Conservative Scholarship, then and now

The dunce cap. 

I’ve been upbraided for dealing with Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism in an elliptical fashion, by talking about National Review‘s history of philo-fascism, rather than directly. But Goldberg’s book is being widely reviewed and commented on. It would be redundant for me to simply echo what smart writers like Dave Neiwert, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein have already written. (And in time real historians of fascism will also be tackling the book). My philosophy as a blogger is to always try to make points that aren’t being articulated elsewhere.

Having said that, here is one fresh point that no one, as far as I know, has made about Goldberg. The book is about the relationship between fascism and American politics. Goldberg, on the evidence of the book, can’t read German, Italian or Spanish. These are the main languages you need to possess if you want to read the primary sources and major scholarly literature on fascism. The endnotes in Goldberg’s book are monolithically English.

Imagine writing a book on Shakespeare without knowing a word of English, or a book on the American Constitution while being unable to read Madison and Hamilton without the aid of translators.

Goldberg has chutzpah but he’s not alone. Liberal Fascism was praised by David Pryce-Jones, a senior editor at National Review and author of The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs. Again, based on the evidence of his own book, David Pryce-Jones doesn’t know Arabic at all above a pidgin level needed to buy a carpet.  (The book itself is largely a mishmash of orientalist stereotypes).

One of the colleagues Goldberg and Pryce-Jones have at National Review is John J. Miller who co-wrote (with Mark Molesky) Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship With France. I’m not sure how much French Miller and Molesky know but Robert O. Paxton (one of the world’s leading historian of modern France) made a devastating point in a review of their book: “all their French quotations except one, as far as I can determine, come secondhand from someone else’s extracts in English.” (Paxton’s whole review is worth looking up for its masterly dismantling of the book).

So even if Miller and Molesky know French, they certainly didn’t use their knowledge in writing a book that is overwhelming based on English-language sources. (I’ve asked Pryce-Jones and Miller to clarify their language skills but haven’t heard from them).

Why is the linguistic incompetence of Goldberg (and company) a problem? Couldn’t it be argued that he’s writing a book of popular history, and therefore can rely only on secondary sources? But that excuse is belied by Goldberg’s own claims on behalf of his work:  “It is a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care,” Goldberg modestly about his book. Goldberg isn’t popularizing a pre-existing literature on fascism: he’s challenging the scholarly consensus on this subject by claiming that fascism is a movement of the left, with much in common with American liberalism. It’s as if someone wanted to write a book taking issue with mainstream physics (say Einstein’s theory of relativity) without knowing any math.

The special problems of Goldberg’s monolingual approach were brought out in a devastating review by Michael Ledeen, who is just as right-wing as the author of Liberal Fascism but also happens to know the relevant languages. (Ledeen’s books on Italian history make for spirited and valuable reading).

Ledeen’s review is worth quoting at some length:

The issue is “the same goals,” not just the methods of rule, and here’s where Jonah’s eccentric thesis, for all its provocative value, leaves history behind and strides into…vision, I suppose. Just a few lines later, he claims that “Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator,” and that’s just silly. I am second to no one in my antipathy for Wilson-I once wrote a book that lambasted him for his stupid politics after the War-but he wasn’t a single-party dictator, which fascism always was.

Here’s another major point:

Indeed, in one of Liberal Fascism‘s most unfortunate phrases, Jonah trivializes Nazi racism, equating it with some American political rhetoric:

“What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.” And in case you thought he was kidding, he repeats it a few pages later: “What mattered to (Hitler) was German identity politics.”

The best that can be said about this is that it’s imaginative. But it’s what happens when you are bound and determined to put liberals, Socialists, Communists, fascists and Nazis into a common political home.

And here’s what I think is the kicker of Ledeen’s review:

One final concern has to do with Jonah’s tendency to equate European and American politics, when the differences are enormously important. There has never been a successful worker’s party or worker’s movement in the United States, as Seymour Martin Lipset has explained. And there is no American nationalism of the sort that exists in Europe, either. They’re nationalists, we’re patriots, and the two are quite different. Jonah often seems to think that the same words mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is not so.

Let’s savor that last sentence: “Jonah often seems to think that the same words mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is not so.” That gets at the problem of the Goldberg book in a nutshell: a conflation of European history with contemporary American political reality, built on an ignorance of the languages that would allow him to address these topics in a “serious, thoughtful” way.

Conservatives weren’t always such monolingual dunderheads. Take a look at the mid-century conservative intellectuals who congregated around National Review and Modern Age: William F. Buckley, Leo Strauss, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport.

