Magazine article The American Conservative

Conservatism from A to Z

Magazine article The American Conservative

Conservatism from A to Z

Article excerpt

Conservatism From A to Z


[American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson, eds., 151 Books, 979 pages]

THE DINNER at Philadelphia's Old Original Bookbinder's restaurant last April celebrating the launch of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia was not your typical book party. For starters, many of those in attendance-the event coincided with the annual meeting of the Philadelphia Society-were profiled within or contributors to the book. At my table sat conservative movement historian Lee Edwards and Russell Kirk exegete Wesley McDonald, along with their delightful wives and the promising young conservative Gladden Pappin, son of Burke scholar Joseph Pappin III. Across the way was Midge Decter, embedded amid a phalanx of admiring retainers. At the podium stood the pre-eminent historian of the 20th-century intellectual Right, George H. Nash, whose remarks hit a note of ambivalence altogether unexpected at such a gathering.

Nash reminded his audience that many a great movement had begun as a church, turned into a business, and ended up as a scam. Would the American Right follow suit? His liberal acquaintances had warned Nash that the encyclopedia was a sure sign of senescence-conservatives turning in upon themselves to stare at their own navels. Yet Nash thought otherwise: the book was rather proof that the Right still cared about its roots and had amassed an intellectual tradition sufficient to fill a thousand-page tome, as effective a rebuttal as can be imagined to Lionel Trilling's famous pronouncement that American conservatives have no ideas but only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

Even so, Nash had raised doubts. The speaker who followed him, émigré historian John Lukacs, dispelled them-he left no doubt at all that the Right had become a scam, one colored by a nationalism "so broad as to be flat, so narrow in spirit as to be poisonous." The paradigmatic conservative city, he pointed out, would be a soulless conurbation in Texas-a Dallas or a Houston with a sky-high divorce rate. And the people who once complained about big government in fact "are for big government, as long as it's called 'defense.'"

I glanced over at Midge Decter, who looked like a basilisk. Tomorrow, I feared, the American Enterprise Institute might demand Lukacs's native Hungary be President Bush's next target for "liberation."

This book launch had the feel of a wake-an Irish wake for some, not so much for others-attended by Montagues and Capulets. Yet an appropriate spirit it was, for the book contains something of Nash's genteel ambiguity and Lukacs's unsparing honesty, as well as Decter's herpetological resolve. This is all to the good. American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia doesn't truck in the witless triumphalism that characterizes so much of the Right. Nor does it present any feigned unity. Instead, editors Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson-professor at Ave Maria law school and editor in chief and publisher of ISI Books, respectively-let all the many schools of thought within American conservatism (and libertarianism, too) have their own say. Entries on divisive figures are here given, as a general rule, to sympathetic profilers, which is the only way a book like this could have been assembled without becoming a polemic in its own right. "The reader will not get very far in this volume before beginning to notice the tensions and outright contradictions that exist and have exited among conservatives-on matters of principle no less than on matters of policy," the editors warn.

The encyclopedia has been gestating for over a decade-so long, in fact, that many of the most notable entries come from giants of the conservative movement who have since died. Russell Kirk, libertarian paragon Murray Rothbard, and Southern scholar Melvin Bradford all make posthumous appearances with new essays here. (All three men, who died in the mid-1990s, also receive biographical entries. …

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