In Salon, Michael Lind pushes back against the rise of British historian Niall Ferguson in the U.S., and views him as symptomatic of a decline in right-wing intellects:
Ferguson is the most prominent of a number of British conservative intellectuals and journalists who have found more sympathetic audiences in the U.S. than in their own country, where their enthusiasm for Victorian imperialism and Victorian economics stigmatizes them as cranks. His Old World accent and reactionary politics might not have been sufficient to earn Niall Ferguson his cisatlantic celebrity, were it not for the demise of American intellectual conservatism, chronicled by Sam Tanenhaus and others. The mass extinction of America’s intellectual right at the hands of anti-intellectual Jacksonian populists like the Tea Partyers has created a lack of native conservative thinkers with impressive academic credentials who are willing to dash to a TV studio at a moment’s notice. And in an era when the conservative movement is symbolized by lightweights like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg, rather than William F. Buckley Jr., George Will and Irving Kristol, even Niall Ferguson can be mistaken for an intellectual.
This is conventional wisdom pretty much across the spectrum, and best exemplified by Sam Tanenhaus’ 2009 book, The Death of Conservatism: That there was a “golden age” of American conservative thought that has recently been betrayed by clowns like Beck, Coulter, Levin, Limbaugh, and the shrill partisans who dominate the current National Review. It came up a lot last year, in a widespread debate in the intellectual blogosphere about conservative “epistemic closure.” It may not be completely wrong, but it depends on a rosy, whitewashed view of “golden age” conservatism.
The examples Lind gives of the supposed intellectual heavyweights of days past are exactly what I’m talking about. When I went back and read early issues of National Review from the 50s and 60s during the “epistemic closure” debate, I was surprised. Where I was expecting the powerful intellectual essays of movement myth, I found reactionary screeds that, while perhaps better written than today’s NR, were no more open-minded or less extreme. The shibboleths, the ideological purity–it was all there from the beginning. Ditto for William F. Buckley’s breakthrough first book, God and Man at Yale, which is almost embarrassingly paranoid and Manichean for someone often considered the intellectual father of the American right. I’m not going to argue, certainly not in a blog post, that Buckley wasn’t an intellectual, didn’t have deep thoughts and bright ideas, and wasn’t preferable to Glenn Beck. But remember that the rearview mirror can give a distorted perspective.
Much the same is true for the others. After Irving Kristol’s turn from leftism to neoconservatism, of which he is in turn considered the father, he went pretty far downhill himself. As Noah Millman argues brilliantly in his review of Kristol’s recent posthumous collection, Kristol openly admitted that his neoconservative worldview was more of an emotional orientation—patriotism is good, economic pessimism is bad—than any kind of substantive politics. Kristol’s reflexive American paternalism was certainly preferable to his son’s unabashed affection for imperialism, but it’s hard to see how it’s fundamentally different from the stock political catchphrases and cultural myopia of the Tea Party. It’s ultimately a collection of biases, affinities, and contrarianisms, very light on content.
And George Will? I’ll admit he’s better than most—he was able to admit that the Iraq war was a disaster, and to dismiss the GOP rump candidates so many in the conservative ranks were fantasizing about for next year’s primary. But this is the guy who wrote that liberals love trains because it makes people more “amenable to collectivism,” while conservatives embrace that symbol of American independence known as the automobile. Will often treads in the same black-and-white, God-vs-atheism, us-vs-them cultural hostility that has threaded through the movement all the way back to Buckley, Chambers, et al. And it’s hard to argue he doesn’t still speak for the right, at least as much as Jonah Goldberg and Niall Ferguson do.
This definitely deserves an essay, and someday I’ll write it. But any time you hear someone mourning the death of conservative intellectualism, remember that the more things change on the right, the more they stay the same.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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