State of the Union

Charles Murray’s Fatal Conceit

As a European historian specializing in the 19th century, I’ve never been able to figure out what American journalists and politicians (not to mention academic sociologists) mean when they refer to “classes.” This term has two time-tested meanings. Either we’re talking about social groupings with legally recognized statuses which until the 19th century had certain political rights that other groups did not, or else what we mean is what Marx understood as “classes,” socio-economically dominant forces like the medieval aristocracy or the bourgeoisie that replaced them. Classes are not simply people who fall at one point or another into a particular income bracket or who buy SUVs rather than compact sedans or high-definition TVs instead of pick-up models at Kmart. It drives me absolutely nuts when I hear geeky-looking “economic experts” yapping on about how the “middle class,” that is, middle-income families or clusters of co-inhabitants, are hurting for this or that. “Middle class” used to translate as “bourgeois,” which referred to a social class of many centuries, as opposed to those who are moving up and down the income scale. The indiscriminate bandying about of the term shows how culturally ignorant we’ve become.

A former colleague of mine who teaches political theory observed that it’s now impossible to teach students about Aristotle’s conception of the family as a household. The kids get annoyed that an ancient Greek thinker held such a skewed view of family relations. It makes no sense, for example, that an aging dude was put in charge of other family members. After all, women should be wage-earners as well as make their own decision about reproductive rights. One young Brazilian exchange student went ballistic when the instructor failed to scold Aristotle for not discussing gay marriage. Isn’t this about family togetherness, the student asked, an attitude we should be praising instead of ignoring?

This present-mindedness applies, admittedly in a less dramatic way, to those who improperly use “class.” It even shows up in Charles Murray’s otherwise informative, recent best-selling book of social commentary Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Hailed by the celebrated British historian Niall Ferguson (in a special plug) as a defense of traditional family values, the work calls for a return to “the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.” Presumably the folks among whom these nice things are being practiced are the high achievers, awash in college degrees, and those whom Murray locates in his not-so-fictitious Boston suburb of Belmont. The well-heeled model residents are contrasted to the less well-educated and often unemployed white population of Fishtown, a place outside of Philly that exists for what have become our white social dregs.

According to Murray, the white working force has been declining economically and morally since the second half of the last century, and he marshals loads of statistics to drive home this point. Among a sizable white population one now sees the effects of chronic unemployment, low educational performance, and dysfunctional family life. In Belmont (which by the way is the Massachusetts home of Mitt Romney and was once that of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society), the residents are doing fabulously well, earning multi-digit double incomes and sending their 1.2 kiddies (or whatever the current reproductive rate is for yuppies) to tony schools. Unfortunately, Belmont residents do nothing for their disadvantaged cousins in Fishtown. They engage in “condescending non-judgmentalism” instead of holding themselves up as social models to those who need their example of bourgeois success.

Despite my respect for Murray’s research and occasionally bold arguments, I find nothing in his book that resembles a traditional class among Belmont’s residents. They are mostly super test-takers, who, according to Murray, are endowed with high IQs. They marry people who are culturally and professionally like themselves (although not usually particularly photogenic). Strong gender roles, which were characteristic of traditional classes, hardly exist among the Belmonters, and while both parents are out amassing wealth, the kiddies are being raised mostly by hired help. Wealth-gatherers may have a relatively low divorce rate because divorce is an expensive, time-consuming commercial transaction for those in their income bracket. But their apparent monogamy does not prove these people have vibrant family lives and even less that they’re brimming with “faith and community.”

Belmonters do not spout their radical social views entirely by accident. It’s been my impression these busy beavers usually don’t feel that they’re part of a bourgeois, white Christian society. That’s because these workaholics are Jewish agnostics, Chinese atheists, and whatever other category our real Belmonters fit into. Urban high achievers think of themselves as outsiders, not as those who are assuming the mantle of leadership from 19th-century WASP Brahmins. According to Murray, his successful earners include Hollywood movie-makers and may also be in gay marriages, which he explains in a WSJ interview is “no big deal” for him. Those who excel in school and afterwards make loads of money may have their material value. But they form neither a resurrected bourgeoisie nor those who are likely to bring to fruition what Murray takes to be the vision of America’s Founders.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Defining Conservative Down

In what for me illustrates the use of confusing labels, George Will recently complained about attacks of “cognitive dissonance” in trying to understand our political terms. Although Americans identify overwhelmingly as “conservatives,” many of them vote differently from the way they describe themselves. They lean theoretically toward Thomas Jefferson, who advocated very limited government, but vote like Hamiltonians, that is, like disciples of Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury, who favored a strong federal state. Will quotes his favorite “conservative” senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who noted a dramatic disconnect between how Americans think and how they vote. According to Moynihan, who usually gave his vote to the left despite his undeserved reputation as a man of the right, Americans are happy to violate their “conservative civil religion” as soon as they enter a voting booth.

Will’s observations about political labels are highly questionable. He stretches the term “conservative” so far that it means whatever he (and presumably the “conservative” press) wants it to mean. Judging by polls, the majority of Americans stand well to the left on social issues of where the American left and even the European far left used to be positioned. European Communist Parties well into the post-World War II era were strikingly traditional about gender roles, immigration, and gay rights — certainly in comparison to where most American voters currently stand. Our corporate income tax rates are the highest in developed world, and the percentage of our population that does not pay federal income tax seems to be higher than what one finds in most “progressive” European countries. And lest I forget, those who were ranting at the GOP convention about our duty to spread human rights globally did not sound even vaguely “conservative.” They seemed to be imitating the zealots of the French Revolution who sought to carry their “Rights of Man” at bayonet point to the entire human race. No one has ever explained to me how this radical revolutionary foreign policy is in any sense conservative.

It is equally ridiculous to treat American Democrats as “Hamiltonians.” In the late 18th century, favoring a strong nation state was not a leftist position. It was identified with mercantile power and in Hamilton’s case with distrust of mass democracy and the internationalism of the French Revolution. Not all advocates of state power should be equated with Obama partisans, any more than Jefferson and his partisans should be seen as “conservatives” in their time. In the late 18th century, the political struggle in the U.S. was between nationalists and regionalists, and it is impossible to make that struggle correspond to our present situation. Our polity is too multicultural to be compared to the early American nation state, which was relatively homogeneous culturally and religiously, and we live with a highly centralized welfare state that two national parties are trying to get hold of to accommodate their bases. It is therefore misleading to paste worn political labels onto a political present to which they have no significant relation. What we now see is a ritualized battle between two party blocs centered on the fruits of an expanding administrative state. And from what I can tell, most voters seem delighted with this arrangement and would be furious if we tried to change it.

Since the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are now mostly empty rhetorical phrases, it is not surprising that Obama voters are being classified as inconsistent “conservatives.” Why not call them Martians? The operative terms exist in order to differentiate mostly similar products. To me this overlap is far more obvious than those distinctions the media would like us to emphasize. According to Will, Americans consider themselves to be conservative rather than liberal by a ratio of two to one. But this matters about as much as the fact that some voters have black hair and others brown hair. The real difference is between those who seek to dismantle our centralized administrative state, with its apparatus of behavioral control, and those who support its continuation and inevitable growth. On one side we have the authorized but often indistinguishable “conservatives” and “liberals,” and on the other side, a small percentage of the adult population standing alone and voting for a third party that is not likely to get anywhere.

I’d be happy if we changed our current terminology to something as descriptively useful as “social democrats A” and “social democrats B.” And I make this suggestion not as a libertarian (which I am not) but as someone who favors accurate labeling. It would be nice never again to have to gaze at anything like Will’s remarks about his “cognitive dissonance” in noticing that some “conservatives” vote for the Dems. His labeling problem is certainly not mine.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Immigration, Islam, and Europe’s Jews

Despite my usual agreement with Sam Goldman on historical questions, I beg to differ with him in his judgments about what kind of alliances European Jews should be making in view of the anti-Jewish sentiments that is now apparent among many Muslim immigrants. In my view, Jews would do best supporting those parties, typically on the right, which favor limiting Muslim immigration into Europe. Jews should also unconditionally oppose attempts by the European Left to allow the introduction of Sharia Law into European society, under the guise of religious freedom. It is also in the interest of Jews here and in Europe to reciprocate the good will being offered by traditional Christians. Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, should give up their atavistic prejudices against “goyim” masquerading as a commitment to total, state-enforced secularism (of course except for non-Christians). Christians are by far the best allies Jews can find, as opposed to the multicultural Left that has unleashed the immigration problem and are working knowingly or unknowingly toward the further Islamicization of Europe and toward the elimination of what remains of a Western Christian civilization.

