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.

The return of The American Conservative

It’s been quite a few weeks since the appearance of the October 2010 issue of my favorite “Old Right” read, The American Conservative; I’d begun to fear that it would have no successor.  That particularly bothered me, as people who really should know better had in the interval set out to deny that an anti-militarist Right had ever existed.  Fortunately, the December issue is now up.

Highlights include George Scialabba’s piece on T. S. Eliot’s “revolutionary conservatism,” Justin Raimondo’s analysis of the Obama administration’s devastating impact on the antiwar Left that did so much to elect Mr O, and Bill Kauffman’s argument that the professional classes in the USA do not merely accept rootlessness and social isolation, but that they insist on it as a qualification for membership.  There is of course a heartfelt eulogy for the late Joseph Sobran, full of praise for Sobran’s principled antiwar conservatism, his quick wit, and his deep learning, though a bit skimpy on his rather less appealing habit of hobnobbing with Holocaust-deniers (a habit at least mentioned in this post on the magazine’s website.) 

Stephen Baskerville’s piece about gender-neutral marriage bears the promising title “Divorced from Reality: Don’t Blame Gays for the Decline of Marriage.”  Baskerville argues that “marriage creates fatherhood.”  Unlike Germaine Greer, who argued in The Female Eunuch that women should rise up against marriage in order to revoke “the gift of paternity” that the institution unjustifiably gave men, Baskerville sees in the social creation of paternity the chief justification for marriage.   He opposes gender-neutral marriage, as with much greater vehemence he opposes liberal divorce laws, precisely because such reforms threaten to deprive patriarchy of its charter.

No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation

Three paragraphs from Bill Kauffman’s column in the latest issue of The American Conservative:

The War Party called the Peace Party Nazis in 1941, Communists in 1951, Soviet dupes in 1961, dirty hippies in 1971 … must I go on? In 2011, those who heed George Washington’s counsel to seek “peace and harmony with all” will be called mullah-headed appeasers of Irano-fascism.

[snip]

Blame war. Blame TV. Blame the nationalization of political discourse, as regional variations and individual peculiarities are washed away by the generic slime of poli-talk shows. Radicals—even naïve Tea Partiers or idealistic left-wing kids—are dehumanized in ways unthinkable when America was a free country. No one was barred from the conversation back when there was a conversation. No dispatch ever read, “Wingnut Henry David Thoreau today issued a manifesto from his compound near Walden Pond…”

[snip]

The squeezing out even of establishment dissent—especially since 9/11—has left us with an antiwar movement so feeble it makes the Esperanto lobby look like the AARP. Enter the new organization Come Home, America, its name taken from the magnificent 1972 acceptance speech delivered by George McGovern in the last unscripted Democratic convention.

I don’t agree that there was ever a time in the USA when “no one was excluded from the conversation”; when Thoreau published Walden in 1854, after all, chattel slavery existed in 15 states, women’s suffrage in none, and the one thing every US voter could support was war against Native Americans.  That said, Come Home, America and its goal of a left-right coalition against militarism seem to be worth a cheer or two.

Some hide themselves, and some are hidden; some are forgotten, and some forget themselves

July’s issue of The American Conservative features a piece by Sydney Schanberg arguing that American prisoners of war were left over in Vietnam after direct US involvement in the war there ended in the early 1970s.  Several other pieces pick up on Schanberg’s claims, drawing various dire conclusions about the nature of the political leadership in the USA.   

In October 2008, The Nation ran an article in which Schanberg made this same case.  I noted that article here, remarking that I had never given that idea much credence, but that I was impressed by what Schanberg wrote.  Amid the pro-Schanberg pieces in this issue of The American Conservative is a short article by Gareth Porter titled “The evidence doesn’t stack up.”  Unlike the readers who wrote The Nation to protest the appearance of Schanberg’s piece there , Porter does not list his credentials as a scholar of the US military involvement in Vietnam.  Also unlike them, he does not declare himself to be displeased that the topic is being discussed.  Most profoundly unlike them, he looks at Schanberg’s evidence and judges it on its merits.  Indeed, the only way in which Porter resembles the outraged letter writers of The Nation is that he finds Schanberg’s case entirely unconvincing.  Porter argues that the document to which Schanberg has attached the greatest weight is almost certainly a forgery, and in any case doesn’t say what Schanberg claims it says.   Porter goes on to find many other faults with Schanberg’s argument. 

