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Goldberg’s Conservative Canon
A motley affair.


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Jonah Goldberg

This week I received between 400-500 e-mails from readers seeking to settle the burning question of what the beverage of choice is in the White Trash Community. I have nobody to blame for this onslaught but myself. I literally asked for it. I haven’t scientifically tallied the votes and I have no intention of doing so.

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By my rough accounting, the consensus is that Mountain Dew leads the pack (partly because so many Nascar fans drink it), slightly ahead of RC (Royal Crown) cola and Mello Yello and my original choice, Mr. Pibb. Then come any number of regional suggestions including various Wal Mart, Kroger, and Safeway generic brands. Tab, one fellow assured me, was the beverage of choice for “citified” trash.

Please, please, do not think for a moment that just because I have not mentioned putting peanuts in this or that cola, or that since I’ve neglected to mention Yoohoo or moonpies or Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, that I haven’t heard enough on these topics. I would run a poll to settle these issues but I am so sick of them I dread providing another outlet.

While reader discussion of White Trash sodie pop is a wellspring of wisdom (yes, that screeching sound you hear and burning rubber you smell comes from my whiplash- inducing topic change), there’s another topic that many readers continue to inquire about. They want to know what to read. When I tell them they should read Juggz, they say “no, no, what conservative books should I read?”

So, because I did C-Span this morning and Cosmo the Wonderdog insists that the squirrels in the park must be punished for their free-thinking ways sooner rather than later, I thought I’d proffer a selective reading list.

For those of you uninterested in this sort of thing, you can check out my syndicated column today addressing Clinton’s woes, or you could check out the piece I contributed for the Gipper’s 90th birthday.

OK, now that we’ve got rid of them, there’s a trick to suggesting conservative reading. Some people want to read the original conservative canon. You know the original, uncut junk. These are the books like The Conservative Mind or The Road to Serfdom which form the core of modern conservative philosophy.

But other people don’t want to read the Pentateuch if they’re already converted. These folks like to read about the movements such books spawned. In this category, most of the books are crap. Generally written by liberals and leftists who do not understand conservatism, the bulk of this stuff should be avoided.

Then there’s a third category. These are the crib-sheet books, the compilations, quote books, “dictionaries” and encyclopedias, that distill things down for people who have read a bunch from categories one and two, but don’t have time to thumb through The Unheavenly City or Crisis of a House Divided every time they need a quote. If you haven’t guessed, these are the most dog-eared tomes in my own library.

But here’s the problem. Many books are important because they were very influential when they were written; they plowed new ground. But this formerly new ground is now in the rear-view mirror and so it doesn’t have the same power of new insight anymore.

After all, when you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, the fifth guy down doesn’t seem as impressive as he used to. But there’s no way Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education could have been written if Bill Buckley hadn’t first written God and Man at Yale. But I’m not sure I would recommend G&M@Y to a conservative newcomer.

Also, you should remember that conservatism by it’s very nature doesn’t demand an all-purpose, answer-to-everything book (See “Big Bad Wolfe“.) Or, look at it this way. Ben Franklin’s scientific writings are important to the history of science, but not too useful for contemporary physics. On the other hand, if all you use are the Cliff Notes you’ll never have a real sense of what they’re referring to.

So, herewith are my suggestionsin no particular order for 10 books though perhaps not the 10 books that make up my all-purpose Swiss Army knife for conservative initiates.

1. The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, by George Nash. I have read most or all of this book about 37 times. It is exhaustively researched and gives a real sense of the internecine debates and conflicts within the movement. It was recently updated to include the Contract With America era, but I’ve not read the new stuff and I haven’t heard anything great about it. In certain conservative circles, people show off how old and beaten-up their copy is.

2. The Portable Conservative Reader, edited by Russell Kirk. The key word here is “portable.” There are scores of excellent conservative collections. The most exhaustive, I believe, is the four-volume The Wisdom of Conservatism, edited by Peter Witonksi, and I would be sent to the stockade if I didn’t mention Keeping the Tablets, edited by William F. Buckley and Charles Kesler (which may have been updated by now). No, Kirk’s Portable Conservative Reader is the kind of book you can carry around and read while waiting for a bus and it’s got a little something for everybody.

3. A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, is an extremely useful analysis of the differences between the conservative world view and the liberal world view. Much of it is a survey of the great conservativeand libertarian thinkers but there is much excellent original analysis and it is eminently readable.

4. History of Political Philosophy by Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. Warning! Warning! Danger! Young Conservative Geek!