Sam’s eagerness to ascribe anti-circumcision and anti-Jewish ritual slaughtering laws to rightwing anti-Muslim groups, which supposedly disdain Jews as well as Muslims, is misdirected energy. The laws he criticizes have considerable support on the left. Liberal Democrats are now introducing an anti-circumcision law in San Francisco, and those engaged in this act have absolutely no interest in persecuting Muslims. The proposals to ban ritual slaughtering in Sweden came from the country’s very leftist socialist party; and the anti-circumcision law in Germany resonates strongly with the socially radical Greens and the Party of German Socialists. Although the Nazi Party once favored such legislation, at least partly for anti-Semitic reasons, for several generations it has been the European Left that has been most strenuously opposed to such “inhumane” practices as Jewish ritual slaughtering and circumcising infants. There is nothing new about the Left’s association with these views. They were expressing them in the 1950s and 1960s, before Muslims entered Europe in large numbers.

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Eric Hobsbawm and the Totalitarian Double Standard

The death of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm at the age of 95 two days ago set me down memory lane. The one time I met this illustrious historian was when Gene Genovese (who predeceased Hobsbawm by just a few days) introduced him to me at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Boston in 1969. I had just given a critical rejoinder to a plea for a “humanistic Marx,” who had suffered from 19th-century German anti-Semitism. In my response, I suggested that Marx himself had been virulently anti-Semitic but that if one accepted his historical analysis his personal prejudices should not seem important. After all, Marx was trying to explain the course of human history and planning for a revolutionary future. He was “not competing for the ADL liberal of the year award.” It seems Hobsbawm, who was a dedicated member of the English Communist Party, agreed with my sentiments and expressed concern about “the exotica being produced by idiosyncratic, would-be Marxists.” Thereupon I took a liking to this dignified gentleman in a three-piece suit, who had learned splendid English after growing up in Vienna. He may have been a commie but he was clearly no bleeding-heart leftist.

Moreover, I had been reading on and off the first volume of what became his four-volume study of the modern age since the French Revolution. This first volume, Age of Revolution, 1789-1848 (1962), was one of the best synthetic works on a tumultuous period in modern European history, and unlike conventional, pro-liberal-democratic treatments of the same sprawling subject, Hobsbawm made a strenuous attempt to integrate economic and social change with evolving ideological fashions. Whatever his personal politics, Age of Revolution and the succeeding volume Age of Capital were highly respectable scholarship. They came from a disciplined mind that operated from a historical materialist perspective.

What is hard for anyone who is not some kind of leftist ideologue to shove down the memory hole is Hobsbawm’s lifelong dedication to communism, most particularly his unswerving loyalty to Stalin’s memory. To his credit, Hobsbawm never hid his loyalty to the Soviet experiment, and unlike his fellow Stalinist Eric Foner, who scolded Gorbachev for dismantling the Soviet dictatorship, Hobsbawm never grew into a fashionable, politically correct leftist. He died the communist he became while living in Berlin in the early 1930s (or perhaps even earlier). This shows an honesty and consistency that is admirable at some level but also invites the deception and application of double standards that one expects from the usual suspects. In what has become the authoritative obituary, the Guardian dwells on Hobsbawm’s impressive work as an historian, his happy second marriage (after a failed first one and a child born out of wedlock), and his decision to venture on to new Marxist research paths in the 1970s. The paper also tells us that his friend and Marxist associate Christopher Hill had dropped out of the CP by the 1970s but Hobsbawm chose a different course. That path was of course one of total subservience to the Soviet Union, although Hobsbawm had objected when Khrushchev in 1956 had dared to comment on Stalin’s “cult of personality.”

One could only imagine, as my son reminded me, what the same sources would say if Hobsbawm, like Martin Heidegger, had once rashly come out in support of the Third Reich, even if, as in the case of one of the West’s greatest philosophers, he had subsequently withdrawn from politics. Obviously being a lifelong Stalinist is not like being a temporary Nazi in 1933. It brings bouquets for one’s idealism rather than a rash of anti-fascist tirades, masquerading as books, which are reviewed in the elite press. But let’s not pick such an extreme example. Let’s imagine that Hobsbawm went from being a Stalinist to something less ominous than a fleeting Nazi enthusiast. What if he had gone from defending the gulags to being an opponent of gay marriage? Would the Guardian have treated him any worse when he died at 95 as a one-time “Marxist historian”? You bet it would.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Eugene D. Genovese, R.I.P.

The justly renowned social historian Eugene D. Genovese died yesterday at the age of 82 in Atlanta. His death followed several years of dealing with a worsening cardiac ailment and with a jolting loss in 2007 from which he never recovered. This was the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth (Betsey), who was his frequent collaborator on books and whom he celebrated after her passing in moving memoirs. In my professional opinion, Genovese may have been the greatest social historian this country has given us; and the fact that he wrote like a dream makes his accomplishment even more noteworthy. In Roll, Jordan, Roll, a work that won the Bancroft Prize in 1974, The Political Economy of Slavery, and The Mind of the Master Class: History and Faith in the Southern Slaveholders’ Worldview, Genovese presents an unsurpassed analysis of the mindset of the once dominant planter class in the Old South. Although Genovese wrote his early works as a Marxist and his later ones as a Catholic traditionalist and an avowed man of the Right, it is sometimes hard to distinguish his writings in terms of these personal changes. There is something which from the current political perspective is remarkably reactionary about Genovese’s oeuvre, even in those books he published as a Marxist who once came out openly for the Viet Cong. But that was when it was still possible to be a left-wing radical without having to be politically correct.

Absent from Genovese’s work is the tiresome moralizing that now characterizes academic historiography. Even in his most radical phase, he wrote admiringly about the antebellum Southern slave-owners, who believed deeply in their right to rule. This doomed class, which would give way in the Civil War to the dominance of the capitalist bourgeoisie and to the victory of free labor, did not lack for courage or manliness, according to Genovese. The planter class however represented the past, one that was destined to fall to the capitalist North, which eventually, Genovese hoped as a Marxist, would be overthrown by world socialism. By the way, Marx and Engels did not exhibit any of the tender feelings for the Southern side that one finds in their onetime follower.  They saw the Civil War, like our liberals and neoconservatives, as an unvarnished struggle between Good and Evil.

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The Goode Fight

Virgil Goode hands in his signatures to the Virginia Board of Elections | via Virgil Goode for President Committee

Lately I’ve been gathering information that has made me dislike the GOP more than ever. The Constitution Party (CP), which is a small-government, avowedly pro-Christian, and immigration restrictionist party that came into existence in 1992, is being kept off the ballot in the presidential election in many states thanks to costly Republican efforts. Republican operatives have lavished tens of millions of dollars challenging petitions that the CP and its candidates have submitted in various states. Indeed, Republicans have engaged in all sorts of nasty tricks to prevent a challenge to their candidates from the organized right.

What has typically happened, as occurred in my state of Pennsylvania, is that GOP lawyers have mounted complicated challenges to every name that appears on CP ballot petitions. The required number of names has been raised as high as 20,000 to scare away threats to our eternalized two-party American-style constitutional democracy. Under an able leader from Lancaster, Jim Clymer (who is also the national party’s vice-presidential candidate), the Pennsylvania CP raised over 35,000 signatures, in defiance of our media- and GOP-approved way of life. But since GOP lawyers are challenging most of the names on the submitted petitions, it’s unlikely the CP will be on the ballot this fall in Pennsylvania. Through persistent hard work and fundraising, however, the CP has gotten on the ballot in 21 other states, most recently Virginia.

Although Clymer, a distinguished local lawyer, has tried to deal with the challenges to the best of his ability, the cost of staying in the fight has become for his cash-strapped state party truly astronomical. When asked to raise another $100,000 to go on battling GOP obstructionists, Jim threw in the towel. Because of GOP muscle, which is every bit as despicably applied as that of the Democrats’ public-sector unions, the CP will see its prospective votes in Pennsylvania this November diminish to a mere trickle.

I am fully aware of the arguments that local GOP flacks are pulling out on behalf of their party’s Stalinist tactics. It is apparently necessary for all non-leftists to get behind Romney, so that we can oust from office the Evil One, who is denounced daily in the neocon-GOP media. Any other party on the right, Republicans are made to believe, is in league with Bam and should be viewed as an instrument designed to get a leftist president reelected. But (alas) the socially traditional and foreign-war-averse right has absolutely no place to go in this election, unless it can vote for a suitable third party.   Neither Romney nor Obama stands for this option. If the GOP presidential candidate represents any right, it is only because media noisemakers tell us he does.

There is nothing Romney has said that would suggest he’s significantly different from Obama on social issues, and there’s plenty to suggest he’d be a lot worse in dealing with our “antidemocratic”  enemies worldwide. Do we really want to see the neocons put back in charge of American foreign policy, with a candidate who is offering at best an extension of W’s presidency? These are the points that CP presidential candidate Virgil Goode and his running mate Jim Clymer have been making. And though Goode as a congressman from Virginia voted for the Patriot Act and W’s other war measures, he seems to have developed more gravitas in the intervening time. To Goode’s credit, I haven’t noticed John Bolton or Robert Kagan turning up in his retinue, which can’t be said for Romney.

