Liberty Aboard the Lost Ship, NR


The exceptional conservative/libertarian writer William Norman Grigg has struck another blow for liberty with his article, appearing on on July 23, on "Reich" Wing Republicanism, the Bush League "reductio ad absurdum" of conservatism. Always thorough in his research and documentation, Mr. Grigg provided a helpful link to an article in The Independent of England called "Ship of Fools" by Johann Hari. Mr. Hari had taken a seemingly unremarkable trip with a group of conservative "groupies," whose members had paid $1,200 each for the privilege of going on a cruise with the editorial staff of National Review. NR, long established as the bi-weekly ("fortnightly," as founder and longtime editor William F. Buckley, Jr. used to say) semi-official "bible" of American conservatism, still has star power, despite the retirement several years ago of Buckley, the Moses of the American right.

I won’t recount the Hari article, which any reader can find for himself. I will limit myself to a few observations about the comment that awakened the British journalist from his reverie in the sand of a warm-weather port somewhere in the Pacific. As Hari recalls, he was lying on the beach with Hillary-Ann, whom he describes as a "chatty, scatty 35-year-old Californian designer." What snapped him out of his slumber was the remark, "Of course we need to execute some of these people." Execute whom? he asked. Oh, no one really important and not too many of them, he learned.

"A few of these prominent liberals who are trying to demoralise the country," the "chatty, scatty" one explained. "Just take a couple of these antiwar people off to the gas chamber for treason to show, if you try to bring down America at a time of war, that’s what you’ll get. Then things’ll change," she smiled.

Well, I guess they would, but not in a direction that National Review conservatives used to desire. Is there, I wonder, something inherently goofy about being 35 years old? I was 35 once, but it was long ago and my memory is not perfect. I have a memory of a more recent event in a more recent decade. The year was 1995 and I was with a lady friend at Prescott Park in Portsmouth, NH. We had come to see a play that was part of the Prescott Park Arts festival. One of the glorious treats that the festival offers every summer is the opportunity to watch a full length musical comedy under the stars on a soft summer night alongside the Piscataqua River, with several ships at dockside and a few out on the water. On a nearby island is an imposing cement structure that used to be the Portsmouth Naval Prison. The play we were seeing was "The Great USO Show," about a USO troupe traveling and performing during World War II.

What was special about this play was the story within the story. The story had, along with the musical and comedy entertainment, the kind of conflicts inevitable among any group of people living, working and traveling together. But every so often the performers on stage would freeze in place, the stage would be darkened and the music stopped as a radio voice brought the latest news from "the front." It seemed a very realistic representation of the war as it might have been endured in various military outposts and heard by a nation wired together by radio.

During the intermission, my companion, then age 35, turned to me and asked, "Who won World War II, anyway?" I was startled and she must have noticed my dumbfounded look. "Nobody?" she asked, wondering if it had ended in a stalemate like the Korean "conflict" or some distant dispute in the remote past, like the Thirty Years War.

I hardly knew what to say. I was born the year the war ended and grew up learning of how beastly the Germans and Japanese were. Had we lost, it was widely assumed, we would be speaking German or perhaps Japanese, and that would not be the worst of it. We would be alternately bowing and goose-stepping and would be taking our orders from the Fhrer or the emperor, to whom we would have owed our very existence. The glories of our American republic would be gone forever.

"Who won World War II?" Well, that big, imposing building on the island over there, the U.S. Naval prison closed long ago because conditions there were no longer humane, is not a Nazi gulag, is it?

I dredge all this up from my memory, not to make fun of the dear lady. At least she, unlike Hillary-Ann on the NR cruise, was not eager to see gas chambers enforce "patriotism" in 21st-century America. But as Mr. Buckley once said to a pair of British journalists on his "Firing Line" TV program, "Your absolute ignorance is extraordinary!" (I fondly remember one of them mildly objecting that his ignorance could hardly have been "absolute.") How could this lady have lived in the United States of America from 1960 to 1995 without knowing who won World War II? She had grown up in this fair land, had been graduated in a timely manner from high school and was, at the time, we spoke, taking courses at a nearby college. And yet she was as ignorant of the outcome of the world’s most epic struggle as one of those isolated Japanese warriors discovered years later on some remote island, still waiting for reinforcements.

What saddens me about the report from the "Ship of Fools" is the knowledge that I no longer have reason to expect more of the devoted readers of National Review, that esteemed journal of conservative opinion. When Mr. Buckley founded the magazine in 1955, the inaugural issue proclaimed that the lively, humorous journal would be "standing athwart history, yelling, u2018Stop!’" It was generally understood at the time that what the editors wanted to stop was the drift toward socialism and even a left-wing totalitarianism. Now the magazine and its devotees seem determined to stop any interference with America’s drift — nay, gallop — toward a right-wing totalitarianism.

In fairness to the magazine, the publication and its editors may not reasonably be held responsible for the offhand remarks of one of the groupies on its cruise. But what is so disturbing is that her mindset is not much different from what one finds expressed, albeit with greater prudence and more erudition, in the pages of the magazine itself. I no longer read it regularly, so I’m not sure, but I do not believe the editors have yet called for taking war opponents to the gas chambers. But they have expressed their approval of the Bush regime’s policy of imprisoning indefinitely, without charges or trial, those whom it has classified as "enemy combatants."

National Review defended all along the Bush regime’s years-long imprisonment of American citizen Jos Padilla as an "enemy combatant" until legal actions and pending court hearings prompted the administration to finally charge the Puerto Rico-born American with something (I don’t remember what) and begin legal proceedings against him. More recently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia, widely regarded as a conservative court, ruled that a foreign national, here legally on a student visa at the time of his arrest, must be charged with a crime and given due process after having been held in a military prison in solitary confinement for five-and-a-half years. The Bush administration has appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a panel discussion on National Public Radio, National Review political editor Byron York said there was a lot of outrage in the conservative movement over this. For a moment, I enjoyed a flash of optimism. Is he saying, I wondered, that conservatives are outraged at the imprisonment and solitary confinement without charge or trial of someone who was here as a guest of one of the most civilized and freedom-loving countries on earth? No, I sadly realized, of course not. The outrage Mr. York vented was at the court over its impudence in attempting to rein in executive power in a time of war.

The suspect came here after 9-11 and was going to be part of a second wave of terrorism, York said. He reported directly to Al Qaeda’s number two man, etc., etc. I wondered: if it is okay for Byron York to "know" all this, why can’t the Justice Department put it before a judge and jury? Perhaps because there is no solid case here and our government is content to let its flunkies, in National Review and elsewhere, make its case, virtually unopposed, in the court of public opinion.

When I discovered National Review in the Goldwater days of my youth, it was a lively, fun magazine, sticking its thumb in the eye of America’s political and intellectual establishments and decrying the excesses of Lyndon Johnson’s "Caesarism." Now National Review likes Caesarism. All that stuff about limited government, the Constitution, a government of laws not men, is now so "pre-911." The only Caesarism that National Review could plausibly oppose now would be Sid’s.

Those old jokes from "Your Show of Shows" are, after all, also pre-911. They come from another era, when National Review claimed to be raising a flag for freedom. We didn’t know that what they were shouting "Stop!" to was the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the grand tradition of liberty under law.

Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.