Queen of the Damned
“What I like best about the Order of the Garter,” Lord Melbourne is reported to have remarked, “is that there is no damned merit about it.” Had the Philadelphia Society existed in Melbourne’s day, he would have found damned little merit in it either, though the society is not on quite the same level of social prestige as the unmeritorious Knights of the Garter. Founded in 1964, the Philadelphia Society is a small band of conservative eggheads of which I have had the honor and pleasure to be a member since 1979. Probably almost all the more important figures of American conservatism of the 1960’s were members also, and the character of the society is distinctly Old Right. Not only I but several other editors of or contributors to Chronicles are or have been members of the society, which helps explain why there is no merit involved. (Indeed, I even served on its Board of Trustees for a couple of years in the 1980’s.)
What is involved—or at least what most members always thought was involved—in gaining admission to the society’s august ranks and inner precincts was adherence to something like the philosophical conservatism of the Old Right, the conservative consensus or “conservative mainstream” of the 1950’s and 60’s, a body of thought from which I have come to dissent in several respects in recent years but which did provide the framework for both my own intellectual and political development and that of many other writers and activists of the American right. Yet, in the last few months, it has become virtually impossible to preserve the illusion that the society takes even that philosophical commitment seriously anymore. At its meeting in April, it chose as its new president none other than Midge Decter.
Miss Decter, like Elizabeth Taylor and most other female celebrities, is always known by her maiden name, although she would be just as well known if she used her married one—Mrs. Norman Podhoretz. Both husband and wife are founders of neoconservatism, a body of thought that is just as distinctly not what characterizes the Philadelphia Society as Old Right conservatism once did characterize it. The appointment of Miss Decter as the society’s president largely eviscerates the pretense that the latter still does.
If there is no merit about the society, neither is there much democracy, which is just as well usually. Despite my statement that the society “chose” Miss Decter as president, officers are rather mysteriously appointed and are never elected by the whole membership. Exactly who did choose Miss Decter and how, let alone why, remains as much of a mystery as what happened to Amelia Earhart. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the neoconservatism she, her husband, and a handful of their cronies invented in the 1970’s, it has little in common with what the Philadelphia Society and the Old Right in general have always professed.
Yet what makes her appointment even more bizarre is her relationship with one of the Philadelphia Society’s leading figures of the recent past, the late Russell Kirk. Dr. Kirk, perhaps the major and most influential exponent of “Burkean” or classical conservatism in the United States in the late 20th century, was a founding member of the Philadelphia Society and its past president. If there is any individual who embodied Old Right conservatism of that era, it was he, and all who knew him knew he had as little use for the neoconservatism espoused by Miss Decter and her circle as the neoconservatives do for what he believed.
In 1988, in a speech about neoconservatism at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Dr. Kirk delivered himself of the playful but mildly critical remark that “not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent neo-conservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States.” We all know what happens to anyone who suggests that neoconservatives (or anyone else) are too pro-Israeli, and it happened to Dr. Kirk immediately—at the hands (or, more properly, the mouth) of Midge Decter.
“A bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neo-conservatives,” she bellowed to the Washington Times. “He has defined [us] as a bunch of New Right Jews [and] said people like my husband and me put the interests of Israel before the interests of the United States, that we have a dual loyalty.” (I was personally present at the Kirk speech on October 6, 1988, and he said nothing of the sort.)
It was not the first time Miss Decter had ranted the ugly smear of antisemitism at Old Right figures. Two years before, she had taken the lead in lobbing similar accusations against columnist and then-National Review senior editor Joe Sobran, calling him “a crude and naked anti-Semite” in a letter privately circulated to his editors at various conservative magazines and newspapers. Around the same time, also in 1986, after a vigorous and not terribly friendly debate between neoconservatives and Old Right conservatives (at the Philadelphia Society, as a matter of fact), Miss Decter denounced one speaker in particular and the Old Right of the society in general for their alleged antisemitism and bigotry. “It’s this notion of a Christian civilization,” she sneered to John Judis of the New Republic. “You have to be part of it or you’re not really fit to conserve anything. That’s an old line and it’s very ignorant.” It also is more or less precisely what almost all Old Right conservatives (excluding a good many libertarians) believed and still believe—not that, in order to be a conservative, you have to be a Christian specifically (though it probably helps) but that you do have to consider yourself to be part of the Christian civilization of the West. Miss Decter evidently does not.
Miss Decter, of course, is free to dissent from that belief, free to denounce those who adhere to it, and free to snort derision at “this notion of a Christian civilization,” but, in doing so, she ought to forfeit any plausible pretense whatsoever of being a conservative of the Philadelphia Society kidney, let alone its president. Had it not been for Miss Decter’s habits of smearing Old Right personalities and leaders as Jew-baiters, we might even today pass over her strange elevation to the presidency. The incoherence of appointing as president someone whose philosophical and political commitments are so in conflict with those of the vast majority of the membership could be ignored or explained, but what cannot be explained is precisely what has always been the major issue of contention between the Old Right and the neoconservatives—namely, the rigid insistence of the latter that they not only be accepted as real conservatives but that they dictate to the right who else is and is not “acceptable.”
