The Paleoconservative Imagination

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By:Chronicles | April 06, 2017

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In January 1996, Norman Podhoretz delivered a self-congratulatory eulogy for neoconservatism in a lecture before the American Enterprise Institute. In addition to giving himself and his cohorts credit for the recent successes of the American right, Podhoretz boasted that "thanks to the influence of neoconservatism on the conservative movement in general, the philistine indifference to culture which once pervaded that movement is largely gone." Mark C. Henrie of Toronto felt compelled to challenge this preposterous claim when Podhoretz's lecture was printed in Commentary later that year. In a letter published in the June 1996 issue of Commentary, Henrie points out that Russell Kirk was stressing the importance of culture as far back as the 1950's (a time when the founding fathers of neoconservatism were still on the anti-Stalinist left). Whatever else one might say about Kirk, he and the paleoconservatives associated with him could hardK' be accused of "a philistine indifference to culture."

In responding to this letter, Podhoretz concedes that Henrie has a point. He believes, however, that the paleoconservatives "committed a greater sin" than indifference in "being ranged on the wrong side of the culture wars that reached fever pitch in the 60's and are still raging today." He even sees "an ironic confluence" between the paleoconservatives and the counterculture of the radical left. "Like T.S. Eliot and the Southern Agrarians by whom they were heavily influenced, the paleoconservatives despised capitalism, industrialism, and bourgeois democracy no less fervently than did the radicals of the counterculture." In making this linkage, Podhoretz is assuming that people with common enemies must necessarily be alike. (By the same logic, one might argue that there was no difference between Franklin Roosevelt's America and Joseph Stalin's Russia, simply because both nations fought Hitler's Germany.) Nevertheless. Podhoretz is certainly correct in acknowledging that paleoconservative attitudes toward culture are fundamentally different from those that one might find in the pages of Commentary or the New Criterion. The conservative "movement" is as divided on matters of culture as it is on foreign policy, trade, and states' rights.

As Podhoretz indicates, paleoconservative criticism has been influenced most significantly by the Christian humanism of T.S. Eliot and the anti-industrialism of the Nashville Agrarians. The implications of this inheritance become apparent when one contrasts the vision of Russell Kirk and such neo-Agrarian critics as Walter Sullivan and M.E. Bradford with the neoconservative criticism best exemplified by Podhoretz himself. In an age when left-wing critics sought to make literature more political, Russell Kirk sought to make politics more literary. In the climactic section of his classic study The Conservative Mind (1953), he wrote: "Not to the statistician, then, but to the poet, do conservatives turn for insight. If there has been a principal conservative thinker in the twentieth century, it is T.S. Eliot, whose age this is in humane letters. Eliot's whole endeavor was to point a way out of the Wasteland toward order in the soul and in society." (Nearly two decades later. Kirk published Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century, which is easily the best book ever written on Eliot as social thinker.) In placing less emphasis on transitory electoral victories than on the "permanent things," Kirk often quoted the following passage from Eliot's essay on F.H. Bradley: "If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. Wc fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors' victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph."

Although he does not discuss the Nashville Agrarians or the British Distributists in The Conservative Mind, these were two "lost causes" for which Kirk felt a particular fondness. A year and a half before his death, he delivered a lecture entitled "Men of Letters as Renewers of Society" at a symposium honoring these two groups. Despite the different cultural backgrounds from which the Agrarians and Distributists emerged, both movements shared a reactionary, anti-industrial bias. The Agrarians celebrated the culture of the Old South and advocated subsistence farming as a solution to the social and economic ills plaguing the South during the Great Depression. Distributism was a land reform movement launched in England by the Catholic writers G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Like the Agrarians, the Distributists deeply distrusted modernity and longed for the restoration of a predominantly rural society. Both the Agrarians and Distributists believed that the widespread, decentralized ownership of property would have a conservative influence on society by giving the vast majority of people a tangible stake in the communities where they lived. To define the situation in indigenously American terms, the industrialists were children of Alexander Hamilton, while the Distributists and Agrarians were the sort of yeoman farmers who formed the backbone of a Jeffersonian society.

Whether or not the specific policies advocated by the Agrarians and the Distributists would have had the desired effect, their predictions about the future of an industrialized society have proved chillingly prescient. Surveying American life from the perspective of 1992, Kirk observed:

Our great cities, a hundred Long Streets, are nearly ruined, ravaged by crime, their population corrupted or endangered by deadly narcotics, all community destroyed. Our boasted affluence is given the lie by the swift and sinister growth of a genuine proletariat, voracious and unruly, subsisting at public expense. . . . Our air is polluted badly, our countryside uglified, public taste corrupted. . . . While we talk windily still of free enterprise, the industrial and commercial conglomerates move toward oligopoly on tremendous scale. Religious belief and observance have been first reduced to the ethos of sociability, and then to ignorant discourses on revolution. Leviathan, the monstrous society, has swallowed his myriads.

