Friday, April 30, 2021

                                                        April 30, 2021

 

MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey

 

The Survival of Western Culture:

The Response of Richard Strauss

                                                                 


Friends,

Readers of these occasional pieces will know that in addition to political issues, I also sometimes take a look at cultural questions, especially the role that film, music, and the arts play in determining the direction of our civilization. The arts are both the natural product and the creative work of our culture, a kind of essential gloss which more than most anything else expresses our values, our innermost beliefs, and, yes if within the Christian tradition, our devotion and thanks to our Creator. Thus, mankind from the earliest times has demonstrated its innermost convictions and understanding of who it is in the scheme of things and its place in that creation by artistic activity.

But the arts are more than just an emanation, more than a creative outflowing which expresses what a culture means or represents. Just as the great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages in architecture and Gregorian chant in music illustrated the religious—as well as artistic—sensibility of that society, the environment created by such works of art redounded also to strengthen and support the beliefs and understanding of those in that society.

Years ago, when I was in grad school in Spain, I recall engaging in a long-running discussion with another grad student, from England, over the role that cultural environment—our cultural ambiance and what we hold dear in it—plays in buoying up and offering real sustenance to a population. A culture—a society—in which its symbols and public iconography offer a reflection of what that society holds dear and believes can also strengthen and confirm the weakest of its members.

The late philosopher Frederick Wilhelmsen used the term “anneal,” in that a cultural environment bursting with symbols and reminders of its innermost beliefs acts similarly on a personal level to strengthen how friends with like views buttress each other: I am confirmed in my perspective by the fact that the friends surrounding me, who may be more precise and more adept in expression, give me encouragement, affirm me, and, in effect, make it easier for me to express myself without feeling isolated or perhaps doubting my own veracity.

In the older rural regions of France and Spain, dotted with ancient roadside crosses and small rural chapels and churches—or, in the landscape of the American South with its once very visible public display of the iconography and symbolism of monuments to its heroes and heroic epic, its Second War of Independence, 1861-1865—such public honor and significance indicated what that society held dear and important, but also reminded us, as the late Mel Bradford once wrote, “who we are” as a people and, indeed, as a civilization.

The unforgivable sin against Creation made by every Puritan reformer or iconoclast, whether a Cromwellian devil intent on uprooting the rich heritage of English culture in music and architecture, or a Communist commissar presiding over the despoliation of an ancient Russian Orthodox chapel, comes down essentially to the same thing: the destructive and anti-natural tendency that suppresses and separates man from His Creator and the creative inspiration implanted within man that enables him to both render honor to the Creator as well as express that divinely-granted gift through the arts. The arts—music, painting, architecture, film, and other areas of human creativity—present publicly the essential symbols of civilization, what it esteems and holds dear, they give it a certain continuity, add to and enrich its traditions, while, as I have said, strengthening us and the weaker among us in our beliefs and understanding of ourselves.

It has been a major accomplishment of the progressivist social justice warriors—the “woke” demonic revolutionaries—to understand that to defeat and undo the hated West, our Western and Christian civilization, the most effective means was through education and the arts, through corrupting our cultural environment and our system of learning (and its transmission to our progeny). Not so much through head-on attacks politically, which as Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci admitted a century ago had been largely ineffective, but via a “long march” through our educational and cultural institutions, the artefacts of our culture, would victory come.

This is why, in effect, the supposed “opposition” of the establishment conservative movement—“Con Inc.”—and Republican Party to the progressivist revolution has not only been ineffective, but at times positively nugatory and disastrous to the defense of Western culture. You can’t win a battle…a war…by half-measures, by splitting hairs, by attempting to placate the ravenous Beast of Revolution by sacrificing, even tepidly, some principles which form part of the whole of that culture in hopes that other principles (and maybe your financial assets!) will somehow survive the assaults.

Thus the utter foolishness and insanity of “Con Inc.” in eagerly giving up and joining the maddened herd demanding the eradication of memorials and symbols of Southern heritage, those monuments to our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, to their courage, their suffering, and their resilience. That attempt we now see every night on Fox News or spouted from the mouths of a Senator Tim Scott or Senator Lindsey Graham.

