Out of Place

Out of Place

How conservatives have turned a sense of exclusion into a powerful philosophy of self-styled truancy.


“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a recently reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, Will’s claim would have elicited catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century, including the 1960s, has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-
2000: “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that the travails of his political kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.

Will is not the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss–of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun–conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. From Burke’s lament that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to William F. Buckley Jr.’s claim that he and his brethren were “out of place,” the comfortable and connected have fashioned a philosophy of self-styled truancy. One might say this fusion of pariah and power has been the key to their success. As Buckley went on to write, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville and David Hume are sometimes cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in Considerations on France (1797) was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.”

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them–or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the philosopher of the losers. But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)–“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris–have some claim to the title, too?

Marie Antoinette was a particular kind of loser, a person with everything who finds herself utterly and at once dispossessed. Burke saw in her fall an archetype of classical tragedy, the great person laid low by fortune. But in tragedy, the most any hero can achieve is an understanding of his fate: the wheel of time cannot be reversed; suffering cannot be undone. Conservatives, however, are not content with illumination or wisdom. They want restoration, an opportunity presented by the new forces of revolution and counterrevolution. Identifying as victims, they become the ultimate moderns, adept competitors in a political marketplace where rights and their divestiture are prized commodities.

Reformers and radicals must convince the subordinated and disenfranchised that they have rights and power. Conservatives are different. They are aggrieved and entitled–aggrieved because entitled–and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, the conservative is, as Hugo Young said of Maggie Thatcher, one of us.

But how do they convince us that we are one of them? By making privilege democratic and democracy aristocratic. Every man, John Adams claimed, longs “to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired.” To be praised, one must be seen, and the best way to be seen is to elevate oneself above one’s circle. Even the American democrat, Adams reasoned, would rather rule over an inferior than dispossess a superior. His passion is for supremacy, not equality, and so long as he is assured an audience of lessers, he will be content with his lowly status:

Not only the poorest mechanic, but the man who lives upon common charity, nay the common beggars in the streets…court a set of admirers, and plume themselves on that superiority which they have, or fancy they have, over some others…. When a wretch could no longer attract the notice of a man, woman or child, he must be respectable in the eyes of his dog. “Who will love me then?” was the pathetic reply of one, who starved himself to feed his mastiff, to a charitable passenger who advised him to kill or sell the animal.

It took the American slaveholder to grasp the power of this insight. The best way to protect their class, the masters realized, was to democratize it. Make every man, or at least every white man, a master, and so invested would he be in his mastery that he’d work to keep all others in their place. The genius of the slaveholding class was that it was “not an exclusive aristocracy,” wrote Daniel Hundley in Social Relations in Our Southern States (1860). “Every free white man in the whole Union has just as much right to become an Oligarch.” To that end, Southern politicians attempted to pass legislation and provide tax breaks to ensure that every white man owned at least one slave.

A century before Huey Long cried “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, to different effect. The promise of American life was to rule over another person. By and large, American conservatives have not defended an ancien régime of king, priest and lord. Nor have they appealed to antimodern arguments of tradition and history. Instead, they have surrounded an array of old regimes–in the family, the factory and the field–with fences and gates as they descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future.

Making privilege palatable to the democratic masses is a permanent project for conservatives, but each generation must tailor it to the contours of its times. In 1960, Goldwater’s challenge was set out in his book’s title: to show that conservatives had a conscience. Not a heart–he lambasted Eisenhower and Nixon for trying to prove that they were compassionate–or a brain, which liberals from John Stuart Mill to Lionel Trilling had doubted. Political movements often have to show that they can win, that their cause is just and their leaders are savvy, but rarely must they prove that theirs is a march of inner lights. Goldwater thought otherwise: to attract new voters and rally the faithful, conservatism had to establish its idealism and integrity, its absolute independence from the beck and call of wealth, from privilege and materialism–reality itself. If they were to change reality, conservatives would have to divorce themselves, at least in their self-understanding, from reality.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to dismiss George W. Bush as a true believer who betrayed conservatism by abandoning its native skepticism and spirit of mild adjustment. Goldwater was independent and ornery, the argument goes, recoiling from anything so stultifying (and Soviet) as an ideology; Bush is rigid and doctrinaire, an enforcer of bright lines and gospel truths. Elements of this argument are found on the right (Andrew Sullivan, George Will and even John McCain) and on the left (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Sidney Blumenthal and John Dean).