Something that is, I think, quite well-founded appears in Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to the discussion:

Like slavery or the Holocaust, Vietnam is part of the past not yet fully consigned to the past.

The practice of publicly displaying the POW/MIA flag testifies to this fact. On the one hand, it represents a lingering communal acknowledgment of loss and more broadly of massive national failure. On the other, it sustains the pretense—utterly illusory—that a proper accounting, not only of the missing but of the entire Vietnam experience, is still forthcoming. “You deserve to be brought home,” the flag implicitly states, “And we deserve to know why you were sent in the first place.”

Yet to undertake a serious accounting would find Americans facing a plethora of discomfiting truths, not only about the knaves and fools who concocted the Vietnam War but about the American way of life and the premises on which it is based. Tell the whole truth about Vietnam and you crack open a door that few Americans wish to peer behind. To do so is to come face-to-face with troubling questions about the meaning of freedom and democracy as actually practiced in the United States.

Few Americans are willing to confront such questions, the answers to which could oblige us to revise the way we live. So we salve our consciences by flying flags, sustaining the pretense that we care when what we desperately want to do is to forget as much as possible.

In the same issue, Paul Gottfried finds it odd that many Americans who stand on the political Right are so fond of calling their opponents “fascists” and of claiming that fascism was a left-wing movement.  Gottfried is himself very, very conservative in his politics.  Much as he might like to disassociate himself and his fellow Rightists from the taint of fascism, Gottfried also has a scholarly reputation and a lifetime of intellectual integrity, both of which he would like to preserve.  Gottfried lists a number of facts which, he says, make it impossible for a serious person of any disposition to see fascism as anything other than a phenomenon of the extreme Right, and ridicules those who disregard these facts.    

If the idea of fascism as a leftist movement is so ludicrous, why does it have so much support among American right-wingers?  Gottfried gives four possible reasons.  First, Leftists who keep their cool when they are accused of being Communists or utopians tend to sputter and look silly when they hear themselves being called fascists.  While this might be fun for conmservatives who are frustrated to meet opponents who don’t take their ideas seriously, Gottfried says that “only a cultural illiterate could believe that interwar fascists were intent on pursuing a massive welfare state centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles, and whatever else the latter-day Left is about.”    

Second, some American right-wingers in the 1930s “had a very limited understanding of the European Right or the European Left” and so “made the unwarranted leap from thinking that all forms of economic planning were unacceptable to believing that all were virtually identical.”  Thus they came to believe that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt, the Five-Year Plans of Stalin, and the corporatism of Mussolini were three names for the same thing.  Those thinkers started a tradition that is still alive and well in some circles in today’s USA. 

Third, the use of “fascism” as an all-purpose term of abuse represents an appeal to the argumentum ad Hitlerem, in which any resemblance between one’s opponent and Adolf Hitler, no matter how superficial or strained, is treated as if it released one from the obligation to answer that opponent’s claims.  Fourth, by attempting to brand what Gottfried calls “the latter-day Left” as fascist, the latter-day Right can pretend to be more different than it in fact is from its opposition.  

I can think of a fifth possible reason.  American economic analyst Lawrence Dennis became notorious in the 1930s and 1940s for a series of books in which he argued that market-driven capitalism was doomed, and that representative democracy would go down with it.  The economic system of the future, Dennis decided, was one in which capitalists retained nominal ownership and day-to-day control of the means of production, but government coordinated their activities.  The political system that would go along with this corporatist economy might be dressed up to look like a democracy, but would in fact be dominated by an elite that would remain in power regardless of the outcome of any elections that might be held.  To keep the public in support of this system and to keep the money supply from contracting, the elite would likely encourage an attitude of militant nationalism and a warlike foreign policy.  This system Dennis called fascism. 

 Dennis consistently said that when fascism came to America, it would not be called by that name.  Rather, it would be marketed as a new form of democracy, as the very antidote to fascism.  He predicted that he himself would be among the first dissidents prosecuted once the USA had become fascist.  Indeed, in 1944 Dennis was put on trial for sedition.  The prosecution collapsed, and Dennis wrote a book about it

In his 1969 book Operational Thinking for Survival, Dennis reviewed the arguments he had made in the 1930s and early 1940s.  He concluded that his predictions had been substantially correct.  Avoiding the word “fascism,” he wrote that our current political and economic system “is one that has no generally accepted name.” 

