An Address by Prof. Paul Gottfried, President of the H.L. Mencken Club, at the Seventh Annual Conference, October 31, 2014
As we begin the seventh annual meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club, it seems appropriate to address certain misconceptions about our organization. I would not be engaging this particular topic were it not for the fact that what has been said about us is both damaging and false. As we all know, the HLMC has been savagely attacked ever since it came into existence, and this assault has come generally from two directions. One direction, and perhaps the more understandable one, is the Cultural Marxist Left, as exemplified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Organizations of this type specialize in bullying and destroying livelihoods and reputations. An expose of the SPLC that I read in Harpers several years ago documents the extent to which this group has reaped political and financial rewards by playing on unfounded fears. Terms like “right wing” and “extremist” are steadily manipulated by our warriors against prejudice. And the terms they hurl against us take on ever more extensive meanings as the custodial state and our cultural elites go after their scattered remaining opposition.
Nor should we underestimate the consequences of being railed against by self-proclaimed “hate-watchers.” No matter how many critical assessments about them are published, leftist anti-hate groups that work at instilling hate remain powerful. They speak for the creators and sustainers of our political culture, that is, for the media, educators, public administrators and now much of the clergy. If they exaggerate or confabulate, they’re doing so, or so I’ve been told, for noble reasons. Sensitizers are protecting us against “prejudice,” “prejudice” being defined as holding and expressing views that are incompatible with what our rulers desire to have us think and say.
Neither the SPLC nor the other pea in the pod, the ADL, is an isolated trouble-maker; both belong to what I call in my book on multiculturalism “the priesthood of the managerial class.” They strengthen power relations; and when they blacken the reputations of those they assail, they are serving the political-cultural status quo. Nor do they worry about opposition from corporate elites. Multinationals, the Chamber of Commerce and American defense industries don’t care about what happens to dissenters on the right. Their interests are found in large, multicultural markets, launching wars to spread American “democratic values,” and/or keeping the flow of cheap labor from Mexico and Central America pouring across our borders.
Not surprisingly, “big business” funders of the GOP don’t rush to our defense. Nothing our leftist inquisitors are doing would affect their profits, and certainly not crusades against “bigotry.” Inasmuch as Goldman Sachs, Coca Cola, Chevron, Chase, Bank of America, Bristol-Myers, McDonalds, etc., are leading the charge for expanded gay rights and amnestying illegals, they are unlikely to sympathize with those in our ranks. And though large corporations are pinched every now and then for infractions against PC, this inconvenience is offset by the advantages of continued cooperation with the Cultural Marxist Left. Globalism, feminism, cheap movable labor and generic human rights ideology all butter the bread of large sectors of the business and finance communities.
A more unexpected direction from whence we’ve been hit is the paleoconservative camp. Now I am aware that many in this room, including my person, have been identified as paleoconservatives, and after years of having tried to qualify my ties to this persuasion, I’ve accepted the label that others have conferred on me. Those who know me will understand what I mean by the term, and those who don’t will probably assume that I’m some kind of anthropologist doing research on primitive life forms or Paleolithic rocks. In any case since I devised the term while thinking of myself, it would be unseemly if I ran away from it entirely.
And if truth be known, I still remain emotionally attached (perhaps I’m too old to change) to something called the Old Right, which is usually equated with “paleoconservative.” To a certain degree, although I couldn’t specify what that degree is, I am comfortable with my old club membership. But the designation has become increasingly vague in proportion to those who’ve appropriated it. At this point, I find the following groups all clutching to the old brand name: traditionalist Catholics, no matter what their other views, Southern conservatives, opponents of liberal internationalist interventionism, no matter how far to the left they may be in other matters, at least some on the sociobiological right, sprinklings of Tea Party Republicans, and proponents of Irving Babbit’s ethical theories as filtered through various contemporary interpreters. Some of these associations are cross-linked, but others are so far removed from each other that one has to wonder whether those who share the same label really have anything in common.
