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Having now read Jonah Goldberg’s latest venture into political philosophy (“Pat Buchanan Meets Al Sharpton” – occasioned by Buchanan’s new book Death of the West), I remain astonished by how little he knows, even by comparison to my upper-level students. What he says about Joseph-Marie le Comte de Maistre is not only silly but is bad enough to make me blush with embarrassment – for Goldberg. Though it may be futile to make this offer, I would gladly send him a list of books by and about Maistre, which might lessen his ignorance about this formidable literary and intellectual figure.
To take one example of Goldberg’s silliness: In commenting on Maistre’s name, he tries to explain: “Don’t let ‘Marie’ fool you; de Maistre was hardcore.” Unfortunately for this failed bon mot, Goldberg is referring to the French translation of “Marius,” often used in French baptismal names, not to the female name “Marie.” It is also incorrect to carry over the particule “de” for translations of a French family name. Thus we should translate into English “de Maistre” as “Maistre.”
Goldberg might have spared himself these childish errors if he had consulted his generous patron Bill Buckley before this premature plunge into European intellectual history.
Nor is it clear that the offensive anthropological axiom he attributes to the Savoyard count, and which is found in the Evening Conversations of Saint-Petersburg, that human beings as we encounter them carry ethnic and historic particularities, is Maistre’s definitive view on the subject. French and English commentators have both raised questions whether the interlocutor who makes this sound point is meant to speak for the author. But since the opinion stated should make sense to anyone but a crazed universalist ideologue, I’ve no objection to thinking that it is Maistre’s carefully considered reflection.
As far as I know, and I doubt that Goldberg knows more about this matter, Maistre never attacked the American republic for proclaiming the Declaration of Independence. Indeed most European conservatives of the early nineteenth century had no interest in either. Nonetheless, the Irish critic of the French Revolution Edmund Burke, and the German conservative theorist and advisor to Prince Metternich Friedrich Gentz, both viewed the American polity as a variation on the English constitution. Neither took any notice of the Declaration.
At a heavily neoconservative academic conference I recently attended, the participants were upset that Hegel viewed the U.S. in the 1820s as a largely unsettled wilderness, a view previously held by – among others – John Locke. Apparently this highly rated thinker had not realized that the newly founded American republic stood for global democracy, as interpreted by neoconservative glossators working on their favo rite passage in the Declaration.
The rest of Goldberg’s attack on Buchanan mixes fiction with copious slander. Do paleos “talk a lot about white America”? Despite my longtime association with this group, most of its self-identified members, including myself, have never focused on racial issues. Pat Buchanan, who is Goldberg’s bête noire, has always included black conservatives at American Cause conferences. His candidate for Vice-President the last time he ran was a black woman. What makes him and, I would suppose, myself racists is our failure – as Sam Francis has noted with regard to the use of this slur – to take politically correct positions on social issues.
Just as an anti-Semite is now someone who does not agree with Goldberg on Middle Eastern politics, so too, under the new order, a racist is anyone who opposes immigration – or who dares to notice that Martin Luther King was not all he is cracked up to be.
Is Goldberg dumb or merely dissembling when he fails to perceive the philosophical differences between Maistre and Cornell West? Though neither accepts his notion of human rights, or his abstract universal concept of man – or personhood – it would be hard to imagine anything else they agreed about.
Moreover, what links Goldberg and his fellow NR-staffers to West is far more significant than what supposedly unites Maistre and the black pseudo-philosopher. Goldberg and West are fervent egalitarians who would begin every conversation about race issues in the US by loudly deploring American racism before the civil rights movement and by decrying immigration reformers as white racists. What these TV personalities would disagree about is whether the present is better than the past, that is, whether white racism is on its way to being solved with the government protections and mixed economy that are now in place, or whether black identity politics are necessary to push us toward the desired egalitarian outcome.
To bring up Maistre – or Buchanan or Francis – to attack black identity politics is thoroughly dishonest and/or abysmally stupid. Goldberg and his now-neoconservative journal are perpetually muddying the waters, by pretending to be upholding authentic conservatism against extremists on both extremes. Goldberg and the G-review provide only tiresome variations on the leftist extreme they outrageously compare to the real Right.
Allow me finally to voice my perplexity about the “universalist standards” that Goldberg claims to find in MLK. Outside of oft-cited platitudes from the “I Have a Dream” speech or the references to natural law in the Birmingham Jail letter, I have trouble locating these standards. They are certainly not in the Playboy interview granted by King and printed in January 1965, which includes an extensive advocacy of both white reparations and affirmative action.
Despite his by now-demanding schedule as a Beltway conservative luminary, Goldberg would do well to take time off to acquire a humanistic education. Such an achievement might improve the quality of his theorizing, even if it required him to put aside his present work as a fantasist.