Make-Believe Conservatism

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National Review Isn’t Right

by Daniel McCarthy

A few weeks ago on this very site Jeffrey Tucker wrote what a lot of us have long known to be true but didn’t want to admit: that conservatism’s problems predate the rise of neoconservatism by about two decades, or maybe even more — after all, before there was Bill Buckley and National Review there was Germany’s Bismarck and Britain’s hapless Tories. They were conservatives too, and that’s what they called themselves, unlike America’s traditional anti-statists who generally refused the label. The late Frank Chodorov was known to threaten anyone who called him a conservative with a punch in the nose.

One must not speak ill of the dead, but it is worth saying that not everyone who calls himself a conservative is one, and not everyone who doesn’t isn’t. This isn’t unreasonable: most so-called liberals aren’t liberal, and nowadays there are "libertarians" who don’t give a damn about liberty. Once any political designation has become popular among anti-statists it’s only a matter of time before the other side tries to steal it, and usually succeeds. If it were just the name it wouldn’t matter, but along with the word itself come institutions, misguided individuals, and even whole movements. Once upon a time The Nation magazine really was liberal, in the classical sense, under editors like E.L. Godkin and Oswald Garrison Villard. But the socialists who co-opted the liberal name and implausibly claimed the liberal tradition for their own also took over The Nation. That’s the way it works.

That’s the way it worked with conservatism too, albeit with a twist. National Review, unlike The Nation, was never co-opted. Instead it had been designed from day one as a vehicle though which to redefine the American Right, and to this day that continues to be its mission. That’s why at the same time that a shooting war got under way in Iraq, National Review launched an assault of a different kind closer to home, against the war’s critics on the Right. For months and even years, National Review had ignored the anti-war Right, but with LewRockwell.com’s readership surpassing that of National Review Online and dwarfing that of the print edition of National Review — and with a battalion of other "unapproved" conservatives rising up, from the American Conservative to VDARE — Bill Buckley’s magazine could no longer afford to remain silent. The gang at National Review had to act, or else National Review would not be the "flagship" of the American Right for very much longer.

From the very beginning National Review was an imposture — and even back then a lot of conservatives knew it, as some of the Goldwaterites and pre-Goldwaterites can attest — but as long as the magazine was the only game in town and by far the best known "conservative" outlet it could get away with the fraud. But the Internet made that impossible; now anyone who looks for it can find real conservatism on the web, and given the choice between the real thing and what National Review is selling… well, the numbers speak for themselves.

LewRockwell.com is conservative and National Review isn’t because if conservatism is to mean anything other than mindless defense of the status quo, it has to mean something like this:

…a conservative is a realist, who believes that there is a structure of reality independent of his own will and desire. He believes that there is a creation which was here before him, which exists now not by just his sufferance, and which will be here after he’s gone. This structure consists not merely of the great physical world but also of many laws, principles, and regulations which control human behavior. Though this reality is independent of the individual, it is not hostile to him. It is in fact amenable by him in many ways, but it cannot be changed radically and arbitrarily. This is the cardinal point. The conservative holds that man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.

The words (and the italics) belong to Richard M. Weaver, and are taken from his essay "Conservatism and Libertarianism: The Common Ground," as reproduced in In Defense of Tradition: the Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929—1963. Lest there be any doubt, Weaver specifies in the same essay what some of those "laws, principles and regulations which control human behavior" are: "There is a concept expressed by some economists today in the word u2018praxeology.’ Praxeology, briefly defined, is the science of how things work because of their essential natures."

You won’t find any mention of praxeology at National Review Online, but you most certainly will at LewRockwell.com. Praxeological laws are only one kind of law, however, and only one facet of reality. Unfortunately National Review Online is no better at discussing any other kind of natural law in a systematic fashion. If Weaver’s definition of conservatism is correct or at least within the right ballpark, how can anyone really be a conservative who takes no interest in understanding the "structure of reality" and its "laws, principles and regulations?" Conservatives from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk and beyond have been theory-averse, but not because they did not believe in systematic thought (whether they were systematic thinkers themselves is a different question). It was ideology of which Burke and Kirk were skeptical, ideology meaning to them an artificial rational order that one desires to impose on reality, rather than accepting and understanding reality for itself. Ideology in this sense is the natural law equivalent of Lysenkoism.

