June 18, 2009

We are all entitled our memories, but Charles Coulombe’s reminiscences about the American conservative movement are very different from mine. Although his recollections are not incorrect, they are excessively selective. Charles is looking from the perspective of the late 1970s back to the 1950s and trying to freeze the postwar conservative movement at a point at which it would coincide with his traditionalist Catholic inclinations. But the 1950s constituted only a single decade in the conservative movement, and it was not a particularly typical one. My own memories reach back further since I am older than Charles; and I have also researched several books on the subject under discussion. The conservatism of the 1950s was heavily influenced and disproportionately populated by Irish Catholics and by Jews and Protestants who ran to embrace the Catholic Church. It was also shaped by militant anti-Communism, and it featured European émigrés, who often combined Catholic beliefs with anti-Communist enthusiasm. (Patrick Allitt has produced an informative book on this theme.)

In these characteristics, the conservative movement of the 1950s was a cultural and sociological anomaly. Catholic political influence in the next generation would be felt mostly on the political left, as it had been during the New Deal. The small-town, heartland Protestants who had dominated the American Right before the 1950s would not resume the cultural leadership they had enjoyed before. Instead there would be new powerbrokers taking over the movement, swaggering Machiavellian princes who espoused leftist views but wrapped them in American nationalist rhetoric. The neoconservatives would thereafter achieve such a formidable lock-hold on the respectable American Right that no other group would ever be in a position to challenge them.

Charles’s favorite thinkers are better than those who are currently running the conservative movement but not exactly exponents of his Catholic monarchical stance. Pat Buchanan has made a reputation as an economic nationalist and as a (somewhat inconsistent) defender of the Republican Party and GOP presidential candidates. He is also surviving and flourishing in the present media environment, a fact that indicates that the conservative present may not be entirely distinct from the conservative past. And regarding Charles’s other hero Russell Kirk, I can”€™t possibly imagine that one would find much political theory or political direction from reading his works. On this point, although perhaps on nothing else, I agree with David Frum, that Russell was first and always a literary figure; and as far as I could tell from having known him, he would not have defined himself in any other way.

I likewise agree with my colleague Wes McDonald, who has written an intellectual biography of his mentor, that Russell’s Catholicism was always problematic. Indeed one could present this figure as a cultural Protestant or disciple of Irving Babbitt as easily as one could as a believing Catholic. But the essential point here is that Russell was interested only very incidentally in political affairs; and although he contributed regularly to National Review in the 1950s and 1960s, his contributions consisted almost entirely of commentaries on American education.

I must also challenge Charles’s distinctions between the old and new paleoconservatives, and I do so with considerable authority. Although his commentary does not mention me, I have acquired the reputation, at least in the New York Times and in ISI publications, of being America’s leading paleoconservative thinker.  I feel in no way slighted because Charles does not list me as such. There is no reason he should. Everyone who goes by this name has developed his own “€œpaleoconservatism”€ and the meanings of the operative term do not necessarily overlap. Journalists of course knew what “€œpaleoconservative”€ meant when I invented that designation twenty years ago. But things have changed since then. We now have two groups that claim the term “€œconservative”€: an establishment power structure dominated by neocon opinions and lubricated with neocon money; and those people on the right who have been kept out of the country club but who also don”€™t get along well with each other. Most of those who have been excluded and who are beyond a certain age have fought themselves into stupefaction, without gaining ground. Most of the younger people in this camp of the marginalized are therefore unimpressed by those who have preceded them, and they are searching for new ways to get their views noticed, while reassessing the inspired texts of the older generation.

In this contest of the generations, I stand entirely on the side of those with a future. My generation of rightists has wasted its chance for success. We can only point to humiliations, continued marginalization, and internecine strife as our war record. Nor have we provided much assistance to each other, unlike our enemies, who like the ancient Spartans as described by Xenophon, “€œsuffer and rejoice together.”€ Most of my generation of paleos has done little to establish a sense of community. The more fortunate ones have husbanded their resources while doing next to nothing for their allies.

That the young are still groping for a way out of the wilderness is to their credit. It is also the privilege of youth to be looking for new paths, and especially given the failures of their quarrelsome elders. Charles has noticed the obvious here, that the “€œnew paleos”€ have little to feel happy about as they view their country and most of the Western world in the grasp of cultural gravediggers and a reckless political class. Does he dispute the justification for this pessimism or the justification for the young paleos”€™ unwillingness to pretend that the solution for Obama is electing more GOP politicians?  As for his censures about their sexual morals, which Charles may fear do not quite meet the standard of Trappist monks, I don”€™t see the licentiousness here that he does. None of the young paleos, to my knowledge, is leading a life of wine and roses. For one thing, they don”€™t have the disposable income for fun and games that their neoconservative enemies are being showered with. Moreover, compared to the philandering Catholic monarchist Charles Maurras, who spent most of his adult life tumbling from one mistress to the next, the “€œnew paleos”€ seem to be models of Puritan sobriety.

Let me stir the pot further by drawing another distinction, between those who want to be political activists and those who do not. Many of the paleos I”€™ve listened to show an otherworldly side, when they”€™re not bashing each other in geriatric rage. They glorify Catholic monastic ideals or invoke the memories of Christian crusades. They complain ceaselessly about modern life and insist that we return to scholastic precepts and medieval models of social organization. But such advice cannot possibly resonate in the current climate of debate, and it is foolish to castigate those young people who wish to have impact on the present age for not following someone else’s nostalgic reveries. 

What Charles’s dirge seems convey is that things were much better in the 1950s. He is urging us to look back to that decade for our conservative benchmark. But my book Conservatism in America suggests a far more critical view of movement conservatives sixty years ago. Most of the bad habits that establishment conservative leaders acquired, such as booting dissenters out of the conservative fold, began in the 1950s, and there is little in the way of nastiness that the neocons have practiced that was not already present in the movement that Buckley built.

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The conservative worldview that conservative theorists patched together during the postwar years was always an improvisation. It was put together out of the overlapping concerns of those who founded NR and who were trying to mix their anti-Communism with something else. The something else was often a food additive, which in my youth I mistook for nourishment. The results of the cooking were not always impressive, even when doused in snappy journalism and laced with references to European thinkers.

And I can easily think of at least a dozen works by American rightists in the last thirty years that are as substantive as anything that came from movement conservative icons fifty years ago. As Richard Spencer has noted more than once, the “€œconservative classics”€ may not be as timeless as paleos have allowed themselves to believe. Just so! I for one would not be able to reread The Road to Serfdom or most of the get-the-Commies polemics of the 1950s without sinking into instant lethargy. What makes treats like Nisbet’s Quest for Community, Buckley’s Up From Liberalism, George Carey’s and Forrest McDonald’s explorations of the Constitution, and Kirk’s more spirited biographical sketches so noteworthy are their marked superiority over the more typical products of the postwar conservative movement, namely windy Cold War invectives and free market pep talks. (I do not list Murray Rothbard’s brilliant economic histories among these postwar conservative treasures, because like me, Murray was pushed off the movement conservative bus quite early in his career.) And yes I have weighed through tons of old conservative texts while preparing my studies of the American conservative movement. These monuments to wordiness are fully worthy of the editorial board of the magazine that Buckley handed over to the minicons. 


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