Neoconservatives, along with other members of the Reagan coalition, might well have been disturbed by Kirk's remarks. For one thing, he was describing American society after conservative Republicans had been in the White House for nearly 12 years. When Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, his campaign declared it to be "Morning in America," and when George Bush argued for the moral equivalent of a third Reagan term in 1988, his theme was "Stay the Course." Kirk's point is not that the country would have been in better shape under Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, but that even the most enlightened politicians are limited in their ability to improve society. As humbling as it might be, most intellectually honest politicians would concede as much. What would have given neoconservatives and other Reaganites much greater difficulty was Kirk's skepticism about the blessings of technology and economic growth. Like the Agrarians and Distributists before him, Kirk was an "environmental extremist" who lacked the proper respect for unfettered commerce.

The attitudes Kirk expressed were ones that Norman Podhoretz would almost certainly identify with the "adversary culture." In his book The Bloody Crossroads, Podhoretz notes that "the very act of becoming an intellectual or an artist in America [has come] to mean that one was in effect joining the party of opposition—placing oneself (to use the term made famous by Lionel Trilling in Beyond Culture) in an 'adversary' relation to the business civilization and all its works." Although such an attitude had roots in the Christian ethic, Podhoretz contends that it was almost wholly appropriated by the nihilistic left in the 1960's. The only anti-industrial sentiment he acknowledges on the right emerged in Europe in the form of "fascism and of literally reactionary political movements which advocated the restoration of monarchy or of an essentially feudal social organization." Completely ignoring the Southern Agrarian tradition that he would later condemn, Podhoretz writes that "nothing really comparable materialized in the United States, possibly because this country had no feudal past."

The differences between Podhoretz and Kirk are perhaps clearest when one considers their respective discussions of Henry Adams, hi The Bloody Crossroads, Podhoretz depicts Adams as a tiresome poseur who had a baneful influence on American culture. His intellectual autobiography. The Education of Henry Adams, is the continuous, interminable whine of an 18th-century man tragically unfit for a world hurtling toward the 20th century. Although there was much that deserved criticism in the Gilded Age, Adams was petulantly blind to his culture's genuine achievements in literature, philosophy, and the arts. As a result, his historical research, particularly into the life of the Middle Ages, seems like nothing so much as a form of escapism, the work of a highbrow Miniver Cheevy. Although he complained of powerlessness in his own time, Adams's writing has remained a force in ours, "when the names of Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester Arthur are scarcely remembered." We should not, however, take this to "mean that Adams is a force for good." "On the contrary," Podhoretz concludes, "in encouraging a bigoted contempt for this country and in subtly denigrating and devaluing the life of the mind, he has asserted so malignant an influence that . . . I see little of value that would be lost by allowing him to slip into the obscurity he so often boasted of wishing to achieve."

In The Conservative Mind, written four decades before Podhoretz's essay, Russell Kirk readily admits that Henry Adams is easy to dislike. His conceit and censoriousness make him "the most irritating person in American letters." But he is also "the most provocative writer, and the best historian, and one of the most penetrating critics of ideas" that this country has ever produced. Kirk shares Adams's disdain for the greed and technological hubris of American life during the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. Kirk believes, however, that Adams's pervasive gloom was due more to his secularism than to objective conditions in society. A convert to Roman Catholicism, Kirk makes his case in terms one cannot imagine Norman Podhoretz accepting. "Christian orthodoxy," Kirk writes, "believes in an eternity which, as it is superhuman, is supra-terrestrial; and the real world being a world of spirit, man's fate is not dependent upon the vicissitudes of this planet, but may be translated by divine purpose into a realm apart from our present world of space and time. In this certitude, Christians escape from the problem of degradation of energy; but Adams, however much he might revere the Virgin of Chartres as incarnation of the idea and as symbol of eternal beauty, could not put credence in the idea of Providence."

If Russell Kirk wrote with a Christian Agrarian bias, the same is even more true of Walter Sullivan. Born in Nashville in 1924, Sullivan has spent almost his entire adult life at Vanderbilt University. After receiving his B.A. from Vanderbilt and earning his M.F.A. from Iowa State University, he returned to his alma mater to teach in 1949. He was first a student and later a colleague of Donald Davidson. He knew most of the Fugitives and Agrarians personally and was a particularly good friend of both Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren. Sullivan's commitment to the Agrarian vision is evident in his first two novels and in the considerable amount of commentary he has written on Southern literature. What is most significant about his point of view, however, are the grounds on which he criticizes Agrarianism and every other secular faith. As much as he values the Southern myth and the great literature it produced, Sullivan believes that this myth was bound to fail because, for all its appeal, it was finally a gnostic heresy. Protestant Christianity was an essential part of the culture of the Old South, but as a force shaping the lives of men it became increasingly subordinated to the secular authority of family, community, and tradition.

