A couple of months ago, Russell Jacoby argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education there are no more conservative intellectuals. His claims were ably dealt with by Dan McCarthy here. Now Jacoby’s back with a sequel. It turns out that there some conservative intellectuals after all: they just have to be imported from the United Kingdom. Jacoby’s examples are Niall Ferguson and Christopher Hitchens.
This version of the argument is even sillier than the original. In the first place, Hitchens was in no sense a conservative. He was an idiosyncratic radical who supported the aggressive foreign policy that defined the Bush Administration. According to Jacoby, “in an era when many conservatives pray at the alter [sic] of Ronald Regan [sic] and Ayn Rand, celebrate guns-in-every house, challenge evolution and climate warming, champion life for the unborn and the death penalty for the born, they have a greater need for credible intellectuals than the left.” If that’s what conservatism is, it didn’t get much help from the Hitch.
The same can be said of the more hackish Ferguson. Although he loudly insists on the superiority of Western Civilization and defends the economic proposals of the Romney campaign, Ferguson has expressed no interest in the positions that Jacoby identifies as especially in need of intellectual defense. Like Hitchens, Ferguson is a “conservative” primarily in his endorsement of the so-called freedom agenda. Unlike Hitchens, Ferguson combines this endorsement combined with a naked worship of power that has helped discredit him in all but the most doctrinaire circles. As Jacoby observes, Hitchens argued until the end of his life that Henry Kissinger, no advocate of democracy promotion, should be prosecuted for war crimes. Ferguson is writing his biography.
Jacoby may have recognized these tensions, because he changes his definition of conservatism in the course of the piece. By the last paragraph, conservatism is no longer God-and-guns populism, let alone the rich tradition that McCarthy adverts to in his critique of the original piece. Instead, it’s what Ferguson described with approval as the “neo-imperialist gang”. So Jacoby’s argument amounts to something like this: First Hitchens and then Ferguson lent their rich Oxbridge accents to the definitive strand of conservatism represented by John McCain. So what?
Fortunately, there’s more to conservatism than that–just as there’s more to it than the anti-intellectualism of some evangelicals. If Jacoby plans to continue to pronounce on the subject, he’d do well to look beyond the columns of Vanity Fair and Newsweek. Perhaps some generous reader would buy him a subscription to this magazine?