But this argument ignores the fact that conservatism has always been a creedal movement–if for no other reason than to oppose the creeds of the left. “The other side have got an ideology,” declared Thatcher. “We must have one as well.” To counter the left, the main reason for its existence, the right has had to mimic the left. Goldwater understood that, which is why it is strange to hear so many liberals today looking to him and his followers–everyone from Birchers to Focus on the Family–as a model for grassroots change. By focusing so intently on Goldwater, liberals overlook the fact that historically it has been the left that has tutored the right.

Reactionary theologians in eighteenth-century France mobilized against the left by aping its tactics. They funded essay contests, like those in which Rousseau made his name, to reward writers who wrote popular defenses of religion. They ceased producing abstruse disquisitions for one another and instead churned out Catholic agitprop, which they distributed through the very networks that brought enlightenment to the French people. Similarly, the slaveholders of nineteenth-century America looked to and admired the fastidiousness and industry of the abolitionists. “As small as they are,” John C. Calhoun declared, they “have acquired so much influence by the course they have pursued.”

Goldwater learned from the New Deal. During the Gilded Age, conservatives had opposed unions and government regulation by invoking workers’ freedom to contract with their employer. Liberals countered that this freedom was illusory: workers lacked the means to contract as they wished; real freedom required material means. Goldwater agreed, only he turned that argument against the New Deal: high taxes robbed workers of their wages, rendering them less free and less able to be free. Channeling John Dewey, he asked, “How can a man be truly free if he is denied the means to exercise freedom?”

FDR claimed that conservatives cared more about money than men. Goldwater said the same about liberals. Focusing on welfare and wages, he charged, they “look only at the material side of man’s nature” and “subordinate all other considerations to man’s material well being.” Conservatives took in “the whole man,” making his “spiritual nature” the “primary concern” of politics and putting “material things in their proper place.”

This romantic howl against the economism of the New Deal–similar to that of the New Left–was not a protest against politics or government; Goldwater was no libertarian. It was an attempt to elevate politics and government, to direct public discussion toward ends more noble and glorious than the management of creature comforts and material well-being. Unlike the New Left, however, Goldwater did not reject the affluent society. Instead, he transformed the acquisition of wealth into an act of self-definition through which the “uncommon” man–who could be anybody–distinguished himself from the “undifferentiated mass.” To amass wealth was not only to exercise freedom through material means but also a way of lording oneself over others.

In “Conservative Thought,” an unjustly neglected essay from 1927, Karl Mannheim argued that conservatives have never been wild about the idea of freedom. It threatens the submission of subordinate to superior. Because freedom is the lingua franca of modern politics, however, they have had “a sound enough instinct not to attack” it. Instead, they have made freedom the stalking horse of inequality, and inequality the stalking horse of submission. Men are naturally unequal, they argue. Freedom requires that they be allowed to develop their unequal gifts. A free society must be an unequal society, composed of radically distinct, and hierarchical, particulars.

Goldwater never rejected freedom; indeed, he celebrated it. But there is little doubt that he saw it as a proxy for inequality–or war, which he called “the price of freedom.” A free society protected each man’s “absolute differentness from every other human being,” with difference standing in for superiority or inferiority. It was the “initiative and ambition of uncommon men”–the most different and excellent of men–that made a nation great. A free society would identify such men at the earliest stages of life and give them the resources they needed to rise to pre-eminence. Against politicians who subscribed to “the egalitarian notion that every child must have the same education,” Goldwater argued for “an educational system which will tax the talents and stir the ambitions of our best students and…thus insure us the kind of leaders we will need in the future.”

Mannheim also argued that conservatives often champion the group–races or nations–rather than the individual. Races and nations have unique identities, which must, in the name of freedom, be preserved. They are the modern equivalents of feudal estates. They have distinctive, and unequal, characters and functions; they enjoy different, and unequal, privileges. Freedom is the protection of those privileges, which are the outward expression of the group’s unique inner genius.

Goldwater rejected racism (though not nationalism), but try as he might, when discussing freedom he could not resist the tug of feudalism. He called states’ rights “the cornerstone” of liberty, “our chief bulwark against the encroachment of individual freedom” by the federal government. In theory, states protected individuals rather than groups. But who in 1960 were these individuals?

