The American Conservative, 23 February 2009

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Daniel McCarthy chronicles the American Right’s shift from the skepticism about the office of US President that fueled the principled critique of excessive presidential power that thinkers like James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall sustained in the middle decades of the twentieth century to the abject presidentialism of the Bush/ Cheney Republicans.  McCarthy does not suggest an agenda for curbing the power of the presidency; still less does he express agreement with my favorite idea, abolishing the office.  He does not even hope for a return to the arrangement of the nineteenth century, when the Congress was the senior partner in the leadership of the federal government.  The wish he does express is that conservatives will once more express a wish for a return to those days.   

Richard N. Gamble, author of the magnificent book The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity The Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation and of a neat article about Irving Babbitt’s view of Abraham Lincoln, reviews several  recent books about Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy.  Most interesting to me were Gamble’s remarks about What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy, by Malcolm D. Magee.  The key paragraph is this:

Magee gets Wilson largely right, but one further refinement of his analysis would have been helpful in connecting American Christianity and the “faith-based foreign policy” of the subtitle. It is not enough to say that Wilson was a Calvinist or a Presbyterian. Wilson, as Magee’s evidence makes clear, was a particular kind of Calvinist and Presbyterian. He adhered to a branch of Calvinism that tried to reorder every institution by bringing it under Christ’s dominion. Magee refers to “the Presbyterian tradition,” but it is doubtful there ever has been anything so unified in American history. Wilson owed his view of the church and the world not to confessional Presbyterianism but to the transformationist strand of evangelicalism that came to dominate mainstream Presbyterianism in the late 19th century. Wilson imbibed an activist faith that in many ways distorted historic Presbyterianism. He rejected creedal, confessional Presbyterianism. In order to understand his foreign policy, then, we must understand not his Presbyterian roots in general, but the fact that he emerged from a branch of Protestantism that had more in common with low-church, sentimental, meliorist evangelicalism than with historically Reformed Christianity. Magee fills in an important dimension of Wilson’s thought and personality, but finding the precise faith on which Wilson based his foreign policy requires that the story of American Christianity be told a bit differently.

Kirkpatrick Sale reviews a novel by Carolyn Chute, The School on Heart’s Content Road.  In a fictional town in a rural Maine, a commune full of aging hippies form an unlikely alliance with the local underemployed rednecks.  Forming a militia, they decide that the only way for Mainers to reclaim their freedoms is to secede from the USA.  Since Chute is herself a member of the real-life 2nd Maine Militia and an advocate of the dissolution of the USA, it is perhaps surprising that the militiamen are an unimpressive bunch whose revolt peters out into drunkenness and random fornication.  But not so surprising that she promises a series of four sequels. 

Bill Kauffman goes to his favorite gun show and reports that the American Left is missing a fertile recruiting ground there.  The attendees are “working and rural citizens who are pro-Bill of Rights, anti-corporatist, and open to radical alternatives.”

The American Conservative, 15 December 2008

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

George Frost Kennan, by Ned Seidler

Several pieces this time despair of any prospect that traditionalist conservatism will reassert itself as a force to be reckoned with in American politics.  What, then, do the writers for this traditionalist publication believe is to be done? 

At least two of them seem to think that the time may have come to give up on the USA altogether.  Bill Kauffman writes an admiring piece about Kirkpatrick Sale’s Third North American Secessionist Convention, singling out for praise the doughty Yankees of the Second Vermont Republic, who want to break away from the continental Leviathan in the name of Ethan Allen, Robert Frost, and maple syrup.  A review of Lee Congdon’s George Kennan: A Writing Life includes remarks on Kennan’s argument in his late work Around the Cragged Hill that the USA is too big for anyone’s good and should be broken into smaller constituent republics. 

Elsewhere, a letter to the editor takes issue with those who claim that neoconservative advocates of the 2003 invasion of Iraq could have been so foolish as actually to have believed the sorts of things they said in public at that time.  The correspondent asks the magazine to “spare me the ‘neocons were dumb to believe Iraq would turn into Ohio’ nonsense.  These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet, weren’t convinced of something a 10-year old knew?  Please.  It’s nice to imagine that some massively dumb, partially blind, amazing social phenomena led us into this debacle, but the truth seems simpler and more banal: the neocons didn’t care and neither did we.” 

