered their services, he evaluated them by the standards of his own profession and chose the fattest one.

Discussing the religious right, Hoeveler points out that Babbitt was very leery of their theological and political predecessors.  Himself irreligious, Babbitt thought that religion was necessary for social control and the development of a high culture.  However, he did not believe that all religious movements were equally capable of having these effects.  Babbitt admired contemporary Confucianism, early Indian Buddhism, and later Massachusetts Puritanism, as traditions that inculcated self-discipline and rewarded intellectualism.  The enthusiasms and eccentricities of Pentecostal and fundamentalist groups horrified him.

The American Conservative reprints President Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 Farewell Address, still famous for its warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”  In his commentary on the address, Michael Desch argues that Eisenhower was wrong to imply that economic interests drive America’s interventionism.  In view of the amount of money that defense contractors annually collect from the US taxpayer and the number of people whose livelihood derives directly or indirectly from those contractors, Desch’s claim seems preposterous on its face.  However, an article by Eamonn Fingleton elsewhere in the issue lends it a degree of plausibility.  Fingleton’s article, “Empire is Bad Business,” documents the ways in which US militarists have actively lobbied foreign governments to give preferential treatment to Japanese exporters over American exporters as part of deals to keep US bases in Japan.  Fingleton quotes trade economist Pat Choate:  “Essentially we gave away our electronics industry in return for Japanese support in Vietnam.  In any other country there would have been riots in the streets.”  Fingleton makes a strong case that the masters of the permanent war economy have played a leading role in the hollowing out of American manufacturing.  Thus, “military-industrial complex” is a misnomer.  However, Eisenhower’s broader point might stand.  American capitalists now pin their hopes of future profit on globalization, not on the development of any one country.  In that sense, they have become a revolutionary class, alienated from national loyalties.  The US military establishment is their militant wing, enforcing globalization.

Brian Doherty’s “Dignity Doesn’t Fly” has the subtitle “Peepshow scanners may not catch terrorists, but who says they’re supposed to?”  Laying out the shortcomings of the Transportation Safety Administration’s plan to probe air passengers in intimate ways, Doherty says that “The TSA has created the perfect enemy for any bureaucracy: one that can never be defeated, that could be anyone, and that creates excuses to funnel money to favored interests until the end of time.”  The worst aspect of the whole affair, for Doherty, is the apparent popularity of the TSA’s depredations.  Among those who support the scans, “the TSA seems to have succeeded in constructing a new morality,” one in which personal dignity is of no value and the agents of the state are above judgment.

Chronicles, too, includes a piece about the TSA.  While Doherty spends much of his piece demonstrating that the TSA’s scanners would not detect even the bombs that gave them the pretext to start using them, Chronicles‘ Douglas Wilson would oppose the scans even if everything the TSA and its apologists say were true.  Wilson brings up the Third Amendment to the US Constitution, prohibiting the US from quartering soldiers in private homes.  When that Amendment was passed in 1789, it represented a real limitation on the federal government’s ability to defend its citizens from invading armies.  As such, it “was designed to interfere with national security.”  It proves that the framers believed that the rights and dignity of citizens were more important than national security.

Also in Chronicles, Thomas Fleming offers “The Five Good Reasons” not to be an atheist.  “Atheists have no god to worship” is number one; this is a good reason not to be an atheist, Fleming argues, because humans are generally inclined to worship something, and without gods they’ll only start worshipping other, worse things.  Reason two: “They have no religion to practice.”  That allegedly makes life dull, or did make it dull for Fleming when he was an atheist.  Number three: “Atheists have no religious calendars.”  This robs life of rhythm.  Time is then just one thing after another.  Fourth: “Poor atheists… have no sacred spots, no churches or shrines.”  Atheist space is as featureless as atheist time.  With no store of special stories to differentiate one place from another, atheists not only cannot value places as holy, but lose a means of bonding to each other as people who share relationships with those places.  Fifth, atheists have no sacred texts.  “Scriptures and even canonical literature, because they are sources of authority that lie beyond our own individual whims, discipline our minds and tastes and compel us to have a share in the common sense of our people.”  Fleming and others in the Chronicles crowd often cite Irving Babbitt; this sentence of his could have come directly from any of Babbitt’s books.

All five of Fleming’s “Five Good Reasons” are summed up by Steve Martin:

The last page of each of these magazines is devoted to a column by Taki Theodoracopulos.  They are not the same column.  The difference between them shows the difference between the publications.  For The American Conservative, Taki praises Kate Middleton, who is supposed to marry an English prince.  Taki praises her for being lower-middle class, and therefore likely to have enough common sense to behave properly in her new role, unlike the feather-headed daughters of the aristocracy.  Readers of The American Conservative might find this unvarnished class-stereotyping provocative, and Taki’s stories of his social life among the royals exciting.

When it comes to crossing the boundaries of political correctness,  Chronicles readers are used to headier stuff.  So his column in that magazine does not praise future princesses.  Instead, he opens by mentioning that a man from Somalia was arrested in Oregon on terrorism charges, and goes on to ask “Why are Somalis, in particular, and Muslims, in general, allowed to immigrate over here?”  That question in itself is fairly standard fare for the pages of Chronicles; most contributors to the magazine, however, would not have included some of Taki’s rhetorical flourishes, such as his reference to the man arrested in Oregon as “the subhuman- his surname is Mohamud, what else?”  Talking with other readers of these two magazines, I sometimes complain about Taki and his obviously deliberate attempts to offend; uniformly, these readers say that they usually skip his page.

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