Goldwater claimed that they were anyone and everyone, that states’ rights had nothing to do with Jim Crow. Yet even he was forced to admit that the South’s position on segregation “is, today, the most conspicuous expression of the principle” of states’ rights. The rhetoric of states’ rights threw up a cordon around white privilege. While surely the most noxious plank in the conservative platform–eventually, it was abandoned–Goldwater’s argument for states’ rights fit squarely within a tradition that sees freedom as a shield for inequality and a surrogate for mass feudalism.

Goldwater lost big in the 1964 presidential election. His children and grandchildren have won big–by broadening the circle of discontent in the realm of domestic politics to include husbands and wives, evangelicals and white ethnics, and by continuing to absorb and transmute the idioms of the left. As Bruce Schulman and Julian Zelizer argue in their introduction to Rightward Bound–an uncommonly coherent collection of innovative essays, many by scholars in the early stages of their careers–liberals in the twentieth century permanently “refashioned” America, forcing conservatives to operate “against a backdrop where the achievements of liberalism still mattered.” Adapting to the left didn’t make American conservatism less reactionary–any more than Maistre’s recognition that the French Revolution had permanently changed Europe tempered conservatism there. Rather, it made conservatism suppler and more successful. In The Leopard, Lampedusa’s novel about the collapse of Sicilian aristocracy during the Risorgimento, the young, crafty aristocrat Tancredi tells his uncle that “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Tancredi’s words could have been the rallying cry of Goldwater’s descendants.

Evangelical Christians were ideal recruits to the cause, deftly playing the victim card as a way of rejuvenating the power of whites. “It’s time for God’s people to come out of the closet,” declared a Texas televangelist in 1980. It wasn’t religion, however, that made evangelicals outcasts akin to homosexuals; it was religion combined with racism. As Joseph Crespino shows in “Civil Rights and the Religious Right,” one of the main catalysts of the Christian right was the defense of Southern private schools created in response to desegregation. By 1970, 400,000 white children were attending “segregation academies.” States like Mississippi gave students tuition grants, and until the Nixon Administration overturned the practice, the IRS gave donors to these schools tax exemptions.

According to New Right and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie, the attack on these public subsidies by civil rights activists and the courts “was the spark that ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.” Though the rise of segregation academies “was often timed exactly with the desegregation of formerly all-white public schools,” writes Crespino, their advocates claimed to be defending religious minorities rather than white supremacy (initially nonsectarian, most of the schools became evangelical over time). Their cause was freedom, not inequality–not the freedom to associate with whites, as the previous generation of massive resisters had claimed, but the freedom to practice their own embattled religion. It was a shrewd transposition. In one fell swoop, the heirs of slaveholders became the descendants of persecuted Baptists, and Jim Crow a heresy the First Amendment was meant to protect.

The Christian right was equally galvanized by the backlash against the women’s movement. As Marjorie Spruill demonstrates in “Gender and America’s Right Turn,” antifeminism was a latecomer to the conservative cause. Through the early 1970s advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment could still count Richard Nixon, George Wallace and Strom Thurmond as supporters, and even Phyllis Schlafly described the ERA as something “between innocuous and mildly helpful.” But once feminism entered “the sensitive and intensely personal arena of relations between the sexes,” the abstract and distant phrases of legal equality took on a more intimate and concrete meaning. The ERA provoked a counterrevolution, led by Schlafly and other women, that was as grassroots and nearly as diverse as the movement it opposed. So successful was this counterrevolution–not just at derailing the ERA but at propelling the Republican Party to power–that it seemed to prove the feminist point. If women could be that effective as political agents, why shouldn’t they be in Congress or the White House?

Schlafly grasped the irony. She understood that the women’s movement had tapped into, and unleashed a desire for, power and autonomy that couldn’t be quelled. If women were to be sent back to the exile of their homes, they would have to view their retreat not as a defeat but as one more victory in the long battle for women’s freedom and power.

