National Review and Ethnic Slurs: A Brief History

National Review makes an appeal to Latinos.

Matt Yglesias and others have raised their collective eyebrows at the fact that Jay Nordlinger of National Review Online was willing to very casually deploy the derogatory term “wetback.” As it turns out, Nordlinger is a repeat user of this word. In 2006, Nordlinger wrote that for many on the right, George W. Bush was “big-spending, wetback-lovin’ squish.” And going back away, I discovered that other National Review writers have used the term “wetback”, notably the magazine’s resident light verse writer William H. von Dreele, who wrote in 1979 that his love of Mexican tomatoes could only meant that “I’m a wetback to the core.”

Words, of course, only have meaning in the context in which they are used. On at least one occasion National Review employed “wetback” in a defensible way, in an article from February 14, 1986 by K.E. Grubbs Jr. deploring anti-immigrant sentiment titled “Just Another Wetback.” But the other uses  of “wetback” have all been as an offhand slur, the type of derogatory term you habitually use when talking about an inferior race.

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Hip Hop’s Debt to Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney: The Father of Hip Hop?

Off and on I’ve been reading National Review for three decades now, which comes as a surprise to friends since I don’t share any of the magazine’s politics. But National Review has published some fine writers, along with the usual assortment of conservative hacks.  First and foremost, the magazine published many reviews by Guy Davenport, one of the greatest essayists of the last century. And of course Hugh Kenner was one of the great literary critics and a master stylist. Below that Olympian level there were many excellent writers: D. Keith Mano, Richard Brookhiser, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, Theodore Strugeon, and Jeffrey Hart. Even Joseph Sobran was capable of a fine turn of phrase when he reined in his racism and paranoia about Jewish power.

Having said that, there were always issues on which the magazine could not be trusted. Off the top of my head, I could never believe anything the magazine wrote about black people, the civil rights movement (they once asserted that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a poor public speaker!), intelligence tests, Latin American dictatorships (especially Chile), South Africa (and really the whole continent of Africa), climate change, the Viet Nam war, the theory of evolution, anything to do with the Middle East or Islam, supply side economics, the Shakespeare authorship question (the magazine allowed Sobran to indulge his pet theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays). This is only a partial list but gives you an idea of the magazine’s blind spots.

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National Review Holds a Purge

 

National Review loves Donald Rumsfeld; doesn’t care for Christopher Buckley or Jeffrey Hart.

 

Perhaps because so many of its founding editors were erstwhile Stalinists and Trotskyists, the editors of National Review have always had a propensity for purges, ideological house-cleanings that involve black-balling those who don’t follow the party line. Some of these purges have been entirely justified: the conservative magazine did well to kick out kooks like Revilo Oliver and the Birchers in the early 1960s. And good riddance to the Randians as well. Other purges have been regrettable: anti-war libertarians were a strong presence on the American right till National Review started boycotting them. It would have been nice if those anti-war voices had remained part of the conservative conversation.

 

Now the magazine seems to be going through another one of its periodic ideological civil wars, kicking out anyone who might have a kind word to say about Barack Obama. As has been widely discussed, Christopher Buckley, son of founding editor William F. Buckley, lost his column in the magazine after he wrote an endorsement of Obama (an article that ran in another publication, The Daily Beast).

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Rare Outburst of Sanity

Here are words that I rarely get to utter: David Frum is making a lot of sense.

Of course, the context has to be kept in mind. Frum’s magazine, National Review, has gone a little bit batty on the subject of Barack Obama.  One writer has described Obama as “a terrorist sympathizer” who emerged out of a political tradition that is “more Maoist than Stalinist.” 

Now, Frum is himself is very right-wing but even he  realizes that this sort of crazy-talk is both politically counterproductive and even, quite possibly, dangerous. So to his credit, Frum has posted a very deft little essay which tells his National Review buddies to chill out and tone down the whacko talk a little.

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National Review and Terrorism Revisited

Victims of the church bombing.

If you go over to the website of National Review you’ll find many, many articles about the supposed connections between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers. Ayers is, of course, a onetime member of the Weathermen, a famous (and, it has to be said, very inept) radical terrorist group of the 1960s and 1970s. Although Ayers has never been charged with a crime and the Weathermen were largely a danger to themselves, the fact that he and Obama know each other is said to reflect poorly on the Democratic presidential candidate.

National Review has gone fairly haywire for this story.  One enterprising reader counted up more than 100 articles and blog postings on the National Review website. The obsession with Ayers is easy to understand: it’s the rightwing talking point du jour, nevermind that Obama has condemned Ayers’s Weathermen activities and the New York Times has definitively documented that there is only the most tenuous link between the two men.

Because National Review is going on and on about terrorism, this might be a good occasion to revisit that magazine’s own relationship with political violence. I’ve written on this subject before but the current situation makes it interesting to recall these facts:

1. On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many more children. (Those killed were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair; McNair had been a classmate of the young Condoleezza Rice).  The bomb was set by members of the Klu Klux Klan, as part of a wave of terror designed to intimidate the civil rights movement. Here is how National Review commented on the bombing in the October 1, 1963 issue of their biweekly Bulletin: “The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away form the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.”

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Leo Strauss: Friend of Liberal Democracy?

J Edgar Hoover: a man Leo Strauss approved of.

Leo Strauss liked to describe himself as a “friend” of liberal democracy. It’s a mantra that his students and defenders often repeat. For example, in his book Reading Leo Strauss: Politics, Philosophy, Judaism (University of Chicago Press), Steven B. Smith, a Yale political scientist, argues that Strauss was a “friend of liberal democracy – one of the best friends democracy has ever had.” Smith also says that he does not “not regard Strauss as a conservative (neo- or otherwise) but rather as a friend of liberal democracy.”

Like all Straussian notions, the catch-phrase “friend of liberal democracy” deserves close and skeptical scrutiny. Notice that Strauss is not claiming that he’s a liberal democrat. Given his elitism and penchant of exalting the wisdom of ancient philosophers like Plato (who were of course not liberal democrats in any meaningful sense) Strauss knew that any such claim would be self-evidently absurd. As Smith admits “To describe Strauss or Plato as any kind of liberal is, of course, deeply counterintuitive. One cannot find in any of their writings an unequivocal defense of such cherished liberal principles as individual rights or human equality.” No rational person would mistake Strauss for a John Dewey or a John Rawls.  But to say that Strauss was a friend of liberal democracy, that was an ambiguous claim that could have some plausibility, at least to the gullible and inattentive.

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When Conservatives Loved the Palestinians

Ronald Reagan awarding James Burnham the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1983.

War propaganda often rests on the myth of eternal enmity: the current enemy must be portrayed as perennially and irredeemably vile. George Orwell aptly limned this mindset in his novel 1984: “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.” During the two world wars, Anglo-American historians wrote many a book arguing that Germans have always been stinkers from the Gothic barbarians and autocratic Frederick the Great to the amoral Bismarck and psychotic Hitler. This whole literature of eternal Teutonic villainy was conveniently forgotten when West Germany became a pillar of NATO.

Reading the conservative press now you would think that Arabs and Muslims have always and everywhere been the enemies of Western civilization. We’re invited to imagine that the current troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq are just the most recent manifestation of a clash of civilizations that goes back to Mohammed, the Crusades, and the conquest of Constantinople.

Yet within the lifetime of our parents, conservatives were surprisingly pro-Arab. This was particularly true of the most salient issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian refugee problem. As surprising as this may sound, the mainstream consensus view of American conservatives from the late 1940s until well into the late 1960s was that the Palestinians had been deeply wronged by Israel and deserved restorative justice.

Consider Regnery Publishing. Founded  in 1947 by Henry Regnery, it was the premier publishing house of the postwar conservative renaissance, issuing classic books by William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and many other writers. During this period it also published a steady stream of books championing Arab culture and sympathetically describing the plight of the Palestinians. These books included Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), Alfred M. Lilienthal’s What Price Israel (1953), Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West? (1957), Per-Olow Anderson’s They are Human Too (1957), and Ethel Mannin’s Road to Beersheeba (England: 1963; America: 1964). Anderson’s book was a collection of photographs taken at Palestinian refugee camps, Mannin’s volume a novel about Palestinian refugees. Utley’s book uttered a sentiment typical for these books: “freedom and justice for Israel depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs.”

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McCarthy and his Friends

Joseph McCarthy.

On his blog, David Frum  enthuses over Bruce Bartlett’s just released book Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past:

The enjoyable theme is Bartlett’s gleeful partisan slagging of the horrible racial history of the Democratic party from ancient times to modern. Specialists in American history may know much of this story, but probably the typical reader does not. From Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace, the Democratic party was the party that defended slavery, Jim Crow, Ku Kluxery, and “massive resistance.” As Bartlett searchingly asks at one point: If the Republican party is to bear responsibility for Joe McCarthy through all time, why doesn’t the Democratic party have to bear responsibility for Theodore Bilbo?

I admire Frum’s ability to pack an amazing amount of silliness into 94 words. Let’s take this step by step, shall we?

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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.

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National Review and Terrorism

Victims of the church bombing.

Like all conservative publications, National Review likes to fulminate against terrorism. Terrorism is a serious problem, of course, but I have trouble taking what they say on this matter seriously. Here’s why:

1. On September 15, 1963 a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing 4 black girls and injuring many more children. (Those killed were Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair; McNair had been a classmate of the young Condoleezza Rice).  The bomb was set by members of the Klu Klux Klan, as part of a wave of terror designed to intimidate the civil rights movement. Here is how National Review commented on the bombing in the October 1, 1963 issue of their biweekly Bulletin: “The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away form the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.”

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