Thursday, August 16, 2018

Commentary: A Conservatism of Principle

Anyone comparing the post-World War II conservative movement to its current media successor may note something in the older movement that has vanished from its successor. Despite its often rigid anti-Communist focus, the group that William F. Buckley brought together as editors and contributors to National Review in the 1950s argued incessantly with each other. Some of these disputes went on for years, for example, between Russell Kirk and Frank S. Meyers and between the usually taciturn Kirk and the explosive Willmoore Kendall. The conservative movement also featured a debate with many phases between the Southern conservative M.E. Bradford and the defender of democratic equality and Lincoln’s legacy Harry Jaffa.
This last debate went on for so long in National Review and later Modern Agethat I could still recall decades later the resounding clashes between these two gladiatorial debaters. Although Jaffa and Bradford agreed on very little philosophically, Jaffa did rise to the defense of Bradford when he was being considered for the Directorship of the NEH in 1981. Even more remarkably, Jaffa, who worshipped Lincoln, defended Bradford when he came under journalistic attack for making an abrasive reference to Lincoln in a footnote in one of his books.
What clearly differentiated the conservative movement of bygone years from what has taken its place was a willingness to express sharp internal disagreement and to defend conflicting positions with passion and high learning. This is not to say that the conservative movement tolerated all dissent. It featured one dogma that no member of the inner circle was allowed to dispute: anti-Communism and as a corollary, a vigorous struggle against the Soviets as the leading Communist adversary. But otherwise there was remarkably open debate, and those who participated in it received no conceivable earthly reward, such as lucrative book contracts, invitations to appear on Fox as an all-star or a column in the Washington Post. Being conservative back then was about standing one’s ground not only against the Left but also against other self-described conservatives; and the warrior took positions entirely out of principle.
Today conservative celebrities often seem obsessively concerned about positioning themselves in a way that allows them to advance their careers. This came to mind while I was looking at Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West, a sprawling collection of mainstream political views for which the author picked the title of a very contentious book written by James Burnham, a giant of the post-World War II American Right. I doubt that there’s even a single page inBurnham’s book, first published in 1964, which would not enrage today’s thought police. Burnham spoke critically about human rights rhetoric and argued that the Civil Rights Revolution, which had only begun then, would lead to more, not less, racial discord. As I now read over Burnham’s views of an earlier era, it seems that I’m looking at something that arrived from a different planet.  
Goldberg and Burnham grew up in very different cultures, which may help explain why Goldberg’s opinions often seem to have come out of left field. He defends government-enforced affirmative action for blacks, even while counterfactually depicting himself as a libertarian. Moreover, Goldberg “thinks” but never shows that accelerated immigration from Third World countries is helping to raise the living standards of American workers. But let me resist the impulse to be overly critical. Goldberg is trying to make it in a conservative movement that is entirely different from the one that Burnham helped shape.
In the 1960s there was no conservative media or massive donor base that rewarded conservative journalists with TV appearances and raised them to national celebrity. William F. Buckley was an exception to this rule, but I don’t remember any other self-proclaimed conservative whom one got to see very often on TV. The present conservative movement requires its stars to accept certain consensus positions that all nice people are supposed to hold, e.g., never speaking out against gay marriage or “moderate” feminism. Although the same stars hope to market themselves as “conservatives,” they also feel obliged to engage in virtue-signaling, for example, by attacking white racism and praising the civil rights revolution almost ritualistically. On November 27, Laura Ingraham spent a large part of her evening program on Fox gushing with joy over the forthcoming wedding of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle. When a black guest asked Laura if she noticed that Meghan was part black, she feigned offense that someone would even bring up that subject. Fox-Insider tried to make it appear that Laura bested her guest by exclaiming “Must we put our racial hangups on the happy couple?” Needless to say, the guest had figured out the real motive for Laura’s weird outburst of joy.
Most of those who wrote for National Review, Modern Age, and other conservative publications of the post-World War II years (most of which had very limited circulation) would have recoiled from such theatrics. They were not media personalities, but pugnacious intellectuals or secluded men of letters like Russell Kirk.  Being conservative brought those who accepted this label few monetary or professional rewards. Journalists and academics who called themselves “conservative,” were neither intellectually inferior nor less conservative than those who took their place. But they were far more driven by ideas and less subject to media pressures.

Editor's note: This article was originally published at American Thinker and has been reproduced with permission of its author.

Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.

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