One of the highlights of the Claremont Institute’s Salvatori award dinner honoring Mark Helprin in New York this past Monday night was Charles Kesler’s celebration of the tenth anniversary of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here). Professor Kesler is the founding editor of the CRB in its current incarnation and took the podium to mark the occasion following Mark Helprin’s brilliant speech.
Adding to the festivity of the occasion was the presence in the audience of Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of The Death of Conservatism. Professor Kesler’s speech all by itself demonstrated that Tanenhaus’s report of conservatism’s death was greatly exaggerated. In Professor Kesler’s speech the dead man was walking. You might even say the dead man was walking with a swagger.
In the audience with Tanenhaus were such conservative luminaries as Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, Richard Brookhiser, James Taranto, Daniel Henninger, and many others in addition to Helprin. Their viability also belied Tanenhaus’s book.
I wanted to share Professor Kesler’s witty and inspirational remarks with Power Line readers, and Professor Kesler has kindly granted us permission to do so. Here they are:
I am proud to be here tonight in your distinguished company to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Claremont Review of Books. Here in New York you have two well-known book reviews, one liberal, one very liberal — the New York Times Book Review, and the New York Review of Books, respectively — each modestly named after your city.
Ours is immodestly named after Claremont, a small star in a galaxy far, far away called California. California is in many ways different from the rest of America. In our state, Barack Obama is popular, Jerry Brown is governor (for life, apparently), and Nancy Pelosi was reelected with 80 percent of the vote in her district. As a political dominatrix she is without parallel — and her clients and colleagues apparently crave even more whippings.
In San Francisco, the city council voted last week to forbid McDonald’s from putting toys in its Happy Meal boxes: they took the Happy out of our Happy Meals. Across the state Proposition 19, which sought to legalize marijuana, was handily defeated, but still got more votes than either Meg Whitman or Carly Fiorina. New York doesn’t threaten to go up in smoke as California does, but our two states are basket cases of government excess. They both stand, as an old friend of mine said last night, on the verge of a fiscal death spiral. So from one set of insolvents to another, greetings!
Compared to the Claremont Review, each of New York’s book reviews, like liberalism itself, is a Goliath. Despite his size and the shiny helmet, coat of mail, and greaves of brass upon his legs, Goliath had a vulnerable spot, which David exploited. He smote the Philistine in the forehead. The biblical account even adds the Tarantinoesque detail that the stone “sunk into” his forehead, and “Goliath fell upon his face to the earth.”
When we at the CRB take up our little sling, we too aim our stones at liberalism’s head — its most vulnerable point. The intellectual weakness stems not from any shortage of liberal books, journalists, professors, actors, and artists, for there is of course a surfeit, with plenty of tinsel and brass to go round. Since its inception a hundred years ago, modern American liberalism has never lacked books. Two generations ago, men as cultivated as Louis Hartz and Lionel Trilling took it for granted that conservatism in America was either liberalism in disguise or a European affectation, at once aristocratic and ridiculous.
Over here, conservatism was supposed to be inarticulate — “bookless,” John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked acidulously — because it had nothing to say either about, or to, America. With his usual acuity, Galbraith’s pronouncement came in the midst of the century’s greatest outpouring of conservative books — by such different thinkers and stylists as Milton Friedman, Leo Strauss, Whittaker Chambers, and Bill Buckley, whose absence tonight I particularly lament. Nor has the flow of important books and essays stopped since, though the apparently unending series of right-wing populist blockbusters has tended to distract authors and readers alike.
So who’s bookless now? Five years ago the publisher of the New Republic, no less, confessed, “It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire?…There’s no one, really.”
Perhaps Marty Peretz missed Barack Obama’s autobiography, which inspired a lot of readers, once he became a presidential candidate, that is. In truth, it wasn’t the book but Obama in the flesh that caused such devotees as Chris Matthews to go all tingly. In any event, the underlying problem is worse that Peretz realizes.