In the words of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “If you do not live what you believe, you will end up believing what you live.” If we do not oppose the Revolution and the destruction of our culture root-and-branch to its face, we eventually become like the isolated and deserted Aleksandr Kerensky in the Winter Palace in late 1918 who, after disauthorizing and disarming real opposition to the Bolsheviks, hoping to somehow placate them, ended up with nothing and no one to halt their victorious take-over of power in Russia.

The modern progressivist Left understands this all too well; it is a truth that too many of our self-declared modern defenders of Western culture have either forgotten, or due to their fear of the Left, refuse to understand. It is why St. Pius X reminded us in 1910 that “…the true friends of the people are neither revolutionaries, nor innovators: they are traditionalists.”

Our battle, and it is a battle to the death, must encompass not just our faith but our art, music, literature, our entire culture, what we surround ourselves with, what we teach our children and expose them to, what we pass on, and, if possible, add to. And it is precisely why we must appreciate and praise those giants of our civilization who have preceded us and made our culture richer and more agreeable by their creativity.

***************

I pass on an essay I originally wrote back in late 2019; recently, I very slightly updated it, and it was published by The Unz Review. I offer it today, as a contribution to that battle.

Richard Strauss and the Survival of Western Culture

https://www.unz.com/article/richard-strauss-and-the-survival-of-western-culture/

BOYD D. CATHEY • APRIL 26, 2021

For a number of years I’ve greatly admired and enjoyed the music of the German composer Richard Strauss (1864-1949). In his early years prior to the First World War, he was considered forward-looking, even musically avant-garde. Indeed, the aged defender of the German classical tradition—and another favorite—Max Bruch (d. 1920), found Strauss’ compositions too advanced and straying from that tradition.

Yet Strauss was formed in the richly productive culture of southern Germany, Bavaria and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and, even if he experimented with harmony and vocal lines in his operas Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), he never really departed from that early musical formation and an inspiration that he drew from his love of his native Bavaria and of imperial Vienna and the brilliant society that accompanied and informed it.[1] Son of noted musician and horn player in the Bavarian Court Opera Franz Strauss, from an early age, Richard received a thorough and complete musical education, demonstrating extraordinary talent in composition when only in his teens. By the late 1880s and 1890s, his symphonic tone poems, including Don Juan (1888), Death and Transfiguration (1889), and Also Sprach Zarathustra (1896) had established his fame throughout Europe and the United States. But it was later, in opera, that his eventual and permanent renown and preeminence would be secured.

 

In many ways as I listen to Strauss, I hear a great champion of Western culture, standing athwart the onrushing decline of Western music and art during the first half of the twentieth century.

 

Recently, I went back to listen in detail to several of Strauss’s vocal works. Re-hearing them, I reflected on their significance and resonance as our society sinks deeper into cultural decay.

 

Undoubtedly, Strauss’ most famous operatic work is Der Rosenkavalier (Dresden, 1911)—The Cavalier of the Rose. With a superb libretto by the great German dramatist and essayist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who shared Strauss’ conservative convictions,[2]

 
Der Rosenkavalier is a gloriously sentimental story of love and nobility, set in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Like some of Mozart’s stage works, it is essentially a comedy of manners, but one that pays deep and wistful honor to a bygone era and to a cultivated society that seemed to be disappearing even as Strauss was composing it. Indeed, through its comedic action runs, as well, a continuing, not so concealed sense of regret, a sense of loss of those customs, those standards and beliefs, those artistic traditions which made society worth fighting for.

 

The famous Act II waltz-sequence, with buffoonish character Baron Ochs dancing about, is justly famous. But even more so is the scintillating and wistful final scene, a trio, in which the Marschallin gives up her young lover Octavian to her rival Sophie, with both resignation and a special dignity that characterized the age.

