April 07, 2009

Re: National Lampoon

Austin Bramwell deserves kudos for noticing my hand at work in the caricature of Jonah pleading on behalf of his colleagues for a return by the Obama administration to a neoconservative foreign policy. Since I was asked to be satirical, I cannot claim that every position attributed to Jonah in my spoof is one that he actually took. Nonetheless, positions that are mentioned, on the transfiguration of MLK, the redemptive political value of blowing up the homes of our undemocratic enemies, and the need for a more belligerent foreign policy, can certainly be found in NR and on NRO.  Austin is urged to look at my most recent book on American conservatism, which is now out in paperback and which abounds in evidence of NR?s leftward trajectory during the last thirty years, and especially since the coming on board of its current editor-in-chief.

It is true that NR has not participated in the worship of King as unconditionally as have other movement conservative organs, such as Human Events. NR writers still occasionally point out King?s human frailties while listing his presumed virtues. But what they write about King is still cloying enough. The essay on him to which Austin is alluding was a guest puff piece by the Director of American Studies at Heritage, Matthew Spalding, which was run, not accidentally on January 21, 2002. Spalding?s piece abounded in the usual movement conservative boiler-plate about how King was against ?moral relativism, wanted a colorblind society, and expressed ideas that were rooted in the ?Western tradition of knowledge.? One can easily show by quoting from his writing that King favored a comprehensive system of set asides and possibly reparations for blacks.

But in any case the praise that Spalding dishes out could just as easily have been made about Barack Obama. Our president also quotes selectively from the Bible, mentions the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence, and supports a colorblind society, at least as consistently as MLK. Perhaps next year NRO will commission a panegyric to Barack or Michelle celebrating the ?conservative aspects? of their public oratory. By then of course both of these celebrities will have been lifted up into NR?s pantheon of democratic heroes, a lofty height from where they will be able to mingle in the minds of magazine readers with the likes of King, Trotsky, and Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the matter of NRO?s (read Goldberg?s) decision to publish Steve Schwartz?s hymn to Trotsky, if that was meant to be a joke, I can?t find the humor. Schwartz?s piece read like a quintessential neoconservative paean to a great global democratic revolutionary, who had given his life to fight fascism and anti-Semitism. Is Austin suggesting this was merely satire? Most of Schwartz?s words could have come from any old neocon, highlighting the merits of democratic antifascism. Whether some other neocon would have mentioned Trotsky specifically the way Schwartz did is less certain. But the principles attributed to Trotsky in his piece were the ones that all neocons value.

It is exceedingly interesting that while NR is willing to reach out to the Trotskyist Left, its editors have not shown the slightest tolerance toward those who are perceived as being too far on the right. Unlike Trotsky and other anti-Stalinist leftists, the editors have nothing but loathing for those who are excessively ?conservative.? In 2003 they hired their close friend David Frum to slime members of the ?unpatriotic Right,? who are accused of (youbetcha!) anti-Semitism and other damning idiosyncrasies, for opposing a global democratic foreign policy or for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the civil rights revolution.

For the record, I?d cease inveighing against NR and its editors, and even forget about their unkind treatment of my aged person, if only they stopped calling themselves ?conservative.? I?d be delighted if they referred to themselves as members of the twenty-some generation, who celebrate the civil rights and ?moderate? feminist revolutions and advocate a liberal internationalist foreign policy. If this change in labeling could be arranged, no more ridicule against them would be coming from me. The problem is not really that such ?mainstream conservatives? are ?perfidious,? which is what Austin thinks I think they are. It?s that they?re wet behind the ears but in a commanding position to mold minds on the right. Their hazy view of the past and their vulgar presentism are typical of my college students, who just happen to be Democrats. But I?m sure these students, even the social work majors, would change their party affiliations if they could get jobs working for a ?conservative? magazine in New York. 

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