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By some freak circumstance of Nature, I've just finished reading Letters to a Young Conservative and am in the midst of The Liberal Imagination when along comes George Packer to tie them together.
Of course, it isn't news that conservatives at least act less ambivalent and more cocksure than liberals. A book could be written on the theme that liberalism's problem is that it always involves complication and uncertainty. In his preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wanted to "recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty." That was in 1950, when political liberalism had reached its zenith and Trilling was worrying aloud that it had grown crudely deterministic at least in part because it lacked any viable conservative counterforce. At midcentury Trilling pleaded with American conservatives to revive themselves philosophically for the health of liberalism. And so they did. Today one can imagine an intelligent conservative like David Brooks begging liberals to find their voices so that conservatism doesn't stiffen like the liberalism to which D'Souza and his pals at Dartmouth delivered a few swift kicks on the eve of the Reagan revolution.

But to judge by the tone and content of this book, and of so much conservative talk in magazines and on TV and radio, it's already happened. The disease of success has begun to waste the musculature; a new cycle of atrophy has set in. Electoral victory is a nice thing, but it doesn't necessarily signify intellectual health--as the Democrats found out after 1976. It's not just that there are no new conservative ideas; it's that the old ideas sound hollow at the core. Thus, D'Souza has to maintain with a straight face and the flicker of a smile that "more and more people are moving into the ranks of the affluent classes"; that "the power of big business over the average American is quite limited"; that "in their personal conduct, conservatives do not claim to be better than anyone else"; that the solution to crime is more guns; that the key to environmental protection is more growth; that the world's poor have no objections to globalization. Some of it is questionable, some of it is flatly wrong and much of it sooner or later will bump up against the wall of reality. But conservatives of D'Souza's age--which is mine, and I've been watching them since we were in college--are generationally in the same position as liberals of Trilling's or Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s.

Their adult lives have coincided with an era of political triumphs (D'Souza understands that even Clinton represented a conservative triumph of sorts). The intellectual work done by neoconservatives of a previous generation brought insurgents like D'Souza into a position where they could enjoy power and influence. They tasted it early, and they liked it. Who wouldn't, with all those soft landings? Just as universities, liberal foundations and, ultimately, Democratic administrations were waiting for the likes of Trilling and Schlesinger, an archipelago of business-funded think tanks, foundations, publishing ventures, lecture circuits and, of course, Republican administrations has underwritten careers like D'Souza's. Liberals writing for the omnipotent liberal media can only dream of the rewards that have come the way of a whole generation of conservatives. Ideas Have Consequences was the title of a 1948 manifesto by the conservative writer Richard Weaver, cited in D'Souza's reading list--and millionaires and corporations have taken it very seriously. But by cyclical entropy, or some mental version of Gresham's law, that very seriousness has produced a culture of heavy subsidy and institutionalization that is bound to end up the enemy of thought and to produce books like Letters to a Young Conservative. Dinesh D'Souza is symptomatic of this process today in the same way that writers proclaiming the death of conservatism in 1964 indicated the low fuel level of Kennedy-era liberalism.

A serious book by a conservative today would face the dilemma I mentioned above--that freedom and authority are profoundly at odds.
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D'Souza (George Packer, The Nation)

Here's what Trilling says of conservatism in that Introduction:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.
Now, the first thing we should note is that Mr. Weaver's book remains in print today while Mr. Trilling's does not. In fact, an entire pile of great conservative texts--that either had been published by the time Mr. Trilling wrote that ill-fated dismissal of conservatism or were in the process of being written--remain in print and continue to yield both pleasurable reading and valuable ideas: I'll Take My Stand (1930 (Twelve Southerners); The Revolt of the Masses (1930) (Jose Otrtega y Gasset); The Abolition of Man (1943) (C.S. Lewis); The Road to Serfdom (1944) (F. A. Hayek); God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom' (1951) (William F., Jr. Buckley); Witness (1952) (Whittaker Chambers); Natural Right and History (1953) (Leo Strauss); and The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot (1953) (Russell Kirk). Orwell and Nock were recently deceased, Pound was in an asylum, and Mencken had gone silent but Willmoore Kendall, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Ayn Rand, etc., were all still active; and Mickey Spillane was one of the best-selling authors in America. In fact, just two years after Trilling's book came out, Republicans swept the elections of 1952. Who, it seems fair to ask, would Mr. Packer stack up against this list of greats? Who on the Left is writing books and offering ideas that we'll be reading and referring too fifty years from now? After all, the most talked about book on the Left this years was The Emerging Democratic Majority (John B. Judis, Ruy Teixeira), whose premise now seems a bit dubious. And when first the politician Paul Wellstone and then the great philosopher of redistributionism, John Rawls, recently died, it seemed like most folks were ready to bury the failed dreams of the Left with them.

The triumphalism that Mr. Packer warns about is a genuine danger and no genuine conservative ever expects things to go his way for long. But if you look out across the political landscape in America today, on issue after issue, from the war with radical Islam to the Faith-Based Initiative to abortion restrictions to the reclaiming of the Courts to free trade to Social Security privatization to school vouchers and so on and so forth, the ideas in town seem to be coming from the Right and, at least momentarily (and likely no longer than momentarily), it is conservatism that has the wind at its back. The conceit of Mr. Trilling's book was that it would require a liberal to question the assumptions of a regnant liberalism, since to his mind conservatism was moribund. As we've seen nothing could have been further from the truth. He may well have been confused by the fact that the conservative ideas of his time were little changed from the conservative ideas of twenty years earlier, or of a hundred and fifty years earlier, for that matter. The great conservative critics of American culture were trying to, as William F. Buckley said when he founded The National Review a few years later: Stand athwart history and holler, Stop!. Conservative ideas remained in circulation, it was just that no one was checking them out. It would take several political crises before an electorate sated by the New Deal would give conservatism a chance. And, as Mr. Packer's review seems to indicate, the intelligentsia may never concede that there are conservative ideas.

The ideas that he refers to as hollow at the core are, of course, the ideas that are at the core of Western Civilization and the American Experiment. As Russell Kirk put it, they include:
(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems. [...] (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. [...] (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes. The only true equality is moral equality; all other attempts at levelling lead to despair, if enforced by positive legislation. [...] (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress. Separate property from private possession and liberty is erased. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters and calculators.' Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite, for conservatives know man to be governed more by emotion than by reason. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man's anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical, and that innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress. Society must alter, for slow change is the means of its conservation, like the human body's perpetual renewal; but Providence is the proper instrument for change, and the test of a statesman is his cognizance of the real tendency of Providential social forces.
What must have surprised Lionel Trilling in the years after 1950, but which seems inevitable to us, is that his own text fits squarely into this conservative tradition. His stated purpose of saving liberalism's "imagination of variousness" was, it seems clear, an attempt to save it from itself, from its ideology of "uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims". And when Mr. Trilling writes, in discussing The Kinsey Report, that:
Sexual conduct is inextricably involved with morality, and hitherto it has been dealt with by those representatives of our cultural imagination which are, by their very nature and tradition, committed to morality--it has been dealt with by religion, social philosophy, and literature. But now science seems to be the only one of our institutions which has the authority to speak decisively on the matter.
and then goes on to dismiss the merely scientific approach to sexuality, summoning us back instead to the judgments of the cultural imagination, he sounds like nothing so much as a modern cultural conservative. It seems entirely fitting that the book is dedicated to Jacques Barzun, whose outlived Mr. Trilling by a good number of years, and whose most recent book, From Dawn to Decadence : 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, charts the long decline of the culture. It seems plausible to believe that if Mr. Trilling were around today we'd think of him as a neo-conservative--a political philosophy that many in his circle of friends and colleagues drifted into over time.

