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Humane Letters

State of the Union: On the old new conservatism against -isms.
Ex-Farm Family
Ex-farm family, now on Works Progress Administration (WPA). On U.S. 64, eastern Oklahoma. Artist Dorothea Lange. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

There is a type of professional conservative here in Washington, D.C., who knows, inside and outside, the fights of some three quarters of a century over what it means to be an American conservative, to be part of “the movement.” I am not one of them. 

My mental biographies of Buckley, Bozell, Kirk, Kendall, and the rest are sketchy. Fusionism I know as a concept and know to connect to Frank Meyer, but mine has never been the study of the interpersonal dynamics of that time, the coalition building that preceded it, or the events that led to fusionism and the conservative movement’s naming and spread. The ideas have always seemed more interesting than the personalities, and the personalities less important than presidents, or history, art, and literature before 1932. 


So, I confess without much surprise at myself that I had never heard of Peter Viereck until I had the pleasure of reading the latest entry in our partnership with David Cowan’s “American System” series: “Conservatism’s Humanist Road Not Taken.” Jeffery Tyler Syck of the University of Pikeville suggests Viereck, who won a Pulitzer prize for poetry in 1949, should be considered a forgotten father of the American conservative tradition. He lost out to figures more comfortable in alliance with unfettered capital, more skeptical of the New Deal, but his 1940 essay for the Atlantic, “But—I’m A Conservative!,” seems prophetic today. There is nothing new under the sun, etc., say hello to the new, new, New Right. 

I wouldn’t dream of endorsing anything unreservedly but the Creeds, and I have plenty of problems with Viereck’s youthful sermon, but the essay is well worth your time. The fight to preserve the human person in the midst of the machines and mammon of mass society goes on. I have admiration bleeding into envy in reading, “I am twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash. For six years I have studied at Harvard and at Christ Church, Oxford, as a Fellowship holder, getting my bachelor and graduate degrees in history and literature. At the same time, my work for magazines has given me some practical experience in that less rarefied atmosphere of American journalism. In both spheres I have watched the convention of revolt harden into a dogmatic ritual.” Here are a few more choice passages: 

We teach a child to read and are surprised at the enormous circulation of the Yellow Press and the Father Coughlins. We are bred as little evolutionary Progressives, but we don't discriminate in what direction we breathlessly rush 'forward.' The explanation is that we are no longer given the standards for discriminating. Fertile soil for freedom and for mutual tolerance is never in human nature to start with, but must be painstakingly ploughed over for centuries. The history of mass movements affords vastly more evidence for original sin than for any natural goodness of man. Education's job is austerely to restrict, not fulfill, the child's 'glorious self-expression.'


The 'instinctive, unwritten sense of justice' we hear so much about is basically, and always will be, mere glorified lynch law. In instinct, every new 1940 baby is still born a caveman. Law and tradition are the slow accumulation of civilized habits, the few thousand years' habits which alone prevent the 1940 baby from remaining a caveman. Since this accumulation is haphazard, it includes—as radicals correctly accuse—much evil as well as good. But the good and the bad in tradition are often interwoven inextricably by the past. And the past cannot be changed—not even by radicals with a Harvard accent.



What are the immediate political duties today of a common-sense conservative? I think a conservative should patriotically join in our country's cautious groping toward a planned economy. Despite party slogans, this groping will in practice steadily continue, whether under Republicans or New Dealers. Leftists try to discredit the conservative attitude by linking it in the public mind with laissez-faire economics. But how on earth can we conserve what's dead and what probably never existed? Purchasing power must be so distributed that every citizen is himself a free and stable property owner and an economically articulate consumer. Necessities (such as wheat) must no longer be burned or ploughed under, but sold, even without profit and below cost, to all citizens who lack them.


Our conservative will never admit that the state as a whole is greater than the sum of its separate individuals. All power he will distrust and hence limit. He will fight every extension of government authority, no matter in whose hands, whenever it seems more dangerous than the genuine wrong it would remedy. But he will insist equally on forestalling mass discontent with thoroughgoing social legislation, with the proviso that such new governmental power be as decentralized as possible.


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