November 01, 2008
More tragic than the rubble of a raped and looted city, than the cancer-ridden face we knew when it was lovely, is the crumbling of a once impressive mind. In some ways it is much sadder, as it makes the observer think back and question the intellectual qualities he once thought he espied there. I haven’t read Jeff Hart in years. In truth, all I can remember of his career at National Review is a single book review that changed my life: His essay recommending Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints. Still a high school senior, I ran out and got the book, which I read some four or five times in college. Indeed, alongside Brideshead Revisited, it’s a book I recommend that every thinking person read once a year. A deeply troubling text whose implications the Christian reader must ultimately reject, The Camp of the Saints also raises questions he cannot dismiss. Read young enough, it is a virtually fool-proof vaccine against neoconservatism—that intestinal parasite which over time eats the brain.
So do many other things—decreptitude, intellectual laziness, dissipation, or despair. One never knows, looking from outside, and it doesn’t do to speculate. I remember watching the long collapse of William F. Buckley’s prudence and prose with mixed fascination and horror, like a train wreck of the Orient Express, in excruciating slow motion. By comparison, Jeffrey Hart’s recent attempt to lure conservatives into the cattle car of the Obama Limited is the Little Choo-Choo That Couldn’t.
While he rightly rejects the grandiose rhetoric ladled out by hack speechwriters to beguile unthinking Americans into futile foreign adventures, that is the only thing Hart gets right in his rambling essay—whose organization and argument would not pass muster in one of Professor Hart’s undergraduate English classes. As a conscientious instructor, I am sure he demands more of his students.
On every other issue, Hart sets up as an idol a straw dummy resembling Edmund Burke, a scarecrow intended to run off the ideologues who have hijacked the conservative movement.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
But Hart’s version of “ideology” seems indistinguishable from what most of us call “principles.” Indeed, his notion of conservatism really does amount to what John Crowe Ransom famously dismissed as a political tendency that clings tenaciously to abuses firmly entrenched, and resists innovations—until they are enacted, of course, at which point they become sacrosanct. To attempt to roll back an historical evil because it violates a principle would make of one a Jacobin. Ironically, as Hart has argued elsewhere (twisting Burke’s own words), if a Jacobin order prevails, attempting to reverse it and restore a previous, wholesome regime is itself un-conservative. Which would make the anti-Jacobins really… Jacobins, and the loyal supporters of the Terror the true… conservatives. Okay, now I’ve got it all straight.
Let me take Hart’s salient assertions one by one—testing them, let me warn you, against abstract principles:
The Iraq War. Here Hart is right. Yawn. So was everyone deserving any respect on the Right, not that it mattered. I warned against the war in 2002, for what that was worth. But Hart only plays into the hands of the neocon ideologues by using the catastrophe of this ill-considered war to condemn as unconservative any and every attempt to alter the “facts on the ground,” even by peaceful means and in our own country. This nicely serves the neoconservative narrative peddled by the likes of Ramesh Ponnuru, which claims for that movement the high ground of principle—and dismisses as “evilcons” and Machiavellian “realists” those of us who make prudential arguments, or treasure institutions over abstractions.
Big government. The following quote from Hart is evidence either of philosophical apostasy, or simple laziness: “Social Security has long been considered one of the most successful New Deal programs, working well now for 70 years.” It’s easy enough to point out that the system has been “considered” successful because politicians were frightened to touch it, but that in fact it’s a Ponzi scheme headed for collapse. Hart is right that Bush’s proposed “reform”—privatizing profits by directing the funds into the stock market, while socializing risk by continuing to guarantee seniors retirement income—would have made matters worse. On a deeper level, thoughtful conservatives know that Social Security, even when it seemed to be “working,” was an insidious attack on the family; as I demonstrated in a detailed proposal for a family-friendly reform of the system, Social Security as it is currently constituted punishes large families and rewards childless couples. Indeed, if it had been set up intentionally to squelch the native birth rate and reward aging homosexual stockbrokers, then create a “crisis” which would require a mass influx of migrants to prop up the pyramid… how exactly would it look any different?
The Sanctity of Life. Hart concludes by wading into philosophical waters that are clearly beyond his depth. He introduces the subject of abortion by stating, flatly, “the availability of abortion is linked to the long advancement of women’s equality.” Well, we conservatives certainly wouldn’t want to stand in the way of anything like that, now would we? Isn’t egalitarianism and the empowerment of the atomized individual at the expense of the family what we’re all about? A Christian conservative would reject any notion of equality that required the mass slaughter of innocents as simply evil—the sexual equivalent of Stalinism. At the opposite pole, a Darwinian who was fond of Western civilization and the peoples who created it would note that sexual egalitarianism is counter-adaptive; the races that think up this madness tend to disappear in a few generations, and yield their place to others. Or has Professor Hart never heard of a large landmass known as “Europe”?
To counter such objections, Hart says: “On my Dartmouth campus, half the undergraduates are women. They do not want to have their plans derailed by an unwanted pregnancy.” Nor, I’ll point out, do the men who are energetically “hooking up” with them. Ah, so the true conservative determines issues of morality based on the “wishes” and “plans” of spoiled Ivy League undergraduates. I am certain that is precisely what Edmund Burke had in mind.
From this argument and others Hart has made, I can boil down his program into the following handy action items:
1. Don’t rock the boat.
2. Embrace leftist policies, but only once they’re stale.
3. Always stand 20 degrees to the right of the mainstream consensus—wherever it happens to be.
4. Preserve existing institutions, without questioning their moral status. (Hence, in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union, argue that the gulags are now a settled part of the national consensus, whose abolition might prove disruptive.)
5. Stand athwart the march of history, whistling “Dixie.”
If Professor Hart represents the Right, we have no need for a Left.