December 14, 2007

Last year, I noted that National Review had pretended not to notice Pat Buchanan’s bestselling book State of Emergency. Back then, National Review was at least pretending to support immigration restriction, so they might have been forced to say some good things about the book—which is no doubt why they ignored it.

Buchanan’s latest blockbuster, Day of Reckoning: How Hubris, Ideology, and Greed Are Tearing America Apart criticizes the ideologies and policies of globalism, imperialism, and other causes sacred to National Review, so it is not surprising that this book they decided to disparage rather than ignore it.

Accordingly, they assigned their review to Peter Wehner, a former Bush administration official who now safely grazes at the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center. Actually, calling Wehner’s piece a “review” is giving it far too much credit.

This is evident from the very first sentence: “The man who authored The Death of the West has now turned his considerable spirit of despair to America.” First of all, The Death of the West was largely about the U.S., with significant attention to Europe. Even if Wehner didn’t know that, you might think he’d realize that America is, well, part of the West.

Wehner tries to rebut Buchanan’s warnings about the dire future of the American experiment mainly by parroting his own recent essay in Commentary about how much “good news” there is on social indicators like abortion, crime, welfare, illegitimacy, and test scores.

Although some of his assertions seem dubious, I’m perfectly willing to concede that there has been some temporary progress on these fronts—progress which will only be undermined by our ongoing importing of pathology from third world countries. My quibbles aside, what is astouding about this “review” is that it doesn’t actually address a single argument Buchanan has made. The extent of Wehner’s logic seems to be: “Buchanan offers some bad news, but here’s some good news. Move along, folks, nothing to see here.”

Some of the older neoconservatives, such as Charles Murray and James Q. Wilson made legitimate contributions throughout the 70s and 80s, dissecting the dysfunctions of the underclass and the failures of liberal social engineering. That’s what neocons were good at. However, when they started looking at the big picture they lost their bearings, as the past four years (at least) have amply proved. Because they were good at things like detailed analyses of the failures of teachers’ unions, assorted neocons (or their much less talented sons) somehow got the notion that they were meant for grander things, for “big ideas” like “Benevolent Global Hegemony,” “The First Universal Nation”, and “The End of History.” Boiled down, as the neocons used to boil leftists slogans down, to what they really mean, such abstractions amount to little more than this assertion:

America can attack any country it wants, and admit as many immigrants as big business craves, and everything will work out fine.

It is this profoundly anti-conservative position that Buchanan attacks. But Wehner remains oblivious. To his credit (but his editors’ disgrace), Wehner admits he hasn’t read the book, and simply quotes some publicity passages reprinted on the Drudge Report. It says a great deal about National Review that they’re willing to print a “review” of a book by a reporter who got his information from a Web site. Perhaps the magazine should be renamed National Cliff Notes.

Even if he had stuck to the Drudge Report, Wehner would have seen that Buchanan isn’t primarily concerned about the misdeeds of the underclass. These can destroy cities and schools, but they won’t wreck a nation. Day of Reckoning is about how America is in trouble due to its overstretched empire, disintegrating national identity, massive demographic transition, and economic dependence on staggering foreign debt. None of which, strictly speaking, is Al Sharpton’s fault.

To the extent that Buchanan discusses cultural decline, he talks about how Americans have completely irreconcilable views on abortion, homosexuality, the existence of God, and other issues that once weren’t even open to discussion. We are split along a deep and unbridgeable moral chasm—as we once were in 1859. It’s good news that the number of abortions may be declining. That doesn’t change the fact that half our country regards as a fundamental right what the other half sees as murder.

Wehner’s C- Goucher College term paper concludes with a few platitudes about how “liberty inevitably gives way to license…. Yet we have found, time after time, that liberty, while not without its drawbacks, is the most reliable path to human excellence, prosperity, and progress.”

This is all well and good, but it has nothing to do with Pat Buchanan’s book. It ignores both his diagnosis and his prescriptions. Talking about how great an abstract “liberty”—at least in the sense that Wehner describes it—tells us nothing about what to do about trade, debt, foreign policy, or immigration. You know, the subjects of the… book under review. Instead of this weakly reasoned squib, Wehner might as well have written a little haiku about a plum tree. It would have as much to do with Day of Reckoning as this “book review.”

However, I will not emulate Wehner here; let me address what he did say, rather than what he didn’t. Wehner praises liberty—which is all to the good, depending on what he means by it. Our hard-won freedoms help define us as a nation. But Wehner’s praise is little more than a shallow slogan—of the sort he no doubt polished during his tenure as former deputy assistant to President Bush. The hard work comes in considering, rationally and prudentially, how to preserve that liberty. This used to be the work of conservatives. Neoconservatives are always fond of quoting Ronald Reagan’s assertion that it is “Morning in America”—as if it were a universal principle, rather than an inspiring piece of rhetoric. They should remember something else that president once said:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.

Thanks to the neocons, those sunset years may well be upon us. Pat Buchanan, as usual, is man enough to tell the unpopular truth. We ignore him at our peril.


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