From A to Zoll

My review of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia is now up at The American Conservative‘s website.


8 thoughts on “From A to Zoll

  1. Tim December 7, 2006 / 1:46 am

    It’s an interesting book, I own a copy. I think `encyclopedic dictionaries’, are an underappreciated genre . In my estimate “American Conservatism”, although bulkier, is not as good as two quirkier books. Namely Robert Nisbet’s superb “Prejudices – A Philosophical Dictionary” and Richard Milner’s “Encyclopedia of Evolution”, a dictionary style encyclopedia of Darwinism that spans not only the science, but the history, pop and folklore of evolution.

    I can see the critics pounding away at their word processors now. They’ll say the volume doesn’t give sufficient cubic mass to George W Bush and his merry band of Vulcans; or that the neocon movement doesn’t get the required number of column inches; or that GOP Republicanism herein seems more a trickle than the mainstream. And why does Eugene McCarthy seem to get more coverage than Tailgunner Joe McCarthy? “Mainstream conservatism” or, at least, mainstream GOP-ism, seems under-represented here. Perhaps forensic lexicographic archaeologists in the year 2525 will see this book as representing the state of conservative politics before the grand split between the interplanetary dominationists and the “little north america”-ites.

    It would seem to me the authors could either have taken the path to a more ‘objective’ encyclopedic book or followed Nisbet and Milner down the crooked and quirkier ‘subjective’ path. The crooked path is often the most surprising and interesting.

    As it turns out they have attempted to juggle both so the end result is worthwhile but still rates only 2 stars out of 3. Still it’s a great effort.

  2. Daniel McCarthy December 7, 2006 / 3:21 am

    You’re not far off about the criticisms that have come at the book from some quarters, Tim. The Claremont Review of Books found it insufficiently appreciative of Harry Jaff’s notions about Declaration of Independence. National Review complained about John Zmirak’s entry on the Iraq War (which is one of the highlights of the book, actualy: among other things, Zmirak raises the question of whether there’s any kind of conservative justification for it. NR Literary Editor Mike Potemra’s response was to start talking about exporting democracy… ’nuff said, I think.

    Of course, on the sleek, modern, Mitt Romney right, Tailgunner Joe is just about as unpopular as Eugene; maybe both should have been omitted to make room for more think tanks and Bush speechwriters?

  3. John Lowell December 7, 2006 / 4:01 am

    Interesting that you’d observe:

    “The essay on the late pope, unfortunately, is distorted by a selective political emphasis that glosses over his criticisms of war, capitalism, and capital punishment. His teachings have been sanitized for conservatives’ convenience.”

    The author couldn’t have done any worse in his interpretations of John Paul II than those done of the late Pope’s social teaching by neo-cons, Neuhaus, Novak and Weigel, who despite their claimed familiarity with such papal favorites as von Balthasar and du Lubac show no comprehension of them whatsoever. Mired in a pre-conciliar two-tiered notion of the relation of nature and grace, these impostors distort Catholic social teaching, forcing it into a mold that make its morings in the Christological virtually unrecognizable. The First Things project of making the Church an instrument of ideology fails every bit as much as the Encyclopaedia’s author’s “selective political emphases” it would seem. Birds of a feather?

    John Lowell

  4. Daniel McCarthy December 7, 2006 / 6:50 am

    I should say, though (and would have in the review, if time and space had been permitting) that the encyclopedia’s entry on Catholic social teaching does a much better job spelling out the tensions between the Church and movement conservatism’s take on capitalism, and includes some specific criticisms of Novak (“…Michael Novak’s claim in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism that the democratic capitalist order ‘calls forward not only a new theology but a new type of religion’ seems approximately correct; the problem, however, is that the theology and religion he advocates do not seem to be those of the Catholic Church”).

  5. Tim December 7, 2006 / 2:44 pm

    Daniel says: “maybe both should have been omitted to make room for more think tanks and Bush speechwriters?”

    Interesting question.

    My gut feeling, perhaps overly partisan, is really “No way!”

    I think there is too much emphasis on how the think tanks, and their public sector academic equivalents, represent ‘philosophy x’ or ‘ideology y’, and this is seen as good or bad depending on one’s own ideological position or phase of the moon. This view obscures the real purpose of these outfits, marketing the policy agenda of their sponsors. Their support for one or other philosophy or principle is determined by their client’s needs. They are a bit like advertising agencies. No one assumes advertisers really believe in their client’s products. Their success depends on how good they influence the market. Think Tanks play a similar role in the political marketplace.

    This argument sails close to the usual leftist critique of ‘market oriented’ think tanks, but I’d apply it more widely to those (often government owned) agencies, think tanks and policy institutes that litter policy debate on safety, environment, consumerism etc etc too. Their clients are simply the regulatory bureaucracy itself.

    I’d add to the argument by pointing that the tanks don’t just work from the outside in, say representing corporate interests to the movers and shakers of the media and big government. They also work from inside out, reflecting the interests of the state back to the designated audience communities. They help keep the plebs in line.

    The tanks are really just (sometimes rival) courtiers of the modern managerial state, like the King’s stupid cousin, they would be put out of work by any serious reform.

  6. John Lowell December 7, 2006 / 5:36 pm


    The author’s take on Novak is perfectly stated. Reading a piece by Novak not too long ago, one in which he examines aspects of the theology of B. Lonergan, citing specifically Lonergan’s work on nature and grace, one almost comes away with the certainty that Novak would never, ever fall into that silly old neo-scholastic, two ends trap. After all here’s Novak talking about it, eh? Nevertheless, he does fall into it. His whole project is emerced in it. And that analysis is not mine, it’s David Schindler’s. One can only hope that Catholic social teaching gets a better popular presentation in the future than it has with Novak in the resent past.

    John Lowell

  7. Daniel McCarthy December 7, 2006 / 9:31 pm

    I was just joking about omitting the McCarthys in favor of speechwriters and think tanks, though I know of a handful of hacks associated with some smaller policy shops who’ve grumbled about not making the cut. I think the encyclopedia was just about exactly right to include and omit who it did — though I think it should have included an entry on Neil McCaffrey, founder of the Conservative Book Club and the now-defunct Arlington House publishing company.

  8. Tim December 8, 2006 / 4:28 am

    Speaking of jokes, I’m waiting for a new Kubrick to do an updated remake of Dr.Strangelove but set in the modern Iraq War era rather than the high Cold War. Instead of Dr Strangelove still having his right arm loyal to Hitler, we can have his left arm still loyal to Trotsky. I’d also like to see the old “gentlemen …no fighting here, this is the war room!” scene recut inside some kind of Beltway Institute. President Merkin Muffley can intone “Gentlemen …no thinking here, this is a think tank!”

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