To judge simply by the responses we have received, a good many readers did not like the editorial in the March issue, “Christians, Jews, and Anti-Semitism.” Some responses, we are sorry to say, gave all the appearances of reflecting the evil that the editors were intending to counter. On the other hand, more readers applauded the editorial. We have done no readership survey on responses to the editorial, nor do we need one in order to know that the question of anti-Semitism continues to be surrounded by confusions and passions of baffling variety.
The editorial was partly occasioned, readers will recall, by William E Buckley’s much-remarked December essay in National Review, “In Search of Anti-Semitism.” In that essay, Buckley concluded that James Freedman of Dartmouth College had abused the charge of anti-Semitism in order to impose political correctness, that Gore Vidal is an anti-Semite, and that Joseph Sobran and Patrick Buchanan had made anti-Semitic statements, even though they are not anti-Semites. Not surprisingly in view of his part in the presidential campaign, most of the subsequent discussion has focused on the case of Pat Buchanan.
Some of the reactions would be amusing were they not so ugly. The Illinois-based Chronicles, the flagscow publication of something called the John Randolph Society, an unabashedly reactionary collection of “paleoconservatives,” lashes out with a vicious personal attack on Buckley. According to Chronicles, Buchanan, Sobran, and friends are self-evidently not anti-Semitic, and “only the malevolent or the manipulated would bring in a verdict of guilty.” Speculating on who might be malevolent and manipulated, the article refers to a “backgrounder” published by the American Jewish Committee in 1990. It seems that the AJC backgrounder worried about Buchanan’s views on Jews and Israel, and expressed the hope that some non-Jewish conservative would pin him on the question of anti-Semitism. Comments Chronicles, “If Rasputin and Machiavelli had conspired over cocktails, they could not have concocted a more furtive stratagem.” Obviously—or at least it is obvious in the fevered world of Chronicles—the AJC gave Buckley the contract to hit Buchanan. Which is another way of saying: “We and our friends are not anti-Semitic, and anybody who says otherwise is a tool of the Jewish conspiracy.”
Things got muddled also, however, in the usually thoughtful world of National Review. After its founder and president determined that Buchanan had repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements, that journal went ahead and endorsed Buchanan in the primaries as a “protest” against President Bush’s meanderings from conservative policies. Eleven distinguished figures, plus two editors of this journal, signed a letter protesting any endorsement, even a “tactical endorsement,” of a candidate who refused to retract his anti-Semitic remarks. In response, NR editor John O’Sullivan wrote that anti-Semitism is indeed a singularly odious offense and “we cannot treat it as a minor character flaw or mistaken policy preference, to be tacitly accepted in a candidate or organization otherwise sensible.” Good. He went on to say that “we would not have endorsed Mr. Buchanan if we had believed him to be anti-Semitic.”
The question is not whether Pat Buchanan is anti-Semitic but whether he has made anti-Semitic statements for which he refuses to apologize. Mr. O’Sullivan says it is wrong to view “the sum of his writings as anti-Semitic.” Mr. Buchanan has written millions of words and it would be hard to know what “the sum of his writings” might be on many issues. Mr. Buckley and the thirteen signers of the letter did not pass judgment on the sum of his writings but on a specific number of statements that were unmistakably anti-Semitic in character. In the same issue O’Sullivan writes that people must “seek to entice Mr. Buchanan into overcoming his pride and offering an apology for the remarks that, whether unfairly or not, have caused him to be labeled anti-Semitic.” But if the remarks (not Mr. Buchanan) were unfairly labeled anti-Semitic, it is hard to know why Mr. Buchanan should apologize.
Now, in fact, Mr. Buchanan has repeatedly and publicly insisted that he is not anti-Semitic. In an interview with Pat Robertson’s Christian America, he says: “Pat Buchanan is a believing and true Christian. And no true Christian can carry within his heart hatred for any of God’s children . . . With regard to the Jewish people, I am as aware as any other Christian that our Savior was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. The apostles were Jewish. The first martyrs were Jewish . . . So no true Christian, in my judgment, can be an anti-Semite.” Moreover, talking to the conservative weekly Human Events, Buchanan said, “My view with regard to the Israelis is that the United States has a sort of moral commitment, if not an alliance, to guarantee the security and survival of the Israeli state. That would be maintained in a Buchanan Administration.”
