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.