The G-File

Politics & Policy

When the Tide Comes In

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
From the very beginning, NR has stood against the ‘irresponsible Right.’

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader,

Save Ike from the Kikes.”

I’d better explain.

This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Nazi troll armies’ march on Charlottesville, Va. To commemorate it, there will even be a march in Washington. No doubt many a parent’s fridge will be drained of provisions for the arduous journey to the nation’s capital.

While all attention will surely be on these sad events, it’s worth noting that we missed the 60th anniversary of another Washington protest just two weeks ago: The above-referenced “Save Ike from the Kikes” rally outside the White House on July 29, 1958.

It was led by George Lincoln Rockwell, the head of the National Committee to Free America from Jewish Domination.

The rally cost Rockwell some of his financial backers and hurt him with his own family too. But Rockwell, while shaken by the failure of the event, had his confidence restored when he was, in his telling, visited by Adolf Hitler in a series of dreams. He went on to found the American Nazi Party (and for a time tried to form a popular front against the Jooooz with the Nation of Islam. He called Elijah Muhammed the black Adolf Hitler. History is fun.).

But I get ahead of myself.

Right from the Beginning

That was 1958. In 1955, National Review appeared.

“A vigorous and incorruptible journal of conservative opinion is — dare we say it? — as necessary to better living as Chemistry,” wrote William F. Buckley in the mission statement in the first issue. Buckley also noted, “We begin publishing, then, with a considerable stock of experience with the irresponsible Right.”

That experience would only get more extensive over the years to come.

One of the first challenges came from the venerable magazine The American Mercury — of H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock fame — which had been bought in 1952 by Russell Maguire, a thoroughly anti-Semitic crank, in the tradition of Henry Ford and other tycoons who thought that the perfidious Jews were behind all that was wrong with the world. (I’m sorry to tell Charlie Cooke that Maguire also counted the Thompson Machine Gun business among his holdings.) At first, Buckley would later recall, Maguire kept his Judeophobia out of his magazine. But as Maguire grew more confident, the once-admirable Mercury sank deeper into the swampy muck.

“In the first three years of National Review Buckley and the editors had expressed their antipathy to the ‘irresponsible right’ by ignoring rather than criticizing it,” John Judis writes in his useful biography of WFB. But by the spring of 1959, “he was forced to go further.”

In January of 1959, The Mercury had run an editorial “revealing” a Jewish conspiracy of world conquest along the lines of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Buckley was under pressure from backers of NR and others to publicly rebuke and denounce The Mercury. But some on the NR board worried that it would cost the fledgling magazine many of its subscribers. One board member, Mrs. A. E. Bonbrake, whom Judis describes as “a Forest Hills housewife whom Buckley had promoted to the board as a representative grass-roots activist,” asked, “Since when is it the job of National Review to attack supposedly anti-Semitic publications?”

(More about that “supposedly” later.)

“But Buckley felt hypocritical at remaining silent,” Judis recounts. “He wrote Bonbrake, “I do not feel comfortable criticizing Liberals . . . for not disavowing objectionable Liberals, when I do not myself [disavow objectionable conservatives].”

Buckley first settled for a compromise: National Review’s editors would not write for The Mercury nor would National Review publish anyone associated with it. If you were on their masthead, you couldn’t be on ours. Remember, The Mercury had long been a respected publication on the right, and many of the writers at National Review had cut their teeth writing for it. Many were on both mastheads, in one capacity or another. No longer. You can be with us or with them, but not both. All but one writer sided with National Review.

James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers enthusiastically agreed with Buckley. Chambers welcomed the memo as a “liberation.” “How good, and how strong, it is to take a principled position,” Chambers wrote to Buckley. “It defines, and defining, frees. Now what is good and strong outside us can draw to us, about whom there is, in this connection, no longer question, equivocation. The dregs will be drawn to the dregs, and sink where they belong.”

A few subscriptions were cancelled, but not many. Quickly, other leading conservatives followed NR’s example and repudiated The Mercury.

Maguire was furious that Buckley had broken the popular-front orthodoxy of the Right. Maguire soon shriveled up to a footnote in obscure books; Buckley went the other direction, to understate it dramatically.

Now, I am not trying to whitewash National Review’s history. NR would go on to make some morally grievous editorial errors, particularly on civil rights. It would also rally to the defense of cranks, anti-Semites, and demagogues on too many occasions, albeit on free-speech grounds or in the name of the noble cause of anti-Communism.