The fallacy here seems obvious.  “These grown-up guys, smart enough to become advisors to the political leadership of the most powerful military on the planet”- that’s an impressive description.  The correspondent is right to be impressed, we should be impressed as well.  But keep in mind, every one of the members of that group was at least as impressed by his or her colleagues as we are.  Sitting at a table surrounded by such people, who would dare be the first to say something radically different from what the others were saying?  Unless someone goes first and breaks the spell, a roomful of extremely competent people can march blindly into mistakes any well-informed individual, sometimes any normal 10-year old, could have warned them against.  Many policymakers are acutely aware of this danger; indeed, when President Truman made George Kennan head of policy planning at the US  State Department in the late 1940’s he explicitly defined Kennan’s job as speaking up against the preconceptions under which others were laboring and breaking the spell of those preconceptions.


The American Conservative, 3 November 2008

The cover of this issue features caricatures of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, advertising 18 short pieces by various contributors explaining how they reacted to the presence of that pair as candidates for US president.  Of those 18, 4 expressed support for Obama, 3 for McCain, 2 for Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, 2 for Libertarian Party nominee Bob Barr, 1 each for non-candidates Ward Connerly and Ron Paul, and the remaining 5 backed no one

John Schwenkler reports from the Middlebury Institute’s Third North American Secessionist Conference in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Headed by old-time New Left leader Kirkpatrick Sale, the Middlebury Institute gives equal footing to far left groups like the Second Vermont Republic and far right groups like the League of the South, much to the dismay of bien-pensant liberals.  Sale and company argue that “the so-called American Revolution… was a war of secession, not a revolt” and that separatism has a long history in American history, a history reaching far beyond the late unpleasantness between the states.  Schwenkler quotes Emory University philosopher Donald Livingston, a scholar of the Scottish Enlightenment who has apparently turned in recent years to Aristotle’s Politics and its emphasis on the proper scale of human communities.  Aristotle might have argued that the United States is simply too big to do any good.  Aristotle followed Plato in his belief that there was an appropriate size for a human society, that too small a group would be doomed to perpetual poverty while too large a group would lack any real bond of community.  This focus on the need for human communities to be built on a human scale has been one of the recurring themes in political theory ever since.  Because Livingston has spoken harsh words against Abraham Lincoln and the centralization of power in Washington that followed the Civil War, he has occasionally been smeared as a racist. 

Austin Bramwell argues that conservatives would be better off if there were no conservative political movement.  One may be tempted to add that in this they are like everyone else.  Bramwell’s claim is that what conservative intellectuals have to offer is something of value to independent minded individuals, but useless as a battle cry for partisans.  As examples of the kind of conservative intellectuals he has in mind, Bramwell offers Joseph Schumpeter, Jane Jacobs, Tom Wolfe, Jacques Barzun, Noam Chomsky, E. O Wilson, and Steven Pinker.  Bramwell classifies Schumpeter as conservative for precisely the reason so many on the right are uncomfortable with him today, his support for a “semi-feudal, mixed constitution” that would act to temper capitalism.  Jacobs self-identification as a leftist does not trouble Bramwell; her focus on the need for society to be constituted on a human scale and her opposition to centralized planning put her in his camp.  Chomsky, Wilson, and Pinker make the list because of the defenses each has offered for the idea that human behavior has biological bases that social planning cannot overwrite.  Indeed, Bramwell turns Chomsky’s ceaseless denunciations of US foreign policy into a conservative credential by pointing out that “Chomsky describes his politics as an attack on social engineering as he perceives it.” 

Howard Anglin reviews Marilynn Robinson’s novel Home, declaring that “Without artists like Robinson, without books like Home and the institutions they celebrate, our civilization cannot last long… If Marilynn Robinson is a liberal, then America needs more liberals.”  Considering that the review opens by quoting Robinson’s 2004 statement that “I am myself a liberal,” this last sentence would seem rather odd in a magazine called The American Conservative.  The rest of the quote (from her 2004 essay “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion” ) shows that she is about as conservative as Noam Chomsky and Kirkpatrick Sale:

I am myself a liberal.  By that I mean I believe that society exists to nurture and liberate the human spirit, and that large-mindedness and openhandedness are the means by which these things are to be accomplished.  I am not ideological.


