Rick Perlstein Schools Mark Lilla

16 Mar

After discussing the forgotten lunacies of the conservative movement during its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s—including one Fred Schwarz, right-wing crackpot and author of You Can Trust the Communists: To be Communists—Rick Perlstein, who knows more about the American right than just about anyone, writes this:

The notion that conservatism has taken a new, and nuttier, turn has influential adherents whose distortions derail our ability to understand and contain it. In a recent New York Review of Books review of Corey Robin’s ground-breaking book The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, which traces continuities in right-wing thought all the back to the seventeenth century, the distinguished political theorist Mark Lilla pronounced that “most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley.” So what did a “reality-based conservative” like Buckley make of Fred Schwarz? Reader, he blurbed him, praising the good doctor for “instructing the people in what their leaders so clearly don’t know.” So, in fact, did Ronald Reagan, who in 1990 praised the quack’s “tireless dedication in trying to ensure the protection of freedom and human rights.” And here’s the late GOP heavyweight Jack Kemp, who wrote in praise of Schwarz’s 1996 memoir(Reagan is pictured with Schwarz on the flap): “How much I appreciate the fact that as much as anybody, including President Reagan, President Bush, and Pope John Paul … [Dr. Schwarz] has had the opportunity to educate literally thousands of young men and women all over the world in the struggle for democracy and freedom and the struggle against the tyranny of Communism.” The “establishment conservatives,” Reagan and Kemp, and the “nut,” Dr. Fred Schwarz, were never so far apart after all.

 You hear a lot about Ronald Reagan from the conservatives-are-nuttier-than-ever-before crowd: They praise him as a compromiser and point out, correctly, that he raised taxes seven of his eight years as president, in stark contrast to today’s Republicans, who refuse to raise them at all. Here’s the thing, as I wrote amid the hosannas after he died in 2004, during the awful reign of Bush: “It is a quirk of American culture that each generation of nonconservatives sees the right-wingers of its own generation as the scary ones, then chooses to remember the right-wingers of the last generation as sort of cuddly. In 1964, observers horrified by Barry Goldwater pined for the sensible Robert Taft, the conservative leader of the 1950s. When Reagan was president, liberals spoke fondly of sweet old Goldwater.”

Amen to that.  Rick also writes:
But are right-wingers scarier now than in the past? They certainly seem stranger and fiercer. I’d argue, however, that they’ve been this crazy for a long time. Over the last sixty years or so, I see far more continuities than discontinuities in what the rightward twenty or thirty percent of Americans believe about the world. The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look. What’s changed is that loony conservatives are now the Republican mainstream, the dominant force in the GOP.
Again, amen.

10 Responses to “Rick Perlstein Schools Mark Lilla”

  1. Paul Rosenberg March 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    “The crazy things they believed and wanted were obscured by their lack of power, but they were always there – if you knew where to look.”

    Amen to that! I remember reading “Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles” as a teenager, reading passages out loud with some friends, in fact, and laughing ourselves silly. There’s an awful lot to be said for their lack of power, if I may be so bold to say.

    It’s really remarkable the way so many are unconsciously conspiring to confirm & amplify your argument, Corey.

  2. Jack March 16, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    As opposed to a reasonable person like you, who has approvingly cited Leon Trotsky on this very blog? Schwarz may have been a nut, but at least he didn’t have an active hand in establishing what was by far the worst regime of the twentieth century: the Soviet Union.

    • Mike March 16, 2012 at 5:22 pm #

      and it seems that you are just itching to top Leon!

  3. marianne19 March 16, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    They were just as crazy but they didn’t have the right-wing Wurlitzer (talk radio, Fox News). Also, because they have total control of the party, the craziness gets reported in the mainstream media as well. So you hear it 24/7. That’s what’s different. Pre-Goldwater, it was harder to come in contact with the nuttiness.

  4. Ed Whitney March 17, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Prof. Robin:
    I would be most interested in sometime reading your thoughts about Andrew Bacevich, a self-identified “conservative” whose voice is one of sanity and clarity, especially when it comes to matters of war and US global hegemony. He will be interviewed by Bill Moyers next week. Does he, in your reckoning, count as a conservative, and if so, how does he fit into the general pattern of conservative thinking? I hope to see something about him one of these days on this website. He seems to me to be a counterexample to many common generalizations about conservatism.

