February 22, 2009

As Charles Stuart is reported to have said when he returned to England after decades of exile, to restore the British monarchy and reign as Charles II after the Cromwell interregnum, “€œHey, y”€™all! It’s good to be back.”€

I just went through the editorial equivalent of purgatory: Thanks to a suddenly shortened publishing schedule, I had to carefully edit a 1,000 page book in exactly six weeks while teaching full time. The book is the worthy and entertaining Choosing the Right College, published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute“€”one of the only “€œmovement”€ conservative institutions whose brain didn”€™t turn to Jello in the 1990s, melt on Sept. 11, 2001, then dribble down its leg to form a stagnant, toxic pool on the floor. That means ISI still has room for learned contrarians like… well, a fair passel of the people who write for this site: Jim Kalb, Paul Gottfried, Justin Raimondo, Christian Kopff, and other luminaries like James Kurth, Lee Congdon, Peter Lawler and Allan Carlson. The books that come from ISI Press are the closest thing we have these days to the output of Regnery Publishing”€”back when it was run without profit in mind, and it published books by Thomas Molnar, Eric Voegelin, and the incomparable Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

I first saw his name in a conservative magazine you might remember called “€œNational Review.”€ Leddihn’s book Leftism Revisited changed my life at age 16; I read all 700 or so pages, including footnotes, and it forever widened my horizons, and taught me exactly what conservatism was trying to conserve: Liberty, variety, hierarchy, order, beauty and dignity in general”€”and ecclesial Christianity and Western man in particular. No other mission is worth pursuing, and anyone who tells you different is, simply put, an enemy. The most dangerous enemy of all is not the Islamic interloper or the spiritually purblind Social Darwinist, nor even the flaccid and decadent suburban secularist. No (as I learned from another crucial book, The Camp of the Saints) it’s the leftist Christian, who steals the stern and spiritual demands that nestle inside the true religion like a lump of uranium fuel”€”cherished and controlled behind thick walls of prudence and tradition”€”and uses them to poison the natural waters of love for life and kin. Absent such people”€”and their degenerate descendants, the multiculturalists”€”our civilization could easily defend itself again, as it did for 1500 years of Christendom, and make fair compromises with internal minorities and foreign enemies.

I”€™ve read thousands of books and articles since the days in 1980 when I scaled Leddihn’s complex and crusty pages. But I”€™ve never come across anything to “€œconvince me any different.”€ The book is just that good. Without Leddihn, I might well have remained just another kid from Queens who hated the Commies, was queasy concerning queers, pissed off about street crime, and ready to hang abortionists from lampposts. All healthy instincts and sound conclusions, but absent the philosophical scaffolding and historical arguments connecting them, they might all have been eaten away by the acid bath of ideologies I encountered for four years in New Haven.

I might have followed my closest friends in college down the sterile, concrete ramp that is Ayn Rand, or some other variant of autistic individualism”€”convinced that I owed nothing to my ancestors, neighbors or descendants but a thumb of the nose and a well-thumbed copy of The Virtue of Selfishness.

On the other hand, it’s possible my hormones would have triumphed, and I would have learned to savvy the lingo of Nookie Feminism. Yale girls weren”€™t all that tempting in the days before the school required a photo with the application: Try to imagine a school where Naomi Wolf could claim she was the victim of sexual harassment. But the male sexual instinct is mighty…adaptable. Think of American prisons; in Angola or Attica, poor Naomi might seem like a hottie.

Worst of all, I could very well have followed the subtle cues, nods, winks, and nudges, delivered by a certain set of campus “€œconservatives”€ I met. Nowadays we”€™d clearly spot them as neocons, but back then that term referred to hard-working, numbers-crunching pragmatists who wrote for Commentary, when that was still a magazine for the “€œreality-based”€ community. So I just thought of them as the Smoothies.

Smoothies took an unusually strong interest in making sure that populist and patriotic impulses were carefully constrained within the bounds of certain unspoken precepts. (They had to remain unspoken, lest they be subject to rational argument.) Slick and glib, alternately unctuous and condescending, the Smoothies made it clear that they were teaching me how to “€œmake it”€ in the world”€”and avoid political pitfalls that would land me out in the unclubbable reaches of the “€œcrazies.”€ That might leave me, they made it more than clear, in the same social class I”€™d come from, forever a denizen of Archiebunkerland.  

So it was very, very important that the Party of the Right, in one of its debates, vote “€œYea”€ on the resolution: “€œIsrael is the Hope of the West.”€ (Not that I particularly objected then, or feel hostile to Israel now”€”but the notion did seem a trifle overblown.) That I not make too big a fuss about Gay/Lesbian Awareness days”€”which included same sex kiss-ins between androgynous boys, or square-headed, square-assed girls, on the steps of Cross-Campus Library. As someone who got called a “€œfaggot”€ for four years in high school because he read books and listened to classical music (imagine a young Frasier Crane trapped on the set of That 70s Show), I wasn”€™t ready to face all that weirdness at 17. But the Smoothies assured me that “€œthose people”€ posed no threat at all to our “€œessential values.”€ But they never said what those values were.

And it was very, very important that I write one particular article”€”the only piece of writing in 27 years I”€™ve ever regretted and disavowed”€”extolling the benefits of unrestricted immigration. I”€™ll never forget the sudden, personal interest one of these Smoothies (who went on to fine career at the Federalist Society) took in me when he heard I was writing this piece. He even took me to lunch”€”he must have felt like Prince Edward inviting out a chimney sweep”€”to offer me talking points I “€œneeded”€ to include.

Now, I”€™d come to this wacky, open-borders conclusion all by myself, after reading “€œcornucopians”€ like Julian Simon, who”€™d convinced me that to entertain any anxiety at all over the speed of population growth or demographic change put me firmly in bed with Margaret Sanger and Adolf Eichmann. I”€™ll never forget arguing with an earnest young conservationist from Andover, in the course of which I actually said: “€œThe world could support 500 billion people”€”think of Hong Kong!”€ When he answered, “€œWould you really want to live like that, in a world with no open spaces?”€”€”I said, “€œSure. What’s wrong with that?”€ And I thought that made me the real conservative. Of course, in my own defense, I”€™d really never been more than 20 miles from New York City, and the prospect of open spaces frankly scared me. I still find the sight of a horizon without any skyscrapers a little unnerving….

But the Smoothie who slummed with Zmirak for the space of a luncheon was really excited at the prospect that I was writing a pro-immigration piece. “€œThis will”€”prove something to people,”€ he said with a knowing smile. I didn”€™t know. I had a highly developed, crackbrain argument in my mind that had nothing to do with disavowing prejudice”€”or affirming it. Instead, I explained in my twangy Astoria accent, I favored at once the abolition of the welfare state, the minimum wage, and immigration restrictions, in order to recreate feudalism. “€œThe problem with America,”€ I explained to him and later in my article, “€œis that we don”€™t have a strict enough class system. We need more inequality, more opportunities for people to have large staffs of domestic servants”€”and maybe laws mandating that people of different professions wear distinctive costumes. Like weavers and candlers in Chaucer,”€ I said, half-crazed with coffee and the Middle English I”€™d been reading.

“€œThat’s fine,”€ he said, nodding sagely. “€œNothing wrong with that. The key thing is that you make clear you don”€™t care which countries the immigrants come from”€”m”€™kay? That you”€™re not concerned with race.”€

That wasn”€™t one of my big interests then, and isn”€™t now, so I shrugged. “€œOkay. Now, do you think I should mention the heresy laws?”€


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