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.