In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.
To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”
Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”
But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?
Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:
The warm weather hasn’t stopped the wind from blowing or the foliage from turning gold and red and orange. As the leaves fall, and the trick-or-treaters prepare to make their rounds, here in Baltimore it’s also “Pumpkin Papers” season. Recalling this fascinating chapter of the Cold War is as much a part of an anticommunist’s autumn as little kids dressed like ghosts or storefronts decorated with dried cornstalks and hay bales.
In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal.
On Friday, National Review published a scathing editorial in opposition to Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President, followed by the statements of 22 prominent conservatives ranging from neocons like Bill Kristol, to social conservatives like Cal Thomas and Michael Medved, to radio/television personalities like Glenn Beck. The editorial slammed Trump as “a philosophically unmoored political opportunist who would trash the broad conservative ideological consensus within the GOP in favor of a free-floating populism with strong-man overtones.” True to pugnacious form, Trump fired back, asserting that “the late, great William F. Buckley would have been ashamed of what happened to his prize.”…
Even for those who have not been through an undergraduate academic program, the figure of the biased historian is well known. In the hands of biased historians, the past morphs into an ideological axe to grind. Methodology is the tool that forces the facts to conform to their theory, and that jettisons any stray facts that don’t fit.
But this was not always so. Once upon a time, there were historians whose intellectual probity led them to follow the evidence no matter where it led, even if it damaged their own “side.” Professor Allen Weinstein belonged to this almost extinct group. Weinstein, who taught at Smith College, Georgetown, and Boston University, and who was for three years the National Archivist in Washington, died last week at 77.