For the past three decades, Sullivan has persistently opposed the secularization of culture, particularly literary culture. In doing so, he has been willing to take on friend as well as foe. In a Phi Beta Kappa lecture delivered at Vanderbilt in November 1989, he observed that his fellow Southern "New Critics" (many of them Agrarians) sometimes gave the impression of valuing art only for art's sake. Such a valuation runs counter to the Augustinian notion that art, like all things, exists for the glory of God. In medieval times, the sacred dimension of art was obvious because most art was religious in nature. With the Renaissance, however, art entered the secular world and beauty became its own excuse for being. By the time of the Enlightenment, Deistic conceptions of God had made the divine so transcendent that an immediate sense of the sacred had largely vanished from culture. If anything, the Romantic movement made matters worse by creating "a God . . . not transcendent at all, but so absolutely immanent that he existed everywhere, a god of and in all of nature." As a consequence, even objects of religious art—crucifixes, holy statues, cathedrals—came to be viewed primarily for their beauty, and the museum became the new church of our culture.

"The process that I have sketched here developed over hundreds of years," Sullivan contends, "but it seems to me that it reached a climax in my lifetime. By the middle of this century, Nietzsche had proclaimed the death of God, Joyce had put the artist on the throne from which God had been evicted, and the new critics had developed a system of judging literature that did not accommodate moral or metaphysical considerations." If the New Critics were part of the problem, it is because they had been content to live on the spiritual capital of centuries without realizing the seriousness of the threat posed to Western civilization by the radical relativism of recent cultural theories. (The title of Sullivan's talk is "Confessions of an Old New Critic") Ironically, the deconstructionists have now deposed the artist from the throne where Joyce had placed him. If there is any hierarchy left at all, the critic as guru or mystifier reigns supreme.

Sullivan's refusal to build a wall of separation between his literary and religious judgments is the characteristic that most differentiates him from the neoconservative critics. That neoconservative criticism should be so secular is certainly ironic when one considers that the single greatest literary hero of neoconservatives (and perhaps of paleoconservatives, as well) is the uncompromisingly religious Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. An ardent Russian Orthodox Christian, Solzhenitsyn harbors a precapitalist view of society that would make I'll Take My Stand look like a moderate document by comparison. The tendency among Western intellectuals has been to admire Solzhenitsyn's courageous battle against Soviet tyranny while condescending to the very beliefs that made that battle possible.

To his credit, Norman Podhoretz does not take such an easy way out. Instead, he argues in The Bloody Crossroads that "whether or not one believes in God, and whether or not one believes that Solzhenitsyn is an instrument of the divine will, his belief has produced those 'clear effects' to which William James pointed as the 'pragmatic' test of a genuine religious experience." Podhoretz even concedes that the Russian novelist achieves a kind of superhuman selflessness in The Gulag Archipelago, where he finds his prophetic vocation by becoming a vessel for powers beyond the mere craft of writing. But Podhoretz fails to take what religious conservatives would regard as the next crucial step. As impressed as he may be with the effects of Solzhenitsyn's faith, Podhoretz is finally unwilling to see it as an end in itself, much less the chief end of life. It is this desire to enjoy the fruits of religion without embracing its roots that Eliot found most objectionable in the neo-humanism of his old professor Irving Babbitt. Walter Sullivan makes much the same criticism of his Agrarian ally Richard Weaver. Such medieval Catholic moralism (Anglican in Eliot's ease, Roman in Sullivan's) marks the extreme end of the paleoconservative spectrum.

Of all the critics on the Old Right, the one who most infuriated neoconservatives was M.E. Bradford. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1934, Bradford was ten years younger than Walter Sullivan and 16 years younger than Russell Kirk. In 1968, he took his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, where he had studied under Sullivan, Donald Davidson, and Thomas Daniel Young. During a career of a quarter century that ended with his death ill the spring of 1993, Bradford made substantial contributions to the fields of rhetoric, constitutional law, and political theory. He was a Burkean traditionalist and a fervent disciple of Richard Weaver (who has been called the Saint Paul of the Vanderbilt Agrarians, too young to have been one of the original 12 but the most effective evangelist for their position). A states' rights Southerner, Bradford supported George Wallace for President and had the temerity to suggest that the downfall of the American Republic began with Abraham Lincoln's efforts to save it. If being a conservative means preserving the status quo, Bradford was proud to call himself a reactionary. What was needed was a willingness to turn back the clock. Unfortunately, the neoconservatives would turn it back no farther than the Cold War 50's. Bradford would have gone them at least a century better.

