Voices Against Progress: What I Learned from Genovese, Lasch, and Bradford

By Paul Gottfried for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The following is excerpted from Paul Gottfried’s Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers, recently published by ISI Books.

I met Christopher Lasch for the first time at a lecture that he gave at Case Western Reserve in 1969. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I was an assistant professor in the history department. His remarks were centered on the U.S.’s responsibility for our bad relations with the Soviets. He made repeated references to a book he had written on the American intervention against the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1919, which Lasch considered the origin of our clashes with the Soviet Union. Lasch’s remarks fitted in with the dominant anti-Americanism of the historical profession, and I associated his presence with certain setbacks that would soon befall me. In the following year my contract at Case Western Reserve was not renewed, and although a financial shortfall was cited as the official reason, I suspected that my older colleagues did nothing to save my skin because I was known on campus as a “Nixon Republican.”

Lasch was teaching at a hotbed of the New Left, the University of Rochester history department, which was chaired by a self-described Stalinist, Gene Genovese. I immediately regarded him as persona non grata. My chairman, Jack J. Roth, who had hired me, was a friend of Lasch’s, whom he had met while both were at Roosevelt University. I thought that Jack, whom I always suspected of being a closet, nonvoting Republican, was parading his friendship with a lunatic in order to ingratiate himself with our leftist colleagues. My diatribes against Lasch in conversations with Jack were an excessive reaction I now regret.

But my dislike for his friend only increased when I went to Rochester the following year as a candidate for an associate professorship. I came as Genovese’s favored candidate; unfortunately, by then he and Lasch had fallen out over questions of departmental governance. Lasch never came to any of my scheduled interviews or to my very long, awkwardly delivered presentation on historiography, but he lurked behind the scenes as a vaporous, malign presence. He lined up votes against me that were then directed toward my rival candidate, who won in a squeaker. The setback that I suffered was so devastating that my career never really recovered. Not even the scheming that caused me to lose a graduate professorship at Catholic University of America seventeen years later did as much harm to me as Lasch caused in a single afternoon of conversations. The post at Rochester was in the scholarly field in which I was then publishing; it was in a prestigious department, membership in which would have opened other professional doors; and at twenty-nine I would have been young enough to take full advantage of my appointment. Within a year, moreover, the job market would collapse, and I was forced to work for several years as an educational administrator in New Jersey before landing an academic position at Rockford College. Although I was grateful for that berth, it did not compare to what I had lost because of Lasch’s politicking.

Nonetheless, twenty years later Lasch — whom like most everyone I came to call “Kit” — and I became friends, to the point that he would openly discuss what had happened at the time of my interview. He had been genuinely concerned about what he saw as the highhanded way in which Gene was dealing with his duties as chairman, and he feared that Gene was trying to fill the junior professorships in the department with handpicked vassals. This possibility had dawned on me during my interview, and I told Kit that he might have been justified in his anxieties. It was entirely possible that out of gratitude and youthful enthusiasm I would have been what my Stalinist chairman Gene was looking for: an indisputable academic conservative who could be counted on to rally to his benefactor. In any case, I was willing to consider Kit’s position because he admitted to what he had done — and he did so with regret in light of our later friendship. His behavior compares favorably to that of other, more powerful political enemies who have accused me of madness when I found their fingerprints on guns that had been fired at me. Kit never lied to me about his previous unfriendliness, which in his case was morally motivated.

The first time we met again face-to-face was at a conference held in 1990 at Elizabethtown College. By then I greatly admired his work on the therapeutic state (his magnum opus dealing with this vast subject, The True and Only Heaven, was about to be published by Norton), and a thematically related project that I would eventually pursue was taking shape in my head. The conference, on the future of community, had been arranged by the board of Telos magazine. When Kit got around to speaking about “scientific” administration as a threat to cultural identities, I found myself strongly seconding his remarks. But he also had a tendency to appeal to the consciousness of “real people,” whom managerial government had supposedly marginalized. Claes Ryn, who was also present, criticized Kit for his “romantic populism,” whereupon a firestorm erupted. Kit taunted Claes as an “elitist,” a description that fitted and still fits this soft-spoken Nordic gentleman who appears everywhere in elegant attire. Claes retorted that you can’t escape from elites; you get them no matter what, because the “people” have no sense of self-government. Indeed they want others to look after their needs.

