WASHINGTON, April 3, 2014 —For a number of years authors representing what has been called “paleo-conservatism,” or traditional “Old Right” conservatism, have disputed the definition of “patriotism” put forward by those who denominate themselves generally as “neo-conservatives.” The paleos or traditionalists and the neo-cons differ on a broad array of issues, including American internationalism, support for or opposition to universal liberal democracy, and a host of other questions.
One of the sharpest divides comes in defining and describing just what American “patriotism” should embrace and what it means. In examining the literature and extensive writing on the topic, the major difference boils down to this: traditional conservatives revere and honor the patria in the historical and familial sense. It is the greater community in which other, smaller but yet still very important autarkic communities, in particular the family, thrive, and exist in subsidiarity. It is determined by history, by race, by religion, by geography, by shared experiences in war and peace, and by a broad “public orthodoxy” on what must be the foundations of society. Most of these determinants must be operative before there really exists a patria for traditionalists, and, as a resultant, a legitimate sense of “patriotism.”
It is place, family, region, religious belief, heritage that give this form of patriotism its fullness and legitimacy.
For neo-conservatism, it is ideology–the “concept nation”–that dictates patriotism. Thus, from Leo Strauss, an intellectual godfather of the neo-cons, to Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz (and their sons) and others, it is the liberal democratic “idea” and a kind of quasi-religious belief in egalitarianism and the dynamic of “progress” that motivates them–and founds the American experience as a nation. Anything diverging from this is, so to speak, “un-American.” Thus, there is the attempt to read back into our history, to create if you will, “original concepts” such as “freedom,” “equality,” “progress.” Thus, a defense of the South and the Confederacy cannot be tolerated by the neo-cons, as it conflicts radically with their ideas of equality and progress. Thus, gradually, Wilson, FDR, Truman, and Kennedy, not to mention Martin Luther King, have all been added to the contemporary “conservative pantheon” of masters, replacing Russell Kirk’s listing of Madison, Calhoun, John Randolph, Irving Babbitt, and so on. Just listen to some of the “conservative” commentators on Fox News, or to some of the “talking heads” on radio, or to a well-known figure like Newt Gingrich, who thinks of himself as a historian, but whose historical narrative locates him firmly over on the philosophical Left wing, “progressive,” side of history.
Consider how the neo-cons have enthroned Abraham Lincoln as the new “patron saint” of contemporary conservatism. Rich Lowry, the young editor of what once was a more or less traditionalist conservative National Review, now touts Father Abraham as not only the model for us all, but condemns as “bigots,” “fringe,” and “hate mongers” anyone who would even question Lincoln’s sanctity and position in the pantheon of American iconography. That Lincoln and his policy of total war against the Southern Confederacy unleashed the growth of the all-powerful managerial state, that he destroyed the constitutionally guaranteed liberties not only of the several states, but of the citizens of the original American nation as conceived by the Founders, is glossed over in the name of “progress” and “equality.”
To our complaints that King, FDR, Wilson, etc. weren’t really “conservatives,” the neo-cons reply that yes, they were, because they believed in the dynamic of progress, equality, and freedom around the world for each and everyone, even if they don’t want it. This process has involved what Russell Kirk called “the intellectual train-robbery of Conservatism” prior to his death, that the neo-cons have taken a term and a philosophical approach and radically redefined it, transformed it into what is, indeed, just the “right wing of the dominant progressive Leftism” in the United States.
As Prof. Claes Ryn of Catholic University has pointed out succinctly but very convincingly in several detailed studies (e.g., The New Jacobins) the neo-cons, in their origination were over on the political and cultural Left in the 1940s until the 1970s. Many of them supported “Scoop” Jackson, then Hubert Humphrey. Some of the other more prominent neocons had been dedicated Marxist Trotskyites (e.g., Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz). It was largely McGovern’s looniness that sent them on a pilgrimage into the ranks of American conservatism. And, as Kirk has pointed out, when they came over they brought with them their original Leftist premises, and then mounted various “coups” to take over almost every hitherto conservative organization, whether strictly political, or intellectual, or cultural, until by the 1990s they controlled virtually everything, from the National Review, to even the Heritage Foundation, and so on.
More, they began a “long march” through conservative and Republican politics. Remember the battles that took place in the conservative Philadelphia Society, the firings and purges at National Review (Mel Bradford and Joe Sobran) and at The Washington Times (Sam Francis), and much more….until today the standard template among the GOP and so-called “conservatives” is actually the internationalist egalitarian belief in unlimited human progress tied to the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy. Societies based on older traditions, including traditional religion, must, in this view, be swept aside. Women must be given full equality in everything, and even though many neo-cons might object to the final result, by accepting the initial premises of the Left, they also implicitly accept the eventual feminist consequences, including as we see now, abortion and even same sex marriage.
Complete separation of church and state, another stark difference that divides traditionalists and neo-cons, also leads to secularization, and, as we see now, eventual persecution of the church. Yet, the neo-cons proudly proclaim this principle as basic to “freedom,” when they in fact misunderstand the very idea of liberty, and what it entails.
Russell Kirk later in his life bitterly condemned what he called “the forcible imposition of a Pax Americana on the rest of the world.” In a famous address at Heritage, he questioned the patriotism of many neo-conservatives. That didn’t go over well with some in the audience and the new, self-proclaimed leaders of the “conservative movement.” But what he said was verifiably the truth. Kirk’s standard, which was the rule that President Washington laid down in his second inaugural and farewell addresses, was that we should only get involved when our national interests are directly involved.
Thus, one could argue convincingly that opposing world Communist advances during the Cold War required a more internationalist approach, but even then prudentially and with great caution, so as not to embolden a growing, powerful, managerial state and jeopardize traditional American liberties.
Today the neo-cons continue to look desperately for “enemies” in the world; thus Russia, which if anything is more traditional now in its values and outlook than our own country, continues to be their bugaboo, and for the neo-cons a transformed “evil empire.” Or, to paraphrase John McCain, they are reactionary and religiously intolerant; they don’t practice democracy like we do. Thus, for the internationalist neo-cons, ipso facto, Russia continues to be an “enemy” to be beaten back in the zealous, millenarian world crusade that they continue to engage in–and then forced to accept all the fruits of American consumerism and liberal democracy, including “women’s rights” and gay “liberation.”
This, then, is the kind of “patriotism” of scoundrels that Russell Kirk talked about. It is not based on our best traditions, our families, our constitutional history, but on some “concepts” that certain intellectuals extrapolate back into our past, synthetically and arbitrarily. It is very dangerous, it has become something of a mania, and it leads to the kind undoing that we’ve seen in Iraq, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Somalia, in Egypt, and perhaps now in Syria.
It has undone American conservatism, corrupted it, disfigured it, and perverted it. It must be opposed resolutely, for in the long run, it also disfigures our religious sense of devotion to country.