Feeling Unnecessarily Guilty

by Paul Gottfried by Paul Gottfried

Since it is highly unlikely that the New York Times will publish the letter below, which does not represent its take on the world, I have given this text to The discussion of the conservative movement that was put on the newspaper’s front page last Wednesday was certainly not intended to enlighten anyone about the American right (or its disintegration). Rather it was used to restate the fixations of the Times’s editorial board, namely, that "right" or "conservative" signifies anti-Semitism and racism but operates as a term of high honor when applied to Bill Kristol and his progenitors. Those figures whom the Times has picked as its preferred "conservatives" become the crowning thinkers of the American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and of what is deemed respectable on the American right. This judgment is entirely predictable and confirms one more time (as if further demonstration is needed) that for the liberal establishment neoconservatives are the only allowable "conservative" opposition. A book of mine now in press with MacMillan explains the reasons for this particular situation and why it would take a cataclysm to change it.

One especially galling feature of the Times’s account is the slam against the Encyclopedia’s contributors (who include, among others, Lew Rockwell, David Gordon, Tom Woods, Jeff Tucker, John Zmirak, and myself) for not stressing the pro-segregationist pasts of some of the Encyclopedia’s subjects. Coming from a newspaper that has talked up Stalinists and other Communist mass-murderers, and has routinely excused black violence, this complaint is outrageously hypocritical. But what else is new about the Times?

I must also register my disappointment that someone whom I respect as an able advocate for the intellectual right, Jeffrey Nelson of ISI, has allowed himself to be pulled into the trap, set by the Times, of deploring the conservative movement’s failures to have condemned segregation and other political and social disadvantages suffered by American blacks in the 1950s. His statement about blacks and the civil rights movement is put forth without nuance: "Our forebears made a mistake on the issue. They were just wrong. I don’t know how to say it more clearly than that." But this unqualified condemnation brings up for me three troublesome problems.

One is the inappropriateness of permitting the newspaper to claim the moral high ground, when its own past sins of commission and omission vastly exceed those of any Southern segregationist governor. It is also not clear that the racial views expressed by Southern conservative opponents of the civil rights movement were substantively different from those whom contemporary liberals now hold in high regard. Were Richard Weaver’s or Donald Davidson’s opinions on racial matters, to cite just two Southern conservatives treated in the Encyclopedia, any less progressive than those of Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, or Abraham Lincoln? Yet the Times has no difficulty discussing the last three figures without feeling morally compelled to discuss their blatantly racist views, which have long been available in print.

The third problem with Nelson’s condemnation is that it overlooks the fact that some of the critics of the civil rights movement may have been correct in their interpretation of contemporary American history. They were looking at the long-range historical dynamic of administrative intrusiveness combined with social turmoil, the bedeviling consequences of which we continue to live with. Although neoconservative George Will notes with delight "the amazing speed with which America has changed for the better" because of the civil rights revolution (New York Post, June 25, 2006), this is not the view of a social conservative or of a strict constitutionalist. What we now have is a permanent revolution fueled by the war against "discrimination" and white guilt over real or alleged racial disparities. We also see, as Bill Buckley presciently warned in his better moments in the 1960s, what happens when tens of millions of black voters, mobilized by civil rights leaders, push the American government steadily leftward. The effect of the black vote mobilized in the 1960s has been to accelerate the social engineering and anti-discrimination shakedowns that "our forebears" sensed would come. My own forebear, that is, my father, warned against these trends until the end of his life and used to complain as a fire commissioner that because of this political mobilization, it was impossible to maintain high, consistent standards for testing prospective firefighters. Such difficulties are not incidental to a supposedly glorious development that Charles Krauthammer and George Will can only speak about in reverential tones. Taken together with racial and gender quotas, government-encouraged racial and gender programs in universities, and the stress from public communicators on the unique evil of the white race, they are all developments that the civil rights movement ushered in.

Most of these themes could already be found in the published views of Martin Luther King, before his non-martyred successors came on the scene. The conservatives who now stand under judgment were not wrong in what they imagined would happen. They simply interpreted a development that was contemporaneous with their adult lives in a less cheerful way than George Will. Like my father, they took a justifiably dim view of where things were going. They knew that the end of History would not be reached as soon as Southern states featured integrated water fountains or earnest black students were admitted to previously all-white Southern universities. Without doubt Southern segregationist politicians could be every bit as sleazy and opportunistic as most of the present members of the US Senate. But the more important question is whether the conservative critics who have now fallen under fire were "outright wrong" in how they understood their own times and in how they explained the incremental revolution that was unfolding before their eyes. The jury is still out on these matters.

To the editor of the New York Times,

Although it is commendable that the Times has given front-page coverage to the recently published American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (June 22, 2006), it might have been even better if you had presented the work more accurately. The encyclopedia, which is truly comprehensive and which I was honored to contribute to, is not a celebration of the American right’s present victorious moment. It is also not a tribute to the Kristol family or to the media popularity of Bill Kristol. Nowhere in the work is the impression given that the office of Kristol’s Weekly Standard (a fortnightly that I hardly ever read) is the place "where the rivers of the right converge." Further, the work does not convey the impression of a matured or unified conservative movement but one that academic acquaintances who read the work recently pointed out to me on a visit to Central Europe is deeply and perhaps irreversibly divided. The encyclopedia is full of entries that openly express this division.

I am also astonished (though perhaps I should not be) by your impatience with the contributors for not dealing more harshly with subjects included in the encyclopedia who had held segregationist views. If your paper embraced the same exacting moral standard, then you would not be allowed to praise such progressives as Bella Abzug without bringing up their past support of the Soviet-Nazi pact and/or of Communist tyrants. Nor would you be permitted to discuss certain civil rights leaders without stressing their failure to denounce unequivocally black urban violence. What befits the conservative goose should apply equally to the liberal gander.