If we credit the sincerity of these statements, and we do, it makes it all the more puzzling that Mr. Buchanan makes assertions that so many reasonable people—including people who are otherwise sympathetic to him and his views—are forced to describe as anti-Semitic. And it makes it more puzzling still why, months later, he persists in refusing to retract the statements in question, or, at the very least, to apologize for making statements that lent themselves to such hurtful misunderstanding. For even the most charitable, that stubborn refusal has to raise a question about Mr. Buchanan’s character. Like Mr. Buckley, and apparently unlike Mr. O’Sullivan, we believe that the statements in question were fairly judged to be anti-Semitic. Surely it is up to Mr. Buchanan to explain how someone who is not an anti-Semite could make such statements, and why he did not mean what so many thought he meant.
A substantial part of the March 16 issue of NR is given to responses to Mr. Buckley’s original essay. It seems a good many NR readers think that anti-Semitism is simply a non-issue, and they resent Buckley’s argument to the contrary. The gist of Joseph Sobran’s extended essay in that issue of NR is that anti-Semitism is no more than an epithet intended to intimidate those who are critical of U.S. policy toward Israel. He writes, “An ‘anti-Semite,’ in actual usage, is less often a man who hates Jews than a man certain Jews hate . . . . The term ‘anti-Semitism’ doesn’t stand for any intelligible concept.” Hugh Kenner agrees. Anti-Semitism, he writes, “has no stable meaning; it can run all the way from gas ovens to a mere wish that Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times would moderate his frenzies. And a term that has no stable meaning is simply not a profitable head for rational discussion.”
It is an intriguing observation. One might ask whether words such as “anti-Semitism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” and “racism” have been so debased as terms of political correctness that they should be consigned to the linguistic dustbin. In the case of “sexism” and “homophobia,” we are inclined to answer in the affirmative. There are misogynists who hate or devalue women, and there no doubt are people who fear homosexuals or their own homosexual impulses. But we do not need the terms “sexism” and “homophobia” to describe the phenomena in question. “Sexism” and “homophobia” are terms of recent ideological invention and are designed as weapons to discredit opponents in the culture wars in which our society is embroiled. One rejects these terms not, pace Hugh Kenner, because they have no “stable meaning” but because their meaning and ideological intent are altogether too clear. (If one were to reject terms because they have no stable meaning, one might begin in our deranged times with Professor Kenner’s “rational discussion.”)
The situation is different with “racism” and “anti-Semitism.” Granted, both terms have been much abused and thereby debased. (In our judgment, the former more than the latter.) But here an old theological axiom applies, abusus non tollit usum, the abuse does not abolish the use. Racism may be defined as the view that different races are inherently superior or inferior, and that the superior race(s) should dominate the inferior. Racism undergirded slavery in our history and, despite the term’s being so loosely tossed about, it is by no means absent from American life today. As for anti-Semitism, we tried a definition of it in the abovementioned editorial and will not try again here. There is a historical record and a vast literature illuminating anti-Semitism and its consequences. Those who claim that the term is no more than a polemical artifice are either culpably ignorant or are prepared, for whatever reason, to trivialize one of the most deadly diseases of the modern era.
The end result of the renewed attention to anti-Semitism may be, contrary to many good intentions, to trivialize the question of anti-Semitism. It simply becomes one more interesting issue that serves as grist for the conversational mills of the chattering classes. As has unhappily happened with the term “racism,” the mention of “anti-Semitism” loses its power to evoke caution and reflection among decent people. That most calm and lucid of neoconservatives, Irving Kristol, writes in NR that he has in the past been inclined to discount alarms about anti-Semitism in American life. Now he is not so sure. If Pat Buchanan can get away with repeatedly making anti-Semitic statements, something may be changing. “Pat Buchanan is ostensibly running for President,” writes Kristol, “but in truth his ambition is to assume leadership and to reshape the American conservative movement. Should he succeed, this movement will have suffered its greatest defeat since the election of 1964, which set the liberal tone for American politics for the next 15 years . . . . By importing into American conservatism a set of anti-Semitic innuendos, [the Buchananites] are debasing the conservative movement and robbing it, in the eyes of the public, of its political legitimacy.”