Now I’m not nitpicking. It’s certainly anyone’s right to claim any description for himself or herself, providing there’s no attempt to close off the usage of a label to others who have at least equal and sometimes even better claim to it. This kind of expropriation took place with American conservatism, a movement that was taken over by certain leftists, who fell out with other leftists and who eventually waged war on what had been the traditional right. This act of expropriation has disadvantaged those of us who were purged in this transformational process, and therefore we have every reason to deplore what happened at our expense.
A heated competition for the paleoconservative label, however, has broken out and turned nasty in proportion to how thoroughly the label has depreciated in value. For certainly the old Right has dwindled in influence, as its enemies on the left have made sure that we’re kept out of public view. One could watch Fox-news, if one could stand it, 24/7 without encountering a single paleoconservative commentator or guest, with the single exception of the occasional presence of Pat Buchanan. This exclusion I would assume is deliberate, since I’ve seen lots of political types on Fox, except for those who belong to our side. And the only peripheral exception that may prove the rule, as I just indicated, is Buchanan, whom it is hard to keep off a Republican channel entirely, given his close association with Republican presidents.
Given these problems, one might think that those who belong to a pre-neoconservative American Right would not try to hack each other apart. After all, most paleos of my acquaintance are getting on in years and share with me the same lifeboat, as we try not to be buried beneath our enemies’ destroyer vessels. What possible value can there be for those who are being buffeted about by common adversaries to turn on each other? Unfortunately this has happened, and the Mencken Club is experiencing the consequences. We are being steadily fired on from paleo points of concentration, whether in Potomac, Maryland or Rockford, Illinois. And this unprovoked belligerence has cost us members and brought negative publicity.
These attacks from what considers itself the paleoconservative Right recycle what are noticeably leftwing charges. We are accused of emitting racist pollution and this is a charge that was leveled at me personally, in a recent email note by a Catholic University of America graduate who belongs (or so it would seem from his communication) to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters. I asked this correspondent if he could cite anything I had written that would suggest that I was guilty of inciting racial hate, at which point he changed the subject. It seems his real beef was my interest in German philosophy, which, he told me, caused both World Wars. My scholarship in European intellectual history, which he found reprehensible for not focusing on the evil of German philosophy, supposedly proved that I was guilty of excessive “gene counting” and of other political no-noes that this critic wanted no part of.
My correspondent was also disappointed that we do not frontally address his major concern as a Catholic, which is abortion. I explained that the organization he chose to join, which is our self-designated competitor, does not prioritize any more than we do his particular concern. Why should we be expected to do what his pals have not done? Nor would the evidence suggest that I favor the practice he opposes. Although abortion as a moral-political issue is not something we have paid special attention to at our meetings, this should not be misconstrued as approval. Many members of the HLMC have taken stands against what is misleadingly described as a “women’s health issue.”
In any case those who claim to stand in the paleo camp are now bombarding us with leftist charges. As I recently learned, even knowing people who believe in inherited cognitive differences between individuals and among groups supposedly renders one unworthy of entering the exalted realm of those who address “permanent things.” I’ve no doubt this arcane discussion will go on among the same crowd, even after the ban has been extended to newly declared heretics, and here I’m referring to those who resist the idea of gay marriage. This is the newest non-negotiable demand coming from the Left and the national media. And I wouldn’t question even for a microsecond that those who banish hereditarians, will eventually and in the same cravenly fashion excommunicate other reactionary dissidents.
The conventional Right has its own ways of avoiding divisive issues, a category that would naturally not include presenting Republican talking points. It consists of teaching “values,” which means inculcating non-offensive abstractions that do not blatantly clash with the Left’s social agenda. This preaching takes among other forms talking generally about ethical questions, in a manner that allows the cautious speaker to stay under the radar. It is also possible, without causing scandal, to hold other equally edifying discussions, for example, about the higher and lower wills or about the reading preferences of long dead “cultural conservatives.”