There are two other relevant observations: One, in 2000 the Democrats allowed Ralph Nader to run as a third-party presidential candidate, although from the outset it seemed this earnest challenger would take more votes from the Democrats’ socialist left than from the GOP’s anti-immigrationist right. (Nader in 2000 combined economic socialism with vaguely rightist populist sounds.) We now know this third party candidate cost Gore the race by taking enough votes from Floridians to throw their state to W.

But that’s how the Dems, not the GOP, acted back then. I’ve no doubt the GOP, faced by the same problem, would have ruthlessly and happily crushed a third-party challenge. Unlike the Dems, who have kooky intellectuals to keep under control, Republicans believe what they’re told. If they’re repeatedly informed that Romney is a right-winger because he believes in “American exceptionalism” and will put the U.S. armed forces at the disposal of Benjamin Netanyahu, why shouldn’t Republicans believe this? After all, who’s to say it’s not true, except for a Muslim Democrat?

Two, the Republicans look as if they’re taking their program for eliminating parliamentary opposition on the right from the German Christian Democrats after World War II. Set up as a centrist party by the occupational powers, one intended to appeal to the non-Nazi right without becoming itself a right-wing party, the Christian Democrats and their Christian Social allies in Bavaria worked tirelessly to outlaw their opposition. And the oppositions rarely if ever included real right-wing revolutionaries. The party in power mounted court cases as threats to German democracy against such implausible targets as Bavarian regionalists and on one occasion the old Catholic Center Party, of which the German chancellor had once been a leading member but which Chancellor Adenauer wanted to collapse into the postwar Christian Democrats.

These eliminationist tactics were successful up to a point. They helped provide the Christian Democrats with a safe constituency in the center (which was really the Catholic majority of the eliminated Center Party), but there was a high cost that came with this provisional success. The German left, which has been in power since the 1970s, although sometimes with Christian Democratic window dressing, has continued and accelerated the practice of eliminating through the courts any pesky opposition on the right. In Germany “right-wing extremism” starts with those who question the latest media-approved multicultural agenda, and those parties that represent such resistance soon find themselves dragged through courts and under investigation. This all began under the opportunistic leadership of the postwar Christian Democrats, who seem to have foreshadowed our present-day GOP.

What Republicans have done to the CP will not unite the right. It is a preparatory action to moving our politics further to the left, which is exactly what happened in Germany.  But there are short- and middle-term benefits from this game. The center obtains a somewhat bigger share of the electoral pie by making the right disappear as a party factor. But that doesn’t change the overall situation, in which the center does the work of the left by getting rid of the right. On the other hand, that may be all the GOP really wants, a bit more time to make careers and to hand out patronage to its drudges.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

The Left’s Unreported Extremism

In a recent column Cal Thomas states the obvious when he observes “Democrats and their friends in the big media protect their own when accused of outrageous acts.” Thomas contrasts the way the media has savaged the Republican Party, including Mitt Romney, for a stupid remark by Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin about women being able to protect themselves against conceiving in a “legitimate rape” with the pass given to women abusers on the left or in the Democratic Party. The man imagined to be the “lion of the Senate,” longtime Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy “drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Mass., leaving a woman, not his wife, to drown.” The reckless driver, who was under the influence at the time, was given a three-month suspension of his license in a state that his family controlled politically. Moreover, Kennedy, a senator for life, was comforted afterwards in the NYT about “the ordeal he had to overcome.” In 1978, the former president who will be a featured speaker at this year’s Democratic convention, Bill Clinton, was accused by a campaign worker, Juanita Broaddrick, of attempted rape when Clinton was attorney general in Arkansas. Not to worry! Clinton had the media cover for him and is now hailed as a champion of women’s rights.

The reason these cover-ups and double standards work is that lots of people suspend belief when told about feminist Democrats fighting Republicans who wish to enslave women. But no matter which party wins in November, the social changes of the last 50 years, which the government has actively promoted, are not likely to be altered. One has to be mad to mistake the wishy-washy Romney for an Iranian Ayatollah.

Such media bias does not surprise me. Those in a profession whose members identify themselves by more than 9 to 1 with the left and, for want of a more radical alternative, the Democratic Party, give us lots to choose from. The (for me) most annoying recent case of such bias came with the coverage of the gay activist who tried to shoot up the Family Research Council in Washington. The activist in question, Floyd Lee Corkins, went with a loaded gun and a pocket full of Chicken-fil-A sandwiches to wipe out a “hate group.” The council that Corkins targeted advocates traditional heterosexual marriage and opposes the legalization of gay marriage. It has also published more controversial but documented views about gays being more likely than heterosexuals to engage in pedophilia. Such positions call for debate, but such advocates as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Huffington Post are not accustomed to holding discussions with those on the other side. They rant against them as “hate groups.” SPLC spokesperson Heidi Beirich sees no significant difference between the Family Research Council’s rejection of gay lifestyles and the incitement to violence practiced by neo-Nazis. But that’s nothing new. For decades the center has accused those it dislikes of fomenting hate. Read More…

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Radical Ryan, Centrist Obama, & Other Myths

Listening to Fox News contributor Kirsten Powers give her (and the Democratic Party leadership’s) reaction to the choice of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate the other day, I thought my ears had suddenly failed. Powers began to rail against Romney’s “dangerous” ideological choice; she assured the TV-viewers that this “is exactly what President Obama wanted.” Apparently Ryan is injecting an extremist element into the campaign, as Obama’s top advisor David Axelrod is telling us. One gathers that this degree of fanaticism just wasn’t there before. Up until Ryan’s selection, the campaign supposedly featured nice moderates, led by perhaps the greatest moderate of all, Barack Obama.

As proof of his moderateness, Obama has doubled the national debt in four years, appointed the most leftist presidential cabinet in American history — typified by the very partisan Attorney General Holder — and is now giving away welfare without the congressionally mandated work requirement. And this is only to touch the surface of Obama’s radicalization of our politics, something fully consistent with his careers in the Illinois state legislature and the U.S. Senate, where our current president had the most leftist voting record of all the members.

By contrast, the 42-year old congressman who has been picked as GOP presidential candidate was a centrist, even liberal, Bush Republican through most of his Washington career. He voted for Bush’s $485 million bailout of Wall Street in 2008 and before that for the former president’s Drug Prescription Act. In 2007 Ryan was only one of 35 Republicans who supported ENDA, a law sponsored bY Congressman Barney Frank outlawing workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation. (He now deplores that vote.) Since then Ryan has made a name for himself as a critic of Obamacare and increased federal spending. And he gained bipartisan respect as a fiscal reformer, up until the time he became Romney’s vice presidential pick.

Looking at his proposals for reducing the federal debt and putting entitlements on a sounder fiscal basis, it seems to me that Ryan may be calling for too little too late. Fixing things will take more than offering those who are under 55 alternatives to Medicare. Last year Medicare revealed a combined deficit of $288 billion; and its unfunded liabilities will soon be reaching $90 trillion, unless the rising debts can be brought under control. Ten years from now, even with the Ryan budget, the federal government would be spending as much as it did under the Clinton presidency but at a higher percentage of GDP. If my opinion were asked, I’d call for the abolition of the Department of Education and for a removal of as many posts in the federal administration as is humanly possible. And that’s only for starters!

At the very least, we’ll have to increase taxes, force some of the people who have been exempted into paying income tax, and raise the age of eligibility for Social Security, in view of the growing numbers of seniors. I’m not a fan of the welfare state but if the voters want to have one, they should pay the cost. I seriously doubt that by opening our gates very wide to indigent immigrants, we can import a work force that will look after those who are already here. Many of those who come, especially the very young and elderly, bring added social expenses, and right now there is difficulty finding jobs for American citizens.

Ryan isn’t particularly bold in addressing the federal student-loan program, which should be phased out and not simply kept at its present level. Obama is fishing for votes by calling for steeply increased federal funding for a bad scheme. The loans not only drive up college tuitions, as Ryan points out, they also saddle those who are going into unpromising employment situations with crushing debts.

Obama’s partisans tell me that their idol is a “conservative liberal” or, even less plausibly, a “liberal conservative.” I couldn’t disagree more. A once-and-always community organizer, he strikes me as someone who is out of his depth in the presidency. Too often he acts like an ideologically excited adolescent. On August 13, he gave instructions by executive order to our public school system to practice “proportionate discipline” in dealing with delinquent student behavior. Obama is apparently offended by “disparate use of disciplinary tools.” Economist and Philadelphia native Walter Williams explains what this order is about: if black kids raise havoc in North Philadelphia schools, it will be necessary to find a “proportionate” number of whites and Asians to punish. Never mind disciplining the real troublemakers! This proves an observation by the English author George Orwell that some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals (or those imitating them) could believe them. Unlike Obama, Ryan brings to the presidential campaign a sense of deliberateness. One only wishes that he were more “extreme” in his budgetary solutions.

