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   Sumner was a pivotal figure in my early intellectual development, not superseded as an influence until I came upon the writings of Irving Babbitt.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.

 

Funny Times, January 2010

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” this month collects quotes on the theme of Washington, DC.  Ada Louise Huxtable’s line, “Washington is an endless series of mock palaces clearly built for clerks” catches a point I’ve often wanted to make.  The official part of Washington isn’t really a city at all, but something more like a theme park.  “Governmentland,” you might call it.  It isn’t particularly dignified for a country like the USA to have such an inherently silly place as its capital city.  I’ve often thought they should have left the capital in New York.  That way the federal government would be just one of many big enterprises in town, not the dominant thing as it is in DC.  Officials would be reminded that their doings are not in fact the center of the uiniverse.  Another quote in the column, Richard Goodwin’s remark that “People come to Washington believing it’s the center of power.  I know I did.  It was only much later that I learned that Washington is a steering wheel that’s not connected to the engine,” can’t have applied to New York when George Washington was sworn in as president there, or to Philadelphia earlier.  There was too much else going on for the political classes to delude themselves into a grossly exaggerated idea of their own importance.   

Many of the quotes Winokur collects are surprising.  For example, I would never have guessed that the remark “Washington isn’t a city, it’s an abstraction” came from Dylan Thomas.  It’s a good line, Thomas just isn’t someone I think of as a commentator on the US political scene.  Nor would I have thought of Peggy Noonan if you’d asked me to guess who came up with the line “The voters think Washington is a whorehouse and every four years they get a chance to elect a new piano player.”  It sounds like something Clare Booth Luce would have said when memories of this photo were still fresh in the public’s mind.  Elliott Richardson was sufficiently full of himself that he couldn’t come up with an effective response when Massachusetts State Senate president Billy Bulger mocked his campaign for governor with the line “Vote for Elliott Richardson.  He’s better than you.”  Still, it did take me aback to see that he had such a superior attitude that he would allow himself to say that “Washington is a city of cocker spaniels.  It’s a city of people who are more interested in being petted and admired, loved, than rendering the exercise of power.”  Personally, I’d choose love over “rendering the exercise of power” any day, but I guess that just shows that I’m not up to Elliott Richardson’s standards.  One line that I would have been able to identify is from Gore Vidal: “I date the end of the old republic and the birth of the empire to the invention, in the late 1930s, of air conditioning.  Before air conditioning, Washington was deserted from mid-June to September.  But after air conditioning and the Second World War arrived, more or less at the same time, Congress sits and sits while the presidents- or at least their staffs- never stop making mischief.”    

Elsewhere in the issue, there is a column of excerpts from Aaron Karo’s Ruminations.com; my favorite of these is “No, Microsoft Word, my name is not spelled wrong.”  There are a couple of good cartoons about the health care debate, including this one from Tom Tomorrow and this one from Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown.

The Nation, 27 October 2008

In this issue, George Scialabba givesa favorable review to The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal and Stuart Klawans recommends a number of new films, most notably Jia Zhangke’s 24 City.  Noteworthy is a paid supplement, “Steal Back Your Vote!,” a comic book about voting rights by Greg Palast and Robert F. Kennedy Junior.

More from the antiwar Right

The American Conservative, 8 September 2008

Two major articles deal with the fear that haunts many of the “Old Right” contributors to this publication, the fear that America is becoming dependent on foreign powers.  An obituary for Lieutenant General William Odom discusses the testimony the general gave to the US Senate in early April, in which he pointed out that US forces in Iraq depend “on a long and slender supply line from Kuwait, which runs through territory controlled by Shi’ite forces friendly to Iran” [a quote from the obituarist, not Odom’s own words.)  American service personnel in Iraq are therefore hostages at the disposal of Iran. 

Andrew Bacevich attacks American consumerism and its economic consequences.  Our insatiable appetite for luxuries, Bacevich argues, has saddled us with debts and a dependence on imported fuels that we can manage only by maintaining a constant war footing, while our wars serve only to increase our debts and deepen our dependence.   

The American Conservative, 25 August 2008

Remember George W Bush saying that the fall of Saddam Hussein meant that the “rape rooms” in his prisons would forever close?  Abu Ghraib made a sick joke out of that boast.  Well, the return of rape rooms wasn’t the end of it.  Since the current war began in March 2003, well over 2 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes.  Most of them left empty-handed.  How have they been surviving since?  Kelley Beaucar Vlahos shows how; tens of thousands of Iraqi women and girls have been forced into prostitution.  No one in authority is even collecting statistics about these victims of daily rape, much less trying to help them.   On the contrary, when it was revealed that a major US defense contractor was shuttling women and girls between Kuwait and Baghdad to be used as sex slaves, the story went nowhere.  The matter remained so obscure that even Vlahos misreports the name of the whistleblower who revealed it.  She calls him Bruce Halley.  His name is Barry Halley. 

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