October 29, 2009
In the latest issue of Quadrant, Peter Kocan complains about my “sourness” in depicting the paleoconservative persuasion in my autobiography, Encounters. Peter is shocked that someone who is described as “America’s leading paleoconservative intellectual” would be “sawing off the branch on which [he] sits,” by treating his movement as a collection of has-beens. Peter compares my “weird” behavior to that of an imaginary David Crockett, who “had survived the Alamo only to declare the fight a stupid fiasco and the defenders a bunch of jerks.” The review contrasts my bitter disenchantment about my erstwhile companions in arms with the spirited tropes of Clyde Wilson “addressing his fellow Southerners battered by culture-wars attacks on their whole history and identity.” Unlike Gottfried the mocker, Professor Wilson has exhorted his listeners to take heart: “Don”t be discouraged. So powerful and beautiful is our heritage that it has taken them decades to cut away as much as they have.”
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This quotation from my Southern friend of many years has nothing to do with what Peter scolds me for not interpreting more charitably. Given its institutions and cultural-ethnic identity going back centuries, the American South has been far more of an historical reality than paleoconservatism, a fading movement of which I”m believed to be the most venerable living theorist.
Unlike Southerners, Frenchmen, English, Italians, Jews, etc., paleoconservatives do not constitute a long-standing community. They were a reaction to the rise of the neoconservatives as the dominant force in the American conservative movement. Spirited rebels who fought on against a more powerful enemy determined to crush them, the paleoconservatives reached the zenith of their influence in the late 1980s and early 1990s; thereafter they descended rapidly into becoming no more than an historical footnote. It is now hard to find even references to paleoconservatism in accounts of the postwar conservative movement. Recent historians of the movement have ceased to view paleos as even an interesting sideshow.
In his recently published anthology Reappraising the Right (2009), historian of the conservative movement George Nash devotes no more than a few sentences in 450 pages of text to the Old Right opposition to the neoconservatives. But in the second edition of Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1996), the paleoconservatives were a major theme in the long concluding chapter. This indicates how thorough the rout has been, seeing that Nash is chronicling the interaction of significant forces within today’s American Right. Although I”m thought to be the main chronicler of the paleoconservative side, nowhere is my name even mentioned in Nash’s text”and for good reason. What I”ve chronicled can no longer be located within the present constellation of movement conservative players. (When, by the way, was the last time that a paleo appeared on FOX or that his name came up in the New York Times or Washington Post?) The feuding among veteran paleos, a tendency that I”ve often noted, may reflect growing frustration. The cause for which they once fought has been so marginalized that they can only attract attention by attacking each other.
But this effort at sober assessment does not mean that I”ve thrown up my hands and left the battlefield to our enemies. What I”m suggesting is that whoever (God willing!) brings down the neoconservatives and their mercenary empire, it will not be my generation. The Soviet tyranny eventually fell, but the ones who accomplished this were not the Russian Whites who fought the Reds after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet empire came down because of a generation of adversaries who were not around in 1919 and 1920. While I”m not declaring that the battle against our enemies is irreversibly lost, I”m definitely saying that paleoconservatives will not win the battle they began. It will be left to a younger generation to carry on that struggle.
I”m also not sure that the side to which Professor Wilson appeals has a brighter future than do the paleoconservatives. The black population of the South, to put it mildly, is hardly on Professor Wilson’s side; and those white people who voted for the outspokenly anti-Confederate McCain, whose revulsion for the white South except as a reliable voting base, could not have been more clear, are not about to rally to the Cause. I”ve no idea (speaking as a passionate admirer of Stonewall Jackson) how the onetime reverence for the South as a culture of gallantry and aristocratic virtues can ever be revived, after the multicultural Left and the neoconservatives have combined to slander anything resembling a white Southern heritage. It’s also not the case that the transformation of the Old South in the public imagination from the opening scenes of Gone With The Wind to something even more hideous than Ausschwitz took place over a long period of time. This government- and media-sponsored metamorphosis took place entirely within my adult lifetime.
Still it is much easier for me to feel sympathy for Professor Wilson’s neo-Confederates than it is to weep over the fate of paleoconservatism. The neo-Confederates are a pleasanter lot than most paleos of my acquaintance, and they can point to an intergenerational pedigree. But they also face insurmountable problems. After the damage that its embattled opponents and demographic trends have inflicted on the Southern heritage, it is doubtful this tradition can make a comeback, except as a theme park. But the war against the neoconservatives is in fact winnable. It will only take lots of time and the acquisition of resources; and more than one generation will be needed to make significant dents in the enemy’s fortifications.
Allow me to make one final point about Peter Kocan’s fond references to the Jacobites and to other lost reactionary causes. This doting is fine as an aesthetic diversion, but can do nothing to change the cultural Marxist power structure that has taken over through most of the Western world. The relevant response to this situation is “political,” in the sense in which Carl Schmitt understood that term. One must identify ones enemy and then bring to bear all available forces to counter its power. Devoting one’s life to a search for the Cavalier origins of the Old South or hanging on the wall a portrait of Stonewall Jackson, in the case of one of my acquaintances, near a campaign sign for John McCain, is what Schmitt characterized as a “cultural activity,” as opposed to a political act. Peter may enjoy the aesthetic poses of some of the paleoconservatives, but that attraction should not hide the fact that this group has been politically insignificant for the last fifteen years. Needless to say, I would not level this charge against Carl Gustav Mannerheim or Francisco Franco—or most other historical actors of the Right who hindered the progress of the Left in the twentieth century. I”m criticizing what Schmitt called the “romantic imagination” that has turned in upon itself. That has, not incidentally, been the fate of the paleoconservative mind that has outlived its historical value.