Although such activities are not entirely without merit, one can’t help noticing what they fail to do. The speaker is never provocative, in the sense of challenging the Left’s prohibition against bringing up such verboten subjects as natural human inequalities, traditional sexual roles, or anything else we could only mention at our peril. What Sam Francis called “archaic conservatism” has become even less consequential. Sam’s superfluous persuasion now features self-important groupies who try to sound profound while staying away from edgy subjects about social behavior.
Some self-described paleoconservatives are in fact totally resistant to any evidence of natural human differences or inequalities. They sometimes elevate human equality to a religious dogma, raising it to a belief that no value-bearing person would ever want to doubt. Equality for these doctrinaires does not involve the mere acceptance of the plain fact, that in the present American polity anyone who is allowed to become a citizen (and by now those who are here illegally or those who are placed by their parents on our borders against non-enforced immigration laws) is guaranteed specific legal rights. Conservatism, inc. has turned equality into a religious mystique, one that is integral to an American propositional religion and which mandates a crusade to reconstruct those who defy “our values.”
Although not all members of conservatism, inc. adhere to the proposition that “equality is a conservative value,” there are many with the means to publicize their views who do embrace this belief. These true believers describe themselves as traditionalists but their tradition consists of the worship of equality, which they treat as our highest tradition going back to our founders. Whatever early American elites did or said that contradicts this preferred founding principle contradicts what we should know is right. Like the English philosopher and pamphleteer John Locke, America’s founders affirmed that all human beings possess natural or, as they’re now called, human rights. Good people, we are told by conservatism, inc., should recognize the equal inborn rights of all human beings, that is, affirm those rights that have been mysteriously intermixed with our DNA and the existence of which should take as a given.
These sanctified rights continue to expand as we progress toward ever greater enlightenment. They now include, for example, the liberty that should be bestowed on gays to proselytize for their sexual preferences in Russian schools. Apparently the Russian president is no longer part of the West or acceptable to the American conservative movement, because he denies sufficient scope to gays for their missionary activities. We are also reminded that our entire history as a country has to do with the expansion and export of rights, starting with certain phrases in the Declaration of Independence, early state constitutions selectively read, and the Gettysburg Address. These documents are thought to underscore how deeply dedicated to equal rights our American forefathers were, despite their misfortune of having had to live in a culturally primitive, sexist, ethnocentric world.
Of course there is a difference between our evolving globalist managerial society and the country that early Americans were building more than two hundred years ago. Conservatism or Republicanism, inc. has taken fatal obsessions, which the founders of this country would barely recognize, and projected them back on to an earlier society. Unfortunately there is scant evidence that most educated early Americans embraced the present preoccupation with universal equality, except in a modified form, as occasionally useful rhetoric. And even when universal rights-language found its way into early American documents, not all of our American founders were in agreement with that rhetoric: whence the heated argument at the Continental Congress about the insertion of natural rights phrases into the Declaration.
Because of the manner in which the American government later developed, particularly after the War Between the States and the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, political leaders came to stress the Declaration’s proclamation that „all men are created equal”. But we should not confuse the present hour with the distant past. Locke, the writer whom Jefferson plagiarized, would not likely have been invited on to Fox-news or asked to write for a Rupert Murdoch outlet. In the Constitutions of Carolina, which he penned in 1669, Locke provided for slavery and a slave economy, which he clearly did not believe conflicted with his social contract theory of government. There is also no evidence that Locke thought that a social contract bringing into being a particular society had to be open to all of humanity. Or that even all those residing in a particular civil society should have been eligible for citizenship.
