Highlights of some recent issues of The American Conservative

 It’s been a while since I’ve posted a “Periodicals Note” about my favorite “Old Right” read, The American Conservative.  So here are quick links to some good articles from the last four months.

Richard Gamble, author of the indispensable book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nationwrites an appreciation of the anti-imperialist essays of William Graham Sumner.  The magazine’s website carries one of these, an 1896 piece called “The Fallacy of Territorial Expansion.”   Sumner was a pivotal figure in my early intellectual development, not superseded as an influence until I came upon the writings of Irving Babbitt.  I am glad to see that Professor Gamble, who has studied Babbitt deeply, also shares my admiration for Sumner.  Not that Babbitt and Sumner would have had much use for each other, I hasten to add.  Sumner (1840-1910) the sociologist was contemptuous of classics and philosophy, proposing that both subjects be removed from the curriculum at Yale, while Babbitt (1865-1933) the humanist was impatient with the nascent social sciences of his day and proposed that those students at Harvard who were fit to study nothing else should be released with a three-year baccalaureate, while the first-rate men who could handle the traditional humanities might stay for a fourth year.  Both were right-wing critics of militarism, but that was a common enough combination in the USA in the early decades of the twentieth century that the two professors would have been unlikely to see it as a source of kinship.

Ron Unz remembers the late Alexander Cockburn, whose name has been a familiar one on this site from its beginning.  Not only have we mentioned Cockburn more frequently here than virtually any other commentator; we have disagreed with him less frequently, and agreed with him more fervently, than perhaps any other.

Two pieces in the September issue remember another distinguished dissident, Gore Vidal.  Bill Kauffmann discusses his correspondence with the great man, and Noah Millman reviews the current Broadway revival of Vidal’s play The Best Man.

Samuel Goldman writes about meritocracy, arguing that elites who can believe themselves to have earned their positions are worse for everyone than are elites that know themselves to be the heirs of multigenerational systems of governance.  The first time this idea occurred to me was in 1988, when I was observing the US presidential campaign between George H. W. Bush, scion of an old New England dynasty, and Michael Dukakis, son of hardworking immigrants.  I was happy to vote for Mr Dukakis, but could understand a friend of mine who looked at a newspaper photo of him playing the trumpet, asked “Have you ever noticed that Dukakis can do everything?,” and went on to cast a ballot for Mr Bush.

In the August issue, Ron Unz wrote an important piece called “Race, IQ, and Wealth,” in which he argued that the work of scholars Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen presents data that directly contradicts Professors Lynn and Vanhanen’s thesis that differences in average IQ among various ethnic groups are unlikely to vary over time and are largely attributable to biological differences among those groups.   Mr Unz goes so far as to say that “an objective review of the Lynn/Vanhanen data almost completely discredits the Lynn/Vanhanen ‘Strong IQ Hypothesis.'”  Professor Lynn replied to Mr Unz here, and Mr Unz rebutted him here.

In that same issue, Michael Brendan Dougherty presented an article about conservatives who have supported and continue to support Barack Obama.  I am neither a conservative nor a backer of Mr O, but Mr Dougherty is always worth reading.

A third piece from the August issue that I would recommend is William Lind’s “America Goes Jousting,” about the remarkably tenuous relationship between US military spending and US security interests.  Mr Lind reports a conversation he once had when he was a senior congressional staffer dealing with the defense budget.  An Air Force general asked him what use he was supposed to have for 18 B-2 bombers.  Mr Lind suggested towing them to county fairs and charging admission.  Mr Lind declares that it is nuclear weapons that keep the peace, and that the Marine Corps is likely sufficient to defeat any enemies the USA might be so imprudent as fight on land. He brands the rest of the US military an elaborate show, useless for national defense, a mere vessel for funneling tax dollars to workers in favored congressional districts and to investors well-connected on Capitol Hill.

