The Mind of Conservatism – The New York Times


Bacevich has written trenchantly against what he considers this nation’s promiscuous foreign policy interventionism and the unconservative project of “nation building.” But his volume’s concluding section, “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” is strange. It begins with Theodore Roosevelt exhorting the nation to lead a strenuous life abroad. It is a fine specimen of Roosevelt’s exuberant nationalism, which was without a scintilla of conservative skepticism about the ability to project power abroad in order to impose benevolent designs on the recalcitrant realities of different cultures. Bacevich acknowledges the conservative tradition of foreign policy modesty with a 1951 speech by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, and with cautionary passages from Reinhold Niebuhr’s “The Irony of American History.” But including a long sample of the progressive historian Charles Beard’s cranky isolationism from 1939 adds to this section’s incoherence.

The anthologist’s occupational hazard is to be faulted because of some writers included and others excluded, so:

One of Bacevich’s longest selections is from Willmoore Kendall’s turgid semidefense of — a sort of “two cheers for” — McCarthyism. Bacevich makes room for this and for works from Frank Chodorov, John T. Flynn and Murray Rothbard. You ask: Who? Exactly. But Bacevich offers nothing from Calvin Coolidge’s luminous address on the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Or from “The Moral Sense,” by James Q. Wilson, the pre-eminent social scientist of the last half of the previous century. Or from the Nobel laureate George Stigler, whose essay “The Intellectual and the Marketplace” would have leavened Bacevich’s book with something it lacks: wittiness. (“Since intellectuals are not inexpensive, until the rise of the modern enterprise system, no society could afford many intellectuals. … We professors are much more beholden to Henry Ford than to the foundation which bears his name and spreads his assets.”) Or from Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground” and “Coming Apart,” the definitive conservative responses to the Great Society and the family disintegration that followed it. Or from Peter Viereck, Eric Hoffer, George Kennan or Henry Kissinger.

The book’s most disappointing lacuna concerns jurisprudence. For several generations, the most intense, complex and consequential arguments among conservatives have concerned how to construe the Constitution — the various flavors of textualism and originalism — and the role of courts in society. Learned Hand, Alexander Bickel and Robert Bork argued for judicial modesty, meaning deference to majoritarian institutions. Today, however, Randy Barnett, Clark Neily and others defend “judicial engagement” on the premise that America’s primary commitment is to liberty, not majority rule. Yet the only snippet of jurisprudential thinking that Bacevich includes is from Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell v. Hodges (the same-sex-marriage case).

The volume is, however, a nourishing cafeteria of writers, many of them justly forgotten but still interesting because they once were interesting. And Bacevich’s book would be entirely justified by his most inspired selection, Joan Didion’s 1972 stiletto of an essay “The Women’s Movement,” which begins, “To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone ‘oppressed’ to break them.” It continues:

“One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point. The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having. The minorities seemed to promise more, but finally disappointed: It developed that they actually cared about the issues, that they tended to see the integration of the luncheonette and the seat in the front of the bus as real goals, and only rarely as ploys, counters in a larger game. They resisted that essential inductive leap from the immediate reform to the social ideal. … And then, at that exact dispirited moment when there seemed no one at all willing to play the proletariat, along came the women’s movement, and the invention of women as a ‘class.’”

Didion, who long ago contributed to National Review and in 1964 voted for Barry Goldwater, here exemplified an analytical acuity, stylistic verve and unenthralled mentality that conservatism, like other persuasions, rarely attains.



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