The John Randolph Society, of which Buchanan is a member, takes a very different view of the matter. What others see as anti-Semitism, says the society’s president Murray Rothbard, does not need to be “imported” into conservatism. It is part of the authentic conservatism of the “Old Right” that the Randolphites are determined to restore. In a presidential address to the society, Rothbard rails against “Pope Buckley” and his efforts to “excommunicate” undesirables from the conservative movement. Over the decades, Buckley and NR succeeded in reading out of the conservative movement such as the Ayn Rand fetishists, the John Birchers, the white supremacists, and the anti-Semites. He made conservativism “respectable” in American political culture, and respectability is precisely what the Randolphites despise.
A sample of Rothbard’s rantings: “Pat Buchanan’s race for the Presidency has changed the face of the right wing . . . He has created a new radical, or Hard Right, very much like the original Right before National Review . . . [We] frankly don’t give a fig for Buckley’s papal pronunciamento. The original Right, and all its heresies is back! . . . That movement, neither kind nor gentle, now sets the agenda, and sets the terms of the debate.”
Rothbard’s victory claims are undoubtedly premature. But the stated ambitions of the Randolphites are not implausible. At least for the moment, they are on a high, and not without reason. But contemporary conservatism is composed of many parts. There is Buckley and the solid tradition of National Review, there are the neoconservatives, the “New Right” of evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics, and, yes, the much pilloried “country club” conservatives of the old Republican establishment. All of these groupings, which undoubtedly make up the great majority of Americans who call themselves conservative, view the Randolphite insurgency as appalling—because it is morally odious, because it is politically suicidal, or simply because it is tacky beyond endurance.
Will the Randolphites be an important factor in the years ahead? It seems very likely. Will they he the dominant force in defining American conservatism? We think not, and very much hope not. We hope not for many reasons, and not least because the “heresies” that Mr. Rothbard so relishes are in fact heresies. Racism, nativism, paranoid conspiratorialism, and anti-Semitism are heresies both moral and political. They have no place in civilized public discourse, and those who invite them back into the public square invite the conclusion of others that they have no place there either. And yet it may be that Rothbard is right, that his movement will for a time set the agenda and the terms of the debate. Certainly they have captured attention. The barbarians at the gates and within the gates inevitably come to the urgent notice of those who care about defending the civitas.
The resistance to anti-Semitism may already be one casualty of the assault. In the aftermath of the Third Reich, there was a strong taboo against even the slightest suggestion of anti-Semitism. On the left of our political culture, that taboo has long since been severely weakened or even eliminated. As with so many other social pathologies, it began in the 1960s. That’s when black power agitators felt free to blame “Jew boys” and “Shylocks” for their putative oppression, and most of their liberal sympathizers, including Jewish sympathizers, declared that they were in no position to censure the expression of “authentic black anger.” The taboo against anti-Semitism was further weakened by “third worldists” who discovered that the Palestinian cause served as an admirable weapon with which to bludgeon Israel as a tool of American “imperialism.” Regrettably, they were sometimes aided by opponents who recklessly equated reasonable criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
The result has been that, for the last twenty years, anti-Semitism has been a non-issue on the left. The Gore Vidals could vent their anti-Semitic bile and hardly raise an eyebrow. (The above-mentioned Chronicles has celebrated Gore Vidal as a model for conservatives.) In our political culture, the left can get away with tolerating many things for which the right would be mercilessly excoriated. It may not be fair, but so it is. It is also worth remembering that in this century, up until Buckley’s cleaning of the stables, anti-Semitism was understood to be a sin characteristic of the right. The appearance of anti-Semitism on the right, unlike its appearance on the left, plays to a negative stereotype that is deeply entrenched, and understandably so.
In recent decades, the line against anti-Semitism has been held by the conservative movement—by neoconservatives, by the Christian New Right, and by National Review under the leadership of William F. Buckley, Jr. That line of defense is now weakened by the attack of the Randolphites—an attack inadvertently aided by the inept response of National Review to their candidate, Pat Buchanan. If that line of defense against anti-Semitism and related heresies is broken, 1992 may be remembered, long after the excitements of this presidential campaign are past, as the year that American conservatism turned ugly, committing moral and political suicide. As aforesaid, the victory claims of the Randolphites are premature. For the sake of a common good that is above parties and movements, all of us have reason to hope that those claims are falsified, and soon.