I was caught in the middle in more than one way. The two disputants were both friends; and although I agreed with Claes that we ought to resist the impulse to romanticize the “people,” Lasch had a certain populace in mind to which his designation undoubtedly applied. His rugged German ancestors who had settled in Nebraska as farmers, and the working-class families whom he contrasted to the sybaritic cosmopolites in his last book, Revolt of the Elites (1995), instantiate the “real people” — that is, those whom Lasch wished to re-empower. The question might be raised whether “the real people” form anything approaching a significant demographic part of today’s America — or whether they exist for the most part as an idealized memory. But such a picture of the “people” informed Kit’s populist conceptions. The good types who redeemed his dualistic universe were often the progenitors of the Catholic blue-collar working families that I can still vaguely recall from the 1950s. These families were marked by multiple offspring and by wives who prepared their husbands’ lunch pails. Lasch’s evocation of the females in his ideal but perhaps archaic nuclear family caused the feminist Susan Faludi to designate him as the “leading American sexist of the ’90s.”

I was puzzled by the mindset at the New York Times and New York Review of Books when their editors presented Kit after his death in 1994 as an archetypically leftist social critic. By then Lasch might have been moving to the right of Pat Buchanan on many social issues, despite the obvious fact that he retained his lifelong hatred of consumer capitalism, a trait that he might have inherited from his socialist mother. His devotion to a nonmainstream form of socialism was something he discussed with me after I had learned about it from his contributions to the Catholic, anticapitalist fortnightly New Oxford Review. Despite his Presbyterian affiliation and general theological skepticism, Kit earnestly read the English Catholic distributists and the essays of the Catholic advocate for labor, Dorothy Day. His project was to find a religiously based communitarianism that could serve as an alternative to multinational capitalism. This communal identity would focus on service to one’s family and neighbors, and it would supposedly take everyone’s mind off consumption and the false idea of “Progress.” No popular idol exasperated Kit as deeply as the American fixation on making everything better, even at the cost of abolishing stable institutions. This theme is a leitmotif running through his early work, when he was still identifiably leftist, until Revolt of the Elites. His posthumously printed writings, edited by his daughter Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, confirm the impression created by what Kit brought out during his all too short life.

Unlike my other well-known correspondents, I have managed to preserve only one letter from Kit. Other missives came before this one, which is dated March 22, 1990, from his home in Pittsford, New York, but those were mostly scribbled responses to my occasional queries. In this typed letter, Kit pours scorn on Commentary magazine, a publication that, he writes, “I never read if I can help it.” In a recent issue Midge Decter had slammed him for contributing to the dissolution of middle-class morality, a charge that I brought to his attention in a humorous way. Kit, who personified an old-fashioned Presbyterian way of life, took umbrage at the slight: “That is the first time I’ve been attacked as an advocate of sexual promiscuity. It’s kind of nice to be attacked from the right for a change. It’s the attacks from the left that still bother me.”

Two thoughts flashed through my mind as I read these observations. First, on the basis of what Kit had recently published — soon expanded on in The True and Only Heaven — all traditional distinctions between “left” and “right” had broken down. Since both sides now believed in consumerism, Progress, and centralized government, it was misleading to go on drawing critical distinctions between them. Two, if Midge Decter really knew what Lasch believed, she would have attacked him from the left rather than the right. What she had mistakenly attributed to him were the countercultural stances that had come out of the ’60s, positions that in fact he had never taken.

Another reason I’ve only one of Lasch’s letters is that by 1993 he was writing to his friends collectively about his deteriorating health — specifically, about the spread of his cancer. I found the topic inexpressibly painful, since my own wife was then dying of cancer, so I probably discarded the communications after having looked at them. Kit’s unhappy fate still makes me think about a lunch at a local restaurant that he had with me and two of my colleagues when he was visiting Elizabethtown. On that occasion Kit smoked a cigarette and ordered a dark beer in order to make the point that “people are too damned concerned about living forever.” These gestures might have been intended to make a statement about health-conscious yuppies; I myself could have been one of the “health nuts” whom Kit was trying to shock when he smoked and drank at lunch. By then (alas) his life was coming to an end — sooner than any of us realized.