  5. BillW March 18, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Bacevich’s prominence is itself indicative of a disturbing phenomenon. He’s no great shakes intellectually speaking and his prescriptions for a better world are shopworn pieties having to do with renewed fealty to the Constitution, George Washington’s speeches, etc. and an “Empire Lite” with, say, 750 military bases overseas instead of the current 1200. The notion that it was all the Neocon’s Svengali like influence over the Foreign Policy establishment that led to the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan has been shown over the last 3 years to be the panicky response of those innocent of what William Appleman Williams used to call the real contours of American history.

    The reason that Bacevich does not get ignored like so many others who share similar opinions is his military background. It’s a sad commentary on the agora for debate when a military record in the Vietnam War immediately catapults someone as uniquely qualified to speak on world affairs. You may be sure that Moyers will be fawning over Bacevich’s “service” over and over again in his interview, not to mention the “service” of so many others from small town Texas, like Moyers himself, in places like rural Cambodia and Afghanistan.

  6. Ed Whitney March 18, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    I would have said “Bacevich’s obscurity” rather than his prominence; to me, “prominent” would mean taking George Will’s place on the Sabbath Gasbags and other high-profile programs, rather than an occasional appearance on NPR or PBS.

    Bacevich devoted several pages to Williams in the first chapter of his American Empire, and has the advantage of being alive while Williams has the disadvantage of being dead, precluding his having the well-deserved media presence currently given to Andrew Bacevich, who makes it very clear that he sees American expansionism as a phenomenon as old as the republic itself. Hell, he even disapproves of the Mexican War! Most paleocons have no trouble with that, and see no reason to think that the US has much to answer for in its oppressive dealings with its southern neighbor. He seems to be well aware that American illusions about its divinely appointed role to redeem the world are not of recent origins, and predate the neocons by many generations.

    It does seem a bit anomalous for a “conservative” to say such nice things about Howard Zinn, and I remain curious as to how Bacevich fits into the general mold of conservatism.

  7. BillW March 19, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Being interviewed by Moyers is a sign of some prominence. Somehow I doubt he’ll be interviewing Corey any time soon. You have a good point that Bacevich has had something to do with Williams. My recollection of Bacevich is from 5-6 years ago when he was pointing at the Neocons as the source of all Washington’s troubles in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s good to see that he is capable of modifying his opinions in a substantial manner which alone puts him in a non-standard issue category of conservatives. Nonetheless, despite some rhetorical flourishes he still seems safely within the mainstream with his tactical criticisms of policy that fall within the cost/benefit ratio debates, so well known from Vietnam War era:

  8. reluctantcommenter March 25, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    Schwarz wasn’t even on the right, much less a “right wing nut”.

    He was a scholar of Communism, was vehemently opposed to the ideology, and was a Christian. He therefore had plenty of conservative support, along with his share of support on the left, but was himself politically unaffiliated, and took pains to say so. His area of professional interest and expertise was Communism and only Communism. He had no quarrel with the left at large, and no allegiance to the right. He also happens to have been an especially gracious, good humored and generous man, and it’s a shame to see him slandered in Rolling Stone and by extension on this blog.

    The Rolling Stone article provides no examples of anything insane or damaging Schwarz ever had to say (instead grasping at an out of context reference to ‘animal husbandry’ of all things), and you would think given the spirit of the piece that it would, were any examples readily available.

    Please, when reading this kind of thing, think critically. To many, Fred Schwarz remains a little known historical footnote. It’s easy to slander someone when most people are unaware of them, and when they’re not alive to defend themselves. The article exploits peoples ignorance about Schwarz’s life and work to disparage the likes of Buckley and Reagan for having supported him, but they supported him exactly because he was a thoughtful, moderate, sensible person – not because he was a nut, which he was not.

    Here’s Buckley saying something similar: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwVbTjL9ycs

  9. reluctantcommenter March 25, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    PS. The article also mentions David Noebel. It would be a big mistake to confuse Schwarz and Noebel’s world-views. Noebel is an admirer of Schwarz and republished Schwarz’s book after the author’s death. However, he added a number of chapters and changed the title to include a swipe against progressives, grossly distorting it’s meaning. All of this was done without Schwarz’s consent or involvement. He also publishes a newsletter called ‘The Schwarz Report” which bears Schwarz’s name and likeness on the masthead, but typically includes content that would likely, in my opinion, have embarrassed Dr Schwarz. Just as Fred Schwarz can’t defend himself against his critics, so too he is incapable of defending himself from his admirers. Try not to hold it against him.

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