LewRockwell.com not only addresses conservative theory better than the putative "flagship" of the Right, however, but also the specific instantiations of the theory in culture, traditions and institutions. An unmistakable characteristic of LRC and of the "paleoconservatives" is an appreciation for specific regions of the United States, especially the South. A film like Gods and Generals is important to the "paleo-Right" not just as a historical curiosity, but as a work that tells us something about an embodied reality, an intersection of principle — in this case the South’s fight for independence — and events. The "paleo" concern with specific cultures, and most especially one’s own culture, is partly emotional but not just emotional — it isn’t nostalgia. It’s both a feeling and an awareness of how the social world in which we live derives from and represents the underlying natural order; how a given place and time specifically express the nature of man and the laws that govern him. As for David Frum and National Review, on the other hand, the closest they ever come to an understanding of place is their talk about the "red" and "blue" zones of the country.

One place that the National Review gang certainly doesn’t understand is America; its character and traditions are alien to them. Ask yourself: who is the more plausible heir of the Spirit of ’76, National Review or LewRockwell.com? The roots of National Review’s pseudo-conservatism extend back no more than fifty years, to National Review’s own founding and the beginning of William F. Buckley’s career as a writer not long before that. The roots of LewRockwell.com’s conservatism, on the other hand, can be found in H.L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, and beyond them all the way back to the Anti-Federalists and the Founding Fathers. George Washington’s farewell address, with its appeal for free trade and admonitions against interventionism abroad, reads more like something off of this site than something that might be found in the pages of National Review.

So foreign is National Review’s brand of statist "conservatism" to these shores that the magazine has had to import a very large number of its writers from abroad. Hence the spectacle of a Canadian like David Frum, who just got his US citizenship papers from a federal bureaucrat, calling Lew Rockwell and others on the anti-war American Right "unpatriotic." Does he mean that they’re not loyal enough to Canada? Lately National Review-style conservatives have taken to chattering about "transnational progressivism." But what about transnational conservatism? The March 24, 2003, issue of National Review carried the most un-American cover story imaginable: it was called — you couldn’t make this up if you tried — "The Empire of Freedom" and proposed resurrecting the British Empire under the rubric of an "Anglosphere," an empire no doubt to be lead by an elite coterie of transnationalists much like those affiliated with National Review.

National Review’s line on immigration is particularly telling — debate the minutiae, but never question in principle the propriety of repopulating the country in order to change its character. After all, that’s what National Review has done to the American Right. Peter Brimelow is the exception that proves the rule. Born in Lancashire, he became an American citizen and has since fought to preserve the character of the place to which he has given his loyalty. Naturally enough he’s persona non grata at National Review these days, and has had his views denounced by Jonah Goldberg — at the time National Review Online’s editor and designated hatchet man — as "narrow and nasty."

What National Review has been trying to create is not even genuine British conservatism. A high Tory like Peregrine Worsthorne does not want to see his land reduced to the status of a cultural and military satellite of the United States. National Review’s transnational conservatism is actually the worst of both worlds: the paternalism and statism of the British Right wedded to some of the more crass and barbaric tendencies within the American character. The amalgam might be called "managerial philistinism." It’s the antithesis of civilization.

David Frum and his colleagues are so shrill about attacking the patriotism of others because they know they have no patriotism themselves; their loyalty is to an ideology. Real patriotism has to accept a land for what it is, warts and all, and can rest secure in the knowledge that someone like Alexander Cockburn may be a man of the Left, but he’s characteristically a man of the American Left, as are many of those who get denounced by neoconservatives as un-American. Men like Cockburn and Gore Vidal are more American — and because of their relationship to the American character, also more conservative — than David Frum will ever be. To say this is not to play the nationalist or "nativist" — America and the American Right need people like Brimelow and Taki Theodoracopulos who adopt America’s traditions — it’s just to appeal for truth in advertising. National Review ought be called the Transnational Review and should not call its imperialistic ideology "conservatism."