So, perhaps the reason Left and Right are so eager to fling the word “fascism” at each other is that each is haunted by the fear that it is powerless to keep the country from becoming fascist.  For all that Rightists might long to restore the Old Republic and Leftists might long to create a new system “centered on the achievement of social equality, with special protection for racial minorities, feminists, alternative lifestyles,” each looks on helplessly as events make a mockery of these ambitions.  Whatever success each side might have in its attempts to promote its vision of freedom, the movement towards fascism goes on relentlessly.

The American Conservative, June 2010

I’m a strange sort of American, one of a handful who has reached middle age without ever having read To Kill a Mockingbird or seen the movie based on it.  Evidently Bill Kauffman also avoided the novel in high school, but has since read it repeatedly and “seen the movie 20 times.”  He makes a fine case for both.   Apostle of “placefulness” that he is, Kauffman defends the book against the charge that it is  “the Southern novel for people who hate the South” by saying that Alabaman Harper Lee is one of a long line of American writers who have shown that “the harshest criticisms of any place come from those who truly love and belong to it.”  Kauffman puts her in the company of “Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, William Appleman Williams, Sinclair Lewis, and Edward Abbey.”  He quotes his favorite line from the novel, noble defense attorney Atticus Finch’s injunction to his daughter to “remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.” 

Lest we forget that the magazine is a populist right-wing journal called The American Conservative, Kauffman uses the word “liberal” to mean “self-important hypocritical scold,” as when he writes of that the movie’s “occasional cringe-inducing moments of liberal fantasy- as when the black citizenry, packing the segregated courtroom balcony, stands as one when Atticus passes by- I chalk up, perhaps unfairly, to the vanity of Gregory Peck… Peck’s sanctimony works very well in the film, however; it infuses, rather than embalms, Atticus Finch.” 

My own favorite specimen of the fantasy life of 1960s US liberalism is Star Trek, and Kauffman works a mention of that series into his column.  Praising child actor John Megna, he tells us that Megna would later “chant ‘bonk bonk on the head’ in a famous Star Trek episode.”  I would only point out that the episode in question, “Miri,” is really much better than the line “bonk bonk on the head!” might suggest.   Kauffman’s devotion to the importance of place may inhibit his appreciation of a TV show about people wandering around the galaxy in a spaceship, and his aversion to self-important hypocritical scolds may also get in the way of his enjoyment of Star Trek

Attorney Chase Madar scrutinizes the legal thought of Harold H. Koh, former dean of the Yale Law School, chief legal advisor to the US Department of State, and very likely to be an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court before many more years have passed.  Mr Koh is a renowned expert on international law, which in Madar’s words is supposed to be “much more civilized than mere national law.”  In a recent address to the American Society for International Law, Mr Koh defended the USA’s use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or “drones,” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries where people might be found whom the Obama administration would like to kill.  The same speech praises in glowing terms the administration’s policy of detaining suspected terrorists without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram Air Force Base, and other locations around the world.  In Madar’s words, “Koh’s lecture- warmly applauded by the conventioneers- demonstrates once again the amazing elasticity of international law when it comes to the prerogatives of great powers.”  Madar’s article is titled “How Liberals Kill”; again, the sense of “liberal” here seems to be self-important hypocritical scold. 

A review of Garry Wills’ new book about official secrecy and the US national security state includes a line that reminds me of one of my favorite phrases, C. Wright Mills’ “crackpot realism.”  “Insiders to the world of secrecy loved the idea that they had access to special high-quality knowledge, but as often as not they were victims of wishful thinking, gulled by confidence tricksters  and fake experts.”  Ushered into an exclusive world of secrets and power, people often do become intoxicated by their situation and overly impressed by each other.  As a result of this intoxication, people who might under other circumstances be relied on to show excellent judgment may very well make unbelievably foolish decisions.  Mills developed the concept of crackpot realism in a book called The Causes of World War Three; that title shows just how far he thought the foolishness of such groups could take us.

The American Conservative, May 2010

Can left-wing opponents of the American Empire join with right-wing defenders of the Old Republic to build an effective antiwar movement in the USA?  Fourteen authors, including leftists like Paul Buhle and Matthew Yglesias and rightists like Paul Gottfried and John Lukacs, consider the question.     

