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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Underneath Politics

Here you will find links to old essays and articles of mine, now hard to find, from the last days of the typewriter. Far from obsolete, I believe, some might have been ahead of their time. Politics is not just about what is happening now.

Many of my pieces concern European history and some have been translated into foreign languages. I want non-Americans to find my work. Politics is not just about American democracy and the projection of American power abroad.

I barely mention politicians, party platforms, the American constitution, campaigns, elections, specific laws, court decisions, bureaucratic policies, or utterances by presidents or pundits. Politics is not limited to political systems and processes, or to speeches, press conferences, debates, editorials, "talk radio," and "cable news" which constitute "political discourse," or to the vocabulary and rhetorical conventions of that discourse.

Whatever lies beneath politics and determines politics is also politics: culture, history, religion. Politics is about people as well as systems, about character in the moral sense and the psychological sense, about deep mentalities, habits of feeling, and temperament shared by groups and tribes. It is about whatever is true about man throughout the ages. It is about the symbolization of truth.

The Lost Promise of the 1980's

The American conservative intellectuals, as specimens of character and temperament, were as interesting to me as conservatism itself. They were a phenomenon lasting from the 1950's through the 1980's, though a few outlived this classic period. I knew some of them, although I was not anyone's protégé or disciple, and I will mention them in these pages.

But I am not sure that I ever wanted to be called a conservative.

Ronald Reagan, who read every issue of National Review from its founding, was their president. His victory over the Soviet Union was theirs. Yet what other accomplishments of his presidency remain? When the Age of Reagan ended, the Age of Buckley could not be sustained much longer. Some still remember the period nostalgically the way 18th-century British Tories remembered the last days of Queen Anne.

And, oh! how short are human Schemes!
Here ended all our golden Dreams.
What St. John's Skill in State Affairs,
What Ormond's Valour, Oxford's Cares,
To save their sinking Country lent,
Was all destroy'd by one Event.

——"Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift"

The Age of Reagan dwindled into an age of mere Republican politics. I do not idealize those times; it's just that everything since then has been worse.

So I have no scruple about calling attention to my pieces from the 1980's. It was the last time that venues for such writing existed. I may not agree now with everything I wrote so long ago. I was carrying on my education in public, but at least it was an education.

The conservative intellectuals had their conferences with the President's councilors and talked of using their opportunity to change government and society before the opportunity passed. Some spoke of writing a "conservative ideology." They discussed the realm that underlies politics. Their debates over "ideology" and their futile efforts at self-definition illuminated the contradictions of American culture itself.

The content of those debates is worth reconsidering. If any sophisticated body of rightist American thought is to develop and be shared by a significant number of people (however hard this is to imagine), it will have to resolve the issues that the soi-disant conservative intellectuals discussed in those days.

Europe and Monarchy

My attitude towards American culture has sometimes been considered "anti-American."

America is the creation of European thought and culture. One could have said, prior to the European Union, that there were only Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Poles, and so on, that a European did not exist—at least on the continent of Europe. And that, as a human synthesis, the American was the true European—no matter what his race. It could be said that the intellectual life of Europe died during World War II and was transferred to American universities by the émigré professors. Throughout the world, modernization means westernization, whether by economic colonization or by revolutionary decolonization which means Marxist ideological colonization. And so the entire world is now in some sense "the west" with Europe as its cultural capital. Even if the worst fears of the European "nativist" right are fulfilled and Europe dissolves into "Eurabia," a mythical Europe will still reign in the imagination of Western elites like the Holy Land won and lost in the crusades. No matter what Europe's present or future, America will always be wedded to Europe's past.

I studied British Toryism and the origins of the Whig-Tory divide because of my suspicion that American political culture only embodied one half of a natural whole—the Whig half. Something had been lost in the American Revolution, and it explained the weaknesses in American political understanding. I studied the French Revolution because it was the prototype of modern ideological revolutions. Yet when I read Edmund Burke on the French Revolution, something seemed lacking. Joseph de Maistre supplied that lack. The difference between Burke and Maistre is, in part, the difference between sentiment and belief. This explained what had been lost to British culture since the Reformation. I should have known! In any event, the key to American weaknesses was embedded in European history.

I continued studying Maistre, and my writing on him received more attention than anything else. By the way, because of his unusually cosmopolitan career as a refugee and diplomat in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Maistre may have become the first true European.

I saw nothing inevitable or inherently superior about republican forms of government. I felt disgust at my country's involvement in the disastrous redesigning of Europe after the world wars. I am an ancien régime person. I enjoyed getting to know American anglophile armchair monarchists and speculative monarchists as well as émigré partisans of fallen dynasties. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, an authority and hero to American conservative intellectuals, was of special interest to me for involving himself with the White Russian émigré community and assimilating its spirit even if he was not exactly a Romanov loyalist. Solzhenitsyn was also the living embodiment of Slavophilism, a movement much influenced by Maistre, who made the Russian connection when he was ambassador to St Petersburg and a personal councilor to Tsar Alexander I.

Understanding Russia was one of the troublesome duties of Cold War intellectuals; this duty made Solzhenitsyn a hot topic. Slavophilism, however, still matters as a source of political wisdom to place alongside the reactionary royalism and papalism of the Francophones as one confronts the American Whig centrifuge of conservative factions.

So it all fits together. And I am happy that I came to know some unusual people and I am glad to remember them here.

À la recherche du temps perdu

Some writing in these pages takes the form of memoir.

An independent political mentality (calling it a "philosophy" is a little grand) originates in personal experience: in the awakening of consciousness to wonder, in the observation and analysis of the crisis of one's time, in intuitions of pure being (and not in a Sartrean "moment of lucidity"). This process comes up in Eric Voegelin's theory of consciousness and is integral to his political philosophy. I wrote on its connection with Proust. I was also asked on one occasion to conduct my own anamnesis.

A rightist, anti-modernist, counter-revolutionary political attitude will naturally lead to a kind of cult of the dead. You are grateful to the statesman-writers and gentleman-thinkers of past generations who shed light on the crisis of your time as well as theirs. You want to keep alive their reputations so that they can show other readers the way. You value them as complete personalities, as prophetic witnesses to history, as wise men who transcend their age; and yet they are still of their age and should be appreciated in a cultural whole, studied in historical context, understood as they understood themselves. In some cases they have fallen into oblivion and you stumble on them by chance and then you want to revive their reputation. Thus arise the cultus of Burke and the cultus of Maistre, even the cultus of Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More in the American field. They may not all be of the same rank, but they have their relevance at a given moment.

Perhaps I could write political theory in pure abstract terms, like some German idealist philosopher, without reference to particular men, dynasties, and revolutions. But it would be a big fake. So I happily risk the accusation that I am living in the past with the prophets of the past.

The Summing Up

The highest form of political science is political philosophy, and its goal is to discover the truth about man. On the one hand, a version of this "truth about man" is something you will discover underneath a regime, as its foundation, either as something explicit and intentional, or as something taken for granted in a culture—whether as the premise of a covenant, or as a pseudoscientific theory, or as a kind of mythical hieroglyph which invokes divine blessing. The regime represents what man believes about himself and about his place in the cosmos. On the other hand, the truth about man—as discovered by the philosopher in reflection—becomes the criterion by which to judge a regime, inasmuch as a regime's image of man is deficient or perverted.

Plato, Joseph de Maistre, and Eric Voegelin are among the thinkers who understood this.
[July 2010]