Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin
Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.
We thought to have a lively survey of conservative responses to the Middle East ferment, knowing that some conservatives are opposed to overseas adventures, others are uneasy, while neoconservatives are proponents of forthright interventions, but as time passed and events played themselves out, conservative opinions seemed to coalesce into a general wariness, and the marked attitudes of February lost their singularity by May.
The Weekly Standard was optimistic at first:
An Americanism that looks back to 1776 cannot turn its back on the Egyptian people . . . [they] want to exercise their capacity for self-government. American conservatives, heir to our own bold and far-sighted revolutionaries, should help them.
National Review, as we noted in our last survey, was much more cautious, and the March Commentary had an article on Egypt, detailing our mistaken investment in the Mubarak regime, while John Podhoretz's editorial admits that our options are limited but we can encourage "civil society reforms like ensuring freedom of speech and full political participation of women," an incredibly fatuous statement. So the leading neoconservative magazine is more cautious than The Weekly Standard.
As the weeks passed, The Weekly Standard was all over the lot, with a disquieting piece by Charlotte Allen in the 3/14 issue, "Before the Deluge," about Tunisia and Egypt, which ends: "They were living in their own world, and it is a world that is not necessarily friendly to ours." The May 9 issue has a long dispassionate essay by Reuel Gerecht analyzing the situations in all the Middle Eastern countries. To complete the confusion, Ann Marlowe has an essay, "What I Saw at the Revolution," in the 5/23 issue which ends: "The democracy activists I spoke with were hopeful not just for Libya, but for the whole Arab world." Dr. Bugaighis spoke for many when she said, "Now something has changed for us inside. I don't think there will be any more dictators in the Arab world." In April Commentary printed "Egypt's Islamists: A Cautionary Tale"; the title says it all.
So we may say that, with the intermittent exception of The Weekly Standard, conservatives have settled down to wariness. There is general agreement that we should support the Syrian insurgency, but otherwise conservatives are awaiting events with their fingers crossed. Caroline Glick and Barry Rubin, in Israel News, have been skeptical from the beginning, but of course, they live within range of Arab munitions, which wonderfully concentrates the mind.
The Claremont Review's 10th annual double issue for winter/spring is at hand, presenting us with an editorial, 12 essays, and 22 book reviews in 118 pages, surely a feast. We think eight essays are worth reading, and one by Anthony Codevilla on the Mexican border wars so profoundly illuminating and disturbing as to render obsolete all former discussions of this topic. It alone is worth the price of admission. Of the book reviews, 15 are good and two are outstanding: Steven Hayward's review of Pat Moynihan's Letters and Hillel Fradkin's of two books about Islam. There is some evidence that the editor was desperate for filler, because the last three book reviews - about British pirate radio, Swedish pornography, and Walt Whitman (Jigs Gardner is right that conservatives can't deal with literature) - are worthless, and an essay near the end goes on for four boring pages about Aristotle on friendship.
Charles Kesler clearly states the magazine's purpose in his editorial:
. . . The Claremont Review of Books seeks to reinvigorate the American mind to its first principles . . . to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our public life.
Two essays, one on the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, one on Toqueville's observations of religion and liberty, are clearly congruent with that purpose; for anyone ignorant of these matters, they would be enlightening - but is it likely that a CRB reader would be so ignorant? We do not think so, and we are of the opinion that this is hammering the obvious, trying to compel conviction by repetition. It may also be that this is the sum and substance of the editor's message.
To elucidate the consequences of that possibility we must turn to an essay, "Beyond the Welfare State," by Yuval Levin in the spring issue of National Affairs:
In their struggle with the left these past 60 years, conservatives have too often responded to the social-democratic vision by arguing with it in the abstract. Constitutionalism, natural rights, libertarianism, traditionalism - all offered powerful objections to the welfare state, but few viable alternatives . . . [they have] focused on the size and scope of government, but not on its proper purposes - on yelling stop, but not on where to go instead . . . it insists that our problem is just too much government. But if the Republican Party is to be a truly conservative party, it will need to think its way to an agenda of conservative reform.
That seems to us a just description of the CRB's stance - and of many other conservatives, too: "arguing in the abstract." But we must go ahead, and we think Levin's essay enunciates a vision that can guide us forward, and we recommend it strongly to all conservatives.
National Affairs is a new quarterly - we're looking at issue #7, Spring, 2011 - edited by Yuval Levin, which had trouble finding its way until this issue, which is first-rate. Levin made the mistake of filling the earlier issues with long articles on topical issues, as if these matters had not already been thoroughly discussed in more timely venues, weeklies and monthlies. The magazine was a redundant bore, and we were going to write it off when this issue arrived to change our minds. There are nine essays in 143 pages, and seven are excellent, thorough, concise, and enlightening. "Dodging the Pension Disaster," instead of reiterating the arguments threshed over and over for the last year, analyses in detail the complicated economics behind pension plans, and shows ways of dealing with them. There's a piece on government by waiver by Richard Epstein, one on the "Auto Bailout and the Rule of Law," an essay by Gabriel Schoenfeld on "Legalism in Wartime," and Levin's essay which should have a profound effect on conservative politics in the years ahead. He begins with the assertion that the social-democratic welfare state that has "dominated our political imagination for a century" is dying, and he proceeds to show how that vision has failed, at the same time that he shows how conservatives must respond:
Conservatives should therefore not expect to ever simply win the argument. Our challenge . . . is to dominate the argument - to offer the vision that implicitly sets the tone for our common life. The key . . . is the emergence of a policy-oriented conservatism, one able to make gainful compromises . . . because it knows exactly what it wants - a thriving free society. With a market economy, strong families, a devotion to country, and a commitment to the value of every life - and knows that this . . . can be obtained gradually, by a mix of persuasion and proof. . . . In our politics, battles over ideas are won in practice, not in theory.
We cannot recommend this essay highly enough.
Random Notes: National Review had a wonderful cover of "Bama" as Captain UN on April 18, with good essays by Victor Hanson, John Bolton, and David Pryce-Jones. Bob Long, in the May 2 issue of NR, has an hilarious article on Donald Trump. But the May issue of First Things takes the prize. Of course, it features deadly, long essays on "The Moral Economy of Guilt," and "The Bearable Lightness of Dignity," but it also has a two-page piece by David Hart that is by far the finest (and funniest) piece of criticism of the work of Ayn Rand that we have ever read. *