Anyone familiar with the history of conservative intellectualism knows that, since the 1950’s at least, there have been debates and controversies between traditionalists and libertarians, Southerners and Lincolnites, Catholics and Protestants, etc. Almost all these exchanges were conducted with courtesy and respect. Only when the neocons were let through the door were personal accusations hurled and the demand issued that Old Rightists who were not “acceptable” to them be pushed out. Miss Decter and her husband have been leaders in developing that particular tactic.
No sooner had Miss Decter ascended to the presidency of the society this spring than she issued yet another, though vaguer, accusation. Delivering a speech at the meeting on conservatism and foreign policy (an entirely predictable and banal assertion of the need for the current war with Iraq), she started off with what is surely one of the most remarkable statements in the history of American conservatism:
Before I begin there is something I wish to say. . . . And that is: I am not now, nor for something like thirty years have I been, a neoconservative. Neither are the following people neoconservatives: my husband, my son, my three daughters, and those of my ten grandchildren who are old enough to have serious political views. Neocons were people who discovered in the course of the 1960’s—or early 70’s—that they could no longer stomach the cultural and political antics of their former liberal friends and associates and discovered that, as Lenin himself once put it, he who says A must say B. One of our forebears, after all, was no less real a conservative than Ronald Reagan. He, too, as a grown man discovered his B. The reason I begin with this declaration, tiresome as it undoubtedly seems, is that the charge of neoconservatism—which has in recent times been leveled and fancifully decorated by a strange alliance of hard-bitten Leftists and certain mysteriously bitter members of the Old Right—this charge is a disingenuous stand-in for a characterization of a different kind, namely, that a neoconservative is a Jew who supports U.S. policy in Iraq not because he thinks it good for the United States but only because he believes it will benefit Israel. It is, in other words, meant to be a charge of dual loyalty on the part of people like me. The reason I bring this up is that, one, it will surely not surprise you to hear me assert that I am a Jew, and two, it will probably not surprise you either to hear me announce that I wholeheartedly support the war in Iraq.
There is perhaps no need to explain what exactly is wrong with this statement, let alone take the space to do so. In the first place, neoconservatism, as both its critics on the right and its own exponents understand the term, does not simply refer to liberals and leftists who become conservatives. In that sense, such Old Right figures as Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and even Russell Kirk (a juvenile socialist) would qualify as neoconservatives also. Neoconservatism refers to a body of thought that purports to be a new kind of conservatism. It is new (neo) because its ideas are said to be new, not because those who subscribe to them are new to their adherence to old conservatism. Mr. Midge Decter (Norman Podhoretz) himself acknowledged this in a 1995 speech in which he described those who originally began formulating neoconservatism in the 1960’s as “caught up in the process of shaping a perspective of their own that differed in important respects from the older varieties of American conservatism.” Miss Decter really ought to read her husband’s speeches sometime.
The other remarkable feature of her remarks this spring is her brazen claim that she and her family are not and for 30 years have not been neoconservatives at all. As anyone familiar with her and her family’s careers will see at once, that is simply false, and so is her unpleasant and hackneyed regurgitation that the term neoconservative today is simply a code word for “Jews” deployed by crypto-antisemites. It is essentially the same charge she made against Mr. Sobran, Dr. Kirk, and the speakers at the Philadelphia Society nearly 20 years ago. Whatever you say about the eggheads who made her their president, Miss Decter herself has not changed in the least.
Most people, even most conservatives of any kind, have probably never heard of the Philadelphia Society and would soon forget about it if they did, so what difference does it make who its president is and what she (or he) thinks or says? It makes a difference for this simple reason: If there was any group in the United States today that could claim to represent the thinking of the Old Right, it was the Philadelphia Society. The fact that even these good people are today perfectly happy to tolerate as their president a person who not only dissents from most of what the society purports to think but launched the most harmful and hostile accusations against a man who was the society’s own past president and remains a widely respected, influential, and even beloved figure of the conservative movement tells us all we need to know—not so much about its new queen but about the society itself and those who compose it. These pathetic people are brain-dead, living corpses who no longer know what they believe or even what they are supposed to believe and who will endure whatever insults are heaped upon them, and their pretenses can no longer be taken seriously. Nor, perhaps, can the flawed doctrines of the Old Right be taken any more seriously than the zombies who have abandoned them. Americans who wish to conserve what remains of their civilization will have to find some other assembly in which to fly whatever banners they wish to march under.
This article first appeared in the August 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.