The character of the anti-war right; and, what is paleoconservatism?

(Note: this entry includes an admittedly unsatisfactory discussion by me of the meaning of the word “paleoconservative” and how it has changed over the years.)

(Correction, Oct. 9: Michael Dougherty has written to me saying that he “did not quite forgive Sobran for his appearance there. I just wanted to say I enjoyed his writing and thought his personal choices pretty reckless.” After reading the article again, I agree with Mr. Dougherty that he did not quite forgive Sobran.)

If you want to get a taste of what the writing and reading community at The American Conservative is like, see Michael Brendan Dougherty’s brief obituary to Joseph Sobran and the many comments that follow it. Doughtery sets the tone by giving his highest praise to a 2006 Sobran column in which Sobran expresses regret that we in the U.S. will not have the opportunity to “enjoy” the spectacle of George W. being hung from the neck until dead like Saddam Hussein. He criticizes Sobran’s appearance at a Holocaust denial conference in 2002, but forgives him for it. Some of the commenters call Sobran an anti-Semite, the majority defend his positions on Jews. Also among the comments one sees expressions of one of the ruling paleocon assumptions: that if a writer has been fired or excluded from the mainstream, as Sobran was when he lost his position at National Review, that justifies his spending the rest of his life indulging in reckless, hate-filled statements. As though a person were not responsible for his words and actions, whatever his place in society, whether at the center or at the margins.

- end of initial entry -

Kilroy M. writes from Australia:

I’ve followed this (the character of the modern paleo movement in the U.S.) from a distance. It is of interest to me because I subscribe to what I believe to be its tenets, but repudiate its anti-Israelism and general isolationism. We’ve corresponded about this and related issues before, mostly in relation to whether the Alt right crowd is paleoconservative, whether there’s a difference between the two. I don’t wish to get back into that debate, it’s rather esoteric and would probably bore your readers. But I have a question. Can somebody who respects the right of Israel to exist, and thinks the U.S. has an international role to play, still be considered a paleocon? Is it a matter of degree? I sympathise with the paleo critique of neoconservatism under Bush, but the way I see it, the modern paleos that flock around American Conservative and even Chronicles just get too emotional about it and take things too far. I write it off as the frustration of a dispossessed Old Establishment. I still think they have a strong intellectual contribution to make to the struggle against liberalism. Nevertheless, I do feel slightly betrayed by people like Buchanan, who was a great inspiration to me (his culture war speech is memorable) but now just sounds like an angry old fogie. It’s very undignified and damages his legacy as a conservative thinker. What’s your take on this?

LA replies:

I can’t overstate how useless and harmful I think the paleocon / alt right movement is. They have become a parody of what Lionel Trilling said in the 1950s about conservatism: that it consists of a collection of irritable gestures—in this case, irritable gestures expanded into an entire identity and world view. I agree with you that they are too emotional, but would take it further. Emotion is all they are—emotional loyalty to those who are seen as good paleocons, like Sobran and Buchanan, and emotional detestation of the designated enemies of the paleocons. And once people embrace reactive negativism as their stance toward the world, they almost inevitably settle on the Jews as the main target for their negativity. What I don’t find in the paleocons / alt-righists / anti-war right is a rational orientation toward the universal and particular goods that I believe in, and that I thought conservatism was about.

Their emotionalism and rejection of reason is also seen in their constant reliance on extravagant metaphors, tropes, and imagery to express themselves, in place of logical argument. A long article could be written on this distinctive paleocon style, which I don’t think has ever been identified, let alone critiqued.

I would also like to write an article called “The Tragedy of Right-Wing Anti-Semitism.” It’s not a tragedy for the Jews, but for the right-wingers who fall into it. Talented people who could have made an important contribution to conservatism end up as Jew-obsessives, useless to the world.

Kilroy writes:

Let me put it this way. Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism advocates the same traditionalism that is espoused here at VFR and is described on the back cover as “the liveliest and most provocative modern statement of the traditional “paleo-conservative” position.” I’m relying on the 3rd edition which is in my library. Are you familiar with this work? In all of my readings of and about Scruton, I have not once yet encountered him saying anything anti-Israel, nor have I seen him formulate an argument based on emotional language and pure ephemera. What I am suggesting is that what you identify in the modern hateful paleo movement is a cancer, an anomaly, an unfortunate politico-evolutionary freak. What has caused this freak to evolve? I think that is a sociological question, not a political one. Perhaps there was a moment in your U.S. history after which the paleos went sour, and thus there would be a pre and post “event” paleoconservatism. I’ve read a little of Kirk, who I understand is also an old paleo, and I don’t think he compared to the bitterness that we see now among the crowd at The American Conservative. I believe there is more to this problem than just a categorical statement to the effect that all these people are so-and-so. It’s more complicated than that. Also, please note that the Alt right group is largely backed (readership and contributors) by the so-called “European New right” which is pagan and subscribes to perennialism—these people cannot be compared to paleos, they may only have a common disdain for Israel as a binding feature, but not much else.

