The Great Conservative “No!”
William F. Buckley Jr. talks with former California Governor Ronald Reagan at the South Carolina Governor's Mansion in Columbia S.C., on January 13,1978
In the ’80s and ’90s, the GOP basked in an atypical rep as “the party of ideas.” Thanks to the liberal project’s distinctly dilapidated charms once Jimmy Carter got done playing the concerned mortician, the rise of deep-pocketed think tanks and often sharp-witted neocon intellectuals—and, not least, Newt Gingrich’s endlessly self-fertilizing conception of himself as a brainiac—it wasn’t even undeserved. Revealingly, though, all that froufrou stayed disconnected from the party’s popular appeal. Unlike midcentury Democrats, for whom Adlai Stevenson’s intellectualism and the New Frontier’s Harvard pedigree were pluses, the Republican base never did develop much of a taste for white meat disguised as gray matter, preferring Gingrich the hyper--partisan to Gingrich the guru every time.
Today’s conservative elites have learned the dangers of flirting, no matter how disingenuously, with innovative thinking. (Pace Paul Ryan, destroying Medicare isn’t an innovation; it’s an eternal dream.) From cap-and-trade and immigration reform to the individual health mandate, the big risk is that your notions will sound plausible enough for the other fellow to find merit in them. When the other fellow is Barack Obama, it’s obviously “Hulk smash” time, at whatever cost to intellectual consistency.
So I gather, anyhow, from The New Leviathan: The State Versus the Individual in the 21st Century and Future Tense: The Lessons of Culture in an Age of Upheaval, two compilations of jeremiads by the conservatives’ intellectual crème de la froth. Individually published in pamphlet form over the past three years by Encounter Books honcho Roger Kimball, the essays of The New Leviathan aim to bring, he says, “an 18th-century sense of political urgency and rhetorical wit” to the modern age. The companion volume, Future Tense, also commemorates the 30th anniversary of The New Criterion, the neocon arts magazine founded by the late Hilton Kramer, which Kimball now edits.
In a bubbly mood, George F. Will—who contributes The New Leviathan’s foreword—suggests we’re in for a rare treat. The table of contents is a better guide to the trudge readers are in for. Try this for a version of The Avengers where everybody just takes turns punching Loki in the face: “How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty” (John R. Bolton), “How the Obama Administration Threatens to Undermine Our Elections” (John Fund), “How the Obama Administration Threatens Our National Security” (Victor Davis Hanson), “How the Obama Administration Has Politicized Justice” (Andrew C. McCarthy), “How Barack Obama Is Bankrupting the U.S. Economy” (Stephen Moore), “How Obama Has Mishandled the War on Terror” (Michael B. Mukasey). Out of 13 essays, only 5 don’t indict the Other by name in their title.
Lesser villains include government unions (helping to bankrupt America, Daniel DiSalvo says), “progressive institutions” (unsustainable, according to Richard A. Epstein), the Environmental Protection Agency’s “green tyranny” (Rich Trzupek), and “The Dependency Agenda” (Kevin D. Williamson’s disgraceful, LBJ–calumniating contribution). By my count, that leaves just one poor bastard—Glenn H. Reynolds in “The Higher Education Bubble”—analyzing a credible problem almost as if the main point is to figure out what to do about it, not turn the issue into a stick to beat the opposition with. Luckily for my sanity, Reynolds signals he’s one of the brethren by ridiculing diversity programs and economically unproductive liberal-arts degrees.
Anyhow, The New Leviathan’s other contributors should feel aggrieved that John Bolton gets to kick things off; it’s like being asked to follow James Brown doing “Sex Machine.” Few men are as likely as Bolton to invite a suspicion that they only wear a mustache and keep their eyebrows bushy to help soak off the saliva. It’s been too long, J.B.—and of course, you’re right. It’s probably time to trot out the old sample case now that you’re in the running to be, Lord help us, Mitt Romney’s secretary of state.
His contumely at Obama—“our first post-American president”—for bending the knee to the “international Left’s” underhanded schemes of global governance is a splendid performance, right down to the inevitable mention of how “small” and easily picked-on Israel is. Rarely stooping to concrete examples that would illustrate his thesis—aside from a few snippets of Obama’s oratory in his citizen-of-the-world mode, none exists—he finds room for salvos at everything from his eternal bête noire, the U.N., to his new one, internationalist-minded NGOs. While picking the prize nugget in this feast of bellicose nutballism is no easy job, the recommendation that “defenders of American sovereignty … must develop international capabilities like the Left’s NGOs” is berserk even by Bolton standards. You simply have no idea what he’s advocating: Tea Partiers Without Borders? The International Rifle Association?
Considering that Obama has waged war on al-Qaeda more effectively than Bush did—and shown less regard for constitutional niceties, not to mention Pakistan’s hurt feelings, in the process—how to portray him as a foreign-policy weakling vexes not only Bolton but several of his colleagues. Michael Mukasey does grant Obama “one or two tactical successes,” which is charitable. But that’s only on the way to upbraiding his administration for living “in a fantasy world in which choices have no consequences,” by which he chiefly means giving up torture as an intelligence tool. Clearly, George W. Bush’s last attorney general not only misses the good old days but hates how they’ve been tarnished, since he spends several paragraphs assuring us that Gitmo is a swell place to be indefinitely detained in.
