Serious right-wing books? A challenge to my readers

JMSmith writes

The literature of the American Right often seems to consist of little more than grumpy complaints about liberal degeneracy and bubbling neo-con effusions about the benefits of democracy and free markets. If a lefty intellectual asked you to recommend a serious right-wing book (without a sneer [which is very hard to imagine, I know]), what would you recommend? More to the point, if you were going to give a young American a book by an right-wing American author, and didn’t wish to fill him with despair, or to feed his natural avarice, which book would you choose? If we cannot capture the imaginations of tomorrow’s meritocracy, the game is over. The lessons to learn from the European New Right are these, I think. The American Right needs a literature that describes an attractive future. The attractions of this future must be spiritual as well as material. This literature must be sufficiently theoretical (i.e. hard to understand) that future meritocrats think there is something meritorious in having read and understood it.

I’ve complained about this before myself:  there’s no book (that I’ve found) that perfectly explains and argues the social conservative position.  Every book I would recommend to an open-minded Leftist, I could only recommend with reservations.  I think I would choose Roger Scruton’s “The Meaning of Conservatism” and Eric Voegelin’s “The New Science of Politics“.  These are both very good, but they only give an incomplete picture of conservatism.

Can any of you think of anything better to recommend?

22 Responses

  1. The only modern book I could recommend without reservation would be the Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb.

  2. I’ll second that.

  3. I mentioned a recent book in the previous thread that may be more suitably noticed here. That is Andreas Kinneging, “The Geography of Good and Evil,” (2009). The essays “The Solid Darkness of the Enlightenment” and “Inclined to All Evil” are especially good. Voegelin is, of course, a vast, daunting, but worthwhile corpus, but I’d point a first time reader to Michael Franc, “Eric Voegelin and the Politics of Spiritual Revolt” (1992). Harvey C. Mansfield, “Manliness” (2006) is an excellent tonic for anyone beginning to wilt under the hot breath of feminism. I found Scruton’s “Meaning of Conservatism” tough sledding the first time round, and wish I could have read “Gentle Regrets” or “News from Somewhere” first. For readers who enjoy the feel of social theory, the posthumously published works of Philip Rieff can be rewarding, especially “Charisma.” Personally, I came to understand that I was a conservative when reading Kingsley Amis’s novels. “Girl 20” was the one that did it, although the effect did not recur when I read it a few years ago. I suppose its never the book alone that knocks you up the side of the head, but the right book in the right circumstances.

  4. Why don’t you write such a book, Bonald? (Once you’re tenured, of course).

  5. I also had a hard time at first with the two books I named, but you said that difficulty would be a plus for winning over this crowd, so I counted that in their favor.

  6. I don’t know. Sounds like a lot of work. Are we sure it hasn’t already been written?

  7. My own opinion is that people need to work harder on their Christianity and be less concerned about political programs.

    So, for most people on the Christian Right, the books they should be reading probably ought to be devotional (and scriptures); and the things they ought to be doing is praying more, and attending Church/ mass more.

    That is: Christian first, Right a long way second.

    If or when people can achieve some solidity and good habits in faith, only then are they able to exercise the discernment to know what to do politically in a positive sense.

    (It is relatively easier to know what *not* to do – but I sense that people are seeking a positive program, a philosophy and practical plan).

  8. bgc: I think you are right, both about the priority of Christianity and about the priority of prayer and devotional reading. Being a bookish intellectual myself, I’ve far too often deceived myself into thinking that reading a book about prayer was equivalent to prayer itself. I’m not saying that there is nothing to be learned from spiritual masters about how to pray, only agreeing with you that prayer is primarily a practical activity, not an object of theoretical speculation.

    Much the same can be said about the sort of right-wing politics that interests me. It is anti-utopian, and so hardly amenable to manifestos, programs, and all but the most modest sort of theory.

