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Tonsor – Elites, Community and the Truth: A Little Story

Stephen Tonsor, University of Michigan

"Elites, Community and the Truth: A Little Story"

Philadelphia Society, April 29, 2000


History is a series of little stories, or so at least Herodotus, the
"father of history" thought. His stories were so fascinating that my
mentor entertained his children with bed time stories drawn from Herodotus. And
so, dear friends, here are some little stories, entertaining or otherwise.

Lissy Voegelin once said that she could not hire someone to help her with
the cleanings for when the Putzfrau switched on the vacuum Eric Voegelin
would emerge from his study in his bathrobe and in a tone of wounded and
confused majesty enquire, "What! Today?" Ah! the power of that
Anglo-Saxon four letter word, "What!" "What! Today?" Yes,
friends, Today.

I grew up in an Illinois town which was traditionally served by priests
from Germany or priests who had been educated in Germany. When I was in grade
school the pastor was a man ill-suited to his task. In those depression years he
permitted the parish to sink into chaos and ruin and was said to have loved men
and boys too much. At last a committee from the parish went to the bishop and
asked that he be removed. The bishop, like the trustees of Hillsdale College;
refused, saying that the committee had only hearsay evidence and that he could
not act. However, after a few
years, that great Christian worker, Death, did what the bishop refused to do and
the long-suffering parish got a new priest.

He too was a German, a refugee from National Socialism and a man who
devoted the whole of his life–he died at age 93–to the people of his parish.
He was a descendant of a prominent family who had been instrumental in the
foundation of the Catholic Center party, and was an intellectual who wore his
learning with grace and ease. The farmers and small town people hardly knew what
to make of him. For a while his sermons were intellectual and theological
exercises which stunned his parishioners into amused silence. Finally, one of
his parishioners went to him and said, as Germans are apt to do, "Father,
your sermons are too high for us. Just tell us, a little story."

"A little story. What! Today?"

In 1954 the "Conservative Movement" was hardly more than a
handful of people, a self-selected elite who knew something was terribly wrong
with the politics, the economics and the community life of the American
Republic. Though they were not political physicians they could hear the death
rattle of the Left-Liberal old order. They set about to educate themselves, to
argue, discuss, organize and especially to recruit. The elder statesmen, none of
them very old, were uniformly concerned with the recruitment of the next
generation into the movement.

This elite, many of whom were disillusioned communists or fellow
travelers, knew from first-hand experience the power both of ideas and
organization. It was this consciousness of standing on the fore-front of
history, of battling at Marathon and Thermopoli which gave this elite its
special quality and its dynamic force. Many, like Whittaker Chambers, felt that
the battle had already been lost. It was reported to me by someone who ought to
have known that Henry Kissinger believed that the tides of History would carry
Soviet power to the fore and that his role was simply to buy time. Not everyone
was so gloomy, to be sure.

Aside from the Soviet threat and the fact of internal subversion the
Conservative elite spent its time battling the growth and centralization of
state power and restoring order and meaning to everyday life. In this respect
the first generation of the Conservative elite distinguished themselves from
those who came to call themselves "Neo-Conservatives" who were
anti-Communist statists.

Moreover, that first generation of Conservative elite participated in the
religious revival of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Those who discovered the
ìReligious Right" in the second half of the decade of the ’90’s are just
about half a century too late. The essential character of that primal
Conservative elite was religious and value oriented and if Conservatism has
anything to say at the beginning of the new millennium it will embody the
beliefs and values of that earlier elite. We are now more aware than ever that
man does not live by bread alone.

Many in those early days of the movement liked to think of themselves as
"individualists" and indeed there once was a society which called
itself the "Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, Inc." I always
took that to mean that its members distinguished themselves from the schools of
bottom feeding Liberals who dominated every campus, and every faculty, and who
automatically assumed that unless one took one’s politics from The New
Republic
and The Nation, one’s aesthetics from Partisan Review
and one’s entertainment from the New Yorker, one was intellectually
unqualified to serve on a college or university faculty. Indeed these
ìindividualistsî paid dearly for the views they held and the ideas they
defended.

The danger to the Conservative elite, however, was not the stranglehold
the Left-Liberal elite held and still holds on the academy. The great danger to
the Conservative elite was, rather, the success which that elite generated in
the social, political, and economic world. Once the Conservative intellectual
entered the realm of power he surrendered himself and his motives to that power
and its amassment through politics and bureaucracy. At that point he traded his
tweed coat for a pinstriped suit, caught Potomac fever and went off to
Washington to become a denizen of a think-tank. The moral of this little story
is that if the Conservative movement is to be successful in the years ahead it
must cease to be dominated by policy wonks and must find a form of creativity
other than writing position papers. The Weberian transition from the realm of
ideas to the realm of power has very important consequences for the Conservative
movement and these must be recognized and dealt with.

