This talk was delivered on November 23, 2008, at the H.L. Mencken Club.
If the H.L. Mencken Club can achieve that for which it has been formed, it should have an eventful and for those who disagree with us, profoundly disruptive future. We are part of an attempt to put together an independent intellectual Right, one that exists without movement establishment funding and one that our opponents would be delighted not to have to deal with. Our group is also full of young thinkers and activists, and if there is to be an independent Right, our group will have to become its leaders.
For years I’ve belabored acquaintances with the observation by stating that the paleoconservatives who had spent their lives butting their heads against the American conservative movement, were becoming less and less useful. Note that I do not excuse myself from this judgment entirely, for what I’m describing is my own generation and those with whom I’ve been associated. Paleoconservatives did an enormous service in the 1980s when they kept the neoconservatives from swallowing up entire the intellectual and political Right. They had performed something roughly analogous to what the Christians in Asturias and Old Castile had done in the eighth and ninth centuries, when they had whittled away at Muslim control of the Iberian Peninsula. But unlike the rulers of Castile and Aragon, the paleos never succeeded in getting the needed resources to win back lost ground. Unlike the medieval Spanish monarchs, they also didn’t have the space of several centuries in which to realize their goals.
But equally significantly, the curmudgeonly personalities that had allowed the paleos to stand up to those from the Left who had occupied the Right prevented them from carrying their war further. Although spirited and highly intelligent, they were temperamentally unfit for a counterinsurgency. They quarreled to such a degree that they eventually fell out among themselves. Soon they were trying to throw each other out of the shaky lifeboat to which their endangered cause had been confined. Of course considerable disparities in resources and contacts put these partisans into a weaker position than that of their enemies. But their breakdown into rival groups, led by competing heads, commenced early in the conservative wars, and (alas) it has been going on up until the present hour. The founding of our club came out of such a fissiparous event, of the kind that had occurred with some regularity on the Right during the preceding two decades.
Nor is it surprising that the same paleos who broke from the movement often imposed their own litmus tests. Or that their sectarianisms involved highly sectarian opinions over such questions as whether Elizabeth One’s defeat of the Spanish Armada or the later discomfiting of the Stuarts doomed Anglo-American societies to unspeakable moral and political corruption; or (supposedly even more relevant) whether the ethics of Irving Babbitt as selectively filtered through the aesthetics of Benedetto Croce can help save this country from anti-intellectualism or from the disciples of Leo Strauss. Or even more timely, whether being instructed in Babbitt’s view of the Higher Will would have mitigated the misfortune of having the stock market plunge. Although there are other such paleo ruminations that can be cited, I shall be merciful and spare my audience the heavy burden of having to hear about them.
The late Sam Francis used to conjure up an ideal-type essay that sprang from the archaic conservative mentality. It was a fifty-page study by a now deceased University of Georgia professor of English; and it dwelled on how Western society was going to rack and ruin because no one read Flannery O’Connor any more in light of Eric Voegelin’s Order and History. There was, indeed, such an essay, which was not entirely a product of Sam’s fertile imagination and Menckenesque wit. And having read this literary-cultural exercise, I would have to agree that it typified a certain kind of paleo cultural commentary. It is moralizing aspiring to be scholarship. As a European intellectual historian, it seems to me that such tracts at their best strain to resemble something that might have been composed by a French counterrevolutionary two hundred years ago. But these reproductions operate at a higher level of abstraction without showing anything that strikes this reader as being historically relevant.While not all paleo polemics fit this description, many of them do—or at the very least, bear more than a vague resemblance to what is being caricatured.
And I’ve been struck by how often these jeremiads have been accompanied by either frantic endorsements of third- or fourth-party politicians or else mournful laments about how the barbarians are climbing in through our windows and how we should therefore prepare ourselves for pious deaths. The fact that I myself have sometimes written in this vein need not detract from my critical remark. My observation is arguably true even if I too am an aging paleo.
To put this into perspective: what is now called paleoconservatism did not grow out of resistance to the Reformation or French Revolution. It is the product of recent historical circumstances, and it assumed its current form about thirty years ago as a diffuse reaction to the neoconservative ascendancy. It was never unified philosophically, and its division between libertarians and traditionalists was only one of the many lines of demarcation separating those who began to call themselves “paleos” about 25 years ago. In 1986 I noted in an article for the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review that most paleo thinkers were Protestants or Jews. They were also preoccupied with sociobiology, a discipline or way of thinking that had influenced them deeply. Today the paleo camp looks markedly different as well as much older, and it shows little interest in the cognitive, hereditary preconditions for intellectual and cultural achievements. And the despair about American society among paleos may be pushing some of them toward the liberal immigrationist camp, providing they’re not already there. Others of this group have become so terrified by those on their left that they pretend not to notice the stark fact of human cognitive disparities. This quest for innocuousness sometimes takes the form of seminars on educational problems centering on endless sermons about values and featuring rotating lists of edifying books. Presumably everyone would perform up to speed if he/she could avail himself/herself of the proper cultural tools. The fact that not everyone enjoys the same genetic precondition for learning is irrelevant for this politically motivated experiment in wishful thinking.