Buckley is the least educated of the lot: his Latin never got above a few school boy catch phrases and it is difficult for him to read French. But his Spanish is fluent and served him in good stead when he worked as a CIA agent in Mexico.

Leo Strauss was, of course, beyond compare. (Strauss wasn’t directly connected with National Review but he was much admired by the magazine and his students certainly wrote for it). A native speaker of German, he not only mastered English but also Latin, ancient Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, French and Italian (and perhaps a few other languages that I don’t know about). Strauss regretted the fact that he didn’t learn Chinese and Hindi, rendering it impossible for him to deal with the classics of those traditions. How different in spirit from the belligerent ignorance of Jonah Goldberg!

Strauss can be criticized on many fronts: his hermeneutics was fundamentally wacky (and unfalsifiable, so when you entered the maze it was difficult to leave); he tended to turn all philosophers into the same philosopher (a variation on his Socrates or Maimonides); he avoided direct engagement with those thinkers who would most directly and powerfully challenge his thinking (notably Heidegger); he dismissed American pragmatism with an uncomprehending continental snobbery; his elitism prevented him from appreciating the moral force of the modern democratic sensibility (for example, the numinous way in which Joyce celebrated daily life in Ulysses). Still and all, Strauss’s very flawed writings were festooned with a remarkable learning: to read him is to grow smarter even if you argue with him every step of the way.

James Burnham was able to converse with Andre Malraux and Charles De Gaulle in their own tongue; Burnham’s Latin and Italian weren’t bad either. Willmoore Kendall translated Rousseau’s Government of Poland into English and was completely at ease in Spanish.

Hugh Kenner, the son of a classics teacher, finished high school knowing ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. This made him an ideal commentator on Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. When Kenner worked on his pioneering book on Samuel Beckett, Comment c’est (1961) had yet to be tranlated into English, so Kenner translated the work itself. Beckett found the translation to be “loggy” but it influenced his own later Englishizing of the book. Guy Davenport wasn’t a standard conservative but he was a frequent contributor to National Review in the 1960s. Davenport was also the greatest translator of the last half century, the true heir to Pound in making the Greek classics come alive. His occasional French and Latin translations were almost as excellent.

We shouldn’t idealize the conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s. They had a lot of crazy ideas: many supported Joseph McCarthy and Jim Crow segregation, some wanted the United States to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. When Sputnik went up, even so smart a man as Kenner thought it was all a fake: how could peasant-dumb Russians have come up with something before America (this was a common opinion among the National Reviewers). Franco was also a hero among this set.

Yet still, despite all these flaws, these were learned men who wrote books that still matter. Liberalism Ancient and Modern. The MachiavelliansWillmoore Kendall Contra Mundum. The Pound Era. The Geography of the Imagination. Intelligent people will always be interested in these books.

One of the few contemporary conservative anywhere as learned as these men is Gerald Owen of the Globe and Mail. Michael Ledeen in his earlier books was a genuine scholar of value. And John Lukacs remains a preeminent historian. (Some people might mention Victor Hanson Davis but his work is a travesty of scholarship, relentlessly present-minded and crude).

How sad that these genuine scholars and thinkers have been crowded out by simple-minded souls like Goldberg, Pryce-Jones, and Miller.

Perhaps I’m making a conservative point: everything was better in the good old days, certainly conservative scholarship was.


11 thoughts on “Conservative Scholarship, then and now

  1. Thank you for this wonderfully informative piece. What a pleasure to read! I really appreciate the attention paid to the decline of conservative intellectuals, as I once enjoyed the challenge of reading those conservative voice with whom I shared the Western canon, if not contemporary political views. Shame there are none. (I often wonder what WF Buckley thinks of Lopez, Goldberg, and the assorted christianists writing under the National Review name.)

  2. Very interesting piece. Yes, there ARE and HAVE BEEN worthwhile conservative scholars (or, scholars who happen to be conservative), but for God’s sake, Jonah “The Unstoppable Ego” Goldberg is most definitely not among them.