The Conservative elite of forty years ago was not a happy band which
suddenly found itself to be thinking "forbidden" thoughts and debating
"undiscussable" propositions. The existence of this happy band was the
consequence of deliberate recruitment. There was a handful of creative leaders
who said, in effect, "Come follow me." Men such as Frank Meyer,
Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Kenneth Templeton, Russell Kirk, M. Stanton
Evans, Henry Regnery, and Don Lipsett, to name only a few, made it their
business to identify talent, to recruit graduate students, to organize meetings,
and to see that there was a next generation. They were intellectually diverse
and with personalities as large and as contradictory as the issues with which
they engaged. It has struck me increasingly that their like has disappeared from
the conservative movement and that converts are made, if at all, from the
printed page.
This does not bode well for the future of Conservatism.

Every great transforming movement in world history is essentially a
movement of the spoken word. Jesus and Socrates did not write books. Books,
indeed, are important but they are afterthoughts. There must always be an
original kerygma or proclamation. It may be Frank Meyer calling at 2:00
AM in morning from Woodstock, or Kenneth Templeton sitting in the living room
when the morning stars sang together and the fireplace fire had gone out, or
students gathered at an ISI summer school, talking, no, not talking but arguing
far into the night. When the kerygma ceases and the movement bureaucrats
take over, the vitality of the movement is threatened.

Moreover, the early Conservative movement was a community. Frank Meyer,
who had been a Communist organizer in the Mid-West, once remarked to me that the
Communist movement, like the early Christian, was a movement in which no one was
a stranger. One could come into a strange town and find immediate hospitality
and companionship. And so it was with the early Conservative movement. There was
a bond of hospitality and friendship. I find this spirit of community lacking in
today’s Conservative movement and I wonder whether it is not another sign that
we have grown sclerotic. A room full of 500 people eating rubber chicken is no
substitute for a night at Mecosta, Woodstock, or Three Oaks.

Finally, I wish to say a few words
about the importance of the TRUTH to the Conservative movement. Conservatism
developed essentially as a response to persistent and massivve Left-Liberal
untruth. The problem was not simply Lillian Hellman who, it was observed, never
wrote a truthful word in her life; "even the thes and the ands were a
lie." Franklin Roosevelt was nearly equally incapable of the truth. He was
the leader of the pack and many in it were more mendacious and artful than he
was. Conservatism sought to banish
the right to lie in the name of reason of state, Staatsraison, raison
díEtat
. There is no greater enemy of community than the lie. It dissolves
common purpose and mutual confidence. How terrible then that Conservatives in
power succumbed to lying.

I do not mean the
lazy dummies among Conservative writers who resorted, in a pinch, to plagiarism.
I have known a number of them but it is not profitable to give the infamous fame
naming them.

In 1974 I attended a meeting in
West Branch Iowa celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of President
Herbert Hoover. The conferees divided their time between the celebration of
a noble and tragic figure in American history and the slow-motion
televised abdication of a pseudo-conservative liar, President Nixon. In the
person of William Jefferson Clinton we have seen how low the Presidency can
sink. Not only has the President behaved in a loathsome fashion but he has lied
more persistently than any other figure in American history, including Mike
Fink.

Here I shall not speak of those
supposed Conservatives, the ìRavelsteins," who have practiced an
intellectual dissimulation which permitted them to say, in the secret writing in
which they indulged, to say one thing while intending another. No Athenian
Sophist was more adroit. Nor shall I dwell at length on the subject of a college
President who did enormous harm not only to the institution he guided but to the
Conservative causes he supposedly espoused.

There have also been those men who
saw Conservatism as a way to personal status and power, men devoid of any
purpose other than, as one of my students observed "an ego-splat." I
knew one of these dark men from the gutter, well. He lied to himself. He lied to
his friends. He created a fictitious past for himself. He even lied in creating
objects for his inordinate hatreds. He lied as to his purposes and beliefs and
he harmed the movement and those in any way connected with him.

Bill Buckley, with charity not
unlike that of my wife who believes that serial murderers are victims of a bad
breakfast, observes that as Christians we must all recognize our fallen state
and. draw a veil of forgiveness over dark and unseemly deeds. This is nonsense,
and Mr. Buckley knows it. Yes, we forgive the sinner but it is equally important
that we recognize that sinner and sinned against must live out the temporal
consequences due to sin, the disruption of the social and the natural order that
sin produces. The road to recovery is an acknowledgement and quest for remedies
for those actions which are matters to be dealt with in the exterior forum.

And now, having
told all these little stories, like the wise king advising his minions as he
sends them off to heroic deeds, let me say, "Be good! Be smart! Be brave!
And be gone."

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