With Tom Bethell’s death in February, those who refuse what Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls” have lost an eloquent and redoubtable champion. Over the course of Bethell’s five decades as a writer (consisting of seven books and hundreds of essays), the malodorous certitudes of political correctness have piled up to Augean proportions. Bethell waded into them one by one—from cultural relativism to Einsteinian relativity—hosed them down, and dressed them in motley for our sport.
Bethell’s doubts about the scientific rigor of Darwin’s theory of evolution began to germinate while he was studying philosophy, psychology, and physiology at Oxford in the 1960s. In his groundbreaking 1976 Harper’s Magazine article, “Darwin’s Mistake,” he was the first to confute that dogma root and branch; and having shattered the taboo, paved the way for the many critiques that would follow.
By far the most readable of these was his own book, Darwin’s House of Cards (2016). Bethell pointed out that the natural selection argument employs circular logic. “You can’t find a criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. So it’s the survival of the survivors,” he said in a 2017 interview. He was one of the first to recognize that Darwinism was from the beginning a Trojan horse for the bashing of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
How, but for Bethell’s Questioning Einstein (2009), would the average layman know that even the theory of relativity has been guarded with idolatrous zeal by its dedicated priesthood? The science is always “settled” when it supports progressive causes. The dirty little secret of contemporary science is that “authority more and more replaces evidence,” he observed—a trend only accelerating during the current COVID hysteria.
“Question authority” is the brave mantra of liberalism, even as it demands supine obedience to its own authority exclusively, and its thinking displays the most abject intellectual conformism. Bethell and his good friend Joe Sobran were surely the two most brilliant (and funniest) diagnosticians of liberal mass-mindedness of their generation. Indeed, Sobran gives Bethell joint credit for the indispensable term “the hive” to describe the way in which liberals instantly communicate the acceptable opinions on every issue of the day.
On the faddish cant of today’s cultural left, Bethell’s 40 years of columns in The American Spectator are a treasure trove of mordant wit and irony. “In some ways, present-day liberalism is far more radical than Communism ever was,” Bethell wrote in 2012. “Consider, for example, the current pretense that there are no real differences between the sexes, or that same-sex marriage is a desirable policy goal. Communists entertained no such delusions.”
Such sunbursts of moral clarity and common sense lighten every page of Bethell’s copy. On the difference between the rabid leftism of PBS intellectual-in-residence Bill Moyers and the homespun liberalism of Garrison Keillor, he wrote:
[Moyers] seems to think of democracy as a substitute for socialism, as though all wealth naturally belongs to a common pool and a proper democracy would share it out equitably.… Lots of people in America are saddled with this unremitting, burning sense of grievance. You have to be both well off and well educated to reach that mental state…. I suppose Keillor is a liberal of sorts, but his faculty of appreciation, his love of traditional hymns, and the contentment he derives from describing the world, show conservative tendencies. A great gulf separates him from those, like Moyers, who want to change the world, not describe it.
For many conservatives of a certain age, the death of Tom Bethell will be felt like the loss of a beloved old friend. Bethell had that rare ability to set his readers’ heads oscillating with wonder at the brilliance of his insights, to raise the hairs on the backs of their necks in response to the grandeur with which he evoked the beauty and genius of the Western Tradition, and to make them laugh, all within the span of a single essay, and all in prose of apparent artlessness.
Harley Price is a medieval and Renaissance scholar at the University of Toronto. His essays have appeared in The Epoch Times, The Interim and other journals. His book, Give Speech A Chance: Heretical Essays, will be published this spring.