    The theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote that parents are forever asking him what books their children should read in order to grow into ethical adults. Hauerwas’s answer is that they should not give their children books, but rather make them play baseball. I neither play nor watch baseball, but I do see his point. As you suggest, we may discover for ourselves a great deal of truth simply by engaging in the practices within which those truths are self evident.

  9. I quite agree, all the political programs of my lifetime have added up to nothing against the spirit of the age. My political program now amounts to praying for God to save us, and waiting for Christ on his white horse at the head of his army of judgment (see Revelation 19).

  10. Amen

  11. Robert Nisbet’s “Conservatism: Dream and Reality” would probably be the first book I would recommend to someone interested in conservatism. It is a short book, by a serious writer, that includes a brief history of conservative thought (a condensed version of Russell Kirk you might say), an explanation of basic conservative thought, and directs readers to the best writings in a number of conservative traditions from Europe and the English-speaking world. Nisbet’s emphasis, as in most of his books, is upon community and the intermediate social institutions between the state and the individual. Its drawbacks are far exceeded by its merits.

  12. You’ve got a sidebar full of essays — seems to me like the work’s half done!

  13. This probably applies more to people like me- public-school educated young folk in their early 20s, slowly shedding the gunk of statist liberalism and atheism, entering academia (which is becoming almost indistinguishable from the public school its it commitment to ideologies hostile to Christianity and conservatism)… but I have found Ann Coulter to be a valuable resource.

    Don’t all attack me at once! For most readers of this blog, she’s probably not that useful. But she does a lot to cut through popular liberal misconceptions. She’s been the starting point to me reexamining things like the French Revolution, embryonic stem cells, and the Civil Rights movement.

    It’s kind of like conservatism is a valuable buried artifact, say a vase or a statue or even a fossil (though that might have disparaging connotations.) Coulter is a great shovel to use until you get down to where you need to go, (but use her too much at your own detriment), and begin really digging carefully and in earnest.

    A lot of conservatives hold their positions dogmatically, but don’t know how to defend them, often because liberals are forming the parameters of debate. (Don’t support affirmative action? Racist. Don’t believe in embryonic stem cells? You killed Christopher Reeve.) Coulter does much to shatter these false parameters, so when liberals attack social conservatives with old diatribes that appeal to emotion, conservatives are more ready to get the debate back into reality.

    That’s my amateur recommendation. I’d also say that most of Chesterton’s work is worthwhile, but that is probably amateur, too. Anyway, The Everlasting Man is a great book, but not really what you’re looking for, perhaps, in terms of a complete and holistic tome designed to give our viewpoints.

    But perhaps that is the paradoxical strength of our movement? We must give to young people (like myself, especially when I was a young high-school freshmen 6 years ago; my most blindly liberal and atheist point in most of my life) the advice that the small child gave to St. Augustine; “Take up and read.”

  14. Correct. To paraphrase, it profits a man not to understand the whole world if he understands not the next one.

    For two years in college I enthused about attaining political and historical-philosophical understanding, and took a kind of pride in the insights which compared to liberal orthodoxy are esoteric heresies. But that all looks very transitory and small (both as a purely personal affair and even more so as an academic career) from my current perspective of trying to understand the transcendent and the Christian life. I don’t gloat when I say that; I often wish I could go back to the comfortable sleep of atheism.

  15. Why not abandon the American “right” and just import ideas from Europe, which has a far more impressive intellectual tradition? The only American conservatives that interest me to any extent are Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock, and most of those wouldn’t be conservative by your definition (I just really don’t give a damn about social conservatism).

  16. “This literature must be sufficiently theoretical (i.e. hard to understand) that future meritocrats think there is something meritorious in having read and understood it.”

    I disagree with this. Obscurity for the sake of obscurity seems rather Derridean to me.

    The works of Thomas Paine and J.S.Mill are readily understandable to the intelligent general reader even today, so surely rival right-wing literature ought to be equally accessible?