When word got around Washington in 1981 that the new President was likely to name Bradford to be head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a coalition of Republican "moderates" and neoconservatives (including Norman Podhoretz) organized to oppose his appointment. The anti- Bradford camp closed ranks around a thoroughly respectable neoconservative Democrat, the Brooklyn native William Bennett, who was then director of the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. After a campaign that included egregious misrepresentations of Bradford's character and views, the Bennett forces emerged victorious, and their candidate went on to become a major figure in American politics. More than any other single confrontation, that battle helped to embitter relations between neoconservatives and the Old Right.

Despite his distinction in a variety of fields, Mel Bradford was first and foremost a literary critic. As one might expect, he wrote often and well about the literature of the American South. He was probably the world's foremost authority on Faulkner's short fiction, and, at the time of his death, he was writing a biography of his old mentor Donald Davidson. But Bradford's Agrarian vision had more than a mere regional application. In fact, as a native of Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, he was Western as well as Southern. Under his trademark Stetson hat, Bradford's Agrarian vision of social order was leavened by the libertarian spirit of the cowboy. He stressed the cultural importance of art precisely because he distrusted the concept of a telcocratic government. To the extent possible, civic virtue should be the product of customs, mores, and traditions, rather than the police power of the state. Bv encouraging cultural institutions to serve this vital function, the critic helps remove from government a burden that government is ontologically unsuited to carry.

In his essay "Artists at Home: Frost and Faulkner," Bradford directly challenges the Northeastern literary establishment to which most neoconservative critics belong. Speaking of the Manhattan provincials, he writes: "Bv and large, they address only one another, Concerning the rest of the republic, they have only conventional responses proceeding not from reflection but from fear, ignorance, and animosity. That this other America, in all its antique multiplicity, should foster or possess serious literature is for them a contradiction in terms." Although Bradford's primary target here is Lionel Trilling, particularly in his attempt to turn Frost into a poet of Sophoclean terror, he also mentions the critiques of Faulkner by Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Norman Podhoretz. Without mentioning neoconservatism by name, Bradford tars all the New York intellectuals with the same brush. Against the image of the alienated rebel, Bradford offers "an alternate model of the poet: as vates or memory-keeper, craftsman and vessel of prescription; as bard or scop who in the operation of his imagination assumes the fundamental legitimacy of his society."

As firm as Bradford was in his principles, he did not see literary criticism as a vehicle for settling personal scores. His essay "The Vocation of Norman Podhoretz"—actually an extended review of The Bloody Crossroads—pays generous tribute to a neoconservative adversary, whom Bradford considered a brilliant critic and fellow warrior against totalitarianism. In fact, after reading Bradford on Podhoretz, one might conclude that the differences between paleoconservatives and neoconservatives have been greatly exaggerated. (Bradford even dislikes Henry Adams.) However, in two places Bradford establishes a crucial distance between himself and Podhoretz.

First, he calls Podhoretz's essay on The God That Failed anachronistic. Bradford argues that this book's account of disillusionment with communism holds little interest for "those of us whose early education was not shaped by a passionate and monolithic commitment to the Left, whose friends, teachers and families never succumbed to the charms of an alien ideology or followed Stephen Dedalus in rejecting nation, kindred, and church." Bradford reminds us that, in addition to studying under Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, Podhoretz had once been a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. One can detect in his anticommunism a transferred sense of religious fervor and vocation.

Later in his essay, Bradford contends that "there is some myopia implicit in the neoconservative critique of the counterculture—myopia with respect to literary and cultural history." Although Podhoretz sometimes seems to suggest that opposition to the adversary culture comes only from "bourgeois" sources, Bradford reminds us that "the most devastating critique of alienation qua crusade issues . . . from pre-capitalist roots." After all, "most of our forefathers sought out the New World not to start a business but to acquire land and the status of freeholder: from pieties which are recognized even in New York as different." It is for attitudes such as these that Norman Podhoretz finds Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk indistinguishable from the flower children of Haight-Ashbury.

What binds the neoconservative and paleoconservative critics together is a sensible collection of shared antipathies. Unfortunately, readers of Commentary and the New Criterion might conclude that the neoconservatives often have little to offer but antipathy (what Sanford Pinsker once called "revisionism with rancor"). At times, it seems that the neoconservatives are guilty of an urbane parochialism that results in the endless trashing of a fashionable canon of writers, who are taken to represent the entirety of contemporary literature. Because the paleoeonservatives tend to be more aware of culture in the provinces (especially below the Mason-Dixon Line), they are more apt to detect signs of health in our life and literature. Moreover, they realize that it is not enough to leave the Finland Station if one docs not also seek the Heavenly City.

 

From the April 1997 issue. 

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