So, if Mr. D'Souza's book does have something of the air of a touchdown dance, it may make us cringe a little, but in some sense he's entitled. Mr. D'Souza and I are of an age and so I can recall what it was like to be a student at an elite Eastern university in the early '80s, when the notion of conservatism on campus seemed bizarre. The past twenty years have seen such mammoth change that it seems almost impossible to believe that my first class in college was actually taught by a Marxist--yes, we still had Marxists, and, improbable as it sounds, they were taken seriously. Mr. D'Souza, finding himself in a similar setting, went to work for the nascent Dartmouth Review, one of the earliest explicitly conservative college newspapers. Especially in its early years the Review was infamous for provoking controversy and some of the stories Mr. D'Souza has to tell about those days inevitably sound sophomoric. But these recollections are frequently funny and Professor Jeffrey Hart (now emeritus) emerges as the real star of the book, whether wearing a button around campus that says "Soak the Poor" or opining, "When I heard about the French Revolution, my reaction was that I was against it."

If Mr. D'Souza's ideas and explanations of those ideas seem like old hat to those of us in their forties, well...such are the wages of conservatism. The new, the untried, the revolutionary are not for us. And if the letters are a tad too self-referential and even, at times, a bit smug, well...perhaps he's entitled, having been a not insignificant part of the successful conservative movement, to do a brief Icky Shuffle. One suspects that college students--the intended audience--will enjoy both Mr. D'Souza's good humor and his assurances that to be young and to be conservative are not incompatible states. For them the ideas, old as they are, may even seem fresh and new. And they'll find the reading list in the back especially helpful if they want to grapple with ideas in a more serious way.

At any rate, this book is part of the Basic Books series "The Art of Mentoring". Previous entries have included Letters to a Young Lawyer by Alan M. Dershowitz and Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. In keeping with our earlier theme, it seems that we should note that both of these men would have been considered classic liberals just a few years ago, but that both have become quite hawkish since 9-11 and even, dare we say it, somewhat conservative in their views on the value of Western culture. Presumably there will be a volume forthcoming called something like ":"Letters to a Young Liberal" or "Letters to a Young Progressive". It will be interesting to see a few things: first, who will write it?; second, what are the liberal ideas of the day?; and, third, though this will take some time, will the person who does write it still be a liberal fifty years down the road? Or is liberalism only an affliction of the young, one that thoughtful men, like Churchill, Trilling, Hitchens, etc., etc. grow out of as they mature and as "imagination" meets reality?


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Dinesh D'Souza (2 books reviewed)
Dinesh D'Souza Links:
    -Dinesh D'Souza Home Page
    -Dinesh D'Souza : John M. Olin Research Fellow (American Enterprise Institute)
    -Dinesh D'Souza (Media Transparency)
    -ESSAY: Bin Laden, The Left and Me (Dinesh D'Souza, January 28, 2007, Washington Post)
    -EXCERPT: Education's self-esteem hoax: adapted from Letters to a Young Conservative (Dinesh D'Souza, October 24, 2002, CS Monitor)
-DEBATE : Our Biotech Future : An exchange. (Ronald Bailey and Dinesh D'Souza, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Patriotism of a Higher Order: What;s so great about America?: Reflections on his adopted country (Dinesh D'Souza, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY: What's So Great about America: Former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was right: "Americans need to face the truth about themselves, no matter how pleasant it is." (Dinesh D'Souza, Hoover Digest)
    -ESSAY : We the Slaveowners In Jefferson's America, were some men not created equal? (Dinesh D'Souza, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY : The Crimes of Christopher Columbus  (Dinesh D'Souza, First Things, 1995)
    -ESSAY : Looking for Meaning In All the Wrong Places (The Industry Standard, November 13 2000 by Dinesh D'Souza)
    -ESSAY : Staying Human: The danger of techno-utopia (National Review, January 22 2001 by Dinesh D'Souza)
    -ESSAY : Myth of the Racist Cabbie (Dinesh D'Souza, National Review)
    -ESSAY :  A World Without Racial Preferences (Dinesh D'Souza, The Weekly Standard, 1998)
    -ESSAY : Proust of the Papuans (Dinesh D'Souza, The American Enterprise)
    -ESSAY :  Affirmative Action Debate (Dinesh D'Souza, National Constitution Center)
    -AUDIO LECTURE : Major Issues Lecture Series Topic: Illiberal Education: Political Correctness and the College Experience (Dinesh D'Souza, March 3, 1992,  Ashland University)
    -BOOKNOTES : Title: The Virtue of Prosperity   Author:Dinesh D'Souza Sunday, January 14th, 2001 (C-SPAN)
   -INTERVIEW: Q&A with Dinesh D'Souza (Steven Martinovich, February 10, 2003, Enter Stage Right)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Go Right, Young Man (The Brian Lehrer Show, October 16 2002)
    -INTERVIEW: Prosperity's Challenge: An interrogatory with author Dinesh D'Souza (Kathryn Jean Lopez, January 1, 2001, National Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Leaders & Success: Dinesh D'Souza (Michael Fumento, Investor's Business Daily, December 9, 1991)
    -INTERVIEW : Dinesh D'Souza Comments on Reagan Biography (National Review Online)
    -INTERVIEW : Looking For The Truth:  An Interview With Dinesh D'Souza (Michael J. Sandoval, Flatirons Review)
    -INTERVIEW : The End of Racism with Dinesh D'Souza (Think Tank, PBS)
    -DEBATE : Resolved: Freedom of Thought is in Danger on American Campuses (Firing Line)
    -DISCUSSION : Race in America (Atlantic Monthly)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION : "Chained to the Past: Race and Integration" with Dinesh D'Souza & Tamar Jacoby (Hoover Institution)
    -CHAT : with Dinesh D'Souza : ORDINARY OR  EXTRAORDINARY?   A new book examines Ronald Reagan's presidency. (Online Newshour, PBS, December 19, 1997)
    -CHAT : with Dinesh D'Souza (Town Hall)
    -CHAT : Online Chat with Dinesh D'Souza at CPAC '98  (January 29, 1998, Town Hall)
    -SLATE DIALOGUE : Reagan vs. Clinton (Dinesh D'Souza & E.J. Dionne, Slate)
    -Dinesh D'Souza (Media Transparency)
    -Debunking Dinesh D'Souza's "The End of Racism"
    -PROFILE : Who Created Dinesh D'Souza?  (W. B. Allen , The Crisis)
    -(PSYCHOTIC) PROFILE : Dinesh D'Souza's Ethnic Roots EXPOSED (Rahul Anand Narain)
    -ESSAY : Racial Politics Make Strange Enemies (Michael Fumento)
    -ESSAY : Dinesh D'Souza (Thomas Jackson, Sept. 1997)
    -ARCHIVES : Upstream: People: Dinesh D'Souza
    -ARCHIVES : d'souza (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES :  Dinesh D'Souza (Slate)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D'Souza (Jeffrey Hart,
   -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (Kerry Lauerman, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (Matthew Continetti, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (Amanda Morris, Dartmouth Review)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (Jonathan Garthwaite,
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative (William Murchison, The Dallas Morning News)
    -REVIEW: of Letters to a Young Conservative by Dinesh D'Souza (GEORGE PACKER, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D'Souza (Richard L. Berke, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Dec 18, 1997 Joan Didion: The Lion King, NY Review of Books
       Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D'Souza
    -REVIEW : of Ronald Reagan by Dinesh D'Souza (Nicholas Lemann, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of Ronald Reagan by Dinesh D'Souza (James Nuechterlein, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of Ronald Reagan (The Historian, September 22 1999 by Richard S. Glowaki)
    -REVIEW : of Ronald Reagan (Reason)
    -REVIEW: of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader by Dinesh D'Souza (Frank Devine, Policy)
    -REVIEW : of THE END OF RACISM Principles for a Multiracial Society. By Dinesh D'Souza (1995) (Richard Rorty, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  ILLIBERAL EDUCATION The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. By Dinesh D'Souza (1991) (Nancy S. Dye, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence, by Dinesh D'Souza (Leslie Lenkowsky, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Virtue of Prosperity (J. Bonasia, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence by Dinesh D'Souza (Elizabeth Arens, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtue of Prosperity (Eric Alterman, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of  FALWELL Before the Millennium. By Dinesh D'Souza (1984)(Marty Zupon, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of What's So Great About America (John Derbyshire, National Review)

Book-related and General Links: