Russell Jacoby’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on conservative “anti-intellectualism” purports to lament the absence of real conservative intellectuals. Instead, he says, conservatives have abandoned serious thinking and turned to ideology or class resentment against “elites,” including college professors and the educated in general. This, by and large, is a silly view, one already exploded by several writers including Daniel McCarthy at The American Conservative (which Jacoby, no surprise, does not mention).
Of the five conservative intellectuals whose example Jacoby raises for us as worthy of emulation, two—Leo Strauss and Edmund Burke—are dead, and only Wilfred McClay is at the height of his powers and a truly important conservative intellectual figure. Needless to say (although apparently it does need to be said), the conservative tradition, even now, is broader and richer than those five figures suggest. Jacoby doesn’t think much even of Burke, demeaning his attacks on “lawyers and writers” for starting the French Revolution as the precursor to conservatism’s supposed anti-intellectualism. (Burke was largely right, but why let that stop a good story?)
This article could have been written today or twenty years ago—and indeed, it has been. Judge Posner wrote about a supposed conservative intellectual “collapse” only three years ago, and wasn’t the historian Richard Hofstadter warning about the “paranoid” style of conservative thinking fifty years ago?
These pieces would be more tiresome except for what they reveal about the limitations of the liberal mind. Liberals are always looking for the conservative intellectual tradition. They never find it. Such articles are written to comfort liberals that they do not actually have to look for a conservative critique of liberalism because all conservatives have to offer is resentment, anger, or mindless class-hatred. Take Jacoby’s assertion that conservatives “rarely mention hyperconsumerism or advertising or a rigidifying class structure—the byproducts of advanced capitalism. Rather, they dwell on the presumably corrosive ideas of the educated, especially the professoriate.” No mention here of the strong conservative critique of consumerism by such authors as my own intellectual mentor Russell Kirk or the folks at Front Porch Republic, Image, and The Imaginative Conservative, among many others. No mention of the vigorous thinking on display at such places as First Things or the Claremont Review of Books. Nor is there even a mention of the attacks on crony capitalism supporting unsustainable practices such as that revealed by, among others. Tim Carney. Just within the past few years, conservatives have published and discussed important books, as my own journal, The University Bookman, displays weekly.
But complaining about Jacoby’s missing the actual conservative intellectual tradition is to treat the article as a serious analysis, when it is nothing more than what someone once called an irritable mental gesture, meant to confirm existing conclusions rather than think about them.
Gerald Russello is Editor of the University Bookman.