Paul Gottfried is a professor at Elizabethtown College and the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Mitt the Minimalist

Never in my life have I encountered a politician who does a better imitation of a mannequin than Mitt Romney, particularly when called on to address social issues. Does this presidential candidate have an “opinion,” for example, on recent attempts to run the food chain Chick-Fil-A out of large municipalities because its president, Dan Cathy, had spoken up for traditional marriage? What is Romney’s view of President Obama’s application of executive power to grant legal status to almost a million illegal residents? Does Romney have a view about such matters? If he does, he is keeping it well hidden. The only thing I hear him saying on the domestic front is that Obama has not addressed the high unemployment rate or our soaring public debt. Presumably Romney will.

All of this has been carefully scripted to make Romney electable without requiring him to show his hand, with one terrifying exception that I’ll soon get to. Admittedly there may be something to be said for this strategy. Obama has messed up the economy and despite his personal popularity, he may not be able to put together the winning coalition he had four years ago. Romney, who looks presidential and can claim corporate business experience, has offered himself as the alternative; and if the economy continues to go south, the former one-term Massachusetts governor may squeak to victory.

But even here Romney hasn’t created for himself a strong profile. Obama went after him nonstop for weeks as a grasping CEO while heading up Bain Capital, and Romney long avoided countering, even when he held the good cards. Since Obama’s brief was at best spotty, the incumbent couldn’t get as much out of it, but certainly not because of Romney’s combativeness. All I heard him say even after weeks of accusations was that Obama was slandering him.

The GOP game plan seems to be that its media brigade, led by such worthies as Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity, and Ann Coulter, will save Romney the hassle of taking socially conservative positions. Sounding “conservative” may not sit well with hypothetical independents, and so the party propagandists have provided their candidate with an opportunity to dodge divisive issues. But there is no real fit between the journalistically cultivated image of Romney as a social traditionalist (outside his own family life) and his actual political record. A book that landed in my hands, despite the efforts of GOP operatives to keep it from going anywhere, is an expose by Amy L. Contrada on Governor Romney’s “deception” during the campaign for gay marriage in Massachusetts. From Contrada’s account, it is hard to pinpoint where Romney stood on this sensitive social issue. The same is true for his position on abortion, which he changed with some regularity. The conflict-avoiding Romney has been around for some time, and he’s in his element when he avoids getting pinned down on social questions.

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The Logic of Voter ID

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The voter ID law recently enacted in Pennsylvania and which already operates in other states has occasioned considerable controversy. Although a majority of Americans polled favor the idea that would-be voters should be required to identify themselves with a license or with some other persuasive document, opposition persists. Allow me to express my considered view, which was also the position taken by the Supreme Court in 2002, that there is nothing constitutionally wrong with recent measures taken against voter fraud. They do not single out minorities; and the attempts being made by Attorney General Eric Holder, at the bidding of President Obama, to get the laws rescinded as an extension of the poll tax once used in the South to depress black turnout, are groundless. All that voters are being asked to do is provide evidence that they have a legal right to vote.

One counter-argument is that although Republicans may gain in the short run by enacting voter ID laws, they will permanently lose the good will of certain groups. But this is entirely unconvincing.  Those who may be excluded by the laws would never likely vote Republican; and those who have complained the most loudly against the laws are black advocates and Democratic operatives, neither of which group seems to be a promising target for Republican persuasion. Despite recent attempts by Mitt Romney to court the black vote, he will not likely obtain more of it than McCain, who picked up only five percent. Would it pay for Pennsylvania Governor Corbett and other Republican politicians to reject voter ID measures on the grounds that they may alienate those who already decidedly against them?

This is like imagining a situation in which Obama and Holder would refrain from challenging known Christian traditionalists and NRA lobbyists who are improperly registered to vote. The Dems would be fools if they did this. And let me hazard the assumption that those who are criticizing Republican support of the ID measures would not object in the least if the present administration found some legal means of preventing their opponents from voting.

In the end, however, Obama may be facing a serious problem. In Pennsylvania the need for a license ID or some other valid voting identification may result in the loss of over 700,000 votes for the Democratic presidential candidate. This is not only the view of Democratic county chairmen across the state but also the stated opinion of Allegheny County state representative (and House Majority Leader) Mike Turzai. According to Turzai, a Republican, the enforcement of the photo ID law that Corbett recently signed will help Romney overcome the deficit he’d otherwise encounter running against Obama in Pennsylvania. This may permit the Republican candidate to win a state that has voted consistently Democratic in presidential elections for several decades. And the law seems to enjoy bipartisan backing, with up to 52% of Democrats expressing agreement, according to a Rasmussen poll taken last year. The public believes that voter fraud is rife; and Holder’s inattentiveness to such charges from Republicans, including empirical evidence of Black Panthers bullying Philadelphia voters in 2008, has generated a backlash.

Further, the Democratic response has been inadequate. It consists mostly of calling one’s opponents racists or accusing them of marginalizing those who have not bothered to register. There is of course a more constructive response. It is relatively easy to register neglectful or otherwise preoccupied voters, who are known to be in one’s camp. This was done in the case of black Democrats in Georgia in 20l0, after an ID measure was passed there and then upheld in court. Holder’s comparison of the ID requirement to Southern poll taxes is not likely to make new converts. It speaks exclusively to those who are already on his side. Moreover, the Attorney General’s appeal to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (passed ironically with overwhelming Republican support) to challenge the right of Southern states to amend voting requirements, is a stalling tactic. It is intended to keep voting requirements from being applied until after the presidential election. Unfortunately for Holder and his boss, the measures will have their strongest effect in battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, which were never subject to the Voting Rights Act.

Obama may believe that a purely practical response to his opponents’ strategic move may not fit his ideologically driven style. Better to scream insensitive or racist and then drag out the civil rights apparatus left from the 1960s. That’s the way he and Holder operate; and with a cooperative media, what the hell. Why not go for it? But this method will not enable Obama to counter the Republicans’ tactical move. Turzai is crowing because he thinks he has the other side cornered. Sensibly he has not accused his opponents of being anti-Christian or anti-patriotic–or whatever else GOP publicists like to call Democrats.

Paul Gottfried is a professor at Elizabethtown College and the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

When College Goes Club Med

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I belong to a generation that still values what is now indiscriminately referred to as “higher education.” What that once meant was going to a four-year college, if one’s high-school grades showed promise, and in return for about $700 each semester spending the next four years immersed in books. Back then we studied traditional disciplines, such as math, languages, and those liberal arts that still defined our Western civilization. If a bright student wanted to branch out to other cultures and languages, like Chinese or Japanese, he or she was encouraged to do so. Unlike some colleges nowadays, we most certainly did not have “hands-on learning.” The prevalent view was that if students didn’t want to read books, they shouldn’t be in college.

Not insignificantly, we lived like medieval monks. We had next to no control about what was served in the dining room; and watching TV in the evening was only possible if one shared this amenity with other adolescents in some far-off corner of the campus. We were in college strictly to learn, with few learning devices. We were definitely not there to hang out, play video games in our dorm rooms, or choose from multiple culinary options in an eating area that looked like the circular dining room in the Hotel Hershey.

I used to get dirty looks toward the end of my teaching career when I asked students in Western Civilization courses what books they had read. These students didn’t open books, perhaps on principle. I’ve no idea why they’re in college, except to meet significant others and to enjoy leisure time at the expense of their parents or of American taxpayers. As I like to point out, such college residents are students in the same sense I would be a player in the national hockey league, if I signed up in a program that allowed me to imagine I was something I was not. Of course, since these kids, or their enablers, are paying at least one hundred times more than I did for my education, they get their illusions and sybaritic tastes indulged.

Lest I forget, let me mention that the number of administrators I recall seeing at Yale University in the mid-1960s was a fraction of the army of paper-pushers that is there now. I suspect these paper-pushers are now earning salaries that correspond to the tuition that Yale requires from each undergraduate, which is $58,000 a year. Although this money is icing on the cake, since most Ivy League and at least some state universities could survive from their endowments, Yale and schools of similar caliber do provide enormous professional advantages to their graduates. I’m not sure what comparable advantages accrue to those who attend considerably less prestigious institutions of learning and are paying almost as much for the experience.

This excursion down memory lane brings me to my final point, the complaint that is coming from the Pennsylvania university system that Governor Corbett is not giving “educators” enough dough. Originally Corbett tried to withdraw between 20 and 30 percent of their state funding but then chickened out. If were in his place, I would have urged PSU to dump as many administrators as it could. Do we really need officials to represent “diversity” or other real or alleged social problems on more than 20 campuses across the state? And the salary of over $500,000 a year that is going to the current president of PSU should be causing us to blush in shame, even if that is only half as much as his predecessor earned. Salary reduction for college administrators is dictated by decency as well as thrift. If these bureaucrats wish to live like corporate executives, then they should find jobs into the private sector. At least they won’t be taking my money.