More recently we have been confronted by another problem on the right, namely groups that give little evidence of being what they claim to be. As far as I can tell, there is nothing intrinsically rightwing about denying the claims of family and society on the putatively autonomous individual. And the dream of living outside of the state in a society of self-actualizing individuals, opening themselves up to being physically displaced by the entire Third World, if its population chooses to settle on this continent, is not a rightist alternative to anything. It is a failed leftist utopia. It is one thing to deplore the modern welfare state as a vehicle of grotesque social change or for its violations of the U.S. Constitution. It is another matter to believe that all authority structures can be reduced to insurance companies formed to protect the property and lives of anarcho-capitalists. Such a belief goes counter to everything we know about human Nature, and even such an embattled anti-welfare- statist as H.L. Mencken never hoped to destroy all government. He loathed egalitarian democracy but not the traditional social and political authorities in which communal life had developed and which conforms to our intertwined social needs.
Having made these critical observations, I would also stress the possibility for positive change represented by this organization. We have youth and exuberance on our side, and a membership that is largely in its twenties and thirties. We have attracted beside old-timers like me, as I noted in my introductory paragraph, well-educated young professionals, who consider themselves to be on the right, but not of the current conservative movement. These “post–paleos,” to whom I have alluded in Internet commentaries, are out in force here tonight. And they are radical in the sense in which William F. Buckley once defined a true Right, an oppositional force that tries to uncover the root causes of our political and cultural crises and then to address them.
And when I speak about the postpaleos, it goes without saying that I’m referring to a growing communion beyond this organization. It is one that now includes Takimag, VDARE.com, and other websites that are willing to engage sensitive, timely subjects.
A question that has been asked of me and of others in this room is why we don’t try to join the official conservative movement. This movement controls hundreds of million of dollars, TV networks, strings of newspapers and magazines, multitudinous foundations and institutes, and a bevy of real and bleached blonds on FOX-news. This is not even to mention the movement’s influence on the GOP, the leaders of which dutifully recite neoconservative slogans. To whatever extent the GOP still has something that can be described as a “mind,” it is what neoconservative surgeons have implanted.
Why then don’t the post-paleos ask to be admitted to this edifice of power? Even as the beneficiaries of second- or even third-rung posts, our younger members would be better off financially than they are in their present genteel, hand-to-mouth existences. It is easy to imagine that even the secretaries at AEI, Heritage or The Weekly Standard earn more than many of those in this room. Movement conservatives certainly have the wind in their sails; and perhaps most of us have been tempted at one time or another to join them in order to benefit from their considerable wealth.
Allow me to suggest two reasons that most of us have not gone over to the Dark Side. One, that side will not have us; and it has treated us, in contrast to such worthies as black nationalists, radical feminists, and open-borders advocates, as being unfit for admittance into the political conversation. We are not viewed as honorable dissenters but depicted as subhuman infidels or ignored in the same way as one would a senile uncle who occasionally wanders into one’s living room. This imperial ban has been extended even to brilliant social scientists and statisticians who are viewed as excessively intimate with the wrong people, that is, with those who stand outside the camp that the neocons occupy and now share with neo-liberals and the center-left. I suspect that most of us, including those who belong to my children’s generation, would not be trusted even if we feigned admiration for Martin Luther King, Joe Lieberman and Scoop Jackson and even if we called for having open borders with Mexico and for attacking and occupying Iran. Even then a credibility gap would be cited to justify our further marginalization.
But there is another factor, beside necessity, which keeps us where we are. We are convinced that we are right in our historical and cultural observations while those who have quarantined us are wrong. This is indeed my position, and it is one that the officers of this organization fully share. But to move from theory to practice, there are two counsels that I would strenuously urge. First, we must try to do what is possible rather than what lies beyond our limited material resources. What we can hope to achieve in the near term as opposed what we might able to do in the fullness of time is to gain recognition as an intellectual Right—and one that is critical of the neoconservative-controlled conservative establishment. Although that establishment does permit some internal dissent, and has even provided support for a handful of worthwhile scholars, it is at least as closed as were the Communist Parties of Eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But unlike that now vanished domination, the neocon media empire is not particularly porous, and with the help of the Left, it is more than able to keep out of public view any serious challenge from the right. It is precisely our goal to become such a challenge. And it is my hope that a younger generation will acquire the resources to do so and will know how to deploy them.
Second, if we wish to advance our cause, we must meditate on the successes of our most implacable enemies. The neocons marched nonstop through the institutions and treasuries of the Right and took them over almost without breaking a sweat. And they did so without themselves having to move to the right. In fact they converted the Right to the Left, by equating their mostly leftist politics with reasonable or non-extremist conservatism. They then pushed into near oblivion anyone on the right who resisted their transformations. And as one of their victims, I certainly begrudge them these successes. But as much as I might rage over neocon mendacity and movement conservative gullibility and cowardice, I can also understand the magnitude of the domination achieved. And as painful as it may be for us, we must try to grasp that in Machiavelli’s language, it was not just Fortuna but also virtu that was at work in making possible our enemies’ spectacular achievements. Their opponents failed not only because they were obviously outgunned but also because we were less well organized, less able to network, and less capable of burying internal grievances.
A friend once noted my ambivalence when I describe my enemies. My repugnance for their shallow ideas and grubby personalities has always been mixed with deep admiration for how they stick together like a band of brothers. It is this side of neoconservative history that we must keep in mind and imitate if we intend to climb out of the oblivion into which they have cast us. Our enemies may be vulgar but they are surely not fools. And their indubitable successes have much to teach anyone who hopes to supplant them—ultimately to do to them what they have done to us.