Down the Memory Hole

In a recent blog Helen Rittelmeyer cites a new publishing celebrity for the New York Post and a Doubleday expert on the American Right, Ross Douthat, whose gripe is that American conservatives had actively supported segregation. Douthat is certainly not the only authorized intellectual who has been saying this. One of Helen’s respondents, who has taken the pen name Tobias, likewise complains that American conservatives had behaved immorally about segregation. Contributors to this website are urged to stop hiding the obvious in this case.

Ross and Tobias are both mostly wrong about how “€œAmerican conservatives”€ viewed segregation and desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Outside of the South, where many New Deal Democrats like George Wallace as well as self-styled Southern conservatives like Richard Weaver supported segregation against federal attempts to change it, postwar conservatives were not noticeably in favor of state-enforced physical separation of the races. Having spent many years investigating conservative movements in Europe and in this country, I find little to support the view that members of the Old Right were generally enthusiastic about racial segregation. National Review certainly attacked the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but in neither case did it do so in order to keep blacks and whites separated. The presidential bid of George Wallace, who had been an ardent segregationist in Alabama, did not resonate particularly well among movement conservatives. Those conservative journals to which I then subscribed viewed Wallace as a New Deal liberal, albeit one who had decided to”€use the race issue.”€ The late Frank Meyer railed repeatedly against the “€œnon-conservatism”€ of this Alabama governor and his populist followers.

When David Frum confronted me in 1986, after I had spoken at a Philadelphia Society meeting on the early history of the American Right, and asked why I had not discussed “€œall the racism in the movement,”€ a confrontation, by the way, that I mention in my most recent book, I retorted that I was not aware this “ism” had played a significant role in the movement discussed. In comparison to the resentment against blacks that one could dig up in old issues of Commentary, especially when Jews and blacks were fighting for control of the New York City school system in the 1970s, racial animosity was no big deal on the Old Right. Although Buckley in his less inhibited days had warned against creating radicalized blacks electorate by passing the Voting Rights Act, the question then was the political effect of mobilizing black as voters. Buckley was not commenting on racial characteristics or on the need to assign separate facilities for different races.

One could of course chide the Old Right, from the revised neoconservative or leftist perspective, for not having been sufficiently angry about segregation. But that’s different from arguing that American conservatives enthusiastically endorsed racial separation. In fact save for an obsession with the Communist menace, there were few things that absorbed the energies of the conservative movement nationwide fifty years ago. Keeping blacks and whites segregated was clearly not one of them.

Let me assure the reader of my serene detachment in judging this matter. Anyone who has read my studies on American conservatism could not possibly argue that I have a soft spot for my subjects. As a small-government, Taft Republican and as an historian, I came away from studying the post-World War Two American Right with profound disappointment. Its activists, led by W.F. Buckley and Frank Meyers, had strayed almost steadily from the late 1960s on in a neoconservative direction, and they had imposed a form of groupthink upon their naïve followers that eventually led into the zombie-like “€œconservative movement”€ that now causes us to retch. Nor do I share, officially or unofficially the concern of a younger generation of Americans about the evils of white racism. I would not be disturbed even if I had found evidence in an older generation of conservatives of improper thoughts about race. Very few white people in the 1950s were as racially sensitized as the American population now is or pretends to be.

At the same time, I am annoyed by those neoconservatives who reconstruct their collective past to show how liberal they or their predecessors had been on race issues. Even more unsettling is the duplicitous way in which these opportunists have pushed the cult of Martin Luther King, a figure whom the first generation of neocons couldn”€™t care less about. Neocon scribblers conveniently discovered King after his death, as someone whom they could reinvent for their own uses. But pointing out these lies is not the same as being upset that people sixty years ago were not as idiosyncratically sensitive on race issues as they are right now. On the other hand, since Tom Piatak is correct that the liberal-neoconservative media keep out of public discussion any view of the past or present but their own, it is unlikely that what I’ve said will go anywhere. And so we’ll have to resign ourselves to discussing this subject among ourselves! Or perhaps we could get Pat Buchanan, who is our conduit to the outside world, to write on the Old Right, the neoconservatives and race once he’s finished with Churchill.

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