And with the advantage of hindsight, one can argue that NR dawdled in excommunicating other elements of the irresponsible Right. That is always an issue with conservatives, who, by nature and design, prefer to measure at least twice before cutting even once. (“I must bear with infirmities until they fester into crimes,” as Edmund Burke said.)

But the principle that National Review should see itself as a steward of the responsible Right was not only established, it was tested, often. For example, see Al Felzenberg’s excellent account of Buckley’s decision to defenestrate the John Birch Society or Buckley’s famous essay “In Search of Anti-Semitism.”

In other words, if you want to argue that NR imperfectly lived up to its ideals, I can offer no categorical refutation. But I am unaware of any human or human institution that can be exonerated from such a charge. Indeed, no realistic moral principle is wounded by the charge that humans fail to execute it perfectly.

I bring all of this up because I am fairly disgusted by the current state of affairs.

As I recount in my latest column, the debate over whether or not social-media platforms should ban or shun Alex Jones is a sweeping indictment of the collective failure of countless institutions and individuals in our present age.

I am not referring to specific arguments, pro or con, on the question of what Facebook or Twitter should be doing. I find merit on all sides of that debate. I find myself in the darkly shaded portion of the Venn diagram between Jonathan Last’s camp and David French’s.

What bothers me is how high these bucks had to go before anyone thought, “Maybe it should stop with me?”

I’ve been writing a lot about how entertainment values have corrupted our politics. As I write in my book, “When we suspend disbelief, we also suspend adherence to the conventions and legalisms of the outside world. Instead, we use the more primitive parts of our brains, which understand right and wrong as questions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

This helps explain so much of the kayfabe nature of the Trump presidency, including the “I’d rather be a Russian than a Democrat” swag among supposed “America First” “nationalists,” Laura Ingraham’s nativist remarks the other night, and this sort of nonsense from Jeanine Pirro.

This isn’t purely a literary or metaphysical argument. The world that the Internet and cable television created flattened the landscape. National Review may still see itself as a gatekeeper, but the high walls that housed the gate, and gave the gate purpose, have been toppled. Tribalism isn’t just about us-vs.-them, it’s also about deferring to fame and status, investing in personalities rather than principles. As institutions lose their hold on us, we put our faith in celebrities.

Fame becomes its own defense, and instead of invoking principles to stigmatize and shun the irresponsible famous, we yoke convenient principles to the cause of rationalizing our feelings. The round peg of the First Amendment is crammed into square holes. Populist and anti-elitist boilerplate is slapped together to protect the indefensible from criticism. So-and-so has an “authentic constituency,” “Who are you to say what is a legitimate point of view?” “Who put you in charge of policing speech?”

Or as Mrs. Bonbrake once put it, “Since when is it the job of National Review to attack supposedly anti-Semitic publications?”

Under the right conditions, swamps grow. Like water seeking its level, bogs claim whatever they are allowed to claim until stopped by nature or man. That “supposedly” is the rhetorical device that says, “Let the swamp grass grow, it’s not my responsibility to prune it.” There was no legitimate defense of The Mercury against the charge of anti-Semitism. But by saying it was only “supposedly” anti-Semitic, Mrs. Bonbrake was really saying, “I choose not to care about the true or the good; instead I will let evil thrive, sheltered by a benefit of the doubt both unearned and unwanted by the rightly accused.”

I am not a huge fan of the argument that says, “The only cure for bad speech is more speech.” But if that argument is to mean anything at all, it must be applied seriously. In other words, if you want to defend the speech of Alex Jones or the bigots swarming out of the swamps, you cannot then denounce, belittle, or mock the exercise of anyone’s right to condemn that speech.

When it falls to a bunch of giant corporations — or the federal government — to decide what speech is permissible, it is usually a sign that the rest of civil society has failed to do its job. It is axiomatic that in a free society with a limited government, customs and norms should be strong and robust. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes require that all the rules be set from the top. The people have no right to organize institutions around values of their own choosing.

Back when Steve Bannon was still ginning up the alt-right and trying to turn Breitbart into a platform for it, the response from many on the right was to adopt a popular-front mentality and genuflect to the popularity and fame of performance artists such as Milo Yiannopoulos. Some of this was motivated by simple ignorance of the truth — an ignorance people such as Bannon and Yiannopoulos were all too eager to fuel. My view then, and now, is that everyone should not only be forced to choose between traditional conservatism and the alt-right but that they should force that choice on others. The correct response to the question, “Who am I to call out supposed bigots?” is “You’re a human being, an American, a Christian, Jew, conservative, liberal, or citizen.”