 

The famous color film from the early 1960s with the legendary Elisabeth Schwarzkopf remains a remarkable work of art in itself.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31CtNc0Zp2c

Der Rosenkavalier, Final Trio, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Anneliese Rothenberger; Herbert von Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Chorus, in a film directed by Paul Czinner, 1962

 

Another Strauss work, the monumental mythical opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten [“The Wife without a Shadow”], premiered in Vienna in October 1919 right after the utter devastation of World War I (again with von Hofmannsthal the librettist): it could well be a musical metaphor for his very traditional view of marriage, and serve as an affirmation of life as a sacred gift from the Creator, as it is a passionate defense in music of childbirth and motherhood, and per extension, of the family. The story is a combination of fantasy and myth, with strongly symbolic elements that have much to say to our present-day society.

 

The main character, the Empress, is barren—symbolized by her lack of a shadow—and has every chance to seize a peasant woman’s shadow, thus enabling her to become fertile and have children. But coming to understand the sublime love that exists between the peasant woman and her husband Barak and the importance of children to them, she cannot bring herself to follow through with such an evil act, even when the life of her husband, the Emperor, depends on it. Fathoming this, she summons up moral courage and utters a refusal to take the peasant woman’s shadow: “Ich will nicht” (“I will not”). And because she now understands the importance of the unbreakable marital bond between husband and wife, and the significance of the procreative act and childbirth, miraculously, she too then is granted a shadow and the ability to bear children. The opera ends with a monumental chorus of children yet to be born and with both couples happily embracing. It is a moving story line.

 

In certain ways, it might serve as a musical emblem for the contemporary pro-life movement.

 

Strauss, with his full understanding of modern orchestration, was old-fashioned when it came to “tunefulness.” Like the Empress in Frau ohne Schatten, to the deconstructive tendencies of modernism in music, he too uttered: “Ich will nicht!” Strauss uses the full panoply of “modern” instrumentation and soaring melody to make a valiant stand for continuity and tradition in music. In a sense Strauss stood against the early 20th century “Vienna School” of dodecaphonic (“twelve tone”) music of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and others, which seemed to over-intellectualize and cut off the artist and separate him from traditional sources of inspiration, while making his creations inaccessible to a vast majority of listeners.

 

In 1945, after viewing the horrible ruins of his beloved Munich, its famous National Theater opera house and so much more bombed into smithereens, an aged Strauss composed his deeply moving “Metamorphosen” for string ensemble. A meditation on both the insanely destructive power of war and a concomitant musical commentary on Europe’s apparent cultural suicide, “Metamorphosen” also, by its very title, suggests something more, something yet hopeful amid the ruins. For a “metamorphosis” or re-birth, both cultural and spiritual, for Strauss was still possible, despite his own innate longing for a more civilized and decent age now gone.

 

Four years later, in 1949, Strauss composed his Vier Letze Lieder (“Four Last Songs”) only a few months before his death, and thirty years after the premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten in Vienna. These four songs are a remarkable tribute not just to his late, autumn-like genius, but a final, glorious tribute to the incredibly vibrant and rich cultural milieu of late Imperial Habsburg Vienna and Wittelsbach Munich where his career flourished. To listen to these short songs is to hear a noble artist of great culture, achievement, and sophistication bidding good-bye to all that is grand and truly estimable in Western tradition.

 

In the fourth song, Im Abendrot—“In the Gloaming”—(a setting of a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff), Strauss consciously says farewell, not only to his own well-lived life, but also to the civilization with which he has had a passionate love-affair, but now is in steep decline.

 

The words of the song bespeak what Strauss observes in post-war Europe:

 

Around us the valleys fold up,
already the air grows dark,
only two larks still soar
wistfully into the balmy sky.
(…)
O spacious, tranquil peace,
so profound in this gloaming.
How tired we are of traveling –
Is this perchance death?

