November 10, 2009
As one might surmise, one doesn’t get rich by serving the HL Mencken Club. Unlike other organizations, which have claimed the “conservative” label, belonging to our club is not a ladder to social acceptability or a means of increasing one’s income or deferred annuity allowance. Investing time and energy in an organization like ours is not a wise career move but something reminiscent of the fate that Mustafa Kemal thought would await Turkish troops as they prepared for the British attack at Gallipoli in 1915: “I am not asking you to stand and fight here; I am asking you to die in your tracks.” I doubt that even my favorite American military commander, the grim Stonewall Jackson, would have given his cavalry troops orders that were as bleak as this. But this is what the future founder of the Turkish republic said to his soldiers. I mention this not because I intend to order anyone to his death, but because I”m underlining the extraordinary dedication shown by those who have joined our ranks.
I”m especially impressed by those young people who are here. To say they have embraced the non-authorized Right indicates more than simply an ideological address. It betokens their willingness to become non-authorized dissenters, that is, to turn their backs on the characteristically stale conversations of media debates and the allowable differences of opinion within the Beltway.
Turning one’s back on this prescribed discourse means forfeiting the perks that flow from those in power. It also means being labeled as a troublemaker or extremist”and for those who persist in their orneriness, this choice may also mean being pushed out of magazines for which one previously wrote and having one’s books snubbed by the arbiters of acceptable political concerns.
A question I sometimes hear from my Republican son is this: Why do we believe that what we discuss here could not be discussed at conservative foundations or, say, on FOX-News? Presumably our conversation would be welcome in such outlets, unless we did something as shocking as badmouthing ethnic minorities. But there are two problems with this contention. One, the fact that we, or at least most of us, are kept from these outlets would suggest that whatever we discuss most definitely does not suit Republican- or neoconservative-sponsored forums or publications. This is the case even though we do not seek to insult any ethnic or religious group.
Two, we are obviously raising issues that for ideological or social reasons movement conservative organizations do not engage. A few illustrations might help make this point. Arguing that democracy and freedom are on a collision course, that modern liberal democracies, which combine universal rights with massive welfare states, necessarily undermine communal and family authorities, and that character and intelligence are largely fixed by heredity are not positions that neoconservative Beltway foundations would be eager to take on.
And if one considers the tight connection between movement-conservatives and the Republican Party, having authorized conservative organizations think outside the two-party box becomes even more problematic. After all, GOP partisans and clients do not want to hamper Michael Steele and the Republican National Committee from reaching out. And “reaching out” in this context means frantically trying to raid the other party’s base. Although GOP operators don”t hesitate to put down Democrats, what this amounts to is railing against the high costs of Democratic programs, while ignoring those incurred by the GOP in power.
Movement conservatives have assumed the task of airbrushing positions that GOP politicians are taking or would like some people to think they”re taking. Movement conservative publicists, for example, tried to convince us that Republican presidential candidates Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney had shifted their social views, shortly before the presidential primaries in 2008. These supposedly genuine conversions had occurred on such delicate issues as late-term abortion, gay marriage, and the treatment of illegal immigrants. Nonetheless we were urged to take these timely shifts seriously, because someone at National Review or Weekly Standard has a thing for Rudy or struck up a friendship with Mitt. We were assured that Rudy was solid on the war and that he had once stiffed some Arab leader who came to New York. I would also call attention to a law prepared by Heritage, and introduced in 2005 by Governor Romney in Massachusetts, making sure that every Massachusetts resident had health insurance. Although this measure has contributed to towering state deficits, former Governor Romney, we are told, had nothing to do with this folly. It was supposedly altered by a Democratic legislation beyond recognition. Thus movement conservatives proclaimed, after they had tried to explain away Romney’s earlier support for gay marriage and other positions identified with the social Left.
Conservative journalists have done the GOP establishment other noteworthy favors. They scolded black civil rights leaders and more recently, former President Carter for suggesting that opponents of Obama’s health care plan are driven by racism. But this torrential indignation was almost entirely absent from GOP congressional leaders. Republican whip in the House, Eric Cantor of Virginia, pointedly refused to respond to the charge against his party. Cantor side-stepped the question when it came up in a press interview. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell became equally taciturn when confronted by the same charge.