* * * * *

I first met his longtime and long-estranged colleague Gene Genovese at the December 1970 gathering of the American Historical Association in Boston. I was not only Gene’s copanelist for a discussion of new directions in Marxism; I was also interviewed by him in his hotel suite. Our conversation was supposed to center on my eligibility for the aforementioned opening in his history department. But I recall little or nothing about our discussion of professional matters. My first impression was that Gene, who appeared in a tailored suit and was plainly accustomed to sumptuous living, was a strange-looking socialist revolutionary. My second impression was that his favorite subject was the American Right. In fact, he spent the better part of our half-hour meeting pointing out the connection between the current positions of National Review editors to where they had stood while they were still on the Marxist Left. His observations were so acute that I found myself drawing on them while preparing my recent book on the American Right.

On the panel, Gene said nothing in his eloquent commentary that was reminiscent of a Marxist. I was pleased that he responded to my own remarks by stressing points of agreement. I had taken shots at a Jewish Marxist humanist who had exaggerated Marx’s suffering at the hands of German anti-Semites. Marx, I noted, was raised in a Lutheran household, his own work abounds in unkind references to Jews, and if one wishes to embrace his historical teachings, there is no reason to dress them up with inflated reports about his victim status. Gene concurred with my judgment; but, as things turned out, we were rowing even then against the rising tide of victimology. I also remember that Gene and the English Communist Eric Hobsbawm, to whom he introduced me after the session, complained about the “exotica” that had crept into Marxist-Leninism. Young scholars were less interested in studying dialectical materialism than they were in glorifying the unspoiled virtues of non-Western peoples.

As I looked at these men, both dressed like Mr. Chips, I began to wonder what place would await them in that New Leftist landscape they were describing and bewailing. They were of course entirely correct in their observations, and in retrospect it seems to me that they had perceived the beginnings of the transition from the Marxist to the multicultural Left. The American Right, which still focused on a communist enemy, only glimpsed darkly what was then taking place at home. The foreign enemy on which they set their sights differed from the cultural forces that would occupy our public sector, media, and educational institutions. And that internal foe would be dangerous because of the relentless crusade it would wage against Western civilization and its defining social and moral institutions. Within ten years of my conversation with these gentlemanly Marxists, the advocates of upheaval would be pursuing the same ends everywhere in the Western world. By then they, too, would be attired in Brooks Brothers suits or their European equivalents. The passion for “exotica” observed by Hobsbawm was the portent of worse things to come.

My next meeting with Gene took place during the morning of my interview at Rochester, when he and his spouse Betsey picked me up in my hotel room and took me to breakfast. I carried away positive impressions of these hosts, and particularly of Gene’s wife (who passed away in January 2007). Although they mentioned that the history department at Rochester had become the scene of some infighting, they sketched a future in which this would no longer be the case. It was never made clear to me how this happy prospect would be realized, but the thought of being in the same department with Gene, who had been featured in the national press as one of America’s most brilliant historians, caused my doubts to melt away. Besides, his wife, who was a Simon-Morgenthau on her mother’s side, pronounced French exquisitely, and Betsey (whose full name was Elizabeth) struck me as a classy and attractive young woman. Why should I care if they chose to call themselves Marxists or faced a strife-ridden department? In any case, Betsey assured me that at SUNY-Binghamton, where she was teaching, quarreling had also raged in the recent past.

When I was taken to meet the Rochester faculty, a professor whose specialty was the English civil war informed me that Stephen Tonsor had preceded me as an interviewee. Having looked over the department, Tonsor had expressed misgivings about leaving his post at the University of Michigan. “He was a Republican and I didn’t want the guy even if Gene did,” was the professor’s remark to me as I left his office. His unadorned opinion about nonleftists made me feel less than hopeful. At Case Western, it had been held against me that I had admitted to voting for Richard Nixon in 1968. I also knew that when Gene had been at Rutgers University in the 1960s, Nixon had made critical remarks about Genovese’s open support of the Vietcong. But Gene had never held this act against the former vice president, and in 1972, although still an avowed Marxist, he was accused of having voted for Nixon. Several years later, I met Gene’s former colleague, the Renaissance historian Marvin Becker. He was still seething over “Gene’s phony leftism.” By then I too had begun to wonder about the authenticity of his revolutionary radicalism, which I explained years later in an essay for Telos by arguing that Gene was an antibourgeois elitist trying to fit into American academia.

