The much-neglected Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av is observed on July 27 this year, putting me in mind of Whittaker Chambers, H. L. Mencken, William F. Buckley Jr., R. Emmett Tyrrell and Ronald Wilson Reagan. But perhaps I am exercising my right of association too freely, and some background is in order.
The word Tisha is Hebrew for the number nine. The ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (Jewish festivals follow a lunar calendar) is traditionally the worst day in the year for Jews. It began when the spies returned that day in the Book of Numbers, and the Jews cried in fear about the prospect of conquering Israel from the musclebound types who were its then inhabitants. The tears have been flowing ever since; not only were both the First and Second Temples destroyed on that date, the Spanish Inquisition instituted the first wholesale exile of Jews on that very day, in August 2 of 1492.
This holiday is structured in a very peculiar fashion. On the one hand, it is a fast day. At the same time, certain sad prayers are omitted because it is a holiday. The Book of Lamentations is read at night and again in the morning. The night begins in severe mourning, sitting on the floor by candlelight; in the morning, the candlelight is removed and the sunlight is let in; by the afternoon, people get off the floor and begin to sit on normal chairs. That is to say, there is a built-in process of lightening the load, to reinforce the idea that the mourning is temporary, that eventually the Jewish People will return to Israel and live in peace again.
In recent years, as the Zionist movement made its way from political agitation in the late 1800s to settling and farming in the early 1900s to nationhood and military strength in the mid-1900s, these hardy visionaries, workers and soldiers began to treat the name of Tisha B’Av with scorn. It symbolized to them the almost two millennia of do-nothing exilic existence of the Jews among the various host nations exhibiting various degrees of hostly graciousness.
The truth is more likely to be closer to the opposite. Those people should hail that particular holiday as a hero of their own movement. They should celebrate its fluid staging as an act of national genius. They should learn well and remember the lesson of the American political movement which dubbed itself “conservatism,” and its metamorphosis from the mopey mug of Whittaker Chambers and the cranky kisser of H. L. Mencken to the fizzy phiz of Ronald Reagan.
LATELY, CONFOUNDED LIBERALS HAVE taken to analyzing just how the reins of executive and legislative power were wrested from their sweaty grasp. How exactly did William F. Buckley create a vibrant intellectual greenhouse in National Review by schlepping glum old Whittaker Chambers from tending his pumpkins in Maryland to write a few editorials in New York? And how did R. Emmett Tyrrell create a joyous playground of the mind in The American Spectator, first in Indiana and then in Washington D.C., by channeling the grumpy ghost of H. L. Mencken from whatever Baltimore bordello gave him his last complimentary visit?
Indeed, the question (should I say “query”?) rings harshly in Boston, loudly in New York, and stridently in Hollywood: is not the phrase “conservative revolution” an oxymoron? Is not the act of “going back” to a better time and place something intrinsically anti-historical, reactionary, irredentist, revanchist, obscurantist, Luddite, you name it? How did Buckley and Tyrrell, while claiming to be standing “athwart history,” actually change it?
The answer can only be found in the genius of the Judeo-Christian historical model. This posits that a certain pure moment of spirituality, of prophecy and clarity and truth, burst onto the scene of a pagan world, breaking the shallow icons and idols and totems and substituting profound ideals and values and dreams. These ideas are then loaded into the luggage of the bright and sensitive souls who embraced them, and carted on a gritty trek through the hills and valleys, the rivers and marshes, of the unfolding development of the physical world.
Every time new goodies, new opportunities, new technologies are absorbed into the physical plant of everyday reality, the intellectual and moral premises are challenged anew to encounter modern life and give it a soul. While all this shifting and changing and growing and maturing of the world as a physical entity goes on, its moral grounding in timeless principles is the key to its successful emergence as something viable. Like a teenager, it wrestles with budding characteristics that are exciting and disturbing all at once. If it runs away from home, the odds are that it faces a wrecked life on the Skid Row of history. If it takes to heart the rules that Dad set out when he gave the allowance, a prosperous and meaningful adulthood is likely on its horizon.
Thus these religions speak comfortably about a Golden Age of reason and good in the past, and a utopian age of reason and good in the future, call it Messianic if you will. The revolution does not seek to find something that never existed. It is a revolution to slog though the snake oil of the modernist who thinks that his machine is the end-all, to discover, and rediscover, that intellectual and moral end for which that machine was designed.
The conservative political movement in the United States followed this pattern, which is partly why its enemies oppose it with a species of religious fervor. It sought to reestablish the American polity along lines that were traceable at least as far back as the Constitution. But it did not come with an old fuddy-duddy sensibility, it did not wear powdered wigs and girdles. It wore comfortably the physical trappings of modernity, while rejecting the canard that new prosperity had brought with it a new sensibility.
It is not really ironic that the scowl of Whittaker Chambers and the glower of H. L. Mencken begat the quizzical Buckley look and the scrappy Tyrrell gestalt, all culminating in Ronald Reagan and his sunny smile. The first generation may not see the hope, but it is they who refuse to surrender, who man a lonely barricade that they think to be quixotic. The second generation sees the possibilities, and the third generation closes the deal.
WHEN WE WERE KIDS IN Hebrew school, they told us a story, a bit of apocrypha whose sourcing I cannot ascertain. They said that at some point during Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia, he entered a synagogue on Tisha B’Av and found the congregation sitting on the floor in mourning. When told that they were bewailing the loss of the Temple and the land 1800 years earlier, he said, “A nation that can remember its land this long will one day get it back.”
Whether uttered by Napoleon or not, we should confirm it in hindsight as a truism. It was those hardy folks, beaten and battered and knocked from pillar to post, who kept hope alive by acting out that little drama one day a year, going from the dark to the light, from the floor to the seat. No reasonable person believes that they had legitimate openings for a return prior to the Industrial Age. But when the opening finally came, they were poised to walk through.
Ronald Reagan never failed to honor Whittaker Chambers, even granting him a posthumous medal. He knew that the man who dared not hope but would not relent paved the way for the hero who could rewin the day. It behooves today’s proud Israeli, confident wielder of shovel and computer and machine gun, to remember with gratitude the man who sat on the floor and then slowly but surely got up.