There’s nothing remotely conservative about that ideology, least of all its militarism. Someone who was in a position to know was the sociologist Robert Nisbet, one of the leading lights of the conservative renascence in America in the 1950s and a man who literally wrote the book — or a book at least — on conservatism, Conservatism: Dream and Reality. Nisbet, who unlike the chicken-hawks at National Review actually served in the military and even saw combat in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, had this to say about conservatism and militarism:

"…in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the two World Wars, in Korea, and it Vietnam, the leaders of American entry into war were such renowned liberal-progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank and file, were largely hostile to intervention; were isolationists indeed."

National Review tends to be rather coy about the origins of its ideology but someone whose views are practically identical to the gang at NR has been quite explicit — Max Boot, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, who in an extraordinary article entitled "What is a u2018Neocon?’" suggested that he would prefer to be called a "Hard Wilsonian," meaning that he "embrace[s] Woodrow Wilson’s championing of American ideals but reject[s] his reliance of international organizations and treaties to accomplish our objectives," preferring instead to use direct military force. This ideology, espoused as it is by so many cowards who refuse to do any fighting themselves, cannot really be called "hard," but it is Wilsonian. It certainly isn’t conservative. In fact, it’s frankly revolutionary, as one National Review ideologue gloats. There’s a bit of Napoleon here and more than a bit of Jacobinism; the cause of National Review today is the very cause against which Edmund Burke once stood. Nisbet, a real Burkean, wrote in Conservatism: Dream and Reality that "Reagan’s passion for crusades, military and moral, is scarcely American-conservative. The neoconservative, neo-Wilsonian crusade for "democracy" is both military and moral.

(It’s worth remarking in passing: yes, Nisbet was a conservative who wasn’t afraid to criticize Ronald Reagan. One more sign of the corruption of National Review-style conservatism is its fawning over Reagan and, even more, George W. Bush, a phenomenon which bears some resemblance to the old Cult of Personality surrounding Stalin in the Soviet Union. It’s hard to conclude that President Bush is anything other than a mediocrity unless you look at the world through a lens of ideology. The emperor is wearing no clothes.)

Was there ever a time when National Review was conservative? Certainly conservatives were once published in its pages, especially in the early years when National Review was seeking to establish itself as the voice of the American Right and American conservatives were in desperate need of a journal. But once National Review had counterfeited its credentials it soon began to purge anyone on the Right who disagreed with its line, from the John Birch Society to Murray Rothbard, and later Joseph Sobran. From the beginning, however, National Review was chiefly concerned with foreign policy, and espoused a militarism thoroughly unlike anything that had previously existed on the American Right. Over time the magazine’s positions on other issues have changed, but where war and the warfare State were concerned it remained constant. It has tolerated dissent from its line elsewhere, but when it comes to war National Review likes to excommunicate the perceived heretics; that’s what it did with Murray Rothbard during Vietnam, and it’s what the magazine is trying to do now to anti-war conservatives. Whether or not the magazine was set up by the CIA, it has always put "national security," as defined by the federal government, above the conservative traditions of America. Having slandered most of its rivals on the Right as kooks or anti-Semites, National Review can now afford to be more open about its imperial agenda. But this has come to pass at the very same time that the real Right, the anti-statist conservative and libertarian Right, has re-emerged with new venues, both on the Internet and on newsstands. This is very frightening for National Review and its brand of ersatz conservative; David Frum’s hit-piece was an indication of how much they fear the antiwar, anti-state Right. And so they should, because our tradition is very firmly rooted in this country, and is not about to be supplanted.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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