The problem with fitting Gene into my conception of the academic Left is that he did not resemble the three types of leftists I had previously encountered — and whom I have been encountering ever since. The first two types were Jewish but divided easily into two categories. One, the representatives of which were predominantly Central European in ancestry, were conspicuously bookish and spent considerable energy working to make the world conform to a Marxist scheme of reality. Such leftists were usually multilingual and typically shared my interest in German philosophy. But they also slavishly supported the Soviets and had a blind spot when it came to the many acts of mass murder committed by Communist regimes. Although themselves the products of elitist humanistic educations, they also professed great love for the unwashed, a group whom they rarely dealt with. I would have greatly enjoyed the company of such leftists except for one source of friction. I found their denials or whitewashing of the most gruesome tyranny in modern history, equaled only by the crimes of the Third Reich, to be inexpressibly repulsive.

The second, and more tedious, type of academic leftists was composed of New York Jews of Eastern European origin who were fixated on one overriding fear: anti-Semitism. They seemed to experience this danger in proportion to how far they traveled outside of the New York metropolitan area. They were and are the most insecure group I have known, and their prominence in today’s elite history departments testifies to the decrepitude of an older Christian establishment they easily replaced. In this case I can locate no conceivable fit between the radicalism of these radicals and anything that connects to classical Marxism. In preparing my book on the post-Marxist Left, I had in mind among others these denizens of the academic fantasy world. But I would also note that the neurotic Jewish intellectuals under discussion have formed an exceedingly harmonious relationship with the yuppie Left. The enablers of Type Two now abound everywhere, and whenever Type Two members are moved to scream “fascist,” “racist,” and “anti-Semite,” droves of non-Jewish academics can be expected to rush to their defense and call for therapeutic and political action.

The third type of academic leftist, the PC gentile, is the one whom I have come to like the least. While Type Two consists of Woody Allen–like neurotics who think that they are protecting themselves and their group against a pervasive external gentile enemy, Type Three is arrogant and suicidal. In Europe and the U.S., Type Three representatives coddle or excuse Islamic terrorists, and they regard their own civilization as so worthless or so evil that they seek to “enrich” it by bringing in never-ending supplies of Third World immigrants. The faculty and administrators influenced by this persuasion are eager to remove all references to Christmas from school programs but never stop celebrating Kwanzaa and jabbering about Ramadan. They also treat Martin Luther King Jr. as a replacement for the vanished savior in their old religion, and they go into high gear during black and women’s history months, pointing out our continued sins of omission in dealing with these designated victims.

As a leftist, Gene was so different from all of these types that it was impossible to relate him to any of them, except for his occasional associations with Type One. Like those particular leftists, and like former Communists James Burnham and Will Herberg, his interest in Marxism seemed largely cerebral. Perhaps in trying to make sense of the present age, Gene simply adopted a fashionable model for historical interpretation that was associated with intellectuals, one that combined “scientific” claims with apparent humanitarian concern. Over the years, as I have studied his monographs and essays, starting with his early The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), I have never stopped noticing how much of a structural conservative, in the nineteenth-century sense, Gene has always been. His obligatory references to oppressed black slaves and the Marxist dialectic notwithstanding, his works are essentially tributes to precapitalist societies based on hierarchy and a Christian sense of order. His overtly traditionalist later writings, such as The Southern Tradition: The Achievement and Limitations of An American Conservatism (1994) and the massive volume that he copublished with his wife in 2005, The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, are not significantly different in their interpretive framework or moral assumptions from what Gene produced as a putative Stalinist.

His most conventionally leftist book remains, in my opinion, From Rebellion to Revolution (1979), a slim volume that Gene might have done to appease his mounting critics on the left who found him insufficiently sensitive. In this work he attributes to black slaves a consciousness that arose independently of their capricious masters. He tries to trace among these slaves the emergence of a revolutionary élan that might have resulted in class war. More dramatically than his other writings, From Rebellion to Revolution dwells in excruciating detail on the physical suffering of the slave class. This last theme had been of special interest to University of California-Berkeley historian Kenneth Stampp, an outspoken critic of Gene’s previous analysis of the slave economy.

I once discussed my perceptions about Gene’s relation to the Left with a longtime correspondent, Aileen Kraditor, who knew him while both were associated with the Communist Party. Aileen argued that Gene was expressing immaculately Communist historical views when he treated black slaves as reflecting the worldview of the Southern planter class. Gene was applying the view of the Italian Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who had expounded the notion that the ruling class typically imposes a “hegemonic ideology” that paralyzes the revolutionary potential of those they oppress. The slaves acted and thought like their masters, in Gene’s narrative, because their minds and bodies belonged to their masters.