Chronicles (four issues)

My subscription to this ultra-ultra conservative publication ran out a couple of years ago, but they keep sending it to me nonetheless.  I suppose they really mean it when they say they believe in tradition. 

November 2007: Gregory McNamee remembers his friend Edward Abbey, alternately acknowledging his faults (“Was he a racist?  Undoubtedly, at least after a fashion”), even praising him for what others might regard as faults (the fact that Abbey “never bothered himself with developing a coherent politics apart from that most old-school of tenets: The individual trumps the collectivity, the collectivity is always suspect, freedom is the sine qua non of existence, the world is a fine place and worth fighting for.”)  Lefalcon’s idol Srdja Trifkovic compares the current phase of the US occupation of Iraq to the USSR’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Ted Galen Carpenter analyzes likely consequences of Kosovo’s “independence,” bringing up the six members of the Kosovo Liberation Army caught planning to attack Fort Dix. 

January 2008: Clyde Wilson looks at what it would mean if the USA were indeed a “Proposition Nation” as some like to say, finding that the consequences of such a belief are quite brutal; Kirkpatrick Sale argues that the time has come for the states to secede from the USA; Sale and Tobias Lanz sympathetically review books propounding a new agrarian vision; and Srdja Trifkovic finds the American Empire compromised, even paralyzed, on every front, and concludes that the best thing for the USA would be for this paralysis to continue indefinitely.

February 2008: Leon Hadar looks at calls for Washington to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and finds “Another Middle East Fantasy.”  “America’s role as facilitator of a potential peace accord [can] only be achieved if and when the Israelis and Palestinians reach the conclusion that the costs of continuing to fight have become so high that they require agonizing compromises over Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, and the Israeli settlements.”  For all its influence, the American government is in no position to create a situation from which this cost-benefit anaysis would flow.  A recent case of “Honor Killing” in Canada, coupled with the Canadian establishment’s panicked attempts to prevent public discussion of the case, prompts a brief note calling for “more open debate in Canada” about immigration policy.  Chronicles editor (and classics PhD) Thomas Fleming discusses neoconservative ideas about domesticating Islam and taming Muslims, finding these ideas to be delusions that have issued in disaster, most recently in Kosovo’s “independence.”  Gregory McNamee provides a miniature biography of Billy the Kid, a surprisingly fresh and informative little sketch.  Roger D. McGrath writes about his favorite western movies, Clay Reynolds about his least-favorite specimens of the same genre.  Taki Theodoracopulos tells a story about an English judge who fined him the equivalent of $400,000 for the offense of explaining the origins of some words derived from Greek.  John Willson reviews a favoriable biography of Senator Joe McCarthy, adding hgis own fervent commendation.  Andrei Navrozov explains his multiple marriages by quoting an alleged Russian proverb to the effect that a man should marry three times- the first time for no reason, the second time for love, the third for love.  And Srdja Trifkovic finds in Kosovo’s “independence” a catastrophe of global dimensions.   

March 2008: Gregory McNamee discusses the immiseration of the average Mexican over the last few decades, connecting it to the mass migration of her citizens northward.  McNamee argues that this migration is not only a result of Mexico’s declining standard of living, but in several ways a cause of it.  William Lutz reports on educational controversies in Texas.  Taki provides his usual story of boozy life among the jet set, then tacks on some chilling facts about Kosovo.  A review of Chilton Williamson’s Immigration and the American Future focuses on ways in which mass migration of unskilled workers increases economic inequality.  A review of a biography of Dick Cheney appears under the headline “A Self-Made (Mad)Man.”  And Joseph E. Fallon points out the similarities between the ongoing massacres in the Sudanese region of Darfur and the Ethiopian region of Ogaden.  “Why the outrage over Darfur, but not over Ogaden?  There are three reasons: Islam, oil, and China.”