For Victor Davis Hanson, Obama’s sins include leaving “vulnerable Israel”—I told you it was inevitable, didn’t I?—to cope unaided as Iran threatens to become “a nuclear regional hegemon,” something Israel itself has been for decades. Meanwhile, the Loki in the White House cozies up to Latin America’s most left-wing regimes—a “natural” complement to his domestic agenda, which “seeks to … redistribute supposedly illegitimately obtained private capital” right here at home. That incidentally puts Hanson on the same page as Stephen Moore, who calls Obama’s ten-year budget blueprint a “socialist fantasy that read as though ghostwritten by Hugo Chavez.” Nonsense, say I. It wasn’t that wordy.
Elsewhere, John Fund and Andrew C. McCarthy both mount attacks on Obama’s Justice Department. Fund’s has its moments, since all Justice Departments are politicized by their parent administration’s priorities, and it’s never that hard to make Eric Holder look at once overweening and shilly-shallying. However outrageous, the GOP’s current jihad against him derives from a shrewd recognition that he’s the Obama cabinet’s weak link.
Regrettably, Fund’s argument is dulled by his old-fashioned notion that sounding reasonable can be a useful ploy in convincing readers he didn’t spot the fire first and the smoke second. That makes him seem tame next to McCarthy, who’s off to the races as soon as he suggests that—“Given the well-known anti-gun obsessions of top Obama officials”—the hidden goal of the Fast and Furious program may have been “to bolster the left’s claim that America’s ‘gun culture’ fuels international violence.” God, but we pinkos are diabolical at propaganda.
It’s worth remembering that Kimball’s contributors represent the respectable—indeed, in their own minds, the high-minded—face of conservative thinking. (Pimples on the body politic’s rump like, say, Jonah Goldberg are blessedly MIA, although it may go without saying that the heterodox likes of David Frum are too.) Yet with few exceptions, Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” is in full cry. Never particularized as to personnel but clearly meaning us no good, shadowy entities like “globalists” and “the international Left” flit malignantly through essay after essay, like the Comintern trying out a casual-Fridays look.
Any approach to the world that even hints at sharing Thomas Jefferson’s outmoded concern with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” is sure to be reviled as an assault on our sovereignty, exceptionalism, and freedom to administer whuppings to anybody in our way. That’s particularly true of international covenants that might oblige us to play by the same rules as everyone else, of course. But almost as bad is any tainting of homegrown American jurisprudence by so much as a mild curiosity about how other countries get the job done. Even poor Justice Anthony Kennedy—not yet redeemed by his vote against Obamacare—gets scolded because he “trends transnational-
progressive,” conjuring up a disturbing image of the get-your-freak-on outfit under his chaste robes.
As it happens, that’s Andrew C. McCarthy again—but in Future Tense, the other and lesser of Kimball’s compilations, to which he contributes a charmer titled “Enter Totalitarian Democracy.” Overall, Future Tense’s only divergence from The New Leviathan is that its dudgeon casts a wider net of blame, which has the welcome fringe benefit of making it the less monotonous of the two. Clearly a man who never goes on vacation, Victor Davis Hanson compares Obama to Pericles and finds the Kenyan metrosexual wanting. Andrew Roberts mourns the shackling of the “American Prometheus” by “self-hating Americans” who “embrace an effete European-style social democracy.”
Then somebody parodying Charles Murray—apparently with Murray’s permission, since his byline isn’t in quotes—applies “historiometric methods” to determine the preconditions for a great culture. Anyone capable of claiming that “artistic elites have been conspicuously nihilist for the last century” is destined to sound brainy only on Twitter, but Murray futzes around a good deal before his roundhouse punch: “Religiosity is indispensable to a major stream of artistic accomplishment.”
Luckily, a couple of contributors seize the chance to write about things that interest them in the guise of furthering Kimball’s agenda. James Panero is fun and smart about museums as the present’s all-too-fungible—or should that be smartible?—idea of the past. David Bentley Hart’s “America and the Angels of Sacré-Coeur” is imitation Henry Adams that arrives at the same conclusion as Murray does but with more sophistication. If you’re starved for heresy, Hart’s impudent admission that he has no “emotional investment in America’s pre--eminence”—he’s a Brit, allowing for court-jester license—almost makes up for his unwarranted belief that he has a sinuous prose style.
Yet there’s a paradox here. Aside from Andrew Roberts’s appeals to the leonine legacy of Omaha Beach, Valley Forge, and (seriously) Custer’s Last Stand—despite, he says, “the sneers of the intellectuals and the jibes of the late-night satire shows,” a charge that doesn’t make me any readier to take lessons in martial Americana from a man who writes about “the defense [my italics] of Guadalcanal”—these outraged patriots seldom if ever celebrate American culture. That ongoing proof of capitalism’s redeeming glories— from Hollywood to the Super Bowl—might have made even Karl Marx think twice the first time he caught himself humming “Don’t Worry, Baby” or getting misty-eyed over The Searchers. Granting that he’s a foreigner, Hart’s astounding claim that “spirituality … makes very little contribution to the aesthetic surface of American life” just tells you he’s never heard George Jones sing. Or Ray Charles, either, and how can you analyze Barack Obama’s appeal if you don’t even know who Al Green is?
Hart isn’t the only one. In fact, how little these people seem to be familiar with—let alone appreciate—the genius of the nation they’re allegedly defending is a little eerie. In not only their disdain but their ignorance, they could almost be, well, European. The same goes for most of the contributors’ patent craving for an autarchic and militarized nation-state to replace our imperfect but lagniappe-crammed democracy. I don’t know about you, but personally, I think they’re trying to civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
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