As an intellectual movement, liberalism peaked approximately a hundred years ago. Paul Krugman is recycling Galbraith who was recycling his teacher Simon Patten who was recycling his teacher Richard Ely who was recycling his graduate school teachers in Germany.
Backhandedly, liberals have come around to admitting at once their intellectual ancestry and their intellectual impotence; from Hillary Clinton to Obama, leading liberals now prefer to be called progressives, hoping that everything old really is new again. Unoriginality is, however, the least of their problems. The only thing worse than an old bad idea is a new bad idea, and they have had a few of those, too.
But if conservatism is no longer bookless, it was book review-less until a decade ago. In that first CRB, in fall 2000, I explained our reasons for publishing such a journal. The book review is a format “that conservatives have not exploited and …that conservatives need…to wage the battle of ideas at the level of ideas rather than merely at the level of particular policies…. The galaxy of conservative journals and think tanks will continue to shine brightly, illuminating ideas as well as issues. But every month important conservative books and arguments languish, liberal [and conservative] tomes escape censure, and intelligent works of biography, history, politics, and literature remain unexamined.”
That galaxy is well represented tonight, with friends here from National Review, Commentary, and other journals I’ve long admired. What the Claremont Review attempts, however, is something rather different from any other conservative journal — something in addition to publishing long-form book reviews.
Some conservatives start, as it were, from Edmund Burke; others from Friedrich Hayek. We respect both thinkers and their schools of thought, but we begin instead from America, the American political tradition in all its genius and fecundity, and the relation of our tradition to the Bible and to what the elderly Thomas Jefferson once called, rather insouciantly, “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.” We think conservatism should take its bearings from the principles of the American Founding, our citizens’ loyalty to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the scenes, both tender and proud, of our national history.
That kind of approach clears the air. It concentrates the mind. It engages and informs the ordinary citizen’s patriotism. And it introduces a new, sharper view of liberalism as descended not from the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, or (heaven forbid) Abraham Lincoln, but from that movement which, a century ago, criticized George Washington’s and Lincoln’s Constitution as outmoded and, as we’d say today, ethically challenged.
The Progressives broke with the old Constitution and set out to make a new, Living Constitution, and Obamacare is the latest, deadliest installment of that evolution. No one, I submit, has done more than the CRB and the Claremont Institute to reorient conservatism to the Founding, and to explain liberalism’s apostasy from it.
Even so, we don’t regard this as a dogma to which our writers must subscribe. Far better to encourage the free play of serious, resourceful minds, so long as we do not find ourselves surrendering to the liberal superstition that all values are relative, except perhaps for the value which insists they are not.
Of course, man doesn’t live by politics alone. I like to recommend the country singer and novelist Kinky Friedman’s definition of the word politics. It’s really an etymology. Poli, he says, means “many.” Tics means “blood-sucking parasites.” Put them together and it explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Granted, it’s not the whole truth, but it’s certainly one reason we devote attention in our pages to Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sex in the City, and other cultural blooms — in fact, to the whole panoply of the arts and sciences and honorable delights that Cicero summarizes in his marvelous phrase otium cum dignatate. Leisure with dignity.
Ten years necessarily ring up many debts of gratitude, especially to the magazine’s devoted staff, among whom tonight I would especially commend Elliott Banfield, the New Yorker whose inspired drawings grace our every issue.
My profound thanks as well to our readers and writers, who sustain us with their insight and wit, and occasionally a subscription fee or donation; and to the Board of Directors of the Claremont Institute, especially Brian Kennedy, our publisher, and Bruce Sanborn, our long-serving and unfailingly supportive Chairman of the Board, who provide the ink and the paper and the reminders, when occasionally we need them, that the struggle availeth.
To all of you, my good and generous friends, please know that the Claremont Review of Books, with your help, will
continue to stand for the truths that not only make us free, but help to make us worthy of freedom.
Congratulations to the Claremont Review of Books on its tenth anniversary. Long may it run.