The cover image, representing a face-off between Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu, is a bit of an absurdity.  These two men disagree on certain issues and cannot afford to ignore one another, but they are neither adversaries in world affairs nor equal in international influence.  This absurdity strikes me as out of place.  The American Conservative‘s  line about Israel/ Palestine seems simply to be that the USA should moderate its support of Israel; some of the magazine’s contributors might go so far as to advocate a policy of complete neutrality between Israel and its Arab antagonists, while others would recommend that the USA continue its substantive support of Israel, but would counsel American officials to tone down some of their more overheated Zionist preachments.  Most contributors are located somewhere between these viewpoints.  That range of opinion hardly qualifies the magazine as extremist, yet the cover image and article titles such as “Normalizing Relations” (about Mr O’s willingness “to take on America’s most influential ally”), “Out From the Shadows” (in which we are told that the American-Israel Political Action Committee now “confronts its worst fear: daylight,”) and “Can We Avoid Israel’s War?” (about US-Iran relations)suggest the overwrought tone that we expect from the fringes of the debate. 

The issue includes a reprint of a story by the late Louis Auchincloss, “America First,” originally published in Auchincloss’ collection Skinny Island.  Set in 1941, it tells the story of Elaine Wagstaff, a rich old American lady who was driven from her adopted home in Paris when the Germans overran France and moved in with her grown daughter Suzanne in New York.  Elaine’s friends are ardent advocates of US intervention to aid Britain in its fight against the Third Reich; Suzanne’s social circle are equally ardent in their opposition to such intervention.  At first, Elaine goes along with her daughter and joins the America First Committee, an organization which did in fact exist and which was at its peak the largest antiwar group the USA has ever seen (including such members as Auchincloss’ kinsman Gore Vidal.)  Elaine finds the America Firsters so uncouth compared to her Francophile friends that she eventually finds she cannot tolerate their company.  Elaine turns away from Suzanne and Suzanne’s friends, returning to her old circle and their interventionist views. 

The fascinating thing about this story is how little the characters’ political allegiances have to do with any of the ostensible reasons people usually give to justify them.  None of them really cares very much about who rules Europe or what happens to the people who live there.  Suzanne recoils from her son-in-law’s antisemitism, not because she cares at all about the fate of Europe’s Jews, but because in her circles antisemitism “was ‘hick’: one could not be bigoted and ‘top-drawer.'”  Nor does any character show a very clear idea of what the national interest of the United States might require.  Each character has devised a little drama in his or her head in which s/he plays the leading role and each of the others is assigned a supporting part.  Elaine’s fascination with France has been a bitter disappointment to Suzanne; Suzanne’s staid absorption in American high society has been a disappointment to Elaine.  Suzanne has scripted a drama in which Elaine will make a lifetime of disappointments up to her by playing a supporting role.  Politics is to her merely the stage on which this drama will play out.  Conversely, Elaine is attached to her old friends and to their shared fantasy of a life in the upper reaches of French society.  When she chooses interventionism, she is in fact choosing them and that fantasy.  Through most of the story The last line of the story is It is an ugly story, in a way, but one that rings true.    

An article about the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) cites numerous publications over the years that have exposed the SPLC as a racket that does virtually nothing to advance its stated aim of battling white supremacists, but a great deal to enrich its leaders.  There doesn’t seem to be anything new in this piece, but it might be useful to have several exposés all cited in one place.   

Bill Kauffman’s column calls on the people of Idaho to embrace a writer who was born in their state and spent most of his life there, Vardis Fisher (1895-1968.)  Kauffman lists two books by the late Mr Fisher that sound interesting, a novel called Mountain Man and the WPA‘s Guide to Idaho.  He also mentions Fisher’s novelistic history of the world in twelve volumes that “drove away most of his modest readership.”  Acknowledging that Fisher’s defense of free-market capitalism and rebellion against his Mormon upbringing left him “almost a parody of the cantankerous libertarian/ village atheist,” Kauffman argues that he deserves remembering as a placeful man, who stayed in Idaho and devoted himself to the spirit of that place when he might have gone to the metropolis and lived for money and fame.

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.

Can the USA become a normal country again?

