Intellectual Historians on Intellectual Conservatism

by Darryl Hart on October 10, 2012 · 5 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

Kirby Hall

Seth Bartee over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog has a piece on the Intercollegiate Studies Institute which includes a reference or two to FroPo conservatives:

Essentially neo-conservatives successfully homogenized conservatism by getting rid of what they considered the racist and backward element of conservatism, its traditionalist wing. Michael Kimmage recounted a part of this process in his monograph The Conservative Turn as well. The traditionalist wing became more reactionary after three Republican administrations they considered less than conservative and often as reliant on the guidance of government as their supposed liberal foes. Gradually, this filtered into ISI who of course were friendly to neo-conservatives and Republicans while attempting to maintain its focus on traditionalist conservatism. The second year of the Bush administration was kind of the breaking point for the longtime alliance. In reaction, ISI, especially the Kirkean element, essentially drew up firmer boundaries around ISI, although I cannot stress enough ISI’s dependence on funding, which for the most part is considered to be in the hands of neo-conservative organizations. When thinking of ISI, one might picture the geography of a major metropolitan area. There is the core (city center) but after that, there are neighborhoods and suburbs that make up the metropolitan area. There are textual communities within the textual community; discourse on top of discourse.

As Web 2.0 grew, so did the ability of traditionalist conservatives to focus their voices throughout the blogosphere. Patrick Deneen, formerly at Georgetown and now at Notre Dame as of fall 2012, founded the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown and created an important blog by the name of Front Porch Republic (FPR). Deneen promotes “Place. Limits. Liberty” through his favorite thinkers/writers including teacher Wilson Carey McWilliams and novelist Wendell Berry. FPR blog posts touch upon religion, masculinity, food and drink, and almost anything else under the sun. Other conservative scholars such James Wilson, Ted McAlister, Darryl Hart, and Jeremy Beer have joined the FPR blog as frequent contributors.

It is not a particularly provocative piece. It is too fair and balanced for that. But in addition to reading the entire piece, the comments are entertaining for seeing what intellectual historians do with the categories left, right, center when it comes to Wendell Berry and Carey McWilliams. It raises again the question of whether the spectrum of conservatism and liberalism makes any sense of our ordinary lives and suggests how electoral politics wind up dominating considerations about basic human activities like sitting, working, and eating.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Patrick J. Deneen October 11, 2012 at 7:40 am

Seth Bartee – whom I know and like – has written an admirable overview of this interesting chapter of 20th- and early 21st-century conservativism. I want, however, to correct one point. FPR had a collaborative origin, and was especially driven by the efforts of Mark Mitchell, though I was certainly “there at the creation.”. I hope when its history is written, there will be much more to tell about its contributions to American thought, culture, letters, and even politics.

avatar Josh Cooney October 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Is it actually true that the “traditionalist wing became more reactionary. . .”? Chronicles Magazine, for example, seems to be less reactionary now than it was in the 1990s when Southern nationalism, white nationalism, and attacks on Protestantism were more prevalent in its pages.

How do we define “reactionary” anyway? Is being antiwar reactionary? Is Allan Carlson’s pro-family research reactionary? I suspect many would say the latter certainly is. I’m not convinced that separating from reckless neoconservative foreign policy while continuing to assert the permanent things of Christian and classical civilization is reactionary.

Apparently, remaining conservative and traditional while the rest of the world progresses daily into higher forms of enlightenment is the sign of a reactionary. So be it.

avatar Trent Demarest October 12, 2012 at 10:05 am

John Lukacs’s definition of “reactionary” as one who resists (lit. who acts against) revolutionary change seems apposite.

http://bit.ly/X0KHVp

I’m fine with being a reactionary in this sense. There is certainly a way in which it is a more apt descriptor than conservative, though I’m not going to fight and die on the hill of a semantic distinction.

avatar Trent Demarest October 12, 2012 at 10:15 am

“While all human conditions change, human nature does not really change. This may be called a reactionary view. It is at this point that I must defend the word reactionary. Much more than a conservative — which is a very malleable word — a reactionary knows, and believes, in the existence of sin and in the immutable essence of human nature. He does not always oppose change, and he does not altogether deny progress. What he denies is the immutable idea of immutable progress: the idea that we are capable not only of improving our material conditions but our very nature, including our mental and spiritual nature. We must never deny the potentiality of possible improvements of the human condition. But we must be aware–especially at this time, near the end of the twentieth century–of the need to think about what progress means. We must rethink the meaning of progress, its still widely current meaning that has become corroded and useless. Near the end of an age there occurs a heavy accumulation of accepted ideas and of institutionalized ways of thinking, against which thinking men and women must react. In 1930 the Dean of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago said that ‘the doctrine of Original Sin was a theory of human behavior adequate to the scientific knowledge of Saint Augustine’s time, but overthrown by more recent research.’ In 1989 every intelligent reader will recognize what is the laughable pomposity in this statement by a Progressive Churchman: not his reference to Original Sin but to ‘scientific knowledge,’ and in his dogmatic assertion of the validity of ‘more recent research.’ It is high time to reassess the sense of certain words — that, for example, progressive is not necessarily good, and reactionary not necessarily bad.” (John Lukacs, Confessions of an Original Sinner, pg. xiv)

avatar Art Deco December 30, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Essentially neo-conservatives successfully homogenized conservatism by getting rid of what they considered the racist and backward element of conservatism, its traditionalist wing.

The term ‘neo-conservative’ was coined by Peter Steinfels in 1979 to refer to a corps of publicists of modest dimension (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, and Peter Berger were his examples). In spite of Dr. Moynihan’s entry into electoral politics, this circle was never at the core of an electoral movement. They were academics and opinion journalists operating within the publications and institutes which already employed them. The thing is, white supremacy was never a cause promoted by Encounter, The Public Interest, or Commentary. Neither was it a cause promoted by the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, or any publication series they issued. There was no one to ‘get rid of’. They were never there.

Ca. 1957, National Review and Human Events were critical of what was later called ‘civil rights legislation’ and the former maintained in its stable of contributors polite advocates of segregation (e.g. James Jackson Kilpatrick). Read George Nash’s history of the starboard opinion journalism of that era; race relations were never a priority for Wm. Buckley and his circle and Buckley found the most obtrusive advocates for the ancien regime in the South (e.g. George Wallace) to be distasteful characters best ignored. In any case, the circle Steinfels described were seldom contributors to National Review, which Buckley superintended up until 2004. Irving Kristol and his confederates were not disposing of anyone there. Advocates of segregation (again, Kilpatrick) repaired to other concerns at such time as the issue ceased to be an object of discussion among working politicians. No one got rid of them either. Various people have be cut from the roster of contributors at National Review in the last 20 years for damaging the publication’s brand (Joseph Sobran, Steven Sailer, John Derbyshire), but none of them had any connection to ISI, Russell Kirk, or any sort of political discussion which took place prior to 1972. Sobran in his later years was addled by a frothing resentment of Jews and Sailer and Derbyshire are promoters of the notion that sociology is reducible to anthropology and psychology which are reducible to biology. Neither the Jew-stuff nor the eugenicist stuff have been characteristic of the sort of literature ISI has issued over 60 years.

Much the same is so if you consider electoral politics. The Republican Party has never been a home for advocates of white supremacy. As for the Democratic Party, advocates of segregation continued to be prominent office-holders at every level after 1970. With few exceptions, they were not ejected. They lost heart. They retired and the people who replaced them did not share that interest.

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