The established Right has taken over a quintessentially leftist fixation and raised it to religious status. It may be simplistic to suggest this has occurred because some organizations fear losing their donors. Although I would never doubt the effect of this factor, more may be at stake here. Equality has become a god term in a post-bourgeois, post-Christian West, and most people have acted predictably by going with the flow. This has been as true for the conservative establishment as it has been for the rest of the political-journalistic class, providing we note one significant difference: Whereas the Left seeks new opportunities to apply equality at home, conservatism, incorporated works toward the universal imposition of its highest value. Any idea that contradicts this project should be stigmatized as un-American, because it stands in opposition to what we supposedly are “as a people.”
Allow me to close these remarks by discussing an exchange that occurred while I was writing an essay for an organization that has since driven me out. An official of this organization asked me to write for its magazine on “what is right and what is left?” and when I submitted a provisional draft, it was obvious I had caused consternation. I stated that the essentialist Right believes in the need for hierarchy and never questions natural human inequalities or the naturalness and social value of gender differences. The person who commissioned this essay was aghast that I could utter such heresies. He responded in an email that I misunderstood the true Right, which does not believe in what I said it did. The Right followed Aristotle in believing that conventional social distinctions, as indicated in the first book of the Politics, are often unjust and in need of social reform.
When I read this, I knew where this fellow was coming from. In the Politics Aristotle criticized conventional slavery because this arrangement, as it operated, did not always correspond to natural human differences. Aristotle also imagined situations in which slaves) could be inherently more intelligent than their masters. But there is nothing that would lead me to believe that Aristotle did not accept the institution of slavery, or that he doubted that non-Greeks were naturally incapable of ruling themselves. I could have cited, but didn’t for fear of sounding pedantic, Politics, Book Three, section 1275, in which Aristotle dwells on the naturally slavish character of non-Greeks and on their unsuitability for any government other than despotism. Aristotle composed an entire tract Peri Epigamia, which was intended for his student Alexander the Great in which warned against the physically and morally debilitating effects of intermarriage between Greeks and Persians. Note that in defining a polis at the beginning of Politics, Book Three, Aristotle teaches that political rule (arxe politike), which is self-rule by citizens, “is a form of governance in which one governs those who are similar in kind and free.” It would not be an overreach to translate the key phrase, ton homoion genei, as those who are of the same race or ethnicity. In Book Five, we are warned that high among the causes of stasis, political revolution in a polis, is the admission of settlers (epioikoi) who are not of the same race (homophulon). Clearly Aristotle would not be voting with our “sensitive” GOP Senators to amnesty Central American illegals.
On the gender question, pace my critic, whose excuse may be that he studied too long with a Straussian at Harvard, it appears that Aristotle held conventional views about gender relations. In Politics, 1254 b, 14 and 15, (and here I refer to the Greek text which I quoted for my paleoconservative critic), Aristotle tells us that “the male stands in relation to the female (in reasoning about human affairs) as the better relates to the worse (to de kreitton, to de xeiron), and just as the ruler (of the household or state) should stand in relation to those he commands. To the Straussian objection that this last line, together with Aristotle’s observation that women are faulty at reasoning (ateles logou), refers to older Greek men marrying flighty adolescent women, I responded by stating that I could only buy this startling assertion if my critic showed me the proof in Aristotle’s text. Needless to say, he couldn’t, but his bizarre interpretation does survive in journals of the Straussian persuasion, together with the attribution of gender egalitarianism to an ancient Greek thinker who is no longer around to defend himself.
I then informed my critic that I was not advocating for the historic right. I was simply explaining what it was. The person who commissioned the essay did not have to relish the ideas in question in order to approve of my characterization. Indeed I too might have expressed at least some reservations about the historic right if it were a serious force in our society, which it most definitely is not. What I was doing in my project was describing a particular position, not endorsing the opportunistically embraced programs that have become part of the current conservative package. I would not misrepresent my subject in order to accommodate a “conservative activist,” and particularly not one who misleadingly called himself a “paleoconservative.” At the time of this exchange, my correspondent’s organization had still not consigned me to outer darkness. When they took that fateful step last summer, I was irritated but not at all surprised.