It would also be a good idea if these state behemoths started to budget a bit more reasonably. Do the customers really need so many leisure activities, exercise rooms, computer and video paraphernalia in order to attend a relatively inexpensive state school? If state universities are interested in maximizing their competitive advantages, then they should offer fewer frills and charge less. Americans would do well to look at European universities to see how much less luxuriously students are treated there. Exchange students I’ve met are astonished at how lavishly our college students live. And having spent time on foreign campuses, I know these visitors are right. American colleges are becoming resorts that offer what are increasingly devalued degrees, often in majors that should not even exist. And these resorts are top-heavy. Like our costly public schools, colleges and universities are smothered in administration. Corbett should be raising these issues, as he listens to the complaints coming from “higher education.”

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Jews Against Israel

Elmer Berger

An antiwar libertarian and a principled critic of Jewish nationalism, Jack Ross seems the ideal author to have undertaken a biography of Elmer Berger (1908-1996), the Reform rabbi who pursued a rearguard action against the Zionist movement for more than 50 years. An increasingly marginalized figure after the birth of the Jewish state in 1948, Berger spent the remainder of his life fighting through various organizations—particularly the American Council of Judaism, which he cofounded in 1942—against the inevitable victory of his enemies. It is now almost impossible to recall that there was a time when a large, influential body of Jewish leaders vehemently opposed the creation of a Jewish national state. Indeed, there was a time when most of the Reform Jewry took that stand, and when Berger’s book The Jewish Dilemma would not have occasioned the widespread Jewish indignation that it did when it was published in 1945.

Berger’s position in that work and in other polemical writings is clearly stated. If Jews insist on their ethnic uniqueness and define themselves as a separate people entitled to their own country, then they are admitting that their adversaries have been right all along: Jews cannot be citizens of the countries in which they live, except in a purely technical sense. They have their real country in the Middle East. Moreover, argued Berger, if the Zionist project succeeded, it would declare all Jews, no matter where they lived, to be first and foremost members of a purely Jewish state. The Zionists would therefore raise questions about the loyalty of Jewish citizens to the countries in which they lived, and the Zionists would do so in a way that would keep non-Israeli Jews permanently on the defensive.

Even more significantly for Berger, and for such other kindred spirits as State Department hands Alfred Lilienthal and George Levison, Rabbi Morris Lazaron of Baltimore, and Irving Reichert of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, Zionism was incompatible with a universalist understanding of Judaism based on prophetic ethics and not excluding the “Jewish” teachings of Jesus. Such ideas belonged to a Reform tradition that came from Germany in the mid-19th century. Reform leaders such as the long-lived German-born Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, and such educational institutions as Hebrew Union College, founded in 1883, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, organized ten years earlier, showed the shaping influence of German Jews in the United States.

These formative ideas about universal ethics and social concern as the basis for religious practice were also reflected in the Pittsburgh Platform, which two of Wise’s students, Kaufman Kohler and Emil Hirsch, drafted in 1885. This authoritative platform for Reform congregations for half a century was unequivocally anti-Zionist and regarded most established Jewish ritual practices as coming out of an age that was “under the influence of ideas altogether foreign to our present moral and spiritual state.” What Jews were expected to draw from the “Mosaic law”—and by implication, its later Rabbinic glosses—was the “God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.”

One might wonder how the adherents of this platform, who for all intents and purposes were German Jewish Unitarians, remained united through their rhetoric about moral progress. The answer is social cohesion, good manners, and the habit of attending the same congregation week after week. There was also nothing in their creed that stood in the way of their assimilation into the WASP upper crust, save for non-acceptance on the part of those they were coming to resemble through conscious imitation.

It is usually argued that the victory of the Zionist cause came about because of the anti-Jewish persecutions of the Nazi period. Undoubtedly the growth and importance of such groups as the World Jewish Congress and the fact that longtime critics of Zionism such as Berger’s mentor Rabbi Louis Wolsey (who was originally associated with the Euclid Avenue Temple in Cleveland) went over to the Zionists in 1945 may be attributed to historic pressures: after World War II and the Holocaust, the establishment of a Jewish state seemed both necessary and just. (The Palestinians were peripheral to this decision; many Americans believed Palestine was largely unsettled before European Jews went there to live.)

But a far more critical explanation to which Ross’s book may lead the reader—although that is not necessarily the author’s intention—is social. The anti-Zionists were largely the upper-crust German Jews, while the Zionists were overwhelmingly the Ostjuden who arrived in the U.S. a few generations later and who seemed less clubbable. Some spokesmen for the anti-Zionists, like Wolsey and Reichert, were originally from Eastern Europe but worked hard to fit in. Berger, who grew up in an affluent home in Cleveland, was the son of a Hungarian Jewish railroad engineer, but his mother’s family were German and had lived for generations in Texas before Elmer’s mother, Selma Turk, moved to Ohio after her marriage. Elmer’s association with the tony Reform Temple on Euclid Avenue was a socially desirable connection, and his decision to study for the Reform Rabbinate, without knowing a word of Hebrew, may have been the Jewish equivalent of becoming an Episcopal minister, when such a career move still counted for something.

As the struggle went against Berger’s side, the American Council for Judaism had to look for new allies, most of whom would not have pleased its original membership. At first Berger’s efforts against the Zionist project attracted people of high standing, such as the conservative isolationist senator Karl Mundt, TR’s son Kermit Roosevelt, and the president of Union Theological Seminary, Henry Sloan Coffin. By the end of his life, however, Berger had to settle for radically leftist allies who shared, if nothing else, his negative attitude about Jewish nationalism. In the 1970s he built bridges to an ordained Conservative Rabbi, Everett Gendler, who combined disapproval of Israel with ties to the counterculture. Gendler was a close friend of both Abbie Hoffman and Todd Gitlin.

Despite recent attempts to treat Berger’s cause as a leftist one, it certainly did not begin as such. One notices reading Ross’s work how many of Berger’s early associates were linked to the Republican Party and in some cases the America First movement that opposed U.S. entry into World War II; they were located in places like Galveston, Texas; Shreveport, Louisiana; and San Francisco; that is, just about anywhere outside the Northeast. By contrast, one of the most prominent Zionists in America, the Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, combined Jewish nationalism with Communist fellow-traveling. At the same time Wise was defending Jewish political and ethnic identity, he was denouncing Churchill for daring to criticize Communist oppression in his “Iron Curtain” speech of 1946. The leading Yiddish newspaper Forward in New York upheld Zionism and socialism with equal zeal.

Generally, the German Jews were politically well to the right of their Eastern European coreligionists. But most of the Eastern Europeans with congregational affiliations were Orthodox, while the German Jews sounded and acted like liberal mainline Protestants. It was also the case that as the ethnic and social composition of Reform Judaism changed, so did its politics. It moved to the left in American affairs while becoming more emphatically Zionist.

Other factors worked to the advantage of the Zionists, beside superior numbers and sympathy from Christians reacting to the persecution of European Jewry. They had an informed understanding of the core Jewish tradition, as opposed to the imaginative reconstruction devised by 19th-century German or German-American Jews. Jewish ethnic nationalists could find a multitude of Biblical texts to support their position, many of which Evangelicals have also noticed and taken seriously. The Prophets, who were beloved to the authors of the Pittsburgh Platform, were not silent when it came to foretelling the restoration and enlargement of the Jewish kingdom. (See for example Ezekiel’s detailed sketch of the rebuilt Temple.) Perhaps the most famous medieval Jewish biblical commentator, the 11th-century French Rabbi Solomon the son of Isaac, insisted that the story of Creation comes at the beginning of Genesis to confirm the right of the Jewish nation to repossess its homeland. No less than the Creator of the Universe, according to this commentator, guaranteed the Jewish claim to their ancestral territory.

Listening to the present members of the ACJ explain that the “Jewish tradition” categorically excludes a Jewish national identity, one has to wonder on what planet these advocates are living. It is certainly possible to challenge Jewish nationalism from a different religious perspective, but it’s foolish to pretend that the Jewish tradition, about which the anti-Zionists usually seem to know little, rejects what it obviously and repeatedly affirms. The statement that Berger was fond of making that the Zionists were defending a form of Judaism “that is about fifty years old” is true only in a limited sense. Jews became modern nationalists only at the end of the 19th century. But it was a piece of cake for them to move from their traditional view of themselves as a “people” to modern political and ethnic nationalism.

Having offered these critical remarks about Berger’s cause and Ross’s valorous defense of the “Rabbi Outcast,” let me also express my irrepressible sympathy for those who rallied to the anti-Zionist side. They comported themselves with dignity in a fight in which they were invariably outnumbered—and in a struggle in which their loudmouthed, bullying opponents behaved with predictable boorishness. It is even hard to notice any effect that the American Council for Judaism had on America’s relations with Israel. The one time it exercised some clout, through its members in the State Department after World War II, the council seems to have advocated an anodyne policy of trying to maintain peace between Arabs and the growing Jewish settlement in Palestine. Even this policy, to whatever extent it was applied, had no effect on anything.

Ross cites the truly vicious attacks against Berger launched by his enemies when this aged gentleman was in no position to hurt AIPAC. Berger’s adversaries continued to assault him even when he was frail and beaten. One would expect no better from such graceless winners.

