Years ago, reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, I was struck by a line early in the book, where he criticized the American Left for not remembering their own intellectual history. What struck me about it was that Goldberg seemed to be astonished by this revelation. It is tempting to think, upon learning something new, that you are the first person to have the insight. Young people tend to suffer from this, coming home from college convinced they know the secrets of the universe. In the case of the Left, Goldberg may have been the last person to notice the Left’s hatred of the past.
The other thing that was striking is that modern conservatives suffer from the same defect. Read any of the so-called conservative writers of the Official Right™ and you get the impression that the world began in 1938. Every bad guy in the world is Hitler and any hesitation about rushing into war is appeasement. More important, they think the great intellectual tradition of the Right starts with the day Bill Buckley penned God and Man at Yale. Everything before that is fairy tales and mythology from a foreign people.
Of course, this is not an accident. Buckley conservatism was a break with the old traditional Right, if it was ever actually of the Right, which is debatable. George Will famously called Buckley’s Yale book “a lovers’ quarrel with his alma mater.” It was also a good way to describe the conservatism of Bill Buckley and his followers. It was and still is a lover’s quarrel with the Left. Put another way, it was the child admonishing the parent for not living up to the ideals the parent preached to their children.
To be fair, the Buckleyites borrowed some political objectives from traditional conservatives, along with some of the language of the Right, but it was essentially a Progressive heresy over the issue of communism. It’s why the Buckleyites had exactly zero wins in the culture war. They never bothered to fight it. Their singular reason to exist was opposition to communism, foreign and domestic. It’s why after the Cold War, they declared themselves Big Government Conservatives.
Anyway, Goldberg’s ahistorical view of conservatism came to mind when reading this post over at the ironically named The American Conservative.
H.L. Mencken has a conservative problem. The Baltimore journalist became the poster boy for literary modernism thanks to his literary criticism and nationally syndicated op-ed columns, in addition to his work as a magazine editor, most notably at American Mercury. But he ranks well behind the modernist poets T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens as an acceptable literary figure for conservative consumption. The reason has much to do with Mencken’s skepticism and irreverence. He mocked Puritanism famously as the cultural force that gave Americans a moralistic squint. Worse, he recommended the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche as an antidote to Victorian morality and then promoted Theodore Dreiser, whose novels offended censors. Mencken proved his heretical ways at the Scopes Trial, where he mocked the prosecution led by William Jennings Bryan and the “simian faithful” who hung on the Great Commoner’s every word. Everywhere Mencken turned, his mantra seemed to be “just say no” to inherited moral, intellectual, and literary standards.
The most recent conservative complaint about Mencken is that he was an elitist who ridiculed his fellow Americans. Kevin D. Williamson of National Review objected that the debunking mentality prevalent in Mencken’s work represented a “genuine fervor to knock the United States and its people down a peg or two.” For Mencken, “the representative American experience was the Scopes trial, with its greasy Christian fundamentalists and arguments designed to appeal to the ‘prehensile moron,’ his description of the typical American farmer.” Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute registered a similar complaint in his book The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Undermined the Middle Class. He charged that Mencken was part of a company of liberal thinkers who wanted to create an American aristocracy that could “provide the same sense of hierarchy and order long associated with European statism.”
The unhinged madhattery on display here is breath taking. The starting point of Anglo-Saxon conservatism is skepticism, particularly a skepticism of universalism and Utopian lunacies like Puritanism. Similarly, the Right has always accepted that humans are a hierarchical species by nature. Therefore, the structure of society, including the political system, will always reflect this reality, as it has at all times and all places. Egalitarianism is a fetish of the Left, not the Right. Yet, the modern Right now claims it for their own.
Those two paragraphs describe what Buckley Conservatism is today. It is vinegar drinking prudery, a cartoonish version of Christian piety and unquestioning reverence for the jingoistic version of American history, that has little resemblance to reality. Put another way, it is kept men tut-tutting about manners, droning on about the old church and demanding you send your sons off to fight pointless wars of choice, claiming it is your patriotic duty. No wonder its constituency does not extend beyond the Imperial Capital.
Mencken was a man of his age so much of what he wrote about no longer has relevance or it strikes the delicate ear of the modern reader as hate speech. He also wrote a lot and that leads to a degree of inconsistency and incoherence. When you are writing to be read, your first goal is to be entertaining, so a degree of logical inconsistency is inevitable. Even so, Mencken is an important figure to study, because it is the conservatism of his era that is roaring back in the form of the populist upheavals we are seeing in our politics.