(Long post coming up; get comfy.)
No, not William F. Buckley. Jeffrey Hart is one of the old school National Reivew types, an English professor at Dartmouth, and no fan of the president or the neocons (whom he refers to as “Neo-Trotskyites”). I gather he’s not too tight with the current NR crowd. The New Criterion’s James Panero interviewed him for Dartmouth’s Alumni Magazine, and posted the whole thing at his blog. It’s thinky, which I like, though you might want to wade into it about a third of the way in and miss the tennis metaphor being set up.
Let me comment on three things from the interview. First, here is Prof. Hart’s definition of a “social conservative”, and just a taste of his imprecations against evangelical Christianity (which are his stock in trade), emphasis mine:
“Like the Whig gentry who were the Founders, I loathe populism,” Hart explains. “Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity. Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative. My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar’s on the rocks, or both.”
So the alternative he gives to evangelical fervor is…bloodless Ivy League snobbery? Contrast Bill Buckley, who also went to an OK school and probably shops at J. Press, once said that he’d “rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the 2000 members of the faculty of Harvard University.” Even, one presumes, if they drink Miller Lite.
Oh, Hart’s got a semantic point: what are usually called “social issues” are really moral issues, and Hart wants to abandon the field where progressives and radicals fight tirelessly to “perfect” our morality and change it into something new and unrecognizable. Come on, fellows, this fight just isn’t cricket, so let’s go play tennis and drink instead.
Second: Defending Hart is Joseph Rago of the Wall Street Journal. You remember Joe, don’t you?:
“Bush has been fortunate in his enemies,” notes Joe Rago ’05, a former editor of The Dartmouth Review and now a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. “That’s not the case with Jeff Hart. His critique of the Bush administration, whether one agrees with it or not, is probably the most rigorous, utterly principled, and intellectually stimulating ever set down.”
Possibly it is one of the better critiques of the Bush administration, but that’s a pretty low bar, since most of them are of the CHIMPLER McCHENEYBURTON RAPED MY MOTHER AT WOUNDED KNEE variety. I’m sure there are decent criticisms to be written about the Bush administration, but ones that conclude, as Hart’s does, that Bush is the worst in American history don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
Finally, Hart wants to write another book called “How the Conservatives Committed Suicide by Forgetting Burke and Backing Bush.” He’s big on Edmund Burke, as he explains in a letter to Panero:
I would insist that the definition of “conservative” has been clear since Burke evolved it (if I’m still permitted to use that verb) in his Reflections (1790) and his Thoughts on French Affairs (1791). In the first, Burke was struggling against “ideology,” as we would say, or as he called it “metaphysical politics” or “abstract dogma.” That is, thought disconnected from actuality, and destructive of social institutions, which he saw as the habits of society. In the second appraisal (1791), Burke recognized that, quite apart from the philosophes’ abstract ideas, the Revolution had been inevitable. …
I would call Burke an analytical realist, despite a few operatic passages such as the one on Marie Antoinette (his friend Philip Francis warned him against those.)
Edmund Burke devoted seven years of his life to the prosecution of Warren Hastings, a corrupt colonial administrator. Ultimately he failed to convict Hastings, but Burke drew attention to the failings of colonial government and brought about reform–because it was the right thing to do. This was the work of an idealist, in the best sense of the word, and a romantic–the sort of guy who writes a book called the Sublime and the Beautiful–not of an “analytical realist”.
But as for Burke’s realism, Hart needs to reconsider the Letters on a Regicide Peace–available for your perusal here.
We are in a war of a peculiar nature. It is not with an ordinary community, which is hostile or friendly as passion or as interest may veer about; not with a State which makes war through wantonness, and abandons it through lassitude. We are at war with a system, which, by it’s essence, is inimical to all other Governments, and which makes peace or war, as peace and war may best contribute to their subversion. It is with an armed doctrine that we are at war. It has, by it’s essence, a faction of opinion, and of interest, and of enthusiasm, in every country. To us it is a Colossus which bestrides our channel. It has one foot on a foreign shore, the other upon the British soil. Thus advantaged, if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail. Nothing can so compleatly ruin any of the old Governments, ours in particular, as the acknowledgment, directly or by implication, of any kind of superiority in this new power. This acknowledgment we make, if in a bad or doubtful situation of our affairs, we solicit peace; or if we yield to the modes of new humiliation, in which alone she is content to give us an hearing. By that means the terms cannot be of our choosing; no, not in any part.
That is realism; and not the “realism” of James Baker and the Iraq Study Group. Iran is a regicide nation that overthrew and tried to murder its Shah, and the mullahs are motivated (as were the French in Burke’s time) by an armed doctrine of revolution. They may not be negotiated with–and no superiority in this new power may be acknowledged.
To the extent that Bush understands this and remains resolved to ignore the ISG’s suicidal plan, he is being a true Burkean conservative. Not that Prof. Hart would acknowledge that.
National Review had a way of steering conservatism through the shoals; they tacked away from Ayn Rand and from the anti-semitic tendencies of Joseph Sobran as well. While Prof. Hart helped found a great institution, I think history will show Hart’s withdrawal was another blessing.