Cultural Revolutions

Ernest Van Den Haag, R.I.P.

Ernest once told me that, for most of his political life, he had been a neoconservative without knowing it.  He did not mean that he necessarily admired or agreed with the godfathers of neoconservatism, but that he was a child of the Enlightenment, an enemy of credulity and superstition, whether those commodities came packaged in the form of Marxist ideology or of the Christian right.  He believed in reason and science, and his nostrils quivered at the scent of irrationality.  But if van den Haag was a disciple of the Enlightenment, it was the well-ordered Enlightenment of Voltaire, Gibbon, and Dr. Franklin.  He saw the devil in Rousseau, but he failed to see him beneath the ironic masks of the illuminist bon-vivants he so much admired.

We met first at a conference on the Enlightenment, held about 1990 in Southern California.  As I was introduced by William Rusher, Ernest did not catch my name, and he asked me if “that wild man Fleming” was really going to attend, as the program promised.  I assured him that the program was correct.  He asked if I knew the fellow, and when I confessed to knowing him as well as anyone in the room, he wanted to know if he was really as unpredictable as people said.  In the midst of explaining that the fellow in question took orders from no one, I was interrupted by Bill Rusher: “He’s putting you on, Ernest.”

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