We Yell Not Just ‘Stop’ But ‘There’s a Better Way’

by Jonah Goldberg

‘I cannot remember a time when so many energumens were so variously proclaiming the Word to the multitude and telling them what they must do to be saved,” Albert Jay Nock wrote in an essay titled “Isaiah’s Job” (1936). “This being so, it occurred to me, as I say, that the story of Isaiah might have something in it to steady and compose the human spirit until this tyranny of windiness is overpast.”

Well, it’s been just shy of 80 years since Nock wrote that, and if the tyranny of windiness ever dissipated, it has surely returned and tightened its grip. Nock was a founding father of both modern American libertarianism and conservatism. But he was no activist. If anything, he was the first inactivist.

Perhaps because he lived in a time when the “wave of the future” — to borrow a phrase from Anne Morrow Lindbergh — was one flavor of statism or another, he felt there was nothing to be done other than hold onto something solid and ride out the rough seas below and ahead.

In that essay, Nock rewrote the tale of the Prophet Isaiah. At the end of King Uzziah’s reign in 740 b.c., God asked Isaiah to warn the Jews of His wrath to come. But God told Isaiah: “I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

So why send me on this errand in the first place? Isaiah asked. “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

Albert Jay Nock believed in standing on the sidelines of history, whispering that even the worst waves eventually stop. Buckley believed one must stand in the path of the wave, “athwart History, yelling stop!” — so that others might hear you.

Nock was a mentor to William F. Buckley and Nock’s voice echoes throughout Bill’s thought and prose. But it was just an echo. Buckley took up Isaiah’s mantle, but not Nock’s fatalism. Nock believed in standing on the sidelines of history, whispering that even the worst waves eventually stop. Buckley believed one must stand in the path of the wave, “athwart History, yelling stop!” — so that others might hear you.

What Bill understood was that history is not in fact a cold impersonal force, like a wave. It is the collective result of human will. And human will can be argued with in a way that a wave cannot. The remnant not only hears such arguments, it responds — and, on occasion, it rallies.  Goethe’s advice was better than Nock’s; “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”

You are one of those mighty forces, and we rely upon your aid.

I’ve written more of these appeals than I can count. On one level it is a chore. I hate asking people for money even when they owe it to me. Asking people who owe me nothing — in fact, people we at National Review owe so much to — is worse than a chore, it’s an imposition.

But it’s also necessary. The tyranny of windiness is once more loose upon the land. Those shouting loudest once again want to convince the world that the coming wave of the future is inevitable and everyone should get out of its way. We seek not just to stand athwart it, yelling Stop, but shouting even louder, “there’s a better way.”

And for that, we need your help.

— Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review