GOP and Man at Yale

is the title of my article in the Nov. 6 issue of The American Conservative, which should be hitting bookstores and subscribers’ mailboxes within a week or so. An unfortunate production error caused the last two words of the piece to be clipped off, which is bound to lead to some confusion. It’s also on-line, in full, here.

The article takes a look at the decline of intellectual conservatism on campus and the disparity between the realism, even anti-militarism, of much of the conservative canon (Weaver, Kirk, Nisbet) and the bellicosity of the student Right. The latter is of concern to more than just students: the youth adjuncts of the conservative movement have a fairly impressive record of producing future leaders of the movement; there’s almost a cursus honorum — or several, really — leading from conservative student journalism to the magazines of the Beltway-NYC Right and from the College Republicans to the leading institutions of the right-wing lobbying and political circuit.

Dan Flynn, who has considerable experience with the campus Right from his time at Young America’s Foundation, the Leadership Institute, and Accuracy in Academy, was a useful interviewee for the piece; his thoughts on it are up at his blog here. In particular, Dan reminded me that the Sharon Statement — the credo of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the premiere conservative youth group of the ’60s — emphasizes not America’s “national interests” but her “just interests.” For the full story on YAF, the place to turn is Gregory Schneider’s Cadres for Conservatism, from New York University Press.

A different take on the campus Right is on hand in the December Harper’s, which includes Wells Tower’s “The Kids Are Far Right,” a snarky report on the National Conservative Student Conference put on by Young America’s Foundation (YAF, but not to be confused with the other YAF). Cutting somewhat against the thrust of my article, Tower actually finds a good deal of criticism of Bush among campus conservatives, at least at this event:

Despite all the jaunty blood thirst for liberals and hippies, it’s interesting to note that none of the students utters words of praise for George W. Bush, or goes in for any cuticle-nibbling over the daily media forecasts of the drubbing the G.O.P. is supposed to suffer at the polls fourteen weeks from now. … Proud, self-declared Republicans, in fact, are curiously hard to come by among the students, nearly all of whom identify themselves as libertarians or simply as ‘conservatives,’ and who will later describe our president to me in the following terms: ’embarrassing,’ ‘stupid,’ arrogant,’ a halfway conservative,’ ‘a puppet of lobbyists and special interests,’ and ‘a liberal, basically.’

As I note in my article, though, what constitutes “libertarianism” for this generation wouldn’t exactly warm Murray Rothbard’s heart: Tower’s article says relatively little about the young Right and war and foreign policy, but what it does say tends to confirm the impression I got of a very nationalistic, big-military student conservatism.

Tower’s piece does devote several paragraphs to the conference’s panel on books, however. Here’s a sampling:

By day five of the conference, lecture fatigue is rampant, and attendance at the Friday afternoon discussion, “Great Books to Read in College,” is at an awkward low. … Marjory Ross [president of Regnery Publishing] recommends the usual syllabus: Goldwater, Kirk, Buckley, Ayn Rand. At the mention of Rand, a current of ardor passes through the boallroom, and someone gives a low, deferential whistle. She then ventures onto a frailer limb, making the claim that it is occasionally worthwhile to read books that are not explicitly conservative: for example, Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. “I know, I know,” she says sheepishly, as though half expecting the fruit to start flying.

… Elizabeth Kantor [managing editor of the Conservative Book Club] , when she gets up to speak, is also bent on promoting bookst hat, on the face of it, are not conservative at all. She likes the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, T.S. Eliot. When arguing the superiority of Western civlization, you’re at a disadvantage, she says, if your readerly horizons end at Dinesh D’Souza and Ann Coulter. What’s so pleasureable about reading the greats is not only that they’re rich with human truths but also that they can be mined for object lessons in conservative values, or dismantled into rhetorical brickbats that make for good hurling in culture-war skirmishes. Beowulf, for example, instructs us that “war … is a noble pursuit,” Kantor says. Dickens’s Hard Times, in Kantor’s reading, is a valuable critique of the “dehumanizing effects of the modern science-based education.”

