Reading a statement issued last week by the Simon Wiesenthal Center deploring the release from an Austrian prison after 13 months of solitary confinement of septuagenarian historian David Irving, I was reminded of the disintegration of intellectual freedom in today’s Western world. (Mind you this is not a defense of his opinions about the killing of European Jewry, but about his right to express them without being imprisoned.) One would have to scour the back issues of the newspaper in which I read the disapproving statement, the neoconservative New York Post, to find even an isolated dissenting column about the jailing of Irving. Note that this British historian was imprisoned in Austria for a presumed act of Holocaust denial that he had committed in England, many years before he had crossed the border into Austria to attend a scholarly conference. At the very time that Irving was condemned for slighting Hitler’s crimes, people who deny openly and even proudly the numerous mass murders of Stalin and Mao had been elevated to seats of power in “European democracies.”
Former French Socialist premiere Lionel Jospin responded in anger to deputies in the French national assembly (November 17, 1997) who had dared to compare Stalin’s crimes to those of the “fascists.” According to Jospin, his opponents were slighting “the heroic struggle against fascism,” in which European Communists gloriously participated, by circulating details about a few, entirely forgettable Communist miscarriages of justice. The French and German Greens have also made a fuss about the notice paid to Communist murder because it “diverts attention” from the crimes of Auschwitz; the latter have been repeatedly proclaimed as the foundation of Germany’s present efforts to achieve true “democracy.”
There was a time when most American intellectuals seemed agreed on the need for open debate about political and philosophical questions. Now I know that libertarian contemporaries of mine, such as Ralph Raico and Bob Higgs, would insist that the resounding endorsements of freedom from groups like the ACLU, whose views about property have often paralleled those of the American Communist Party, are never to be trusted. Those who assail private property and consider income as belonging to the administrative state, it might be contended, are not serious about intellectual freedoms, e.g., about the right to make politically incorrect statements in universities and in the workplace without having the government, or ambulance chasers enjoying government support, come after you. Although I’ll concede this point, I still feel nostalgia for some earlier era, e.g., the hated McCarthy period, when people were still allowed to engage in honest debate about subjects that, according to George Will, “we have now agreed to keep closed.” The students in my Western Civilization class have observed that nothing could have possibly been more oppressive than living under “McCarthy’s rule.” (That the junior senator from Wisconsin had “ruled” the country is something that I have learned only recently.) Nonetheless, my students were appalled by the idea (one that the unionized public educators who had taught them in high school did not accept) that “insensitive’ people should be allowed “to say what they want.” Apparently state administrators are supposed to judge who is “insensitive” and silence them, perhaps by sending them to be jailed in “democratic” Europe.
All of this has been by way of noting how the postwar conservative movement has gone from bad to worse as an advocate of freedom. In the fifties and sixties, when I was still young and naïve, I thrilled to the intricately wrought arguments against civil liberty-fixations which came from Willmoore Kendall, William F. Buckley, and other members of the National Review-circle and which were directed against the alleged gravediggers of the Western world: This of course referred to the Commies and their slimy friends. At some primal level I still agree with those arguments, and I still believe in the reality of the social and civilizational identity to which these postwar authors appealed. They were also correct when they tried to call public attention to a vast network of Communist subversion.
But their invectives against making a fetish out of freedom were imprudent, coming as they did in a society that was marked by ever-greater state control. The truth about postwar America were to be found in Albert Jay Nock and Robert Nisbet, who understood the evils of the democratic welfare state, more fully than in National Review. The Old Right had a much keener sense than did postwar conservatives of whither we were going, particularly as federal control over everything began to explode in the 1960s. But the indiscretion of the Right became a thousand times worse, once the Straussians got into the act and began to yammer about “democratic virtue.” From then on, as I argue in a book now in press, ready-made values were there to decorate whatever agenda the Straussians and their neoconservative look-alikes decided to pursue. Zionism, Martin Luther Kingism, and Neo-Wilsonianism were all thought to express the “democratic virtue” and “values” that the masters of the new conservatism favored. And they took special pains to make sure that the benefactors of their largess celebrated the same virtues and values as they did and the policies that flow therefrom.
What has predictably accompanied such trends has been more thought control on the establishment right, and it has taken ludicrous forms, e.g., when two years ago neoconservative-controlled journalists were trying to locate for themselves the obligatory party-line. At that point it was not clear whether those on top would allow these journalists to go on speaking about “neoconservatives” or whether it was necessary to denounce those who persisted in using that term as “anti-Semitic.” The party-line that emerged, as Lew Rockwell patiently explained to me, is that one may speak about “neoconservatives” but only if one intends to extol them. Any less complimentary reference to them would elicit the charge of being “anti-Semitic.” It is therefore a no-brainer that when the question arises of what is to be done to scholars who deny the Holocaust, the answer must be, “Throw them into jail.” Anything else would infringe on “values” and “virtues,” which is what the “conservative movement” claims to be defending. It is also what distinguishes that movement from the Old Right, which focused on such apparently trivial concerns as the dangerous reach of public administration and keeping the war against prejudice from infecting academic discourse.