  17. I’m inclined to distinguish between obscurity and difficulty. What I would call obscurity is writing that deliberately avoids clarity in an effort to make trivial, unoriginal, or nonsensical ideas appear profound. Nonsense on stilts, as they used to say. Derrida is certainly an example. Heidegger, I’m not sure. Difficulty is just that, difficult.

    The difference become clear when either sort of statement is honestly paraphrased in ordinary language. Obscure writing will seem much less interesting in paraphrase, difficult writing, more.

    Certainly we need an equivalent to Thomas Paine. As the interesting comment on Anne Coulter (above) makes clear, she is a good example. We also need equivalents to J.S. Mill. We have it in the sort who write for the New Criterion or First Things, which are equivalent to Westminster Review. But Mill, the WR, NC, and FT are addressed to a middle-brow audience. This is no slur on their intelligence. I think middle-brow literature is generally more intelligent than high-brow literature–but young intellectuals, the opinion makers of tomorrow: they don’t.

    The truth is, young intellectuals are not interested in ideas. They themselves have more ideas than they know what to do with. They are interested in something they don’t have, which is status. This means they are interested in status-affirming books that they can pretend to read in coffee shops. Such books will be boil down to trivial theses, but will be obscure and bear titles like “Castration and the Erasure of Ambiguity.”

    This sort of nonsense doesn’t come naturally to conservatives, or even classical liberals (which I take you to be), but in these decadent days, I think we have to produce some of it. With this difference. In our case the paraphrase will be more impressive than the original.

  18. “They are interested in something they don’t have, which is status. This means they are interested in status-affirming books that they can pretend to read in coffee shops.”

    Aha! That could have been me as a grad student….

    But seriously, I do take the point. Difficulty and obscurity aren’t the same thing, and earnest young men are perhaps easier to draw in if one can flatter their neuroses.

    As for accessible and middle-brow conservative writers, one could do worse in the British context than Peter Hitchens (one of whose books I am currently reading). There’s also Roger Scruton, who I know has written for the New Criterion. I don’t read First Things these days, so I can’t comment on that; the British conservative magazines that I read are Standpoint and the Spectator. I mistrust Ann Coulter because I think she’s a businesswoman whose first loyalty is to her media career.

    Incidentally, I wouldn’t describe myself as a classical liberal, since I have an anti-idealistic Burkean streak (and I don’t care for Paine), but I would probably find it easier to find 5 readable classic liberal works in English to recommend to an intelligent student than 5 classic conservative ones (what would they be? Burke’s “Reflections”, Disraeli’s “Vindication”, Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto, one of Salisbury’s speeches or articles, Churchill’s History”….).

  19. Nisbet’s book was really good until the end when he spoils it by attacking the pro-life movement and the religious right. It ends up reinforcing liberals’ impression that only idiots get bent out of shape over feticide. “Conservatism: Dream and Reality” does have the definite advantage that it draws on a wide variety of conservative thinkers–much wider than Kirk even.

  20. I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve always found Paul Gottfried’s books, particularly “The Strange Death of Marxism,” very helpful and informative. Granted, they don’t give any rigorous philosophical arguments for conservatism, but they do a very good job of explaining how Europe and America ended up in the rut they’re in. They’re also fairly readable and easy to follow despite being works of academic history. I don’t know if they’ll appeal to open-minded leftists, but they might serve as a wake-up call for movement conservatives.

    Also, I agree with Jordan about Ann Coulter. Her books were one of my “gateway drugs” into traditionalism back in my days as mainstream conservative. I remember being particularly struck by her defense of Joe McCarthy. She’s the only Republican pundit I still keep up with, since she’s a joy to read even when you disagree with her.

  21. I also think Coulter is interesting, though I would not describe myself as a fan. Why does she do things like defending McCarthy? One does get the feeling that she is like Pat Buchanan, a real rightist by nature walking the tightrope of neo-con toleration.

  22. I really like Paul Gottfried’s books too, particularly “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt”

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