Conservatism From A to Z
The dinner at Philadelphia’s Old Original Bookbinder’s restaurant last April celebrating the launch of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia was not your typical book party. For starters, many of those in attendance—the event coincided with the annual meeting of the Philadelphia Society—were profiled within or contributors to the book. At my table sat conservative movement historian Lee Edwards and Russell Kirk exegete Wesley McDonald, along with their delightful wives and the promising young conservative Gladden Pappin, son of Burke scholar Joseph Pappin III. Across the way was Midge Decter, embedded amid a phalanx of admiring retainers. At the podium stood the pre-eminent historian of the 20th-century intellectual Right, George H. Nash, whose remarks hit a note of ambivalence altogether unexpected at such a gathering.
Nash reminded his audience that many a great movement had begun as a church, turned into a business, and ended up as a scam. Would the American Right follow suit? His liberal acquaintances had warned Nash that the encyclopedia was a sure sign of senescence—conservatives turning in upon themselves to stare at their own navels. Yet Nash thought otherwise: the book was rather proof that the Right still cared about its roots and had amassed an intellectual tradition sufficient to fill a thousand-page tome, as effective a rebuttal as can be imagined to Lionel Trilling’s famous pronouncement that American conservatives have no ideas but only “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”
Even so, Nash had raised doubts. The speaker who followed him, émigré historian John Lukacs, dispelled them—he left no doubt at all that the Right had become a scam, one colored by a nationalism “so broad as to be flat, so narrow in spirit as to be poisonous.” The paradigmatic conservative city, he pointed out, would be a soulless conurbation in Texas—a Dallas or a Houston with a sky-high divorce rate. And the people who once complained about big government in fact “are for big government, as long as it’s called ‘defense.’”
I glanced over at Midge Decter, who looked like a basilisk. Tomorrow, I feared, the American Enterprise Institute might demand Lukacs’s native Hungary be President Bush’s next target for “liberation.”
This book launch had the feel of a wake—an Irish wake for some, not so much for others—attended by Montagues and Capulets. Yet an appropriate spirit it was, for the book contains something of Nash’s genteel ambiguity and Lukacs’s unsparing honesty, as well as Decter’s herpetological resolve. This is all to the good. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia doesn’t truck in the witless triumphalism that characterizes so much of the Right. Nor does it present any feigned unity. Instead, editors Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson—professor at Ave Maria law school and editor in chief and publisher of ISI Books, respectively—let all the many schools of thought within American conservatism (and libertarianism, too) have their own say. Entries on divisive figures are here given, as a general rule, to sympathetic profilers, which is the only way a book like this could have been assembled without becoming a polemic in its own right. “The reader will not get very far in this volume before beginning to notice the tensions and outright contradictions that exist and have exited among conservatives—on matters of principle no less than on matters of policy,” the editors warn.
The encyclopedia has been gestating for over a decade—so long, in fact, that many of the most notable entries come from giants of the conservative movement who have since died. Russell Kirk, libertarian paragon Murray Rothbard, and Southern scholar Melvin Bradford all make posthumous appearances with new essays here. (All three men, who died in the mid-1990s, also receive biographical entries.) No less impressive are the entries from still-living titans of the American Right: Stephen Tonsor contributes the profile on Lord Acton; Peter Stanlis delivers entries on Burke and Burkeanism and also on Robert Frost, whom he knew; Ralph Raico writes the entry on classical liberalism. Tonsor’s essay on “equality” is masterful, concluding with the penetrating, cold-eyed observation that “the political problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of maintaining the fiction of equal political participation while encouraging the increased growth of creative inequalities in society.” One wonders whether a younger scholar would be so frank in flouting the equalitarian sensibilities that are now so commonplace even on the Right.
Yet for all the stature of its contributors and the sheer heft of the book itself, at a glance the encyclopedia may seem underwhelming. Few of the 626 entries are more than a page long, and several of those that are do not deserve their length. Daniel Webster, for example, receives more space than either Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. At the end of each entry comes a short list of suggestions for further reading—typically just three or four books. These supplement the handful of named sources cited in most entries. As big a brick as it is, one might think this compendium would have to be much larger to do its subject justice.
But that’s what is most impressive about American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia—not its girth but its pithiness. To say that not a single word or “further reading” recommendation is wasted wouldn’t be quite true. But it is very nearly so: however short the bibliographical apparatus, its suggestions are well chosen, and the articles themselves succeed remarkably well in conveying in a very short space the substance of the persons, institutions, and ideas to which they are devoted. The limited length of each entry unavoidably imposes constraints, but the encyclopedia largely succeeds in making a virtue of what would otherwise be a handicap.
