Although I generally agree with the Latin adage “de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est,” sometimes the death of someone leads one to reflect on the gushing eulogies that are showered on the deceased. The recent premature passing at the age of sixty-five of Peter Lawler, a professor of political studies at Berry College in Georgia and the Editor of Modern Age, is a case in point. Although from all accounts a decent person and a genuine devotee of Southern literature, Lawler provided, perhaps unwittingly, the textbook case of how a “conservative” academic can keep his professional standing without becoming, to use John Derbyshire’s phrase, the new “Emmanuel Goldstein” in our emerging 1984 society.
Lawler’s passing set off an explosion of praise in the authorized “conservative” press. National Review devoted a glowing eulogy to Lawler [Peter Lawler, RIP, by Peter Spiliakos May 23, 2017] The Federalist and Weekly Standard spoke about him even more extravagantly. [In Fond Memory Of Peter Augustine Lawler Upon His Sudden Death, By Yuval Levin, Federalist, May 24, 2017] And there were many others.
From these eulogies, it is possible to infer that Lawler was a faithful Catholic, but one with a sense of humor; he was also a devotee of Leo Strauss (on whom I’ve written an unmentionable book) and was on exceedingly friendly terms with Strauss’s disciples. Above all, he was a “thoughtful” conservative, who was polite about Bernie Sanders, described the notorious John (“Civil Rights icon”)Lewis, as heroic, and was offended by the bullying behavior of Donald Trump. [Lewis Baits and Trumps Trump, by Peter Augustine Lawler, NRO, January 17, 2017]
On the few times I met Lawler, it seemed that he was a low-key kind of person, who liked to talk in a non-threatening way about “values.” Both of us wrote at one time for ISI’s Modern Age, and I noticed that Lawler’s views, unlike mine, were safely conventional. It’s not that Lawler ever landed up in a really cushy job at a distinguished university. But he remained in good standing with Conservatism, Inc. by not taking on what the late Sam Francis once called in conversation with me “the hard issues.”
Let me explain what these hard issues are by providing illustrations of the opposite, starting with those positions taken by “cultural conservatives” that couldn’t hurt their careers because most Leftists don’t give a damn about them. Favoring the wider use of the Latin Mass, proposing more concentration in public education on classical languages, deploring the lack of “values” in the contemporary West, and mixing in the phrase “permanent things” during cocktail conversation all exemplify “soft” stands. These are the stands taken by intellectuals who are trying to navigate through life without Tsuris (go look it up).
Although one can certainly take some of these positions out of genuine conviction, they also provide an easy way out for someone who wants to be known as a genteel “conservative” but who doesn’t want to catch flak as a journalist or academic.
In the political sphere, one can easily recognize the advocates of soft positions, because they abound in Republican think-tanks and throughout Establishment Conservative journalism. They lament the racism of Democrats who refuse to pay for the charter schools attended by blacks (although for some reason blacks don’t seem to mind this outrage and vote overwhelmingly for the “racists” who won’t pay for their charter schools.) Then there’s the one-note “moderate feminists” whom I see on Fox News warning women who wish to be liberated not to vote for the Dems. The Republicans, we are told by these blond-haired adolescent deep thinkers, will do more for “moderate feminists.”
Another soft or safe position for “conservatives” to embrace: supporting the right of the Israeli government to build settlements on the West Bank until this area is made to look like a replica of Long Island. Indeed, being for the right of any Israeli Right to do anything it wants will not likely hurt any budding “conservative” career. Nor will denouncing Islamicist oppression, directed against women, gays, Jews and (oh yes!) Christians.
Another soft position mentioned by John Derbyshire: inviting Leftist professors on to “conservative” talk shows and weeping with them about how badly their more demonstratively Leftist colleagues have been treating them lately.