Paul Gottfried is a professor at Elizabethtown College.

An Echo, Not a Choice

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A recent syndicated column by Peggy Noonan makes useful observations, together with one rather questionable point. Noonan blithely assumes that while the president has “fully absorbed the general assumptions and sympathies of the political left,” his opponent Mitt Romney reflects “the general attitudes, assumptions and sympathies of the political right.”

Noonan may be seeing something in Romney that eludes me. Of course, she can find support for her view in the invectives of those liberal journalists, who have begun to depict the former Massachusetts governor and Republican nominee as an incipient fascist. But the right-wingers I meet, who are the ones who tried to keep Romney from winning the nomination, do not believe that he shares their “general attitudes, assumptions and sympathies.” They are going along with the candidate of the GOP regulars and Noonan’s Wall Street Journal because they think Obama may be worse.

Despite this undeserved plug for her newspaper’s editorial choice, Noonan does correctly underline the foolishness of Obama’s recent straying in the direction of the hardline social left. She notes that Obama is “actively bad in politics,” as opposed to being a politically clever ideologue. “Anyone good at politics does not pick a fight with the Catholic Church during an election year.”

“If you’re good at politics but ideologically mean, you string the church along during election year” and then “revoke all protections in 2013, after you’ve been reelected.” Noonan believes Obama’s “campaign is making him look small and scared,” particularly when he forces his ally, Newark mayor Cory Booker, to retract a statement criticizing one of Obama’s recent assaults on equity companies.

It seems that outside of grievance-driven constituencies and friends in the entertainment industry, Obama may be looking at an increasingly restricted electoral base. But his ineptitude may be even worse than Noonan suggests. As a still personally popular executive in a country that has swung leftward culturally and socially, Obama should be able to win in a cakewalk.

But he has frustrated his own efforts. His economic policies have been disastrous; his attempts to blame all his predictable disasters on a Republican administration that went away three and a half years ago borders on the hallucinatory; and his recent attempts to go for broke on leftist social issues, are all causing his lead over Romney to slip. He is clearly losing what political scientists like to call “the undecided center.”

Noonan also observes, however, that Romney has trouble distancing himself from the last GOP president. Romney is opening himself to the charge of being “just more Bush” and “peddling the same medicine that helped make us sick.” Although Noonan is applying this criticism mostly to the way Romney studiously avoids bringing up Bush’s runaway spending while attacking Obama’s extravagance, her observation is true about Republican presidential politics generally.

Bush’s people never departed the public scene following his unsuccessful presidency. They continued to run the GOP media, like the WSJ editorial page and Fox News. And this continuity makes the prospect of a Republican victory unpalatable to some Americans, including this columnist.  A Romney presidency would likely put back into power Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy team, and it would hardly surprise me to see Karl Rove creep back into the White House as a presidential advisor.

The persistence of the mentality of the Bush presidency among Republicans was brought home to me recently while looking at a statement of belief distributed to Young Republicans on college campuses.  One of the stated beliefs is as follows: “I believe in a strong national defense to ensure that America remains safe, terrorists are defeated, and democracy flourishes throughout the world.”

While I’m certainly in favor of maintaining strong defense to keep our country safe, the reference to saving us from terrorists may be pushing the incorrect idea that we’ve been in imminent danger of terrorist attack since Bush left office. But there is no indication that domestic terrorism has become a worse problem under the Democrats. What takes the cake as a blast from the GOP past is the call to use our military to impose our political preferences on the entire world. Can’t the GOP retire the stale rhetoric of Bush’s speechwriter Michael Gerson, which was particularly evident during Bush’s second term? Has the hope of Bush and Gerson to convert all of humanity to state-of-the-art American democracy now become part of a credo that adolescents are supposed to recite, like a religious catechism?

I’m afraid this may be the case, as long as the same broken records from the Bush presidency continue to shape Republican thinking about the rest of the world.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Who’s a Fascist?

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Having been at work on a book dealing with changing definitions of the “F word,” meaning in this case not the one-time obscenity but the ultimate evil in the world of political correctness, I find my comments on the subject have caused considerable irritation. Although I once assumed that only the conventional left was fixated on fascist dangers, I now know the fascist specter is scaring libertarians as well. My statements that fascism must be understood in an interwar European context, that it was a reaction from the right against the threat of Communist and other leftist revolutionary upheavals, that garden-variety fascism — for example, as practiced through the first 14 years of Mussolini’s rule in Italy — was neither really socialist nor totalitarian, have all elicited angry comments from libertarian bloggers.

Like the more conventional leftists, these libertarians seem grossly ignorant of 20th-century history. Right and left for my critics are what they are thought to be in the U.S. at this moment. The two reference points have always been the same, and for the right the eternal battle has been about fighting the “state,” which has been around since the time the pyramids were built. Those who have advanced state power have always been immutably on the left; and presumably the left includes Amenhotep, Henry VIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Bismarck, just as the right has always featured such stalwart conservatives as Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill.

One hostile blogger was concerned that I couldn’t see this simple truth because “I am so blinded by my hatred for NRO.” This obviously referred to my amusement at how the one-time editor of that site had tried to link Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to the politics of both Italian fascism and German Nazism. Apparently all defenders of the welfare state were or are fascists and somehow implicated in Hitler’s crimes. For partisan reasons, Republicans on this telling are spared association with the F-term, even when implicated in the same welfare politics.

I was amused to see an essay on fascism by a Canadian Bill Gairdner in the New Criterion (October 2012) that resuscitates one of Jonah Goldberg’s assertions, that the multicultural left by supporting minority set asides is moving along the path of interwar fascism. Like Goldberg and like my hostile bloggers, Gairdner makes “fascism” fit anything he doesn’t happen to like. Thus the f-word is stretched to apply to such nuisances as Arab youth rioting in suburban Paris and gender studies at American universities.

Not to dwell overly long on my latest contact with partisan dishonesty and historical ignorance, let me state the following about fascism as a historical phenomenon. Already in 1946 George Orwell, who was definitely a man of the Left, noticed that after the Second World War “everyone in England is calling what he doesn’t like fascist.” Note Orwell was making this critical observation well before the 1960s, when the rise of the New Left and the emergence of Holocaust studies (which often equates all fascism with Hitler and the Final Solution) turned the F-word into the world’s greatest and most insidious evil.

Moreover, the anti-New Deal Right in the U.S. had added to the semantic and conceptual confusion by equating the New Deal with fascism. In this case however there was some justification. FDR and his advisor Rexford Tugwell both expressed admiration for Mussolini’s economic reforms in Italy, the extent of which however they vastly exaggerated.

Viewed contextually (which according to the historian Herbert Butterfield and Butterfield’s biographer Kenneth McIntyre is the way historians should be practicing their craft), fascism was a movement that prospered on the European continent between the two world wars. It was an imitation of the left that tried to pull along the working class, but it depended mostly on bourgeois support. Its economics were corporatist in theory but in practice usually left most of the economy in private hands.  Unlike the left, fascists believed in hierarchy and in the organization of the nation along organic and vocational lines. But these preferences led only to minimal change in the social structure, and except for their style and fondness for pageantry, it is hard to distinguish some fascist or quasi-fascist regimes from traditional authoritarian ones.

The regime of the Spanish Nationalist leader Francisco Franco was for the most part a military dictatorship that turned into a caretaker government practicing economic modernization. But Franco tried to integrate into his coalition the fascist Falange organization, which had helped him defeat the left in the Spanish Civil War. And so he adopted some of the trappings and personnel of the Falangists, before unceremoniously dropping both after the Second World War.

In Austria, the anti-Marxist and anti-Nazi regime of the “clerical fascist” Engelbert Dollfuss in the early 1930s glued onto a Catholic-bourgeois ruling coalition some of the rituals and rhetoric of his friend Mussolini, who for several years was Dollfuss’s protector against Hitler. The “Austro-fascist” experiment began to unravel when the Nazis killed Dollfuss in 1934, when Mussolini changed sides in 1936, and when Hitler occupied Austria in 1938.

Although the fascists were not “conservative” in any traditional sense, they were probably more so than my libertarian critics. In interwar Europe being “conservative” did not mean “being for markets,” legalizing addictive drugs, or distributing anarcho-capitalist leaflets. It meant favoring a traditional state that accepted a traditional social order and which was usually tied to an established church. In that bygone world my libertarian bloggers would have been considered hopelessly demented leftists. Although fascists were not particularly agreeable to traditional conservatives, philosophical libertarians would have been even less popular in these circles. European liberals may have been closer to the anarcho-capitalist mentality but only slightly. Unlike our libertarians, old-fashioned liberals held Victorian social and moral views and were highly suspicious of democracy.

Being a broadminded reactionary, I would allow for a broad understanding of the right as a counter-force to the left depending on how the two terms are understood at a particular time and in a particular place. In the present American context, being an advocate of minimal government means opposing leftist public administration and its multicultural and leveling policies. Libertarianism, viewed from this situational perspective, is a reactionary position, just as opposing Communist subversives was in Europe after the Bolshevik Revolution.  The right has a functional identity, in the sense that it stands athwart the left and tries to limit its destructive power. That is what defines the right operationally, certainly not faith in representative democracy or a belief that each person should be able to do his own thing. Although one may personally like those positions, they are only accidentally right-wing.

Paul Gottfried is a TAC contributing editor and the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

A Note on Leo Strauss

Having seen Samuel Goldman’s thoughtful response to Kenneth McIntyre’s sizzling review of my book, I think that I might introduce myself as the author of the still rarely read volume that Professor McIntyre discusses in his essay. By now I am used to the admission that most critics of the review use to introduce their reactions: “I have not looked at Gottfried’s work but am responding to McIntyre’s remarks about Strauss.” Allow me to note that it might be a good idea if these commentators looked at my book, however steeply priced it may be. That would certainly help improve my sagging sales but even more importantly would throw light on what is being argued in my work about Strauss, his hermeneutics, and his academic and political following.

I fully agree with Samuel Goldman on two points. He is correct in his conclusion that Strauss’s greatest contribution to scholarship may be his early (German) writings, more specifically his work on the relation between politics and religion in Spinoza. Moreover, I would add to this early achievement Strauss’s brilliant remarks on Carl Schmitt’s 1932 edition of Begriff des Politischen, which may have been the young Strauss’s most insightful work.

I also think Goldman is correct to assign more significance to Strauss as a scholar than my reviewer suggests. In my book I underline the extent of Strauss’s linguistic training and his prodigious reading in political thought. Although I share McIntyre’s skepticism about Strauss’s way of reading texts and although I find Strauss’s interpretive quirks magnified in his disciples, I would not deny that there is immense erudition in everything he wrote. His disciples impress me far less than the master, as Goldman would learn from reading my book. Finally I don’t think Goldman, who has written splendidly on classical conservatism, would dispute my conclusion and that of Kenneth McIntyre that neither Strauss nor his leading followers would qualify as “conservatives.” One can describe them more properly as Cold War liberals or fervent “liberal democrats,” to use their own phrase. Nor does the intensity of their desire to protect Israel from its enemies or their eagerness to spread America’s democratic creed if necessary by force add up to what Goldman, McIntyre, and I would consider to be true conservatism.

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A Conservative’s November Dilemma

photos: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0), Matt Ortega (CC BY-NC 2.0)

As the November election approaches, I find myself faced with a dilemma. I would like to vote for the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, as the better of two distasteful choices, but would have to hesitate at this point. It’s not that I’d be tempted to vote for Obama, although I can well understand the path he’s taken recently in preparation for the November ordeal. In order to get reelected with a poor economic record, he’ll have to energize the more enthusiastic elements in his base; and those groups whom he’s trying to galvanize may well respond to the grievances he’s playing up and blaming on the opposition.

Most of these grievances, for example, against stronger attempts by Republican-dominated regions to control our national borders, against objections raised by religious Christians to Obama’s decision to force Catholic and other religiously affiliated institutions to supply their workers with abortion-producing drugs, and now against a supposed epidemic of white racism, seem to me wildly exaggerated and deeply divisive. But given his socially leftist base, which Obama desperately needs to hold on to, and given the importance for him of maximizing minority turnout, he may be making strategically sound moves. I just can’t stomach what he’s doing.

In almost all respects the current occupant of the White House does not deserve reelection. Moreover, I find those who talk up his record hold views that are so fundamentally opposed to mine that I can barely hold civil discussions with them. In one respect only, Obama seems less disastrous than his predecessor. He is not surrounded by neoconservative foreign policy advisors who are pushing him into embarking on new wars or into keeping old ones going indefinitely. He has tried to wind down the wars he inherited from Bush II, and except for what I think was an unnecessary and probably ultimately counterproductive entanglement in Libya, Obama has shown restraint internationally.

This doesn’t mean he’s a thinker with a serious international vision. Obama is certainly no Richard Nixon, who walked around with a picture of every major and minor world power in his head and who could explain what was happening internationally in discourses that lasted many hours. (I was present at several of them.) But Obama has done no major harm in handling foreign affairs, at least from my perspective. He makes all the obligatory noises about “human rights,” the list of which multiplies as political fashions change, and he goes through the motion of “agonizing” over foreign dictatorships. But he’s not committed to sending new armies into battles on distant shores, and he’s not moved toward war against any of the multitudinous foreign powers that John McCain and John Bolton want us to get tough with.

I’m afraid that Mitt would not resist these temptations. Almost everything I’ve heard him say about world affairs suggests that he’s in sync with W’s incendiary form of liberal internationalism. His one of his main foreign policy advisors is Robert Kagan, who seems to relish every war the U.S. has been in and regrets we couldn’t have fought in some of them even longer. Although Kagan is now selling himself as some kind of foreign-policy realist, all the “realists” he admires are  people like himself, who supported all of America’s past military adventures and presumably would favor lots more military intervention in the future. Kagan assures us that what he advocates is rooted deeply in our national character. Perhaps so, but then so is eating junk food.

Also waiting to take his place in a future Romney administration is Fox News nightly screech owl John Bolton, our former interim UN ambassador. Someone who rails against the Obama administration for not being “confrontational,” or for not representing our “values” belligerently enough, Bolton may be as suited for diplomacy as Mike Tyson is to be a Trappist monk. If we get lucky, Romney might follow the lead of Newt Gingrich who promised to make Bolton secretary of state. These are the foreign-policy choices I fully expect from a future Republican administration.

The upside of a Romney presidency is that we’d likely have less flaky people in cabinet and judicial positions than those Obama has given us in trying to accommodate his base. Kagan and Bolton may be almost worth swallowing to be rid of Eric Holder, playing the race card in the position of attorney general. I say almost because I believe the GOP could do as much harm internationally as the Dems would do at home. I could also imagine a “moderate” Romney triangulating between Obama and what’s left of the Tea Party Republicans. I wouldn’t even be surprised if the former governor started shifting on social issues, in order to steal votes from the other side. But I doubt he’d do the same in foreign policy, whether or not there’s widespread backing for what his advisors intend to accomplish in that field.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Europe’s Composer

R.J. Stove’s intensively researched biography of Belgian French composer César Franck (1822-1890) has striking merits. Stove writes exquisitely, in periodic sentences, and manages to make detailed discussions of musicology an aesthetic experience for experts and neophytes alike. He also blends his musical discussions with well-told anecdotes, the most appealing of which is his recounting of Franck’s passion for a young beauty with an Irish father, Augusta Mary Anne Holmès.

Because of the erotic excitement this lady generated in Franck, Saint-Saëns, and other musical greats, Mademoiselle Holmès—or, perhaps more accurately, her golden tresses and pneumatic figure—won coveted musical awards as an organist. Her never entirely proven love affair with the middle-aged Franck became the subject of a steamy novel by the author of the screenplay for “The Pianist,” Britain’s Ronald Harwood. Stove constructs this narrative with helpful quotations from Harwood and with just the right mixture of skepticism and racy detail.

Stove scolds with delightful ferocity earlier commentators on Franck and even crosses swords with the long-dead translator of what was once the semi-authoritative Franck biography, by Vincent d’Indy, published in 1906. According to Stove, translator Rosa Newmarch was not only unfaithful to the original but had the chutzpah to put “her own all too often inaccurate sentiments” into d’Indy’s mouth. He offers a similar judgment about another translator of a French biography on which he draws heavily, the work of Léon Vallas, the English edition of which came out in 1955.

The biographies that Stove trusts most are those by d’Indy, Vallas, Joel-Marie Fauquet, English scholar Norman Demuth, and the biographical studies of an obvious personal hero: Franck’s pupil and a composer in his own right, Charles Tournemire (1870–1939). From Stove’s work we learn not only about Franck’s symphonies, extemporized fugues, organ compositions, sonatas, and quartets but also about the composer’s widening circle of acquaintances.

This may be the central point of the biography, even more than Franck’s versatility in producing a wide range of memorable compositions. From his birth in Liège through his studies at the conservatory in Brussels to his long years of residence in Paris, Franck was influenced by and then influenced in turn many of the composers and virtuosi of his musically rich age. Stove already stresses by his choice of titles that he’s as much interested in Franck’s relation to his times as he is in his prolific career. His subject served as a bridge from such romantic composers as Hector Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner to later French composers such as Jules Massenet, Tournemire, Camille Saint-Saëns, Louis Vierne, and Gabriel Urbain Fauré. A younger generation of French composers, known as “la bande à Franck,” sprang up around Franck at the Paris conservatory, where he long taught. Franck attracted other devotees among the students to whom he gave private lessons.

Despite his French nationalism, which took an anti-German turn after the Franco-Prussian War, Franck undoubtedly had Bavarian ancestors, and Stove even suggests that he may have been related to one or more German composers bearing his family name. In any case, Franck knew German and Italian at least as well as French music. And because of his output and his effect on other composers, the contributions of his adopted land to the classical repertoire expanded considerably.

