As someone who in a few months will be approaching his sixtieth birthday and has written entire volumes on conservative movements, I find it amusing to be described in a note sent by National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg to one of my friends, who shall remain nameless, as a "paleoconservative nativist."
Save for the application of that unexplained epithet, I have apparently forfeited my identity on Goldberg's Right—or on that of his well-heeled New York employers. One suspects that "nativist" as used by Goldberg signifies not being socially acceptable. This has resulted from not moving in lockstep with a "conservative movement" that continues to march leftward. The general historical reasons this movement pants after the Left should not be a mystery. My recently finished book on the ideology of the managerial state (forthcoming, from Univetsity of Missouri Press) should help explain, among other misfortunes, why Goldberg and his companions are mistaken for "conservatives."
However, some unfriendly albeit unrepresentative email correspondents urge me to chill and to appreciate the journalistic talent Goldberg is bestowing on "our cause."
So it seems necessary to explain my humorless message.
Whatever Goldberg and National Review presently stand for is not conservative, except by accident. Both represent a variation of the dominant political ideology, featuring "women's rights," efforts to export "American democracy;" and the overcoming of the legacy of prejudice associated with the Christian West. NR no longer resists "women's rights," Third World immigration and its cultural consequences or key aspects of the civil rights movement, including the worship of Martin Luther King. It opposes to extreme multiculturalism only its own, more modulated formulations. The family resemblance between these forms is rather obvious. Indicating this left-leaning orientation is the NR editors' ecstatic acceptance of loads of what I take to be liberal contributors, like Jacob Weisberg and Tamar Jacoby, together with the steady culling from the rank of NR contributors of anyone who might be taken for a paleo.
By now, paleos only enter the discussion of Establishment conservatives as illustrations of the unacceptable Right, which they designate by the catch-all slur "nativist." Having been a victim as well as observer of this shuffle (NR declined to review my last book After Liberalism on the grounds that I was "contentious"), it is clear to me that a certain price is paid by a once-dissenting Right that truckles to the other side. In time it loses the sense of what it used to be and becomes a mere imitation of the rest of the chattering class. Only by preserving its connection to its original heterodoxy can it avoid this process of assimilation.
The Establishment Right has not only refused to practice resistance but may have forgotten, or is trying to forget, what it once believed. By the time this movement entered the life of Jonah Goldberg, its pristine positions and those who held them had lost media respectability. And Establishment conservatives contributed to this result by dutifully following liberal ostracisms and taboos. There is in fact no more political resemblance between Goldberg, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Tamar Jacoby, on the one side, and, on the other, Robert Taft or Frank Meyer than one would expect to find between Sidney Hook and Joseph de Maistre.
Of course, my "academic discourses" (as one critic called them) will not by themselves turn the current situation around. Those who are disfiguring the Right receive too many monetary and social benefits to abandon their work. But it may help a younger generation to point out misrepresentations when they take place.
Thirty years ago I was more or less a mainstream American conservative. Today Goldberg and his patrons are as foreign to me as I am to them. What is shocking as I see some conservatives of my generation flaunting NR and kindred reading matter is that they disregard the glaring disparity between what conservatives and classical liberals used to be and their present reincarnations. They persist in believing that "our conservative movement" has been the same over the decades, except for the happy fact that it is now getting bigger. They talk about Fox News as one would about a divine oracle but become irritated when one observes that Fox commentators are invariably left-liberals or neocons. One hardly sees on Fox News anyone positioned to the right of Morton Kondracke and Bill Kristol; conversely, droves of leftist guests are the preferred debating partners of our bogus conservatives. Such ritualized debates serve to exclude from public discussions many positions that were until recently characteristically conservative.
No longer do we see an open discussion of such questions, except on VDARE and other resisting websites. The "conservative movement," together with other largely indistinguishable political fixtures based in New York and D.C., has judged genuine conservative issues to be inappropriate themes. Although I won't complain if a minority of email respondents prefers Goldberg's prose to my "academic discourses," I do gag when conservatives over fifty, who should know better, confuse Goldberg and his bosses for honest-to-goodness "conservatives."
As they say in New York, "Gimme me a break!"
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism and Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory.
July 10, 2001