In an interview with the Washington Star, just one of the many absorbing documents gathered by Story and Laurie in The Rise of Conservatism in America, Schlafly described herself as a defender, not an opponent, of women’s rights. The ERA was “a takeaway of women’s rights,” she insisted, the “right of the wife to be supported and to have her minor children supported” by her husband. By focusing her argument on “the right of the wife in an ongoing marriage, the wife in the home,” Schlafly reinforced the notion that women were wives and mothers first; their only need was protection from their husbands. At the same time, she described that relationship in the liberal language of entitlement rights. “The wife has the right to support” from her spouse, she claimed, treating the woman as a feminist claimant and her husband as the welfare state.

Like their Catholic predecessors in eighteenth-century France, the Christian right appropriated not just the ideas but the manners and mores of its opponents. Billy Graham issued an album called Rap Session: Billy Graham and Students Rap on Questions of Today’s Youth. Evangelicals criticized the culture of narcissism–then colonized it. In his article in Rightward Bound, Matthew Lassiter reminds us that James Dobson got his start as a child psychologist at the University of Southern California, competing with Dr. Spock as the author of a bestselling child-rearing text. Paul Boyer points out in his contribution to the volume that evangelical bookstores “promoted therapeutic and self-help books offering advice on finances, dating, marriage, depression, and addiction from an evangelical perspective.” Most audacious was the film version of Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth. While the book popularized Christian prophecies of the End of Days, the film was narrated by Orson Welles, bad boy of the Popular Front.

The most interesting cases of the right’s appropriation of the left, however, came not from evangelicals but from big business and the Nixon Administration. The business community saw the student movement as a critical constituency. In “Make Payroll, Not War,” Bethany Moreton unearths the fascinating details of their effort. Using hip and informal language, business spokesmen left “their plaid suits in the closet” in order to sell capitalism as the fulfillment of ’60s-style liberation, participation and authenticity. Reeling from protests against the invasion of Cambodia (and the massacre of four students that ensued), students at Kent State formed a chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), one of 150 across the country. They sponsored a “Battle of the Bands,” for which one contestant wrote the following lyrics:

You know I could never be happy
Just working some nine-to-five.
I’d rather spend my life poor
Than living it as a lie.
If I could just save my money
Or maybe get a loan,
I could start my own business
And make it on my own.

Small-business institutes were set up on college campuses, Moreton explains, casting “the businessman as a victim, not a bully, to impressionable campus audiences.”

Business brought its Gramscian tactics to secondary schools as well. In Arkansas, SIFE performed classroom skits of Milton Friedman’s PBS series Free to Choose. In 1971, Arizona passed a law requiring high school graduates to take a course in economics so they would have “some foundation to stand on,” according to the bill’s sponsor, when they came up “against professors that are collectivists or Socialists.” Twenty states followed suit. Arizona students could place out of the course if they passed an exam that asked them, among other things, to match the phrase “government intervention in a free enterprise system” with “is detrimental to the free market.”

The most ambidextrous of politicians, Nixon was the master of talking left and walking right. According to Thomas J. Sugrue and John Skrentny (“The White Ethnic Strategy”), Nixon understood that the best response to the civil rights movement was not to defend whites against blacks but to make whites into white ethnics burdened with their own histories of oppression and requiring their own liberation movement. Where immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe had jumped into the American melting pot and turned white, Nixon and the ethnic revivalists of the 1970s “provided Americans of European descent a new vehicle for asserting citizenship rights at a moment when it grew increasingly illegitimate to make claims on the state on the basis of whiteness.”

Under Nixon’s leadership, the Republican Party was transformed from a WASP country club at the corner of Wall and Main into a version of the urban Democratic machine. Poles and Italians were appointed to high-profile offices in his Administration, and Nixon campaigned vigorously in white ethnic neighborhoods. Sugrue and Skrentny report that he even told one crowd that “he felt like he had Italian blood.” Nixon’s efforts occasionally went beyond the symbolic–a 1971 proposal would have extended affirmative action to “members of certain ethnic groups, primarily of Eastern, Middle, and Southern European ancestry, such as Italians, Greeks, and Slavic groups”–but most were rhetorical. That didn’t make them less potent: the new vocabulary of white ethnicity, Sugrue and Skrentny conclude, helped create “a romanticized past of hard work, discipline, well-defined gender roles, and tight-knit families,” providing a new language for a new age–and a very old regime.