  3. This was an excellent post. Thank you. It should be noted, however, you’re still comparing apples and oranges. Or, to put it another way, it’s all a pyramid, every level of the pyramid serves a meaningful purpose, and you’re merely comparing incongruent pyramidic levels. To put it crudely, there are the great minds, the prophets so to speak, be they philosophers, poets, novelists, artists, whatever. Then there are the great (public?) intellectuals, the ones whose entire ouvre is dedicated to parsing what came before. Then there is the academic community at large, which does much of the same, just not as excitingly or provocatively (most of the time). Then there are the intellectual journalists, who turn to the public intellectuals, the academics, as their fodder. Then the opinion journalists, the pundits, a more modern (perhaps more democratic?) invention for sure, whose main purpose it is to speak to the people at large. Jonah belongs in this group, as does Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias, and the most conspicuous, regular staffers of virtually every major partisan periodical, from the Nation to The New Republic to National Review. You are correct in lamenting a decline, but it is a decline that has impacted all sides of the political spectrum, and it is one, I believe, that is borne from a welcoming of mass numbers into the political/philisophical discourse and, thus, a demand for a more accomodating (less highbrow) intermediary class. As an aside, the conservative mandarins still exist, from Bernard Lewis to Roger Scruton to Paul Johnson, to the academic Straussians, to John Lewis Gaddis or Robert Conquest, all of whom have been known to write for NR (and I have restricted this list only to NR). You could go on and on about how Jonah doesn’t meet your (or my) standards of academic rigour, intellectual sensibility, etc., but this does not deny the fact he is bringing to the popular fore the work of many thinkers who do qualify (at least in my book), from John Patrick Diggins to A.J. Gregor to Richard Pipes to Erick Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (another NR titan) to F.A. Hayek. Instead of smart liberals and/or leftists getting all huffy about Jonah being crude popularizer (which, again, I see a purpose), why not engage with the ideas/works he’s popularizing?

  4. Excellent points. This is a pet peeve of mine, particularly when it comes to “experts” on the Middle East who are hard pressed to order a coffee in a Cairo cafe.

    Two small corrections, though:

    1. I think you meant to write “Hindi” instead of “Hindu.” But in any case, most Hindu religious classics were written in Sanskrit.

    2. Jim Crow is an adjective and not a real person, so while they could have been supporters of Jim Crow laws, they couldn’t have been a supporter of Jim Crow himself, since he wasn’t a real person.

  5. Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the note and the corrections. I’ve slightly altered the post to reflect what you’ve written.

    Embarrassingly enough, these were both matters I had given some thought to when drafting the post:

    1) I had initially thought of writing Sanskrit instead of Hindi but was worried it would be too esoteric a word (especially when juxtaposed to commonly used terms like French, German and Chinese.) Hindu was just a typo, one of many that I’ve made and had to weed out. It’s a particularly embarrassing typo because I speak Punjabi, a close cousin of Hindi.

    2) From reading books of the 1940s and 1950s, I think people did use Jim Crow as a noun: it was a short-hand for “Jim Crow segregation” or “the Jim Crow system.” Thus people would say things like: “I’m against Jim Crow” or “I believe in Jim Crow”. But to clear up any confusion, I’ve changed it back to the longer form, Jim Crow segregation.

    Thanks for the kind words.

  6. Jeet, thanks for this. I haven’t read the book myself because the ridiculous title says it all for me and I’ve never been one to read something on the off-chance that I will grow smarter by arguing with something I totally disagree with (although it does give one practice and I stand in awe of your knowledge of the subject). I’m embarrassed to say I saw this creep on Jon Stewart (embarrassed not because I find the show funny but because in the context of the writer’s strike, Stewart and his producers are scabs and I feel complicit for not boycotting the show) and was happy to see him obliterated by the host. I’ve been hearing this “Hitler was a socialist” crap since highschool and the arguments haven’t got anymore sophisticated. If you want to see who the true liberals were in Germany, Italy and Spain during the 1930s and 40s, look in the concentration camps. Goldberg’s book is an aspect of the united front of disinformation of the U.S. Right, a cloud of ideas and noise that represent the Big Lie.

  7. Thanks for this. I take issue with Ledeen’s patriotism/nationalism distinction for various reasons, but that’s a side-issue. His review, at very least, seemed to retain some of the dignity of his earlier scholarship, if only to make clear that he was disclaiming any intellectual paternity.

    But you can barely mention Jonah Goldberg and Hugh Kenner in the same sentence without the words ‘not’, ‘fit’, ‘lick’ and ‘boots’. The Pound Era is, in my liberal opinion, the best work of literary criticism produced in the 20th century.

  8. I finally got around to reading Lukacs (
    His essay “History and Physics” should be confronted by everyone. Anyway, concerning Goldberg’s book, here’s a very relevant passage from Lukacs (begin with “This only brings us to the problem of our political terminology):,M1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s