Given the perpetual parade of “intellectuals” who are not intelligent in our media ─ Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, PBS and the “parrot press” ─ I don’t expect many Americans to be familiar with political philosopher Paul E. Gottfried. Nevertheless, Paul (he’s a friend) is one of the most important intellectuals in the United States.
Historian Eugene Genovese calls Paul incorruptible, “an American intellectual of superior talent.” Author and historian John Lukacs praises Professor Gottfried as “a very profound thinker.” And L. Brent Bozell III salutes his “amazing intellectual courage” ─ courage in the face of the malign, philistine forces of the liberal and neoconservative mainstream.
Over the years, I’ve interviewed Professor Gottfried pursuant to the publication of his many books. These include “Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right,” “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Towards a Secular Theocracy,” and “After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State.”
Professor Gottfried’s latest book is “Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers.” Considering the roiling populist revolt against Obama’s healthcare plan, I was eager to pick up on Paul’s anti-populism. For unlike his pal Patrick J. Buchanan, Professor Gottfried is not a populist ─ he believes scheming elites play only a marginal role in the American people’s affinity for state programs.
ILANA: One of my favorite observations in “Encounters” is the one about “the Archie Bunkers” of America having gone the way of the dinosaur. That generation, you write, “Has been replaced by a multitude of vastly more radicalized versions of Meathead, Archie’s fashionable liberal son-in-law who by now could be an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.” Explain with reference to the alleged “traditionalism” of heartland Middle America.
Paul Gottfried: I’m not much impressed with the “traditionalism” of the American heartland or (to use that ridiculous neologism “red states”). That heartland, in which I’ve spent much of my life, has supplied the teeming footsoldiers for McCain, Karl Rove, the inexpressibly stupid “W,” and loudmouths like Sean Hannity. It is the American heartland that now identifies patriotism with launching wars of choice in the name of spreading “our democracy.” Its inhabitants, moreover, suffer from the vulgar eating habits and lack of cultural literacy that their critics often impute to them. However perverse in their political judgments these critics may be, they are right about the ignorance and gullibility of heartland Americans.
ILANA: In a recent column, “Populist Right Rising,” Pat Buchanan said this about “Encounters”:”In his new memoir, “Encounters,” conservative scholar Dr. Paul Gottfried writes of a 1993 gathering, hosted by this writer, where libertarian legend Murray Rothbard, columnist Sam Francis and that founding father of post-war conservatism, Dr. Russell Kirk, went at it over the role of the populist right in the conservative movement.”Tell us something about that spat and its significance to the current protests.
Paul Gottfried: The most evident spat at the time of our meeting in 1993 was not over who was a populist. The argument, if there was one, centered on whether we wished to define ourselves as “conservatives” or “rightists.” By the early 1990s, I had decided that the term “conservative” meant standing for the leftist managerial status quo, while trying to decorate that status quo with traditionalist rhetoric. Indeed, by the early 1990s the neoconservatives had taken over the conservative movement, lock, stock, and barrel, and they had reduced conservatism to talk about democracy and human rights. By the 1990s, the Burkean rhetoric (and certainly traditionalist substance) that Russell Kirk had fought to give American conservatism had all but vanished from the movement. One reason for this displacement, which did not surprise me, was the rise of neocon power on the establishment right.
ILANA: Speaking of Edmund Burke, in “Encounters,” you mention Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France” as providing a “compelling presentation of historically-based conservatism.” Russell Kirk, also one of your friends, said about “Reflections” that it “burns with all the wrath and anguish of a prophet who saw the traditions of Christendom and the fabric of civil society dissolving before his eyes.” Why is it that one rarely hears about Burke in American public discourse? Yet our countrymen know and love Thomas Paine, who sympathized with the Jacobins and spat venom at Burke for his devastating critique of the blood-drenched, illiberal, irreligious French Revolution.
Paul Gottfried: Although, as one might imagine, I prefer Burke as an historical figure and social theorist to the peripatetic troublemaker Paine, Burke’s adversary has had the stronger influence on these shores. Paine, not Burke, was the inspiration of the Reagan presidency and a much beloved figure for American libertarians such as Murray Rothbard. There is a bad fit between Burke and American political reality. America was founded as an eighteenth-century liberal republic, and not as a reconstruction of the kind of British aristocratic-monarchical society that Burke defended in his “Reflections.” It is one thing to praise Burke as a social-ethical thinker of high quality, which he undoubtedly was. It is another thing to imagine that he was a moving spirit behind the American founding or that the American founding generation was imbued with Burke’s defense of the British monarchy in its confrontation with the French Revolution.
ILANA: You have a Swiftian response, in “Encounters,” to that perennial question, “Do the people have the government they deserve?” “The government,” you write, “is far better than the one that the masses actually merit.” Wicked wit aside, what is your assessment of the role, if any, of the populist Right (and the “people”) in derailing the steamroller of statism?
Paul Gottfried: I think the populist Right in the US vastly overestimates the virtues of the “people,” which it identifies with whatever it likes, as opposed to what the people overwhelmingly vote for. Listening to populists, one gets the impression that it was not “the people” who voted for Obama and whom big-government Republicans, leaning leftward, have been able to manipulate. The “people” only exist for their rightist admirers when they please those who are praising them. Otherwise, we are not dealing with the “people” but with Martians or interlopers. Needless to say, I am not a populist because I understand the total compatibility of the “people” with the leftist managerial regime that now rules us.
MORE FROM the peerless Paul Gottfried in “Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers,” which is also available at ISI Books.”