The Christian evangelicals and right-wing activists discussed in Rightward Bound are one branch of the Goldwater clan. The neoconservatives described by Jacob Heilbrunn in They Knew They Were Right–the Kristols (Irving and William), the Podhoretzes (Norman and John) and the Kagans (Donald, Frederick, Robert and Kimberly), to name a few–are another. While this second branch has also propagated a program of domestic reaction, it is known primarily for elaborating Goldwater’s hawkish views on foreign policy. Like Goldwater, the neocons sought to roll back communism. Like him, they have scorned alliances and have feared that a nation unwilling to risk death is a decadent nation awaiting servitude. Since 9/11, however, they’ve surpassed Goldwater’s hawkishness, adumbrating an almost theological vision of the United States as the all good, all powerful, sovereign of the earth.

The rise of the neocons is a puzzle. How did a group of bookish, mostly Jewish, ex-leftists from New York City come to help govern a nation that is Christian, anti-intellectual and hates New York City? Heilbrunn (a former neocon) doesn’t solve the puzzle, but he brings a welcome scrutiny to one piece of it. “Neoconservatism isn’t about ideology,” he writes. “It isn’t about the left. It is about a mindset, one that has been decisively shaped by the Jewish immigrant experience, by the Holocaust, and by the twentieth-century struggle against totalitarianism.” That mind-set includes a bitter resentment of the State Department as well as the WASP establishment, which thwarted Jews in academia–Heilbrunn repeats the story of how Elliot Cohen, Lionel Trilling’s mentor, was told that only Anglo-Saxons could understand English literature. It also includes a prophetic sensibility, “an uncompromising temperament” that sees “ideas as weapons in a moral struggle.”

This combination of resentment, zeal and intransigence has been a source of intellectual fertility–and political anxiety. Whenever neocons get too close to the Promised Land, they fret over losing their status as outsiders. Being comfortable makes them uncomfortable. Thanks to the failure of the war in Iraq, however, “they are back in exile, where they belong–and where they are, in some respects, most content,” Heilbrunn explains.

Heilbrunn is an able chronicler of the neocons’ ambivalence about belonging to a club that is willing to have them as members. But his book is marred by blemishes large and small. He claims that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “did not see an internal threat” to the United States from domestic communism. Yet Schlesinger devoted an entire chapter of The Vital Center (1949) to that threat–almost twice as long as the chapter he wrote on the Soviet Union–and claimed that “there is surely no alternative to paying exact and unfaltering attention to the Communists in our midst.” Heilbrunn writes that Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago philosopher, could not have been a “crypto-fascist” because he was “a German mandarin” with a “mania for all things Greek.” Has Heilbrunn not heard of Martin Heidegger?

Heilbrunn writes that “Zionism was about the furthest thing that Hannah Arendt…wanted to be associated with in any shape or form.” If that’s true, why did Arendt do illegal work for Zionist organizations in Nazi Germany, which got her arrested and forced her to flee, and why did she work for Zionist organizations in France? Why did she write in 1948 that “Palestine and the building of a Jewish homeland constitute today the great hope and the great pride of Jews all over the world”? Why, when Israel was at war in 1967 and 1973, did she contribute to the United Jewish Appeal?

These are simple errors, and though one wishes that Heilbrunn didn’t make them so often or with such confidence, they don’t detract from his overall argument. The same cannot be said of the book’s two other problems. The first is that They Knew They Were Right leaves the reader with a weary sense of déjà vu, as if watching an old newsreel one too many times. It’s the 1930s, and there are the Trots in Alcove 1 of the City College cafeteria, the Stalinists in Alcove 2. Oh, and there’s Daniel Bell. One day he’ll call himself a liberal in politics, a socialist in economics and a conservative in culture. It’s the 1950s, and Time is proclaiming “reconciliation” between America and its intellectuals. There’s Partisan Review holding a symposium on “Our Country, Our Culture.” But where’s Irving Howe’s rebuke of this accommodation? Ah, there it is: “In a famous 1952 essay, ‘This Age of Conformity,’ Howe asserted that the intellectuals had sold out.” It’s 1993; the cold war is over. But Irving Kristol is still fighting it–this time, against the liberals he’s hated his whole life. In a controversial article, he writes, “My cold war has increased in intensity, as sector after sector has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberal ethos.” Heilbrunn says, “Daniel Bell told me that he was stunned that Kristol would condemn liberalism outright rather than pointing to specific flaws.”