Polemical uses of classic literature aren’t unique to the Right, of course. The trouble is, the sense arises from Tower’s piece that these recommendations may be falling on deaf ears. Moreover, what’s needed is not only to read good books (“conservative” or not) but to reflect on them. John Lukacs likes to cite Jacob Burckhardt’s advice to historians, bisogna saper leggere; one must not just read but “know how to read.” The source of the intellectual shabbiness of the much of the Right lies in the inability of so many latter-day conservatives to do more than move their eyes across the page. That, I hasten to add, isn’t a failure for which I’d blame the youth: the rot begins with the institutions of conservatism, the magazines and think-tanks that are given over almost wholly to politics and policy. Even if a young conservative today reads Richard Weaver, he’s likely to be told by some political operative that the lesson he should draw from the man’s work is that “policy ideas have consequences.”

I think Young America’s Foundation is actually making moves in the right direction with its new series of “Freedom Philosopher Seminars” devoted to Hayek, Kirk, Friedman, and Frank Meyer; in my TAC article I cite a recent New York Times story about the effect the Kirk seminar had on students. These seminars probably won’t lead students to saper leggere, but they’re a start. And I’m confident Dan Flynn did a world of good when he was with Accuracy in Academia by promoting short but sound books like Nock’s Our Enemy, the State and Kirk’s Politics of Prudence to students while at the same time organizing provocative panels that effectively deconstructed conservative orthodoxy: famously, he once had a panel at an AIA summer school (I was there) featuring Jim Bovard, Sam Francis, Jonah Goldberg, and Lori Cole. How does that deconstruct conservatism and why is that a good thing? Well, it shows that conservatism is not a monolithic, unified whole, it has competing and contradictory strains of thought. That’s bad for the unity needed in politics, but it’s good for teaching students saper leggere. It’s an antidote to the mental homogenization of movement-think.


3 thoughts on “GOP and Man at Yale

  1. R J Stove October 19, 2006 / 1:25 pm

    From a selfishly filial point of view, I am pleased to report that the Conservative Book Club which Dan McCarthy mentions – periodically rebuked in recent times for allegedly concentrating on lightweight choices of title – is now stocking one of my father’s posthumously published books, Darwinian Fairytales:

    Much enjoyed reading “GOP And Man At Yale”, BTW.

  2. Daniel McCarthy October 23, 2006 / 6:39 am

    Thanks, Rob. I’m glad to hear the CBC is carrying Darwinian Fairytales.

  3. Marcus October 24, 2006 / 12:54 am

    I breezed through the Harpers article. It was a bit too, I dunno “effervescent” for my tastes.

    I did go the the NCSC when my boss, Bay Buchanan, was speaking to the girls, while Harvey Mansfield spoke to the boys at the conference. I sat through Mansfield’s lecture and at the table I randomly was at, when I mentioned to people I worked for Bay, about 3 or 4 of the 10 people at the table told me how much they liked Pat Buchanan and hated the war in Iraq. When I went to conferences like this a few years ago, I would literally find one antiwar paleo at the whole thing, if I was lucky, so at the least this was a minor improvement. That being said, I don’t know exactly how “far right” this conference was.

    While a lot of people grumbled about Bush, the idolatry to reagan described in the Harpers article is true, and people think the new Reagan is probably Newt Gingrich, Mike Pence or someone who would be just as awful, if not worse than Bush.

    Furthermore, what I found very interesting is Harvey Mansfield made a few comments about intrinsic diffferences between the sexes during his talk, and what Mr. Tower inconveniently left out, is that this Humphrey democrat was met with hysterical attacks by both the male and female attendees, with some of the most asanine, idiotic retorts you could here (literally about 3 people said, I have a friend who’s a girl who’s good at math, and guy friend who isn’t.) And I must say, Mansfield was not that manly in his reply.

    What I think is true about the Harpers article, is that there is very hardcore “anti-left” sentiment among some young conservatives and some of them have come to realize that the Republicans are not the best platform to attack.

    That being said, I don’t think they really know what they for, or who the Left really is.

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