In spite of the plausibility of this argument, I never believed that Gene was simply adapting a Gramscian form of Marxism, a theory that in any case is not orthodox Marxism but rather a view of social consciousness based on Hegelian philosophy more than historical materialism. What Gene did with the theory looked very different from what had been done with it by neo-Marxists, and particularly by feminists and black nationalists. More conventional leftists poured wrath on the master class, but Gene admired the “mind of the slaveholder,” and he devoted long respectful disquisitions to those Southern Presbyterian theologians who had defended the South’s peculiar institution.

A friend quipped that after Gene had returned to his ancestral Catholic faith in 1996 and had begun denouncing Communist atrocities, his politics began to slide leftward. As long as he had presented himself as a Stalinist and Gramscian, he could afford to treat the Southern planter class sympathetically and play up Southern Agrarians as perceptive critics of world capitalism. Once, however, Gene had become a regular fixture of the establishment Right and developed friendships with neoconservatives, he supposedly had to monitor his right-wing sympathies more carefully. Given the neoconservatives’ funding of and prominence in The Historical Society, a nonradical alternative to the American Historical Association that he and Betsey launched in 1998, the idea that Gene was put under restraints that had not operated in the past seems correct.

But the continuity between his past and present convictions is still sufficiently evident that it would be difficult to describe him as having swerved in an entirely different direction since the early ’90s. His recent work on the religious outlook of the slaveholders shows continued empathy for its subjects; and despite his Catholic practices, Gene does not hide his theological affinity for Southern Calvinists, about whom he writes with obvious respect. At the very neoconservative National Association of Scholars annual gathering several years ago, at which I happened to be present, Gene delivered a speech after having been given an award. His remarks were a glowing defense of Old Southern virtues and pieties, and at least by implication, this Italian-American from Bayside, Brooklyn, took aim at the current conservative movement for repudiating its Southern heritage. From the faces of his listeners, it seemed that his observations went over about as well as a ringing endorsement of Hamas would have.

Exemplifying his persistent attempt to balance countervailing sentiments and loyalties was a conversation I had with Gene when I took my eldest daughter, as a high-school senior, to visit the University of North Carolina campus in 1987. Gene was staying in a studio apartment above the garage of the home of John Shelton Reed, the sociologist of Southern culture, while on a research trip to Chapel Hill. At dinner I noticed that Gene lived far more abstemiously than he had when I had been at Rochester sixteen years earlier. He had given up cigars, drank wine to prevent high blood pressure rather than as a pleasure, and avoided foods with transfat (long before yuppies had begun to rage over this dietary indulgence).

But the old Gene came through as soon as he started talking about politics, and especially about recent Eastern European political history. Although my interlocutor did not mind that the Soviets had occupied Rumania in 1944 and then stayed there, or that they decided to bestow on their new subjects the blessing of socialism, he was bothered by how shabbily they had treated King Michael, the last royal ruler of Rumania. Despite the king’s previous opposition to the German occupation and his willingness to cooperate with the Soviets up to a point, the Soviets had unceremoniously forced Michael into exile in 1946. Gene viewed this as a lost opportunity to combine two opposing principles, revolutionary socialism and monarchism, into a single system of government. I thereupon found myself asking what practical difference it would have made if the Soviet occupiers of Rumania had kept the monarch around as a figurehead. Countries like Sweden, Belgium, Holland, and England had reigning monarchs but had long ceased to be traditional societies by bourgeois Victorian standards. Indeed, it might be argued that by retaining the outward appearance of monarchical continuity, one bestowed on radical social engineering a semblance of convention. On balance, this anachronism contributed nothing positive to social conservation.

But these were not the arguments that Gene wanted to hear. He was still searching for a middle ground between the two poles of his anticapitalist attitude: namely, the precapitalist, hierarchical society shaped by the relationship between padroni and clienti, and imperfectly approximated by the world that the slaveholders built; and the forced march into postcapitalist socialism. Rarely have I encountered anyone who has worked so arduously to reconcile such plainly contradictory positions.

