For each conservative generation, its own anthology.
Proud to be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative
Edited by Jonah Goldberg
(Harper, 242 pages, $15.99)
For each conservative generation, its own anthology. The founding generation of conservatives had Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?, William F. Buckley’s collection of first-generation heroes. The 1980s saw the publication of Robert Whitaker’s The New Right Papers, and even the Clintonian 1990s saw David Brooks’s Backward and Upward, featuring stalwarts such as Peggy Noonan and Richard Brookhiser. At their best such collections restate the eternal controversies that have engaged conservatives: the price of freedom, the benefits of community, and the larger traditions of the West.
Now comes Jonah Goldberg of National Review, in some ways heir to the Buckley legacy for organizing and reflecting various instincts and urges into a movement, who has put together a collection of twenty-odd pieces by mostly twenty-something contributors. Goldberg, in a typically engaging introduction, is forthright about his ambiguous feelings toward the project: he recognizes the importance of getting young people into conservative ideas, but deplores the emergence of youth politics, which is a tired leftist project meant to project one’s own fading “radical” past onto a new generation. Yet in a sense Proud to be Right hopes to tell us where conservatism is now through these young writers.
And where it seems to be now is in college. Many of the contributors are still coming to terms with their college experience, and the reports are not good. Pornography as class work at Yale, an Alger Hiss Chair at Bard, and political correctness rampant everywhere: anyone who has followed the academic culture wars knows the rest of that sad story. The more interesting pieces were written by the contributors who confronted this excess as older or married students. Nathan Harden tells of his experiences at Yale, where a pronounced devotion to feminism hides an undercurrent of indifference toward the real lives of the young men and women entrusted to the university. It is a journalistic confirmation of the story Tom Wolfe was trying to tell us in I Am Charlotte Simmons.
What these pieces do make clear is that conservatism does now exist as a recognized, if still somewhat rare, path in college. Helen Rittelmeyer on smoking at Yale and Ben Shapiro’s on UCLA show that conservatism can be possible, and even fun, on campus (though it is instructive to compare Rittelmeyer’s essay of smoking as reactionary embrace of tradition with Joe Queenan’s essay on smoking as misanthropic reaction in the Brooks collection for the change in emphasis over the last decade or so). However, the larger story they tell of life in the American university could have been written in 1990, or indeed, 1980, and shows perhaps that conservatives, despite two decades or more of attack, have pierced the ideological crust of academia little.
Most of these pieces have a libertarian flavor, with condemnations of taxes and Obama’s health care plan, and paeans to individual rights that might strike some old-line conservatives as simplistic. Indeed, Matt Patterson declares his allegiance to the Founders as “Radicals. Not conservatives,” which would have surprised John Adams, much less Russell Kirk. There is little recognition here of the conservative conversation that has been going on since the 1950s, and the discussion conservatives have been having among themselves. Rachel Motte does call for young conservatives to spend “a lot more time allowing the West’s best foundational texts to change their lives,” though those life-changing encounters are obscured here in favor of personal reflection, which may in itself be one more sign of the liberal university’s triumph: it has almost deprived thoughtful, conservatively inclined young people of a language in which to protest the liberalism in which they are submerged. The argot in these essays also challenges a conservative of even one generation older to place their arguments in a larger context.
Some pieces sparkle. Michael Brendan Dougherty’s essay, “Splendid Isolation,” continues the long tradition of conservative antiwar writing. Dougherty notes that war favors everything conservatives profess to oppose: increased taxes, loss of liberty, government meddling, and family dissolution. He asks us to turn instead to a mostly forgotten tradition of antiwar American writing, from Emerson and James Russell Lowell to Kurt Vonnegut and publisher Henry Regnery, and reminds us that it is sometimes the cranks in American history, and not the polished spokespersons on K Street, that represent the authentic American political tradition. This is not a popular position among conservatives, even now after almost a decade of war, but it remains one of the central conservative touch points. It is a credit to Goldberg for including it here, to balance out the more expected support for military expressions of an American exceptionalism.
James Poulos, an editor of the innovative, short-lived and controversial conservative web magazine Culture11, tries to forge new intellectual links with his essay on conservatives as “Leptogonians”; a leptogonal angle is a math term for an angle slightly narrower or off-center from an orthogonal one. Poulos condemns the “therapunditocratic” culture represented by the likes of Glenn Beck, the novelist Benjamin Kunkel, and the D.C. party circuit. He connects his cultural critique of his generation’s “disrupted decade” as reflected for example in the novel Fight Club with the work of Philip Rieff, who has found a new resurgence among older conservatives for his prescient attacks on secular elites. His point is that the concept of conservatism as a “movement” has disguised the truly exceptional nature of the younger generation, who reject the trappings such movement presents (even as many of them cycle through the D.C. party circuit.)
The Proud to be Right writers are, in general, more antiliberal (or possibly libertarian) than conservative, though one might guess who in ten years will be taking up Goldberg’s mantle as conservative standard-bearer and who will end up more solid libertarians or even liberals. Rather than take to the libraries, as an earlier generation of right-wingers might have, and discover the actual Western tradition being denigrated in class, these younger conservatives are not surprisingly tempted to engage the enemy on its own personal-is-political terms. Whether this strategy will bear political or further intellectual fruit remains to be seen.
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