Many Straussians believe that your eyes will catch fire if you read Leo Strauss directly and your IQ is not twice your bodyweight. I have never had this problem, but you can’t be too careful, so I avoid Strauss’ books like an all-you-can-eat buffet at an Indian-run Motel Six. But The History of Political Philosophy is a collection of Straussian essays that have been diluted enough that even middle-brows like me can understand (most) of them. This will give you the generally conservative take on many political philosophers. But really, really be careful, because it’s far from accepted orthodoxy even within the conservative movement. Outside the movement, it’s bonfire fodder. I cited an essay from there once in a college paper, and a professor circled the footnote and wrote in two inch block letters up the side of the page, “STRAUSS SUCKS!!!”

Gosh, I miss the academy.

OK, OK. The libertarians. I’ve got to deal with them. First off, if this was a list of the most important books, The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek would have to be near the top of the list. But for these purposes I would stick with two collections of Hayek’s writings. (4) The Essence of Hayek, edited by Chiaki Nishiyama (I know, I love his work too) and Kurt Leube. The second book would be (4) The Fatal Conceit. This is all the Hayek you’ll ever really need to read, but, remember, you must read some Hayek.

Now, let me digress here. As you know, I consider Libertarians to be like Celtic barbarians deployed by British kings in the Middle Ages against the Scots or the French. They are extremely useful for fighting your enemies, but you would never want one to actually sit on the throne. I consider Hayek to be much less of a libertarian than the abstraction-loving semi-anarchists who use the label today. Indeed, Hayek is distrusted by some pure libertarians because he didn’t write about Star Trek. No, just kidding. He’s distrusted by zealots because he had a go-with-what-works approach. I try to stay very clear of such arguments, but if you want the purist libertarian stuff, go read something by Ludwig Von Mises. Honestly, though, I don’t know what that would be.

If you want something more elegant and readable, I cannot recommend more Charles Murray’s slender and deviously persuasive (5) What It Means To Be a Libertarian. For what it means to be a neoconservative, I would not recommend any book with the word “neoconservative” in the title except either of the books by Irving Kristol: (6) Reflections of a Neocon or (6) Necon: Autobiography . But I would not say you should get both as there’s a lot of overlap.

The Paleos would cut my heart out with a spoon or maybe something even dullerlike their sense of humorif I didn’t put at least one of their tomes on the list. Richard Weaver pointed out a long time ago that ideas have consequences in his landmark work, (7) Ideas Have Consequences . To be honest, I haven’t cracked the book in a long time and I don’t think I ever read it cover to cover in the first place. But do as I say, not as I do.

Because I rarely wear underwear and when I do it’s usually something pretty unusual as I’m pretty quirky. No wait, that’s not right. Because I’m quirky, I think you should read Robert Nisbet’s (8) Prejudices: A Dictionary (OUT OF PRINT). Quite simply, I love this book. It’s not particularly famous or influential, but it is the best bit of high-minded conservative crankiness around. If you find it in a used-book store, buy extra copies because you will want to give it away as a gift. The best thing about it is that each chapter is really, really short, which is great for my self-esteem.

9. Conservative Tradition in America by Charles Dunn and J. David Woodward doesn’t seem to get the respect it deserves. It’s a short, to-the-point and shockingly thorough survey of conservatism. It’s got lots of lists that lava-lamp intellectuals will find very useful.

10. There’s a big argument out there about when the last truly funny line of Stripes occurs. Some say it’s the moment Bill Murray says, “were gonna party Italian-style” on the parade grounds. Some people say it comes when John Candy insists, for the last time, that he gets the top bunk. Others say the moment the comedy died was when the soldier tells John Larroquette that Murray and Ramis took the EM-50 to get washed. There are some who are offended by the suggestion that Stripes wasn’t hilarious all the way through to the “a party for me!?” line.

This debate largely mirrors the debate over (10) Closing of the American Mind. I don’t know if it’s when Bloom starts talking about the Nietzscheanization of the Left or perhaps when he delves too deep into Kantianism. All I can tell you is that at some point, I found it so difficult to read I started saying, “Look! Clouds!” out the bus window about halfway through. That said, the first half is so brilliant and wonderful, like the first half of Stripes, the book is still worth it.

I hope this is helpful. I don’t know if you guys found this helpful, but if you like, we can do a similar list of famous articles, etc. In the meantime, Cosmo is muttering about the perfidy of squirrel Jacobinism.



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