* * * * *

Until the late 1980s, the man whom Gene had supported for the post of NEH chairman, M. E. Bradford, had been at most an occasional acquaintance of mine. I had run across him on those rare occasions when I attended the Philadelphia Society’s annual meetings, then typically held in Chicago, and I recall that someone had pointed out his burly figure soon after the election of Ronald Reagan as the heir apparent to the NEH chairmanship. Mel’s failure to obtain that post and the way it was denied to him deeply affected my political attitudes. I wrote a letter of reference for him in response to the urging of Peter Stanlis. And though I opposed the NEH as a constitutionally dubious boondoggle set up to feather the nests of government administrators exchanging favors with prestigious universities, I felt that if such an institution could do any possible good it might be in providing a Southern Agrarian with a high-profile job. Alas, that was not to be; Mel spent the remainder of his life trying in vain to win a compensatory prize for the big fish that had gotten away.

It was only after I had relocated to Washington in the summer of 1986 that Mel and I became close friends. Mel was always looking for some excuse to come to the nation’s capital, such as having to attend a meeting of the Fulbright board, where he could shake hands and knock on doors in an effort to get his stalled political career jump-started. These endeavors did not bring him any benefit; worse, his trips from his home in suburban Dallas to Washington National Airport probably contributed to the mounting health problems caused by his excessive weight.

By the fall of 1986, Mel was also writing essays for my monthly journal. I called upon his services as often as I did primarily for three reasons. One, he had enthusiastically assisted me in my recent unsuccessful bid for the post that he himself had been denied. Two, I felt that a common destiny — shared enemies — united us. And three, I liked the historical view that came through in his work. Like Gene, Mel sounded like a structural conservative, a term that obviously meant more to me than it did to him, given my European intellectual historical interests. Mel’s task in The Reactionary Imperative (1989), A Worthy Company (1982), and in his other collections of essays, which was to locate the Southern planter class in a specific structure of authority and to define its worldview, seemed to me a perfectly sensible exercise. It might have been impossible to “recapture,” in the sense of reactivating, the values of “our ancestors”; nonetheless, one could trace a connection between what they had thought and the kind of society in which they had lived. And even if one granted that Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and John Taylor of Caroline were influenced by the social-contract theory of government that gained currency during the Enlightenment, such prominent men also had to filter “enlightened” notions through their everyday experiences as landowners in a manorial society. Perhaps there was a disconnect between their social position and declarations of Christian faith and their natural-rights statements; or else perhaps the dominant class managed somehow to synthesize different and apparently contradictory elements of their understandings of government and societies.

Unlike the Straussians, a group of scholars with whom I was already then quarreling, Mel, like Gene, looked at social-historical contexts in trying to make sense of what the American founding generation had actually believed. Through Mel’s books, as the justly famous historian Forrest McDonald once observed, one could learn what secularists were working to hide, namely, that most of the Southerners among the founding generation were in fact devout Protestants. If such figures were religious skeptics, one would have trouble discovering that from perusing their letters and diaries.

Mel never denied that a certain filial pietism informed his judgments about his favorite historical actors. “I’ve always taken a Roman approach to historical greatness,” he explained to me, and he made place for “enthymēsiss,” his favorite Greek term, in his characterizations of particular figures. As best I could figure out, Mel was referring to the enthumemata in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a speaking device that is meant to appeal to the heart as well as the head. He also sounded Aristotelian in his insistence on the need for epic figures as a guide for later generations. Not surprisingly, the figures whom Mel showcased in his historical writings were usually landowning farmers, a fact that fits in well with his preferred and by then archaic model of American life.

Although much of Mel’s published work was on the literature of the American Southwest, he was clearly interested in defending a particular “vision of order,” to quote the term of his fellow Southerner Richard Weaver. His distaste for Lincoln reflected not only his bitterness about the Civil War, a struggle in which his ancestors had fought on the losing side, but also his revulsion for the “god terms” that Lincoln had invoked in prosecuting a bloody internecine war. Like Burke and other European conservatives, Mel wanted no part of those “armed doctrines” which have been appealed to by universal revolutionaries. Mel’s quarrel with Lincoln was based to some extent on the central role that our sixteenth president had assumed in a global democratic hagiography.

As a thinker, Mel stressed the need to anchor political beliefs in both concrete experiences and communal practices. To the argument that actual traditions could be oppressive for some people, his response would be that such objectors could move to New York or San Francisco. And even if some traditions were truly noxious, he would say, it was impossible to imagine a society functioning in their absence that had not descended into dictatorship or anarchy. Although Mel viewed the civil-rights movement as a disaster that had brought federal administrators into every aspect of our civic and personal lives, I never heard him speak ill about blacks as a group. Like many Southerners of his generation — including those who, like him, had moved from Oklahoma to Texas — he had simply taken a segregated way of life for granted.