LA replies:

I wasn’t talking about Roger Scruton, but about American paleocons. I also wasn’t talking about Russell Kirk; the word paleoconservative dates from the 1980s and Chronicles. I have not read the Scruton book.

Sophia W. writes:

Most of the hard-right obits of Sobran are making loads of hay off the late pundit’s funny parody of a NY Times headline:

“It was Joe who came up with the apocryphal New York Times headline: “New York Destroyed by Earthquake; Women and Minorities Hit Hardest.”

Problem is, he stole that from the somewhat liberal Calvin Trillin:

“Calvin Trillin, a very funny writer, authored the best unused headline for a parody of the New York Post, back in the 1960s when the paper was very liberal. Trillin’s head said, “Cold Snap Hits Our Town; Jews, Negroes Suffer Most.”

Even in the 1960s, liberals were easily parodied. Even liberals realized how silly they could be. Sobran had to have heard of this parody.

Sophia A. writes:

I read the AmCon article about Sobran. Usually the comments aren’t worth reading, but this one is good. John saw the real Sobran:

John, on October 1st, 2010 at 4:31 pm Said:

Sobran was a talented writer. Sadly, he was clearly anti-semitic as is clear in his writings. It is one thing to have an issue with Foxman, Israeli policies, or AIPAC. It is quite another to write columns which indict the Jewish people overall, and to justify or mitigate the holocaust by effectively stating that the communism was the fault of the Jews. Never do you read about Catholics as a whole being smeared based on the actions of numerous priests or the silence in Rome.

Yes, there are a large number of Jews in Hollywood, and the moguls who from the beginning days of the movies were Jews. Why is this a bad thing?? Even Sobran himself was a fan of Billy Wilder (just one example). The fact that Jews, as Marlin Brando commented, “invented Hollywood” may be true. Jonas Salk invented the cure for polio and he was Jewish. What exactly is the point?

I once wrote him an email questioning these very things, including some comments he made about the Talmud, which I indicated is only understood by probably less than 1% of the Jewish population so I couldn’t debate the points being raised. He responded with a vicious screed about the Gospels, blood libel, etc. that had virtually nothing to do with the questions I asked. I was stunned and repulsed at the viciousness of the response.

Those that read and write this magazine may praise these things as courageous. Others will look at them for what they really are. At the end of the day, his judgement will not be determined by anyone but the almighty.

[end of John’s comment]

I used to read Sobran. I thought his style was cool and mordantly witty and he had the rare ability of the truly good writer to wrap up complicated thoughts and feelings in simple sentences. His Jewish obsession was offputting but I excused him because of the clear and trenchant style. You take the bad with the good, I thought.

Then I read a certain column, and I could no longer stand this man. I tried searching Google for the column and the archives of his own site but couldn’t find it.

Trust me when I say that he wrote something about Israel that was so unfair, so hurtful and so disgusting that it was like a splinter to my heart. Where before his words were a splinter to my brain (hurtful but stimulating), this was a splinter to the heart. And it opened my heart up to the truth about Sobran: regarding the Jews, he was a monster.

I realized that I had been fooling myself about this awful man. Take a few minutes to read his archives and you will see not a man who was cool and understated but a man who was quite emotionally dead. There is a huge difference between the two.

He had an inability to feel, to empathize. He did have a wonderful ability to lash out, and his favorite target was Jews. Yet, I doubt that even lashing out gave him any true satisfaction. I think he felt nothing. That’s why he kept going back to the well of Jew-hatred. “Maybe this time, I’ll feel something and get it out of my system.” But he never did, and it never did.

I do not mourn his passing. I feel about it the way he felt about everything: nothing.

LA replies:

Well put. Sobran up to circa 1990 was a talented and worthwhile conservative writer. Sobran after that was a broken man. I thought he was vastly overrated. For example, he gets the most credit as a critic of the federal courts’ gradual destruction of the Constitution. But what did 95 percent of his columns on the Constitution consist of? A repetition of the idea of enforcing the 10th Amendment. He put no thought into this issue. He just kept repeating a slogan. He was lazy and unengaged in the subjects he was writing about. Sounding off and coming up with bon mots is not significant writing.

Also, his book on Shakespeare’s real identity was a mess. If I were a publisher I would never have published it. I would have told him that this was a first draft, and a second draft was needed. But standards in the book publishing business have sunk to the basement. And his treatment of the theme was weird. He positively gloated at the idea that the real Shakespeare was homosexual. People interested in the Shakespeare identity question should read Charleton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which is to Sobran’s book as Hyperion is to a satyr.

Sobran was a negative being, wallowing in self-pity, and a heavy drinker, and the drink probably had more to do with his deterioration than anything else.

Sophia A. replies:
I had wondered whether Sobran was sober.

LA replies:

At the TAC discussion about Sobran, some defend his speaking at the Holocaust denial conference in 2002 on the basis that he didn’t actually speak about Holocaust denial in his talk. I thought that was funny, since in his speech at the 1994 American Renaissance conference he didn’t speak about the actual topic of that conference, which was race.

Roger G. writes:

He wrote an article one July, extolling his grandson’s baseball skills, and mentioned that the boy’s season was about to end. It always galled me that my own seasons only lasted about 20 games, and ended with more than a month of summer to go; but back then they didn’t have all this travel team stuff. I wrote to him, telling him to scout the internet for a travel team in his grandson’s area. These teams always need more pitching, and the boy was both a tremendous hitter/position player and a formidable pitcher. Sobran wrote back that he no longer lived in his grandson’s area; this point of course was irrelevant. He obviously didn’t want to go to the trouble of helping his grandson, but was willing to go to the trouble of telling me so. Curious.

Gintas writes:

Kilroy said about the paleocons, “I write it off as the frustration of a dispossessed Old Establishment.”

Bitter is the word for it.


  • Mel Bradford being run out of town on a rail by the neocons, to be supplanted by William Bennett. This was a gross offense against all paleocons, and I believe this was a seminal embittering event for the paleocons.

  • Paul Gottfried never getting a plum position, and he’s Jewish! You never hear the end of it.

  • Clyde Wilson: damnyankee neocons.

  • Thomas Fleming could have had a fruitful life as a classics professor, instead has to churn out fundraising letters.

  • Joe Sobran and Pat Buchanan were stabbed in the back by Buckley, the Catholic conservative. They are held as examples of how conservatives shoot their wounded.

  • Sam Francis was stabbed in the back by neocons at the Washington Times, held as an example of neocon perfidy.

There are paleocons who aren’t bitter. I think Taki can afford not to be bitter. Russell Kirk was not bitter. Sam Francis didn’t sound bitter.

To gather in a group and nurse the grudge is to be a paleocon. For those who are not personally damaged but want to fit in, paleoconservatism is its own Lost Cause.

October 9

Kilroy replies to LA’s reply to him:

My reference to Scruton and Kirk was by way of comparison, and also because they were influential in the development of the paloeconservative movement. I know you’re talking about Sobran and US paleos in particular. But you often make statements such as “I can’t overstate how useless and harmful I think the paleocon / alt right movement is” which, on its face, does not relate to any particular group or subset but to the whole movement in toto. Hence my original question to you, namely, “Can somebody who respects the right of Israel to exist, and thinks the US has an international role to play, still be considered a paleocon? Is it a matter of degree?” Indeed, somewhat more to the point, can one be a Jewish paleoconservative? My view is that the US paleos, at least the ones that dominate the discourse on the anti-war right, have gone rotten; but this does not mean that the tenets of paleoconservatism (aside from the contemporary obsession with Jews) are illegitimate or useless. Their criticism of modern liberalism and neoconservatism is, in my understanding, not much different from yours. In conclusion, I think the paleoconservatives have been as much hijacked by Jew-obsession as the broader conservative movement has been hijacked by neocons and closet liberals. I agree with your diagnosis of Sobran, Buchanan et al, just not the way that you write-off the entire paleo movement and lump it into the same box as the “European New Right”.

LA replies:

As we discussed in an e-mail exchange sometime back, the definition of the word paleocon has become uncertain in my mind in recent years. I no longer know for sure what the word encompasses. I no longer am sure what terms to use for these various factions, which is why I’ve been use a range of terms—antiwar right / paleocon / alt-right and so on. However, the theoretically “good” paleoconservatism you are talking about, which most U.S. paleocons have deserted, is what I would call traditionalist conservatism. In my mind, someone who calls himself a paleocon at this point is associating himself with a movement which has discredited itself.

LA continues:
I said:

“In my mind, someone who calls himself a paleocon at this point is associating himself with a movement which has discredited itself.”