Also impressive is the breadth of material covered by the book, which doesn’t quail to venture far afield of right-wing orthodoxy. Bill Kauffman’s entry on “anarchism” is a sterling example. More conventionally conservative topics are treated to several entries: the Christian dimension of the American Right is represented in lengthy essays on Roman Catholicism and both mainline and evangelical Protestantism, as well as in profiles of religious figures ranging from J. Gresham Machen and Cornelius Van Til to Pope John Paul II. (The essay on the late pope, unfortunately, is distorted by a selective political emphasis that glosses over his criticisms of war, capitalism, and capital punishment. His teachings have been sanitized for conservatives’ convenience.) Old Right figures, Austrian economists, and Southern Agrarians all get their due. Only politicians are deliberately—and wisely—underemphasized, although somehow Dan Quayle has merited an entry.
There are exceptions to the general rule that sympathetic authors handle the more polarizing entries. Particularly where scientific entries are concerned, some mismatches occur. Self-described Darwinian conservative Larry Arnhart writes on “Intelligent Design,” presenting ID not as a scientific or even pseudoscientific endeavor but instead as a moralistic and political movement. Arnhart doesn’t deign to mention ID’s central tenet, that design must be inferred from the mathematical complexity of living beings. It may be buncombe, but ID deserves to be treated in a manner that at least allows the reader to understand what it is arguing.
A parallel defect, meanwhile, mars Boston University education professor M.D. Aeschliman’s entry on “science and scientism.” Aeschliman grossly oversimplifies a philosophical problem when he writes that a belief in determinism involves a self-contradiction. Readers would have been better served by the Discovery Institute-connected Aeschliman writing on Intelligent Design and Arnhart providing the entry on science.
The “science and scientism” entry points to a larger problem with American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia: there is a tendency for some of the entries to slip into a species of right-wing political correctness, particularly of a Straussian variety. Hence several essays treat historicism, relativism, and nihilism as the roots of all modern leftism. The trouble is that historicism, as Claes Ryn’s entry on the subject argues, is arguably more conservative than leftist—indeed, Leo Strauss considered Edmund Burke a historicist, although he didn’t mean that judgment as a compliment. Relativism, too, easily becomes a straw man, and even nihilism is not, properly speaking, synonymous with evil. Presidential scholar Gleaves Whitney provides exemplary entries on the Enlightenment and the French Revolution—the latter, in fact, so good that I thought it might have been written by Stephen Tonsor before I saw the byline—and his essay on nihilism is thought-provoking. But it is also highly colored by Allan Bloom and trades on clichés when it claims “nihilism is associated with fascist and Nazi doctrines, especially since the latter are linked to aspects of Nietzsche’s thought.” The assertion is more polemical than truthful.
A Straussian problem of a different sort crops up in editor Bruce Frohnen’s entry on the American Revolution: the piece is written largely as a refutation of West Coast Straussian Harry Jaffa’s take on the revolution. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, perhaps out of a sense of scholarly etiquette, Frohnen never specifically mentions Jaffa in the article, leaving him to be cited only in the cross-references at the end of the piece. This is tremendously unhelpful for anyone not already well versed in the internecine battles of the intellectual Right, who will wonder who it is within the conservative movement who “accept[s] the notion that the American Revolution created a new America, radically separated from the institutions and habits of the old world.” What’s worse, the entry doesn’t give an accurate representation of just how wide-ranging conservative views on the American Revolution have been. By overemphasizing the Jaffa line of argument (again, without actually naming him), Frohnen does a disservice to other conservatives who have argued more persuasively that the American Revolution truly was revolutionary, a view held by men on the Right from Robert Nisbet all the way back to John Adams. (Nisbet’s 1976 pamphlet “The Social Impact of the Revolution” is well worth hunting down.) That cavil is not to detract from Frohnen’s achievement, with Nelson and Beer, in assembling this book. It’s both an invaluable resource for conservatives—and for anyone with an interest in American intellectual history—and a pleasure to read. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia is also a fitting tribute to the hundreds of men and women who have contributed to conservative thought over the past half-century and more.
Donald Atwell Zoll, a mostly forgotten traditionalist who wrote frequently for National Review in its early days and taught philosophy for decades until it was revealed that he never obtained a Ph.D., receives the last entry in the book. Since his fall from academic grace, Zoll has apparently become an elephant trainer. Perhaps therein lies a minatory lesson for the American Right, a reminder for conservatives justly proud of their intellectual tradition of the old cycle that leads from hubris to nemesis and sees even the most principled movements transformed from church to business to scam.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.