What speaks volumes about how the GOP is handling Carter’s reproach is what GOP National Chairman Michael Steele said at a black institution Philander Smith College, in Little Rock, on September 22. Steele stressed his party’s urgent need to win over the black vote, and he denounced “the subtle forms of racism” that blacks encounter in both employment and college admissions. The GOP would take steps to deal with these subterranean forms of prejudice, and this audience should have no trouble figuring out what these countermeasures are. At last we can see the real value of movement conservative outcries against Democratic accusations of Republican racism. The apparent outrage is a mere diversionary noise for Republican politicians who are trying to make nice to the civil rights lobby. Some movement conservatives may have noticed this but are too ambitious or too comfortable to point out what is taking place.
Also illustrating the difference between us and movement conservatives, especially those who are joined at the hip with the GOP, are the differing ways in which we and they would react to something that recently happened at my college, which was the introduction of an elaborate plan for diversity training among students and faculty. This is something movement conservatives and the alternative Right may conceivably agree about, but here first impressions can be deceiving. Of course, we and they might scoff with equal disdain at our “Five-Year Plan for Strengthening Campus Diversity”—entitled “Embracing Inclusive Excellence”—which talks about the malice being vented against the handful of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus on campus. There is no evidence of these malicious outbursts, and the only evidence for discrimination cited is a methodologically dubious survey answered by 5 students, who were asked if they noticed white Christian students “glancing” suspiciously at them.
We and the neoconservative establishment would recognize (I hope) that these reports were invalid; and even if they were not, the solution offered, recruiting inner-city populations and providing them with scholarships, would not likely end the marginalization of Hindus. We might also have objected with equal annoyance to the plan for sending our faculty to affirmative-action training sessions; finally our two sides might have ridiculed the lop-sided 5 to1 majority by which the diversity plan passed the faculty”without any expectation that this document would be amended to conform to reality.
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But having noted this conceivable area of agreement, I would also stress the divergence between our sides when it comes to extricating ourselves from the multicultural fever swamp. Possible neoconservative alternatives to what I”ve described, by such characteristic advocates as Lynne Cheney, David Horowitz and Bill Bennett, might include a compulsory course on the American heritage. This course would showcase our country as a self-perfecting global democracy; and it would take students on an inspirational journey from the Declaration of Independence’s proclamation that “All men are created equal” through FDR’s Four Freedoms down to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This and other similar measures would be used to teach students of all races and creeds “democratic values,” the spread of which, we would be told, is the high moral end for which the U.S. was brought into existence.
We might also hear a recommendation from neoconservative social commentator Dinesh D’souza, calling for extraordinary efforts to integrate college students of all different ethnic backgrounds. D’souza would accuse our administration of not going far enough to commit students and faculty to a universally exportable democratic way of life. We would also likely be told that recruiting minorities for the wrong reasons would create islands of separateness on our campus instead of making everyone into a member of the world’s first global nation. Finally we might be warned, perhaps by Cal Thomas or David Horowitz, that lurking behind calls for diversity is a hidden plea for anti-Zionism or a defeatist response to the War On Terror. Such hidden agendas characterize the advocates of diversity; who in any case are deviating from the goal of the saintly Martin Luther King, a firm opponent of all forms of quotas, even for black Americans.
Needless to say, I couldn”t think of anyone on the Alternative Right who would take any of these stands. Our side would stress that not every adolescent can do college work. Colleges that are serious about traditional disciplines might appeal to, at most, 20 percent of the young, which is the percentage of those who have the cognitive skills for doing college-level study. Given the fraudulent product that now passes for college education, it is not surprising that most students and faculty can neither learn nor teach what was once deemed appropriate as college subjects.
One could easily point to speakers at this conference who have taken the positions outlined. These fearless critics have questioned the transformation of American higher education into a devalued consumer product, made available to those who are incapable of real learning. Small wonder that colleges are turned into centers of multicultural social experiments and diversitarian gibberish! What better use could one find for a falsely advertised institution that is trying to entertain young social work, communication and primary education majors while taking their parents” money!