The same goes for cynical psychopaths such as Alex Jones. It was outrageous for Donald Trump to go on his show and praise him. It is outrageous and irresponsible that mainstream outlets blithely give airtime to clickbait hucksters and racist rabble-rousers.

The other day, I saw Candace Owens on several Fox News shows. I am not a fan of Owens, but my objection is not that she appeared on Fox or that Fox invited her to appear. My objection is that she has been a guest on Alex Jones’s Infowars.

Now, it is unfair to say that Owens should be banned for violating a rule that did not exist in the past. After all, lots of people have been getting the message that celebrity is its own reward and that anything done in service to your “personal brand” is justified if it “works” — in the form of getting you more clicks, ratings, or YouTube subscribers. But there would be nothing wrong and much that is right if Fox simply said, going forward, “If you exercise your free-speech rights by appearing on Alex Jones’s show, we will exercise our free-speech rights and bar you from ours.”

Oh, and if you think such niceties are unnecessary today because “winning” is the highest principle in an existential war with “the libs,” bear in mind that Buckley, Chambers, Burnham, and the other happy few conservatives at NR were far more outnumbered in 1955, and that the institutional forces arrayed against them were far more daunting, than anything conservatives face today. And yet Buckley understood, as he put it in Up from Liberalism, that “conservatism must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it.”

Cultures are shaped by incentives. The GOP has been grievously wounded and deformed by the refusal of conservatives, in and out of elective office, to lay down the correct incentives. By refusing to defend conservative dogma against “supposedly” racist and nativist forces, our dogma is being erased like the battlements of a sand castle when the tide comes in.

Various & Sundry

About Rockwell: I did not mention it above because it was irrelevant to the point I was making. But I know that some will play Gotcha! and point out that George Lincoln Rockwell briefly (less than six months) worked for National Review around the time of its founding. He had nothing to do with the editorial side of things — he was hired as a contractor to sell subscriptions on college campuses. When Rockwell’s anti-Semitism and Hitlerphilia manifested itself, Buckley condemned him. Years later, when the Liberty Lobby accused Buckley of having a close working relationship with Rockwell, Buckley sued and won.

Author’s Note: I apologize for the tardy nature of this “news”letter. On Friday, I had to appear on Fox News in the a.m. from NYC. I’m here because I had to pick up my daughter at the NYC drop-off for summer camp. And tending to an emotionally and physically exhausted 15-year-old took precedence. She went to bed at her grandma’s house last night at 5:30. As of this writing (10:30 a.m.), she is still asleep.

Animal Update: Because I am here at my mom’s pad, I am hanging out with her very, very fancy cats. This is Fafoon, and she will not be trifled with. Paddington, meanwhile, is actually a very cheery and fun feline, but he has very strong views about selfies. I’d show you a picture of Winston, the Scottish Fold, but he despises paparazzi. Meanwhile, Zoë and Pippa are doing great. Kirsten has taken them on some wonderful adventures this week. Would that we could all enjoy the simple pleasures of being a well-tended spaniel. I particularly love this picture. There was only moment of drama this week, when Pippa, frightened by a thunderstorm, got herself stuck under our enormous and enormously heavy bed frame. I will be home tomorrow to resume normal protocols.

ICYMI . . .

Last week’s G-File

Dude, where’s my God?

Sarah Jeong, Schumpeter’s child

David French is right about Alex Jones

Stephen Colbert is (was) wrong about Trump and me

Trump’s kayfabe

The latest Ricochet GLoP Culture podcast

My magazine essay about They Live (paywall)

Is Alex Jones our fault?

And now, the weird stuff.

Debby’s Friday links

Goat Simulator IRL

A low-speed chase

Double twin marriage

Florida Man achievement unlocked

New Ernest Hemingway short story being published

Rabid wolves attack helpless child

China’s bikeshare graveyards

How 2,000-year-old roads predict modern prosperity

D. B. Cooper mystery solved?

Abandoned Russia

Dogs steal package

How a textile shortage led to the invention of the bikini

How to steal a shark

The black sarcophagus opens

Swimming the English Channel

Aww

Man with Down Syndrome runs sock business

The black sarcophagus opens

Swimming the English Channel

Aww

Man with Down Syndrome runs sock business

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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