A fourth is Michael Brendan Dougherty’s “Faith in the Flesh,” about a German court’s decision to forbid Jews from circumcising their sons.  Mr Dougherty examines the “human rights” doctrines behind this astounding ruling and traces them back to a conception of religion specific to the German Anabaptist movement.  From the Anabaptists, the idea has become widespread among Protestants that religious affiliation ought to be the result of an intellectual decision by an adult to accept certain propositions as true.   This idea is unknown in most of the world’s religious traditions, and was unknown to Christians before the German Reformation.  Even today, it is accepted by only a minority of Christians.  For most of the world, religion is about connections to people first, and affirmations of verbal statements somewhere later on.  So of course one inherits one’s religion from one’s parents.  A disproportionate share of the politicians, jurists, and intellectuals who crafted the doctrines known as “human rights” come from Protestant backgrounds, and take this peculiar idea for granted.  That’s how it is possible that German judges, successors of the very men most thoroughly discredited by their participation in the Holocaust, can quite sincerely fail to see an ethical problem in a ruling that would prohibit Jews from practicing Judaism in Germany.

Back in July, Stephen B. Tippins wrote a column about Fisher Ames, one of the founders of the United States.  Mr Tippins opens with a conversation he had with a friend who was puzzled as to why he would write about Ames.  The friend wanted to know how writing about Ames would help elect Willard “Mitt” Romney as president of the United States.  Mr Tippins didn’t suppose it would advance such a goal.  His friend could imagine no other justification for political writing than the promotion of Mr Romney’s fortunes.  Mr Tippins spends the rest of the piece arguing that readers who develop a proper appreciation of Ames’ work will face no such difficulty, and that they will come to have a view of what politics is for that does not revolve around any one man or any one office.

 June’s issue also contained some interesting pieces.  Sean Scallon contrasts Mr Romney’s career as a private equity operator with his father’s career as an industrialist and finds an ominous indication of the direction American capitalism has taken.

Rod Dreher writes about the growth of Orthodox Christianity in the USA, arguing that this shows that Americans of a conservative bent have grown dissatisfied not only with mainline Protestantism, but with the Roman Catholic church as well.  Certainly, if one takes the word “conservative” literally, the churches of the East are the most conservative parts of Christendom.  So it is not surprising that in a time when the word has such a cachet, Orthodox churches are growing rapidly, albeit from a very small base.*  As Mr Dreher reports:

Whatever role Orthodox Christians in America have to play in this drama, it will certainly be as a minuscule minority. In worldwide Christianity, Orthodoxy is second only to Roman Catholicism in the number of adherents. But in the United States, a 2010 census conducted by U.S. Orthodox bishops found only 800,000 Orthodox believers in this country—roughly equivalent to the number of American Muslims or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Yet converts keep coming, and they bring with them a revivifying enthusiasm for the faith of Christian antiquity. One-third of Orthodox priests in the U.S. are converts—a number that skyrockets to 70 percent in the Antiochian Orthodox Church, a magnet for Evangelicals. In the Greek Orthodox Church, around one-third of parishioners are converts, while just over half the members of the Orthodox Church in America came through conversion. For traditionalist conservatives among that number, Orthodoxy provides an experience of worship and a way of seeing the world that resonates with their deepest intuitions, in a way they cannot find elsewhere in American Christianity.

Also in June, W. James Antle reported on Virgil Goode, a former congressman from Virginia who is challenging Mr Romney from the right as the Constitution Party’s candidate for president.  I confess to being rather mystified as to what is motivating Mr Goode to run, and the Constitution Party to support him.  His views do not seem to be far from Mr Romney’s on any of the major issues of the day.  As a congressman, he supported the Iraq War, the so-called USA-PATRIOT Act, and many other measures that third parties left and right tend to view as steps toward tyranny.   He has yet to renounce any of those positions, though in Mr Antle’s eyes it is “clear that Goode’s positions were evolving in the Constitution Party’s direction” when he became the party’s presidential nominee.

*If that rings a bell, maybe you’ve been looking at this cartoon.

 

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