But Bell didn’t say that only to Heilbrunn. He said that to everyone, in Joseph Dorman’s 1998 documentary Arguing the World. Heilbrunn had the opportunity to interview Bell, Norman Podhoretz and many other conservatives and neoconservatives. But with one gem of an exception–after Heilbrunn informs Buckley at the New York Yacht Club that the only magazine Leo Strauss subscribed to was National Review, Buckley expresses delight but wonders if Strauss was “clubbable”–you’ve heard it all before.

Maybe you even wrote it before. Here’s Heilbrunn discussing how supporters of the war in Iraq began to criticize the Iraqis once the war effort faltered:

David Brooks blamed the Iraqis for succumbing to innate “demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise…even in the face of self-immolation.” Leon Wieseltier said much the same thing in The New Republic:

The security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called “the foreigner’s gift,” belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not only be given, they must also be received…. For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been free people. What have they done with their freedom?…After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.

Here’s a passage I wrote in an article about Hannah Arendt published in the January 4, 2007, issue of The London Review of Books:

According to the New York Times columnist David Brooks, after the fall of Saddam the Iraqis succumbed to their native ‘demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise…even in the face of self-immolation’. Liberal hawks such as Leon Wieseltier believe much the same thing:

The security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called ‘the foreigner’s gift’, belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not be only given, they must also be received…. For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom?… After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.

The identical order and nearly identical setup of the same quotes, with the same ellipses, caught my attention, especially since Heilbrunn cites only Wieseltier in his footnote. But I dismissed it as a single instance of carelessness. Then I found another. Here’s Heilbrunn, in a chapter called “Redemption,” talking about Ronald Reagan’s human rights policy:

For example, on April 30, 1981, [Reagan] remarked, “Even at the negotiating table, never shall it be forgotten for a moment that wherever it is taking place in the world, the persecution of people for whatever reason…persecution of people for their religious belief…that is a matter to be on that negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table.” But the New York Times reported on the same day that “after the speech, a White House spokesman said Mr. Reagan had not meant to alter his policy of playing down the rights issue in foreign relations.”

Here’s Patricia Derian, Jimmy Carter’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, in a November 7, 1981, article in The Nation:

On April 30, The New York Times quoted President Reagan as having said that “even at the negotiating table, never shall it be forgotten for a moment that wherever it is taking place in the world, the persecution of people for whatever reason…persecution of people for their religious belief…that is a matter to be on that negotiating table or the United States does not belong at that table.” In the same edition of the Times, a front-page story reported that “after the speech, a White House spokesman said Mr. Reagan had not meant to alter his policy of playing down the rights issue in foreign relations.”

Heilbrunn, it turns out, borrows more than the syntax, setup and sources of other people’s writings. Sometimes he reproduces, sentence by sentence, the arc and logic of their prose. Here he is again on Reagan’s human rights policy:

Reagan was initially rather disdainful of human rights, which he showed unmistakably by nominating Ernest Lefever, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger as well as the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center (which Abrams himself would head in the 1990s), to be assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs. Lefever had declared that human rights were irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy and, furthermore, that any legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation’s observance of human rights should be repealed. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had a Republican majority, rejected his nomination.

Here’s Derian again, in that same Nation article:

The President nominated Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Lefever’s publicly stated views on the subject were (a) that all legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation’s observance of human rights should be repealed and (b) that human rights had no place in U.S. foreign policy. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a Republican majority, handed the President his first important defeat by voting 13 to 4 to reject the nomination.

Each passage contains three sentences, plotting the same arc with essentially the same information: Reagan nominated Lefever; Lefever held two views on human rights; a Senate committee rejected Lefever. Heilbrunn even duplicates Derian’s prose–“that all legislation making foreign aid conditional on a nation’s observance of human rights should be repealed”–with a negligible change of “all” to “any.” While Heilbrunn does cite Derian for a comment on Reagan’s policy, he does not cite her or her article as the source of his information, quotations, argument and language.

Heilbrunn is a journalist, not a scholar; he is a former senior editor at The New Republic and a former member of the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Yet he or his publisher has packaged this book as a serious piece of original research. It comes with blurbs from esteemed academics and highly regarded journalists. It has extensive footnotes with primary sources, suggesting an author who has moled away in archives and microfiche reading rooms for months, if not years. Has he?

