The American Right's Memory Holes

Conservatives traditionally have wrung their hands about lost traditions. As far as I’m concerned, it’s mostly for show these days.

If those on the Right were really concerned about lost traditions, they would begin to recover their own lost traditions. A generation has come to maturity without any notion of what preceded them.

Today, you can buy a copy of Adobe Acrobat Pro for about $250 and a $70 scanner. With these simple tools, you can scan in a page from a magazine or a newsletter. You can post this on the web. The page can be made searchable by Google or any other search engine. It looks very close to the original document. The whole procedure can be farmed out: scanned and put into PDF format for under 30 cents per page. Cheap!

If you want to see excellent examples of this technology in action, see the list of classic books that the Mises Institute has posted.

Book Reprints

I did this years ago with my organizations’ books and newsletters: I used an older imaging technology: DjVu. It produces a far better image than Acrobat does, but Google doesn’t search it. I also produced PDF files with an ancient program that left many errors. At some point, I will re-scan them. But it’s not imperative. Anyone can still get the basics. Free.

Think of the gems lying at the bottom of the memory holes. The John Birch Society has decades of American Opinion, plus Robert Welch’s letters. The Foundation for Economic Education has decades of The Freeman and Leonard E. Read’s Notes from FEE. Human Events has decades of the original newsletter known as Human Events. Where are the complete on-line files of National Review and Russell Kirk’s The University Bookman? Modern Age is on-line. Why not all the others?

Somewhere, there are files of newsletters like The Dan Smoot Report and Don Bell Reports. These were gold mines of Constitutional insights and commentary on the leviathan state.

Then there are the newsletters sent to donors by dozens of Right-wing activist organizations. These organizations struggled against the liberal Establishment from the late 1940s through the 1970s. Their efforts are lost to historians and journalists. They are lost to their own donors. All of this material can be scanned in and posted. An intern could do it in one summer vacation, organization by organization.

Then there are the publishing houses: in the early years, Regnery, Devin-Adair, and Caxton; later, Arlington House. Their books are long out of print. They should be on-line. I have in mind the classic books on Roosevelt’s maneuvering to get the Japanese to attack the United States, as well as James J. Martin’s two-volume masterpiece, American Liberalism and World Politics, 1931—1941.


Q: Why doesn’t your organization post its old publications on-line?

A: Nobody cares about history.

Q: But you say you’re a conservative. Conservatives care about history. Don’t you care about history?

A: Not if it doesn’t sell. I care about the bottom line.

Q: But what about all the ideological battles of the past?

A: What about them?

Q: Don’t your donors today deserve to know about them?

A: Our donors don’t send donations based on inconclusive battles by my long-forgotten predecessors. They care about the latest life-and-death struggle for which we have just sent out a fund-raising letter.

Q: But isn’t there continuity in history?

A: The only thing I can think of is Teddy Kennedy. My predecessors sent out “Teddy’s gonna get you if you don’t send us money” fund-raising letters for two decades, and so do I. Teddy still sells.

Q: But aren’t there fundamental principles that link your predecessors to you?

A: There is only one. If a fund-raising letter doesn’t pull in more money than it cost to mail it, we quit mailing it. My predecessors also adhered to this principle.

Q: But what about the giants of the past, without whom your organization would not exist?

A: They’re all dead.

Q: But are their ideas dead?

A: I have no idea.

Q: But haven’t you at least skimmed through the back issues?

A: No.

Q: Then why did you become a conservative?

A: Because Ann Coulter has great legs.

Q: Wasn’t that what liberals said about Gloria Steinem in 1975?

A: Who’s she?

Q: But isn’t conservatism a movement based on ideas?

A: Yes, one: “Teddy Kennedy’s gonna get you if you don’t sent us money.”


The conservative chatter about the integrity of tradition is mostly that: chatter. The organizations of the Right have their own memory holes. It’s not that these are self-conscious memory holes, where historical documents were deposited to be forgotten in order to be rewritten. They are rather memory holes of the dusty filing cabinet variety. Forgotten. Yet conservatism is supposed to the social philosophy of self-conscious memory. I say: “Conservatism is as conservatism does.”

If you want the attitude of modern American conservatives toward the history of American conservatism, think of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A low-level worker is pushing the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant. He is inside a gigantic warehouse. He pushes the crate around a corner and disappears.

March8, 2007

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2007