Neoconservative educationists, we might also hear from the Alternative Right, have their own fish to fry. They are seeking to defend their version of the democratic welfare state as the best of all governments. They also have another far-reaching goal that is explicit or implicit in their college outreach. Neoconservatives, to speak about them specifically, wish to limit any disagreement on campuses generated by their aggressively internationalist foreign policy. In pursuit of this end, they happily falsify or obscure certain embarrassing historical facts, e.g., the massive deceit applied to pushing the U.S. into past foreign wars, and the published views of such neocon heroes as Churchill and Wilson dealing with racial and ethnic differences.
Neoconservatives and their defenders would accuse our side of taking positions that have no chance of being accepted. And they might be right on this last point. Our positions would infuriate the educational establishment and much of the public administration apparatus. Many of us, moreover, are strict constitutionalists, who would argue, to the consternation of the political class, that the federal government is excessively entangled in state and local education. It should be of no concern to public administrators whether a private college has or has not been recruiting designated minorities. Academic education should not be an occasion for government social planners to impose their vision on the private sector. Indeed private colleges, if they were truly concerned about being independent, would reject federal and state aid, and they would do all in their power to keep our managerial government from interfering with their institutions.
Note I am not defending “our side” in these debates. I am only making clear that we and they do not hold the same views about American education or about how its problems are to be engaged. I would also concede the obvious here, namely, that some people on our side of the divide may occasionally work for those on the other side and that the GOP out of power will occasionally get behind books and authors presenting arguments that would not please Republican administrations. Not all who make the arguments of the alternative Right have been subject to equally oppressive sanctions or have been uniformly denied a place in the sun. There are disparities in the ways that the GOP-movement conservative establishment has treated individual critics on the right. What seems beyond dispute however is that we and they disagree fundamentally on a wide range of questions, far more than we in this room would disagree with each other. The conventional conservative movement is therefore justified in recognizing that we are more different from their movement than establishment conservatives are from those on the center left. Movement conservatives and neoconservatives dialogue openly with the liberal Left while ignoring or ridiculing us”and this happens for a very good reason. The authorized version of the conservative movement understands that we and they are not of the same spirit. Unlike them, we do not serve the GOP; nor are we obliged to go along with neoconservative whims and fixations lest we lose our jobs or media outlets.
Most of us have already been confined to outer darkness; and there is no way we can change this unless we force our way, screaming and kicking, into the neoconservative-liberal conversation. The reason we must exist is that we dare to raise the questions that are anathema to the conventional media. And this is the reason that we lack corporate money and that our devotees are not writing for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Washington Post. We stand outside the egalitarian, managerial-state consensus, a consensus that in the end moves in only in one direction, which is leftward.
Those who opposed this trend were long an isolated minority, but now dissenters can be heard on talk radio, some of whom are even gaining a widespread popular appeal. This for me is a heartening development, despite the sad fact that most of us remain excluded from this turn of events, and although what is being described lacks any deep intellectual content. Note that nothing in these remarks would question the shallowness and histrionics of what I”m characterizing as the conservative talk-show phenomenon. As anyone who knows me can testify, it is hard for me to listen to Limbaugh or Beck for a protracted length of time without suffering an upset stomach. But what I”m noting here are long-range trends. There are forces on the American Right which have attracted mass-democratic attention, forces that the neoconservative media do not entirely own and which they can only provisionally preempt. This may bedevil our adversaries, especially if such populist heroes as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Mike Savage strike out on their own, that is, decide to go after the GOP and the neoconservatives with the same fury that they”ve vented on the Democrats.
As the onetime isolated Right continues to gain adherents and visibility, what increases apace is the possibility for a breakthrough. And as one observes the sudden rise of our group, it seems to me that those who were once marginalized have become like lilies in a junkyard. Let us hope this junkyard, which is the conservative movement of programmed party-liners and GOP hacks, will eventually become something else. Perhaps the lilies that have sprung up amid the trash and debris will come to replace the present movement conservative wasteland—together with its FOX-News contributors.