 

He wanted to to return to normalcy

I posted a “Periodicals Note” about The American Conservative‘s March issue a few weeks ago, then realized I’d never put one up for the February issue.  That’s a shame, because there was a lot of great stuff in it. 

I loved this line, a quote from Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute: “Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.”

Ted Galen Carpenter sums up The American Conservative‘s whole worldview with the opening paragraphs of his piece titled “New War Order.”   So I’ll quote them in extenso:

For a fleeting moment 20 years ago, the United States had the chance to become a normal nation again. From World War II through the collapse of European communism in 1989, America had been in a state of perpetual war, hot or cold. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of that could have changed. There were no more monsters to destroy, no Nazi war machine or global communist conspiracy. For the first time in half a century, the industrialized world was at peace.

Then in December 1989, America went to war again—this time not against Hitler or Moscow’s proxies but with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Tensions between George H.W. Bush’s administration and Noriega’s government had been mounting for some time and climaxed when a scuffle with Panamanian troops left an American military officer dead. On Dec. 20, U.S. forces moved to oust and arrest Noriega. Operation Just Cause, as the invasion was called, came less than a month after the Berlin Wall fell, and it set America on a renewed path of intervention. The prospect of reducing American military involvement in other nations’ affairs slipped away, thanks to the precedent set in Panama.

How real was the opportunity to change American foreign policy at that point? Real enough to worry the political class. Wyoming Sen. Malcolm Wallop lamented in 1989 that there was growing pressure to cut the military budget and that Congress was being overwhelmed by a “1935-style isolationism.” But the invasion of Panama signaled that Washington was not going to pursue even a slightly more restrained foreign policy.

That the U.S. would topple the government of a neighbor to the south was hardly unprecedented, of course. The United States had invaded small Caribbean and Central American countries on numerous occasions throughout the 20th century. Indeed, before the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in the 1930s, Washington routinely overthrew regimes it disliked.

During the Cold War, however, such operations always had a connection to the struggle to keep Soviet influence out of the Western Hemisphere. The CIA-orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954 and the military occupations of the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 all matched that description. Whatever other motives may have been involved, the Cold War provided the indispensable justification for intervention. And for all the rhetoric about democracy and human rights that U.S. presidents employed during the struggle against communism, there was no indication that Washington would later revert to the practice of coercing Latin American countries merely, in Woodrow Wilson’s infamous words, to teach those societies “to elect good men.” Thus the invasion of Panama seemed a noticeable departure. Odious though he may have been, Noriega was never a Soviet stooge.

(more…)

How to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”

If only Robert A. Taft were still alive...

The March issue of The American Conservative notices a reissue of Russell Kirk’s The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft.  Taft, long the Republican Party’s leader in the US Senate, opposed US entry into the Second World War; that was a common position on the American Right before 7 December 1941.  Unlike many of the conservatives who had been reluctant to commit the USA to war with Germany, Taft continued to resist the creation of a militarized superstate after America’s would-be warlords shifted their attentions from the defeated Germany to the insurgent Communist powers.  

Taft never accepted the premises of the Cold War.  He led opposition to the formation of NATO, faulted President Truman for ignoring the Constitution and sending US troops into the Korean War without congressional authorization, argued against the doctrine of “collective security,” demanded reductions in military spending, and in 1950 braved widespread derision to predict that if the US continued the interventionist policies of the day, American troops might someday be sent to war in some preposterous place like Vietnam.  Not even Taft would dare to incite the laughter that would greet a warning that Americans might someday be sent to make war in Afghanistan. 

When Taft died, the New Bedford, Massachusetts Standard Times said that he had left a void that the Republican Party would never fill.  While there might still be a political group under that name for many years to come, it was destined to be a “faceless, slinking thing” for want of a man like Senator Taft.  I don’t suppose we can call today’s Republicans “faceless,” and their spokesmen are more likely to strut and preen than to slink, at least when the cameras are on them.  But their unfailing support of ever-larger military budgets and an ever-wider scope of authority for the government headquartered in Washington DC would have struck Taft and his coevals as the very opposite of conservative. 

