McCarthy Was Right

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A commentary published by Daniel McCarthy on this website (January 7) made the perceptive point that what is now officially viewed as "conservatism" bears no resemblance to the historical right in the US or anywhere else. This bogus Right is not only in no way conservative, but has little connection to the nineteenth and early twentieth-century liberalism to which it is often likened. That liberal worldview once mandated constitutional and ethical restraints on what government administration might do to social institutions and stressed the need for property qualifications on voting. (Under the old liberal dispensation, the franchise was a privilege and certainly not a "human right.") McCarthy is correct to observe that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal are now the models of contemporary "conservative" leadership. "Conservative" journalists and pols heap extravagant praise on both, when they’re not doing the same for Lincoln as the grandfather of the civil rights movement or for Martin Luther King as its father.

Despite this drifting conservative identity, it seems that contemporary mislabeled conservatives have been able to keep their ill-fitting label through a combination of favorable circumstances. Certainly their gaggle of liberal media friends do not begrudge them the use of false packaging, particularly when the alternative is to have to face those farther to the right. It is nice for leftists be able to hold debates with their own kind, that is, with those one can schmooze with over the size of a tax cut or over whether Hillary Clinton or Rick Lazio will be the more caring Senator from New York. And another factor contributes to the problem of misidentity: the funding, apparently without strings, that has come from Rupert Murdoch and from other press barons has permitted the neoconservatives to build a vast communications empire.

Such a position has allowed them to market themselves as "conservative," by virtue of their access to tens of millions of viewers and readers. It matters little what people actually are, providing they and their well-placed friends keep ascribing to them a particular identity. Those who differ from this judgment can always be accused of antiquarian definitions. In this case dissenters will likely be accused of much more, such as insensitivity, anti-Semitism, and fascist isolationism. When all is said and done, nothing beats having power to get one’s frame of reference accepted.

But there is more to the story of how non-conservatives can bestow on themselves a conservative identity without being laughed at as clownish impostors. "Conservative" journalists have perfected certain tricks to get away with semantic nonsense. Thus Jonah Goldberg, in the latest issue of National Review, expresses the pious hope that the "Pope will come closer to the West." What in Heaven’s name is this West that Goldberg has set out to defend and which John Paul ll is being urged to join?

Readers of NR who are dumb as stumps (and I must assume that most are) will leap to the conclusion that Goldberg is upholding traditional Western civilization, on which the bishop of Rome has mysteriously turned his back. But the "West" that NR’s editors have in mind is a post-Christian, postliberal, and postconservative phenomenon, run by retread Communists and supranational social engineering bureaucracies. The only thing Western about this West is that its population is still (in spite of NR) predominantly Euro-American and its sprawling administrative governments occupy a region in which Western civilization once existed and thrived as a distinctive religious-cultural entity.

As far as I can make out, this is not the West that Goldberg talks about online or in his magazine. That West is a neoconservative creation, based on global democratic imperialism, inclusion of Israel as a prototypical American-style democracy, and calibrated versions of certain progressive movements, like feminism, that triumphed in the second half of the twentieth century. The Pope, who leads the ancient Western church, is allegedly anti-Western because he has failed to rally to the neoconservative position on bombing. Since being for the West means being a neoconservative, the Pope’s real failing is not following the Commentary-National Review line.

Another neoconservative game for legitimating claims to being the true conservative side is identifying those who are on the genuine right with the unacceptable left. This of course takes as a given the social democratic platitude that "the two extremes touch," which they sometimes do but more often don’t. To illustrate my point: the authoritarian right may be arbitrary in trying to restore order but does not create totalitarian societies; by contrast, the left, if given enough time and control, will bring about such societies as a matter of course. Total social control is the telos of leftist politics, the end toward which it inevitably moves because of its unswerving dedication to social planning.

Yet the neoconservatives keep rejecting conservative critics of the modern world, ostensibly because they are crypto-leftists who are mistakenly identified with the conservative side. For those who recall my comments on Goldberg’s attack on Joseph de Maistre, made last June, it simply blew my mind that one could treat a French counterrevolutionary as a leftwing radical, because he questioned the notion of "universal right." Maistre was in fact an ultra-conservative, in the early nineteenth-century sense. As a man of the old European right, he did not hold the leftist view on human rights that Goldberg presents as the quintessential conservative doctrine. Without necessarily agreeing with all of Maistre’s opinions, it seems to me inexcusably dishonest to treat him as a leftist precisely for not sounding like one.

Equally illustrative of neocon duplicity is a response that a young friend of mine, H. Lee Cheek, received from the book editor of National Review. Cheek had politely asked (and he does everything with conspicuous courtesy) whether the inscrutable Michael Potrema intended to send out for review his recently published work Calhoun and Popular Rule (University of Missouri, 2001); whereupon he learned that Calhoun was not a fit subject for discussion because he had presented more or less the same theory of government as "the leftist Lani Guinier."

This response is breathtakingly untrue. Only a low-grade moron, which I shall generously assume Potrema is not, can believe Guinier’s critique of the democratic majority, based on her views of racial and gender "fairness," is the same as Calhoun’s understanding of "concurrent majorities." One can oppose either or both theories but the two are not remotely similar.

Nor would Cheek, a conservative political theorist and devout Christian minister, have been sent so cynically on his way if he were a famous leftist like Guinier. NR would have slobbered over his personage, the way it does with all the leftists it happily publishes and whose books it obligingly reviews. By pretending that those on their right are really on their left, the pseudo-right can continue to do what it does best, attack the real right as the hidden left while fawning on the liberal establishment.

Paul Gottfried [send him mail] is professor of history at Elizabethtown College and author, most recently, of the highly recommended After Liberalism.

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