Stove shows convincingly that one of Franck’s quintets served as the basis for a composition by Richard Strauss and how in another case Franck himself may have borrowed from Brahms. The author can sustain these comparisons because Stove is himself a trained musicologist and performing organist, and he understands Franck’s work, especially his organ compositions, on a technical level. This biography’s towering strength is that its author has an in-depth knowledge of Franck’s achievements, and unlike many other biographers of famous composers, Stove painstakingly demonstrates all his musicological assertions. What may annoy his critics is that he holds other biographers to the same standard he sets for himself. Stove is upset that earlier biographer Norman Demuth made certain minor errors in discussing Franck’s life. The author clearly believes that those who came before him and who had more leisure and greater resources to carry out their labors should have been more attentive to facts.

To his credit, Stove takes seriously the scholarship on Franck done by a longtime music-commentator for Le Monde, Joel-Marie Fauquet. Although this embattled commentator has claimed to discern an exhortation for Mussolini’s March on Rome in Berlioz’s operatic adaptation of Virgil’s Aeneid, Les Troyens, and although he elsewhere scolds 19th-century composers for taking patronage from monarchs, Fauquet is a learned and useful biographer, as Stove recognizes. Stove gives him high grades for meticulous research and for editing and publishing Franck’s massive correspondence.

Franck lived in times that saw monumental changes affecting France and its inhabitants. He clearly craved the juste milieu and tried to avoid becoming entangled in the whirlwind around him. Franck was raised with an understandably negative attitude toward the French Revolution, which for his Liégeois parents and grandparents meant being occupied by French revolutionary armies and then being taxed and bereaved of young men for Napoleon’s wars of conquest. Although Franck’s family was not markedly devout, they were practicing Catholics and they may have resented that the Revolution imposed anticlerical laws on the Walloons in what later became southern Belgium.

Soon after Franck relocated to Paris and two days after he married Félicité Desmousseaux, the daughter of a successful actor, the Revolution of 1848 erupted in the French capital. The liberal monarchy of Louis Philippe was overthrown, and after a series of upheavals France fell to the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon, who set up the Second French Empire in 1852. Throughout this turmoil Franck kept a low profile and during the Second Empire, which crumbled as a result of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, he seemed far more occupied with symphonic poems, his position as an organist at Sainte Clotilde church, and his growing family than with taking political stands.

After the disastrous defeat of the French army by German-Prussian forces, the radical Commune was established in Paris in March 1871. Franck was forced to stay even after the Communards had murdered, among other dignitaries, the Bishop of Paris. But the composer remained far from the limelight. He managed to survive the Communards’ rampages and the subsequent bloody quelling of their misrule by the armies of the provisional French government that had been established at nearby Versailles. Franck immediately made his peace with the French Third Republic, which crept into existence in 1874 without a formal proclamation.

Much of Franck’s choral and other music was religious and suitable for performance in churches, though not always in church services. Two of his most renowned works are the symphonic poem “Rédemption” and a poetic, musical rephrasing of the Gospels, “Les Béatitudes” (1870). After Franck’s death in 1890, both of these demanding compositions would be performed with full orchestras, most notably in Belgium and the German Rhineland. In the 1890s, during and after the Dreyfus Affair, France experienced an ugly confrontation between clerical and anti-clerical factions. With the vindication of Dreyfus, the clericals, who bet on the wrong horse, would see their country taken over by the anti-Catholic left. In the ensuing political climate, Franck’s religious music would lose the favor of the French state. Nor, presumably, with the rise of anticlericalism, did it enjoy the popular endorsement in Paris that it had been attained 20 years earlier.

Stove notes in his concluding chapter, on Franck’s “posthumous fortunes,” that his subject became popular internationally after his death. Germans, Englishmen, and Americans began to perform and listen to Franck’s work in ever greater numbers, and in his native Belgium, particularly in Liège, he would be celebrated as a great native son. Stove remarks on the paradoxes attached to Franck’s fame; though someone who identified himself with France, he would posthumously be celebrated in his birth land. Belgium became an independent country in 1831, and as it searched for cultural heroes, both Flemish and Walloon, it turned to Franck, despite the fact that he had lived, died, and been buried in Paris. During World War I, the Allies elevated Franck to “an object of mass ardor,” depicting him as a child of “gallant little Belgium” then being occupied by German troops.

After the war, Franck again achieved stardom in his adopted land, as a French patriot who composed not only religious music—which came back into vogue in post-anticlerical France—but also for the composition “Paris,” produced during the Franco-Prussian War. Despite his appropriation by the victorious Allies, the Germans also continued to play and admire Franck, as a German romantic composer. Indeed, during the Nazi period a biography was written and widely circulated in the German-occupied regions of France with the telling title Cäsar Franck als deutscher Musiker. Stove, who regards Franck as having incorporated the “best elements” of both Teutonic and Gallic music, finds it not at all strange that several European countries should claim his subject. But there is another, less edifying possibility here, namely that political identities are sometimes imposed on artists after their deaths. This illustrious organist, composer, and maître de chapelle at Saint-Clothilde was no exception.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

Tea Party vs. Occupy: Which Is Winning?

What may be a declining force in American political life is the Tea Party movement, which in 2010 played a critical role in winning congressional seats and governorships for the economically conservative wing of the GOP. Since then, national support for this loosely organized movement has fallen precipitously. Between March 2010 and April 2011, according to Pew polls, disapproval for the Tea Party rose by 19%, while only 21 % expressed positive views about it. 49% of those polled held no opinion on the subject and were not even motivated to inquire. At the same time, support for Occupy Wall Street movement has held steady at 21% and is now almost equal to the popularity of its right-of-center competitor.

There are several factors that make these findings curious. One, the Tea Party has obviously declined in its confrontational relation to the two-party establishment since 2010. For the last several months Tea Party leaders Senator Jim DeMint and Governor Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Governor Chris Christie in New Jersey, Governor Janice Brewer in Arizona, and Congressman Paul Ryan in Wisconsin have been piling on to the Mitt Romney bandwagon, and self-identified Tea Party sympathizers have been doing the same in primaries in Florida, Colorado, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Their support for the quintessential small-government candidate Ron Paul has been minimal, which should not be surprising. We are talking here primarily about Bush-McCain Republicans, who went on the attack against Democratic spending, and particularly against Obamacare, after the 2008 election. Tea Party demonstrators were mostly, according to polls, high on Medicare, which many of them are receiving, and have no desire to play around with entitlements. They are mostly objecting to Obama’s expansion of government spending. Read More…

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Obama Mobilizes His Leftist Base

Ever since I dared criticize the Obama administration and its partisans, I’ve been getting less than friendly email messages. Supposedly I work slavishly for the GOP and spend every waking hour listening to Rush Limbaugh or trying to imitate his verbal outbursts. For the record, I’ve been attacking the GOP at the national level ever since the neoconservatives came to refashion the Republican Party’s foreign policy, while taking over and reprogramming America’s misnamed conservative movement. And those things happened thirty years ago. Since that time I’ve stood athwart the GOP, as a relentless critic of how its advisors and politicians have defined America’s role in the world.

I’ve denounced in print for all to see the boasting engaged in by Republican presidential candidates and by Fox News talking heads about “American exceptionalism.” One has a right to like one’s country but not a duty to proclaim that it’s morally superior to the rest of mankind and that our state should impose its human rights ideology on everyone else. Pride goes before the fall, as Proverbs teaches.

Because of my objections to this vainglory and its foreign-policy implications, Republican and conservative movement activists have carefully avoided discussing my books; and they have written prospective publishers suggesting I would bring disgrace on those who disseminate my ideas. Moreover, those who know me can testify that I haven’t spent more than five minutes in the last twenty years listening to Rush. I view him as contemptuously I do Bill Maher, Ann Coulter, and other vulgarizers of political discussion. Read More…

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German Sabotage and America’s Entry Into World War I

Since neoconservative journalists, at least to my knowledge, have not been lately slamming the “German connection,” I rejoiced at a feature article in yesterday’s New York Post (March 20) going after the “series of German outrages” that helped push us into World War One. A commentary by Thomas A. Reppetto, on German saboteurs during World War, focuses on an explosion at an ammunition factory on Black Tom Island on July 30, 1916, which is now Liberty State Park in New Jersey. In this incident and other similar ones that erupted in the area between New York and Baltimore, German agents prevented by violent means the delivery of arms “to the Allied powers.”

Reppetto suggests that the federal government dealt effectively with such explosions, by declaring war on Germany and then taking counter-espionage into its own hands. At first this could not be done because we were mollycoddling Germans residents in the US while indulging such uncooperative figures as the authoritarian mayor of Jersey City Frank Hague. Reppetto does not hide the moral here, which is drawing a direct line between the sneaky, anti-democratic Germans in World War One and the present terrorist danger. “New Jersey officials need to recall the lessons of Black Tom.” “Islamic militants have operated out of Jersey City,” just as once other bad folks did.  Read More…

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