As Paul Gottfried explains in “Revisions and Dissents,” the real division between right and left cuts not between finance capitalists and welfare statists, but “between those who wish to preserve inherited communities and their sources of authority and those who wish to ‘reform’ or abolish these arrangements.”
Complaints about Donald Trump’s “divisiveness” strike Paul Gottfried as disingenuous, and it is easy to see why. After all, Mr. Trump may have exploited the deep divisions which run through America and the West, but he has hardly created them. Rather, his movement has given a voice, however blunt and inarticulate, to people who have long been marginalized by the liberal order. As Mr. Gottfried explains, the real division between right and left cuts not between finance capitalists and welfare statists, but “between those who wish to preserve inherited communities and their sources of authority and those who wish to ‘reform’ or abolish these arrangements.” For some time now those of us who oppose globalism as a matter of principle have been effectively muzzled out of sight in the attic, but if Mr. Gottfried’s essay “Explaining Trump” is any indication, the days of cozy establishmentarian consensus are over. Whatever the Trump Administration does or does not achieve, Mr. Trump has been the catalyst for a West-wide “populist insurgency,” a revolt pitting defenders of “historical community and/or organic national ties against the advocates of globalization, fluid human identities, and human rights rhetoric.”
Just to be clear, Mr. Gottfried is about as far from being trapped in the present as a writer can be, so his attention is not confined to current events. The clear, unifying theme of Revisions and Dissents is one which touches upon present and past alike: With the weight of a largely unquestioned political orthodoxy behind them, mainstream commentators have for the past several decades gotten away with serving up dubious platitudes as absolute truths, and such commentators have succeeded insofar as they address a public that has had most of its historical consciousness effaced by pop culture and leftist propaganda. Even if the reader disagrees with this charge, he is likely to find Mr. Gottfried’s work enormously educative, much as a university course in political theory might have been back in the days when universities did their jobs. Whether probing the origins of the Franco-Prussian War, delving into the meaning of the word bourgeois, or considering the multifaceted career of Benjamin Disraeli, Mr. Gottfried brings to life key events, concepts, and figures of our civilization.
Students of conservatism may find especially compelling Mr. Gottfried’s examination of the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet. While giving credit to Russell Kirk for being the driving personality behind modern conservatism, Mr. Gottfried contends that Nisbet’s thought touches territory left unexplored by Kirk. Whereas Kirk “is addressing specifically those in an Anglo-American society who have an interest similar to his own in English letters produced during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Nisbet was receptive to a diverse range of writers hailing from continental Europe, like the Catholic Romantic Friedrich Schlegel, the Catholic counter-revolutionary Louis de Bonald, and the left-leaning social analyst Emile Durkeim. That Kirk should take such pains to make his (mostly American) readers acquainted with their own Anglo-American political and literary traditions is of course not only understandable, but proper. At the same time, Mr. Gottfried’s point in “Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist” is a critical one, for a great many American conservatives today clearly do need to be reminded that the Western culture we invoke extends some distance eastward of the English Channel.
Having highlighted the importance of continental thought, in “Reexamining the Conservative Legacy,” Mr. Gottfried goes on to set the record straight about the godfather of Anglo-American conservatism, Edmund Burke. According to Mr. Gottfried, an appropriation of Burke’s thought by “moderate” conservatives goes hand in hand with the fact that American politics has for some time had no genuine right wing, no principled resistance to the ongoing egalitarian transformation of society. Indeed, if we had only the remarks of those who might be identified as “New York Times ‘Burkeans’” to rely upon, one would think that the traditional Right’s only real objection to the Left lies in the fact that leftists try to effect the aforementioned transformation too hurriedly. Yet in sharp contrast to establishmentarians like David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, earnest disciples of Burke most emphatically do not advocate slow-and-steady surrender to the Left on social questions. From a Burkean perspective, it is not just the aggressive, reckless manner whereby egalitarianism is now promoted which is imprudent; egalitarian ideology is in itself imprudent, which is to say that it is opposed to reality.
Somewhat caustically, Mr. Gottfried wonders whether Burke would
in observing our society have penned these lines: “Our political system is placed in just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world and with a mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts?” I won’t add to this rhetorical question by asking how Burke would have responded to whether same-sex marriage should be advanced by the courts or through state legislatures. Neither our continuing struggles for equal rights nor a state dedicated to removing social and legal distinctions between genders could conceivably have entered Burke’s mind when he denounced the far more modest democratic changes introduced by the French Revolution.
In other words, when compared to National Review contributors like Jillian Kay Melchior, who would justify a renewed Cold War with a nuclear-armed Russia by appealing to the cause of transgenderism, Burke’s Jacobin nemeses look refreshingly lucid. As for Burke himself, by the standards of 21st-century America he would not resemble a “moderate” Republican at all, but rather a right-wing “extremist.” Then again, so too would Nisbet, and Kirk, and just about every other interesting thinker in human history.
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