The mise-en-scène of Heilbrunn’s chapter “Wilderness” describes the raucous 1967 convention of the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP) in Chicago. Heilbrunn claims that his only source is a 1967 article in The New York Times Magazine by Walter Goodman. Yet several items in Heilbrunn’s account don’t appear in Goodman’s article. There is this statement from William F. Pepper, executive director of the NCNP, to the convention: “It may well be that what you begin here may ultimately result in a new social, economic and political system in the United States.” There is also a claim that some of the organization’s funding came from Martin Peretz, then a member of the New Left. There is even that middle initial “F” in Pepper’s name, which Goodman never uses. Each of these items does appear, however, in an April 2003 Journal of American Studies article by historian Simon Hall, who did find them by digging in archives (at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin) and poring over microfiche (“Political Activities of the Johnson White House, 1963-69”).

The second problem, then, with They Knew They Were Right has to do with its fast-and-loose use of sources. Heilbrunn harvests quotes, in the same order and with the same ellipses, from sources he neither acknowledges nor cites. His expository frames for these quotes closely resemble or repeat those of his sources. Passages in his text trace the arc of passages in other texts. On at least two occasions, he expropriates the research of others without attribution. And on at least one occasion, he passes off the prose of another writer as if it were his own. His sourcing is sloppy, his thinking borrowed, his writing derivative.

And, in the end, his argument about the neocons is incoherent. One of the reasons the neocons succeed, Heilbrunn claims, is that they don’t compromise their principles. Consequently, “the political class in each party regards them with a mixture of appreciation and apprehension, even loathing.” Yet Heilbrunn also claims that neoconservatism has “become a partisan cause dedicated to advancing the Republican Party’s electoral fortunes rather than an independent collection of thinkers.” The neocons “started out as intellectuals who were attracted to power. Soon enough, however, the prospect of access to the high and mighty became an end in itself.” So, are the neocons sticklers or hacks, purists or politicos? Similarly, Heilbrunn introduces Norman Podhoretz as “a compulsive truth teller,” a “true prophetic type.” One page later, however, Podhoretz moves to the left because of a “shrewd assessment that American culture was moving left.” Two pages after that, he puts “another finger to the wind and tack[s] rightward.” In Heilbrunn’s universe, men who cannot surrender their principles surrender their principles; truth-telling prophets write books with titles like Making It.

Heilbrunn sets out to tell one story: how a group of moralists enter the Promised Land, discover that prophecy comes more easily to them in the wilderness and long to flee back into exile but can’t. He winds up telling another story: how a group of intellectuals enter the Promised Land, gain access and power and, to the apparent regret of no one save Heilbrunn, lose their edge. This first story is sad; the second, comic. But Heilbrunn can’t seem to tell the difference between them. Perhaps that is why he can say, with no evident sense of irony, that the neocon errand into the wilderness came to a climax when Seymour Martin Lipset, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and James Q. Wilson arrived at the government department at Harvard.

If Heilbrunn had a better grasp of the history of conservatism, he might have been able to turn his confusion into insight. Ever since it emerged from the shadows of the French Revolution, conservatism has been a movement of insiders pretending to be outsiders. Who better to make the case that the insider is really an outsider than the outsider who has become an insider? Staffing the offices of reaction, parvenus and upstarts can argue, like no one else, for a modernized mass feudalism. Their very presence at the centers of power signals that privilege has indeed become democratic.

Hailing from the periphery, they also instruct old and sclerotic elites in the ways of renewal and renovation. Joseph de Maistre, a jurist and diplomat from Savoy, tutored counterrevolutionary France, even though he never was a subject or citizen of that country. Edmund Burke, the bourgeois Irishman, defended aristocratic England against the Jacobins. Alexander Hamilton, bastard child of the Caribbean and rumored son of racially mixed parentage, led the Federalist reaction. Disraeli the Jew gave the Tories confidence and style. Kristol the Jew–like Scalia the Italian, Fukuyama the Asian and all the hyphens of today’s conservative movement–gave the Republicans ideas and zeal.

Barry Goldwater’s mother was a descendant of Roger Williams. His father, who converted to Episcopalianism, was a descendant of Polish Jews. When Goldwater ran in 1964, Harry Golden quipped, “I always knew the first Jew to run for president would be an Episcopalian.” If the history of conservatism is any guide, perhaps he should have run as a Jew.

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