June 02, 2008

May I, even at this late stage of the John Lukacs controversy, offer a few thoughts that do not seem to have been articulated elsewhere on this site?

Readers have now stepped into a first-person authorial zone. They should be, accordingly, warned.

I have on my shelves a 2004 edition of Dr. Lukacs’s A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. It is a tiny book, but an almost uniformly worthwhile one, marred solely by Dr. Lukacs’s gross overestimate of Churchill’s trustworthiness as a historian. (Shades of the famous”€“Margot Asquith?”€“quip, “€œWinston has written his autobiography and called it The World Crisis.”€) Without this opusculum of Dr. Lukacs’s as an example before my eyes, I could never have written (or, in fact, have started) my own little contribution to the ISI Student’s Guide series. So I owe Dr. Lukacs something of an intellectual debt.

What strikes me above all about Dr. Lukacs’s attack on Pat Buchanan is how completely, in this attack, he has ignored his own advice on writing history and, in particular, on assessing evidence. Blindsided, I can only assume, by his belief in the Immaculate Conception of Saint Winnie, he makes all the mistakes against which he specifically warns the novice historian in his Student’s Guide. The result is a somewhat distasteful “€œDon”€™t do as I do, do as I say.”€

I am not currently, or ever, holding a brief for David Irving except insofar as I tend toward free-speech absolutism and wish to ban precious little apart from anti-Christian blasphemy. But it can hardly be denied”€“and it amazes me that this has not been pointed out elsewhere”€“that reading Dr. Lukacs on Mr. Irving is like reading Lord Macaulay on Charles I, James II, Queen Mary of Modena, or some other hate-object whose chief crime in Lord Macaulay’s view was that of not being Whig. The difference is that Lord Macaulay can still, however gross his (wholly sincere) fantasizing, be read with profit purely for his style. Whereas Dr. Lukacs’s style, at least in that review …

As for Pat Buchanan (whose new book I have not yet read, though I hope to read it soon), it is with hesitation that I write of him at all. What can I say of Mr. Buchanan except that he is the greatest American in public life whom I have met? That almost every article and book by him which is known to me has broadened my historical and sociological understanding? That my occasional disagreements with him “€“ I am utterly at odds with him on the topic of Putin’s Russia, for instance “€“ have not impaired the esteem with which I, and many others far more important than I, regard his knowledge and his clarity of exposition?

Irrefutably a magazine, including a magazine which Mr. Buchanan helped to found, has a perfect right to hire whichever reviewers it likes to review whichever books it likes. I note with pleasure that this particular magazine has allowed criticisms of Dr. Lukacs‘s review on its own blog. (One does not immediately associate such freedom of speech with, to take a random instance, the Rupert Murdoch empire.) Nevertheless I find myself haunted by the following famous words:

“€œThere is such a thing as legitimate warfare: war has its laws; there are things which may fairly be done, and things which may not be done. I say it with shame and with stern sorrow; he has attempted a great transgression; he has attempted (as I may call it) to poison the wells.”€

If you know any 19th-century English prose at all, you probably know who wrote the above. Cardinal Newman, of course, from the preface to his Apologia.

I suggest that Dr. Lukacs’s review, in treating that specific book by that specific author for that specific periodical, poisoned the wells. I further suggest that many readers will henceforth feel doubts about Dr. Lukacs’s veracity on any historical topic more controversial than the weather. (Note that I am not implying conscious deceit by Dr. Lukacs. Who am I to imply such a motive?)

It is if anything harder for me to write about The American Conservative (on whose masthead I have the great privilege of appearing) than about Mr. Buchanan. No publication now active means more to me. Although I was not quite “€œpresent at the creation”€, I at least imitated Dean Acheson to the extent of being present “€“ and writing in its pages “€“ when it was, so to speak, still in short trousers. It has been among the indispensable periodicals of my time (I would believe this even if it had rejected every line I ever submitted).

Whether outraged readers will cancel their subscriptions en masse, I do not know. What the fallout will be from Dr. Lukacs’s article as far as TAC‘s “€“ and by extension, print-media paleoconservatism’s “€“ future is concerned, I likewise do not know. But for pity’s sake, let that future (whatever arguments we might have about tactics) be dignified, honorable, and recognizably adult: everything that, I regret to say, Dr. Lukacs’s original article failed to be.

If Mr. Buchanan can be likened to Mr. Irving, and thereby in practice thrown to the wolves, then which TAC contributors, past or present, cannot be thrown to the wolves? This strikes me as a valid question.

Moïse Tshombe is supposed to have said (in his final defeated years) that till his dying day, should his country want him, he would always answer “€œPresent!”€ to any official summons. Should his country want him; and “€“ Tshombe’s clear implication was “€“ not a moment longer. It is in this spirit that some of us regard a possible summons from TAC. I must confess that as a result of Dr. Lukacs’s essay, the issue of what TAC‘s senior editorship now wants is, for me and perhaps others, no mere academic affair.

May heaven pardon me if, in anything I have written here, I have been unjust to that senior editorship.

First-person zone now over.


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