Let me modify that somewhat.

Years ago, I used to say that paleoconservative had two meanings, a narrower meaning and a broader meaning. The narrower meaning was related to Chronicles magazine and its circle. The broader meaning was related to a wider circle of traditionalists. So perhaps we could say that someone like Scruton is using the term paleoconservative in that broader meaning, which in my mind translates as “traditionalist conservative.”

Also, I have to say that you let me off the hook a month or two back when you said that we didn’t have to resume our conversation on the meaning of paleocon. I say this because I truly am at sea right now about its meaning, without even a foothold. As just one example, Gottfried a year or two ago told me he is no longer a paleocon. What did that actually mean? I don’t know, other than that he had broken with Fleming (there’s the narrower meaning of paleocon at work). But then, as I remember, Gottfried did start calling himself a paleocon again (though I may be wrong about that). You criticized me for calling Spencer and Alt-Right paleocon, and there is a basis for that criticism. But Spencer himself was part of paleocon circles for years. So when did he stop being a paleocon? When he founded Alt-Right? If only the people at Chronicles are paleocons, and they are basically Catholics sentimentally looking back to a Catholic order of the past, then that is no longer what paleocon used to mean either. Paleocon in my mind meant: belief in American cultural/ethnic/historical particularity; and belief in the original constitutional federal order as distinct from the increasingly centralized, unconstitutional state of the last 80 years.

But then sometime in the ’90s I realized that Fleming opposed, not just the statism of the 20th century, but the entire American order since the Civil War. Second, Fleming became vociferously opposed to any notion that the white majority character of America matters and must be defended. In the late ’80s, he had written good articles, or at least one good article, defending European America from the transformations brought by the 1965 immigration. In fact he was the only notable intellectual I knew of in the country who would say outright that the whiteness of America matters, and for that reason I sent him the first draft of The Path to National Suicide for his feedback in spring 1989. But by the mid ’90s he regarded any value given to whiteness as something wicked to be opposed. And by 2009, he was publishing articles in Spanish in Chronicles. So we see here a man without any steadiness or consistency in his views over the years.

In any case, by the mid 1990s, the two main pillars of paleoconservatism were gone as far as I could see. Without those two main positive beliefs—in American ethnocultural particularity, and in the American constitutional order, paleoconservatism was mainly a collection of sentimental, irritable, or vicious gestures. I gather that those who still call themselves paleocons within the ambit of Chronicles are Catholics looking back to a vanished European Catholic order, and with no loyalty/affection for America.

But again, that’s the “narrower” meaning of paleocon. There would seem to be wider meaning, embracing The American Conservative, Alternative Right, Patrick Buchanan. Now the last immediately raises a problem. I never thought of Buchanan as a paleocon, because, as a proud old Nixonian, he was never associated with the idea of opposing the enlarged modern state. Even when he ran for president in the ’90s his only measure to scale back the state was to close down the Education Department—a joke of a position, because the Education Department is merely an umbrella for various federally mandated programs. Close the Education Department, and those problems would continue elsewhere. Scott McConnell also had zero record as a critic of the enlarged modern state. So I referred to Buchanan, McConnell, and TAC as “Buchananites,” as distinct from paleocons. But many other people called Buchanan a paleocon, and I got tired of opposing the usage.

So, is there a commonality among Chronicles, TAC, Alt-Right, Buchanan, and other figures and publications I might think of? And if so, what is it? I would say that this commonality consists of: Anti-war. Anti-neocons. Anti-Israel. And either anti-Jew or fellow traveler with anti-Jew.

I realize the above thoughts are wholly inadequate to the subject. I offer them, not as providing satisfactory answers or even a satisfactory account of the questions, but as a way of showing just some of the puzzles that the subject presents to my mind. And that very indefiniteness explains why I was reluctant to get into the subject with you a couple of months back.

October 14

M. Jose writes:

I wonder if someone should remember him by writing an article suggesting that Mein Kampf was actually written by Edward De Vere, who in turn was responsible for all of that nastiness toward certain ethnics, nastiness that traditionally gets blamed on the Nazis? It would certainly encapsulate the two things Sobran is most likely to be remembered for.

By the way, your comment that “Sounding off and coming up with bon mots is not significant writing” does capture the most significant positive feature of the man, his ability to quip (as well as pointing out the limits to how effectively it can be used). In political terms, this is what I chiefly remember him for (as I wrote in my blog), rather than actually contributing much in the way of ideas.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at October 08, 2010 08:35 AM | Send

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