Nonetheless, in contrast to most leftists of my acquaintance, Mel, his wife Marie, and his son Doug all got along exceedingly well with people of color whenever they came into contact with them. One of Mel’s friends was the black humanist scholar William B. Allen at Michigan State, with whom he happily arranged colloquia for Liberty Fund. It was in connection to Professor Allen that I heard Mel make the comment that the basic flaw of the “old system” — whether that meant slavery or segregation was not clear — was “that it kept down those black people who could have made a social contribution.” I mention this remark because the attempts to depict Mel as a fanatical racist have been as inexcusably malicious as everything else his critics have said about him. I am also puzzled why “traditionalists” who have attacked Mel for being insensitive to segregation and for supporting George Wallace in the presidential race in 1968 do not show a comparable indignation over “moderate Republicans” who endorse gay marriage and late-term abortion. Why are these issues less central as moral concerns for Mel’s detractors than were his reservations about the civil-rights movement in the 1960s? Dare I suggest the obvious answer that these “traditionalists” are applying the politically correct standards of the day?

One side of Mel’s personality may continue to puzzle some of his acquaintances. Although hardly reluctant to make statements that were likely to draw fire, he would quickly withdraw from the hostilities he occasioned once they commenced. Mel looked at provocative declarations as opportunities for discussion, and when they became something more, he was upset by the ensuing strife. This may be attributed to two of his characteristics: the desire to raise professorial questions, as he did to brilliant effect as a professor at the University of Dallas, and his naturally sweet disposition. Mel was not made of the stern stuff that he admired in Confederate commanders. Although he had served as a naval officer in some previous incarnation, he was not cut out for belligerence. A family friend had once observed to me that while “Marie, who comes from mountain folk, would tear her enemy’s eyes out, Mel had no stomach for such stuff.”

This became particularly clear when I asked Mel to prepare a review essay for The World and I on the most recent collection of occasional pieces by his adversary Norman Podhoretz. I certainly had evil designs when I commissioned this assignment, and I expected Mel to be equal to the task, particularly since he had told me that he considered the anthology essays “so much puffery.” What came back, however, was something that looked like a literary exercise that might have been submitted at a private school for Southern girls circa 1840. It oozed politeness and only hinted at critical observations, which were never directly stated. When I asked Mel why he had pulled punches, he answered: “I didn’t want to seem impolite, particularly after what had happened.” Although “what had happened” was that Mel’s reputation had been blackened beyond repair by the associates of Norman Podhoretz, if not by this publicist directly, Mel did not want to reveal hard feelings after having suffered at someone else’s hands. He therefore bent over backward in order to mute his reservations about a book that offended him.

* * * * *

What unifies these figures? I believe that it is their rejection of the dominant American sense of social and moral Progress. At a time when the past was coming to be viewed as a source of bigotry and irrationality, these figures raised up models of order by looking backward. My friends held no brief for the growing stress on individual autonomy that one encounters in today’s cultural industry. Even more politically incorrectly, they believed that without firm, inherited structures of authority, individuals would become the playthings of those who could manipulate their vanity and exploit their social and emotional fragility. None of these thinkers embraced the illusion that modern Americans were moving toward self-actualization in proportion to the breakdown of families and of once established communities.

Note that I developed or deepened my relationships with all of these dignitaries at a time when Ronald Reagan was providing verbal assurance that “America is back.” Unlike others on what called itself the Right, none of these older friends blithely imagined that he was witnessing a “conservative revolution.” The 1980s, or what they understood of them, had not changed much for the better, even if the occupant of the White House was praising “values” and speaking tough to the Soviets. All of these friends — perhaps especially an apparent Marxist, Gene Genovese — were keenly aware of the losses of the modern era, and of the vain and often shabby attempts made by the state and the market to compensate for them. They were less concerned about the much vaunted benefits of further change than they were about the consequences of those questionable changes in manners and morals which had taken place during their lives, changes that they viewed with mounting distrust. I cannot imagine that these prophets against Progress would think any differently about the present time. I mean the latest phase of our late modernity, the one in which I am now writing as a senior citizen about my teachers, and about the warnings against the worship of Progress that they passed on to me.

  • Share: