By a minor miracle — where Amtrak is concerned, nothing less is needed — our public rail system succeeded in getting me to Philadelphia on Saturday for a dinner to celebrate the launch of ISI's American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia. George Nash, newly elected as president of the Philadelphia Society, and John Lukacs gave the dinner talks: Nash before, Lukacs after. Although his liberal friends warned him that the publication of a conservative encyclopedia was a sure sign that the movement had passed its best-by date (he quoted words to the effect that every movement begins as a church, becomes a business, and ends up as a scam), Nash remained fairly upbeat.
Lukacs, of course, is not given to telling audiences what they want to hear, particularly when he's addressing conservatives. His topic was "American Conservatives and the Rest of the World." He began with a point that is true but all too easily overstated: that much of the Old Right wanted to stay out of Europe's wars but tended to look more favorably upon interventions in Asia — they were Asia-Firsters — and very quickly after the Second World War came around to supporting an internationalist anticommunism. Though no fan of Communism, obviously — he fled Hungary in 1946 — Lukacs has never been an "anticommunist" in the usual sense, believing all along that the Soviet Union was actually a very weak power. Some time in the late '80s or so, he recalled, he had written an article for a certain long-established conservative magazine calling for the U.S. to redirect its attention away from the USSR and toward the Third World; the magazine's editor refused to publish it and thought the notion hardly worthy of serious consideration. So much for conservative foresight.
Lukacs was just getting warmed up. He then criticized American nationalism, which has become "so braod as to be flat, so narrow in spirit as to be poisonous," and quoted George Kennan's warning that "no one people is great enough to establish a world hegemony." Lukacs, unusually for a non-libertarian, proceeded to poke fun at the ludicrous contradiction of conservatives claiming to be against big government when in fact "they are for big government as long as it's called 'Defense'." He suggested that conservatives should be humble enough to realize that many of their gains, such as they are, merely come from the collapse of liberalism and humanism, which have achieved all of their major objectives (Lukacs cited the civil rights movement, enfranchisement of women, etc.) and are now reduced to arguing for marginal and extreme cases. The great dangers to the world today, Lukacs contends, are not liberalism but "mechanism" and "scientism."
As for other dubious successes of the conservative movement, Lukacs said that the two most conservative cities in the nation — Dallas and, if I recall correctly, Houston — also have the highest divorce rates. (And as other crticis have noted, the Bible Belt is also the Divorce Belt.)
To my surprise, Lukacs's remarks generated quite a bit of buzz after the meal. I would have thought that any traditional conservative over the age of 20 would have been forced to come to conclusions that, if not the same as Lukacs's would nonetheless have prepared them for his words. But of course, even most non-neo conservatives cling to moronically optimistic notions about both the state of the country and the state of the movement, which has long since gone beyond it's "business" phase. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia might make a very elegant obituary (though I should mention that, as befits an ISI publication, the encylopedia is a quality work; it doesn't partake of the general sleaziness and shabbiness that have overtaken Bush-era conservatism).