Monday, January 31, 2011

Conservatism and Nostalgia

Reviewing a collection of Irving Kristol's essays, Paul Berman points out that his "conservatism" often boils down to a nostalgia for the America of his youth:
In his picture of American life, the virtues of long ago invariably seem more virtuous than the virtues of the present, and even the vices of the past turn out to be roguishly preferable to vices of more recent times.

America as a whole used to be more public spirited. In New York City, “street crime was practically unheard of.” Religious sermons used to be more challenging; trade unions less selfish; schools, untroubled. “In general, the political handling of controversial religious and moral issues in the United States prior to World War II was a triumph of reasoned experience over abstract dogmatism” — a sentence from an essay provocatively called “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (whose stupidity consists, it would seem, of failing to agree with Kristol that life in America was better back in the days when anti-Semitism was still an acceptable ­prejudice).

On the side of vice, Las Vegas used to be more attractively seedy than it later became. And the arts have steadily declined, morally speaking, ever since the 19th century. (The superiority of T. S. Eliot’s later poetry to his earlier poetry appears to be an anomaly.) “The feminization of social policy” has undermined the previously superior, “masculine” welfare state. The decline of Greek and Latin instruction seems to him catastrophic: “Future historians may yet decide that one of the crucial events of our century, perhaps decisive for its cultural and political destiny, was the gradual dissolution and abandonment of the study of the classics as the core of the school curriculum.”

The passion that he brought to these arguments seems to have left him, at times, a little unhinged, such that, like a desperate man fending off a mob, he ends up hurling everything in sight at the hated liberals. In an essay called, slightly paranoically, “ ‘Human Rights’: The Hidden Agenda,” from 1986-87, he presents the human rights movement as a cryptofriend of Communism, dedicated to weakening America — from which you would never guess that, in 1989, the human rights movement’s closest allies in Eastern Europe would end up leading the pro-­American revolutions that overthrew Communism. Still another essay deplores “the secular, social democratic” notion of the welfare state in the 20th century, which, upon being put into effect, strikes him as potentially “the saddest of political tragedies in our tragic century” — though he adds, by way of nuance (as if troubled by the absurdity of what he had just written), “not the bloodiest, of course, but merely the saddest.”

Of course, when Kristol actually lived in pre-World War II America he thought capitalism had failed and the social order was on the verge of collapse, and he longed for a Troskyite revolution. Which makes me wonder what I will forget that I once knew. I suppose one benefit of having grown up in the 70s is that I am unlikely ever to become nostalgic for the days of Watergate, disco, stagflation, and oil embargoes.

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