You might think that cultivating a cheerful outlook and making a consistent effort to show that cheerfulness would be a sure way to avoid becoming a “faceless, slinking thing.”  But depending on what brings you to those habits, they may have the opposite effect.  Self-declared misanthrope Florence King reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.   King begins with Ehrenreich’s description of her time as a breast-cancer patient, a time spent in a world slathered with pink and buried under teddy bears.  While breast-cancer professionals may intend to create a space where women can feel free to let go of burdens that might get in the way of their healing, what they have actually brought about suggests to Ehrenreich and to King not a liberation from troubles, but an exile from adult womanhood.  Relentless cutesiness infantilizes women, while “The emphasis placed on industrial-strength cheerfulness also [leads] to victim-blaming… and self-punishing guilt… Ehrenreich soon discovered that ‘dissent is a form of treason.’  One day she posted hers on an online message board and heard back ‘You need to run, not walk, to some counseling.'”  It wasn’t enough she had to be in medical treatment to be freed of cancer, she was also supposed to go into psychological treatment to be brought into conformity with the prescribed attitudes.  

When a person is diagnosed with a major disease, the number and variety of people who wield power over that person often increases dramatically.  Suddenly, one is dependent on the good conduct of health-care professionals and the goodwill of friends and relatives.  Such an experience of subjection can be quite demoralizing all by itself.  Added to the suffering and weakness that disease inflicts on the body, this subjection might be enough to teast any person’s mettle.  If one’s new masters use their power to force one to display cheerfulness amid the agonies of disease, one might well be stripped of one’s dignity, and feel like a “faceless, slinking thing.” 

I suppose people who wield power might themselves become “faceless, slinking things.”  That was the point the New Bedford editorialist was making about the post-Taft Republican Party, that under the leadership of Dwight Eisenhower that party had come to echo the Democrats’ will to make war abroad and centralize authority at home.  Traditional conservatives had traded their principled opposition to statism, and with it their dignity, for a chance to play the role of Caesar in the new drama of empire.  One statesman who seems to have thought along lines that Senator Taft might have favored was George Ball, who was undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  A piece in this issue carries the subhed “From Vietnam to Palestine, George Ball got it right.”  Taft and Taftians may well have thought Ball was right, but did he escape the fate of becoming a “faceless, slinking thing”?  This question haunts the piece.   

(more…)

The American Conservative, December 2009

Florence-King

Florence King

Fifteen writers list “The Best Books You Haven’t Read“; I don’t know about you, but the only one on any of the lists that I had read was Sam Tanenhaus’ pick, The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham.  And that one did not make a very good impression; it struck me as one part dumbed-down Max Weber and three parts shameless plagiarism from Lawrence Dennis.  The other books all sound good, though.  In particular, David Bromwich’s recommendations of two stories by Elizabeth Bowen (“Mysterious Kor” and “Sunday Afternoon”) sent me to the library.  And I always take notice when Florence King speaks; she recommends Kathleen Winsor’s Star Money, which upon its publication in 1950 was received as quasi-pornography.  That first edition sold extremely well, but garnered just one respectful review.  Granted, that review was by André Maurois, which may have taken some of the sting out of the rejection by the other critics.   

Florence King also comes to my mind whenever the name of Ayn Rand is mentioned, and in this issue a piece discusses Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged.  King’s review of a biography of Rand, reprinted in her With Charity Toward None, quotes a line of Rand’s about how it feels to be a truly creative individual confronted with the unreasoning hatred of lesser beings.  Read the line again, King says, and you’ll realize that it is a very apt description what it’s like to be on the receiving end of any kind of senseless prejudice.  King surmises that Rand, who spent her girlhood as a Jew in late-Tsarist St Petersburg, had found “a way to write about anti-semitism without ever mentioning the Jews.”  That’s a neat trick. 

Nor is it the whole of Rand’s appeal.  Her extreme individualism may not stand up to philosophical analysis, and it may not survive exposure to any well-developed social science.  But what she tries to offer is something that is urgently needed in today’s world.  Look at the USA.  Ever more of the young are in schools, ever more of the old are in nursing homes, ever more of those in-between are in prisons.  At this rate every American will eventually be an inmate in one or another such institution, always an object of service, of scrutiny, of control.  One will create nothing, own nothing, decide nothing.  The major political parties don’t seem to object to this trend; on the contrary, both are committed to accelerating it.  The Democrats promise better accommodations to inmates; the Republicans remind them that the institutions in which they are confined have to turn a profit.  Rand may not have known how to stop this trend, but at least she demanded that it should be stopped.   

(more…)