Richard M. Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, published in 1948, was one of the books that (so it’s often claimed) helped define postwar American conservatism. Today the title, which wasn’t even Weaver’s — he planned to call the book The Fearful Descent, but his publisher insisted on something less pessimistic (see also Kirk’s Conservative Mind, which was originally to have been The Conservative Rout) — is a cliche among movement conservatives, many or even most of whom have never read Weaver’s succinct, 190-page book.
How much of a relationship is there really between Weaver’s thought and latter-day conservatism? Perhaps a pretty strong inverse relationship. My host last week when I spoke on “Where the Right Went Wrong” at North Carolina State University was a very principled student named James Lawrence. Although I didn’t recognize his name immediately, I was familiar with his work from long before my talk: I’d seen footage of him at a YAF conference a year or two back taking Rich Lowry to task over David Frum’s “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” and I’d also seen Lawrence’s excellent LRC article “Rethinking Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” He tells me he caught some flack over the latter, with a few warbot conservative friends of his calling him a leftist on account of it. After all, weren’t those American atom bombs incinerating an enemy people? You’d have to be a leftist to object to that, wouldn’t you?
If so, then Richard M Weaver was a leftist and ought to be taken out the right-wing canon forthwith. At the very least, Weaver was one of those “unpatriotic conservatives.” Just look what he wrote to a friend in 1945, a mere two and a half weeks after the the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, about the outcome of the war:
And is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them? I have become convinced in the past few years that the essence of civilization is ethical (with perhaps some helping out from aesthetics). And never has the power of ethical discrimination been as low as it is today. The atomic bomb was a final blow to the code of humanity. I cannot help thinking that we will suffer retribution for this. For a long time to come I believe my chief interest is going to be the restoration of civilization, of the distinctions that make life intelligible.
(The letter is cited in In Defense of Tradition: the Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver.)
It was that line of thinking that led Weaver to write Ideas Have Consequences. As he wrote in his introduction:
The book was written in the period immediately following the second World War, and it was in a way a reaction to that war–to its immense destructiveness, to the strain it placed upon ethical principles, and to the tensions it left in place of the peace and order that were professedly sought.
If Richard Weaver — one could just as well say Robert Nisbet or Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck — were alive today and in his prime, would he want to call himself a conservative and associate with the Right — with the likes of, say, Max Boot? I think the answer is pretty clear. And in any event, he would probably find himself coming in for denunciation from David Frum and have heroic warbloggers calling him a “traitor” or “blame America firster.”