 

Yet even here in what seems a wistful good-bye to a great and noble culture lost, Strauss injects a quotation from his much earlier tone poem of sixty years past, Death and Transfiguration, indicating that there is always a glimmer of hope for “transfiguration” and eventual renewal, if we strive for it—and if we have faith.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbA5bp-26NA

“Im Abendrot,” with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; Georg Szell conducting the London Symphony

 

As in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the “Four Last Songs,” and in his operas Der Rosenkavalier and Arabella set in the glory days of Habsburg Vienna, Strauss evoked marvelously a past time of civility, high culture, and grace—a time in which the Christian faith annealed the culture, ironically reminding us in our barren age of just what we have thrown away and lost. And in so doing he joined the battle for our civilization and our future, a battle that continues and encompasses our cultural institutions and traditions, our art, our architecture, our film, our music, and so much more—integral elements that help shape and form us, and without which our lives are made barren and susceptible to disintegration and dissipation.

 

Too many times our contemporary society does not know how to compare and contrast the real achievements of our historic Western Christian civilization with the present cultural detritus that surrounds and threatens to inundate us.

 

Recall the great writer Hilaire Belloc’s statement about our civilization now surviving off the fumes of a once-great culture. Is this not where we are in 2021? Our challenge today is to preserve what is being lost, not only our precious faith under such severe assault, but the incomparable historic culture that it produced and in which it flourished. That task is multi-faceted and must encompass those noble and sublime accomplishments that form our true artistic legacy. Strauss, despite his wistful celebration of a golden past, never lost hope for the future. Nor can we.

 

Notes

[1] There is a superb, two-hour BBC documentary, “Richard Strauss Remembered” (1984), narrated by Sir John Gielgud, with numerous rare photographs and historical film clips of Strauss, his performances and events in his life. Although never released formally on DVD, the private Encore label issued it, and it has been available through the Berkshire Record Outlet.

[2] Dr. Paul Gottfried has written perceptively on Hugo von Hofmannstahl and his traditionalist and aristocratic vision of Europe, a vision reflected in his dramas and other literary works:

“After the First World War, this literary giant [Hofmannstahl] devoted the remainder of his short life to reviving a popular interest in medieval Austrian culture. His most famous contribution to this effort is the German version of Everyman (Jedermann), which he brought to the stage at Salzburg and which became an annual production there. Despite his outspokenness as an Austrian patriot, Hoffmannsthal called for a “new European ego” in an address in Berne in 1916. The problem of cultural and social dissolution that the War had unleashed seemed to the distinguished author to have affected the entire continent; and in the interwar period, Hoffmannsthal contributed to Karl Anton von Rohan’s “Europ√§ischer Revue,” a leading advocacy publication for European unity, a process that the editor Rohan, an Austrian nobleman, hoped to see take place according to traditionalist and presumably pro-Habsburg principles. In a speech in Munich in January 1927, Hofmannsthal famously called for a “conservative revolution” aimed at bringing back a true European identity. This speech was specifically critical of the Germans for “their productive anarchy as a people.” Hoffmannsthal contrasted the sentimental outpouring to which his German cousins were prone to a “binding principle of form,” which he thought necessary for the restoration of a Europe of nations. Unlike T.S. Eliot, Hofmannsthal wrote as a close friend of royalty as well as someone who was an aesthetic and cultural reactionary.” [Paul Gottfried, “Puritans or Habsburgs,” The Unz Review, May 8, 2007.]

 


Tuesday, April 27, 2021

 

April 27, 2021

 

 

MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey

 

Lincoln, Chronicles Magazine, and the Disappearance of Southern Conservatism

Friends,

Abraham Lincoln has become, for most mainline conservatives, an icon, and, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., no opportunity is lost—it seems—on Fox News or in the establishment “conservative press,” to stress just how much conservatively-minded Americans owe to these two canonized martyrs. Any demurer, any dissent or disagreement, brings forth condemnations of the complainant as a “racist” or “reactionary,” or worse, maybe some Southern redneck hick who hides his old Klan robe but keeps it at the ready.

During the past fifty or so years the old Southern Democratic Party has virtually disappeared, died out, as millions of conservative Southerners, many motivated by their sincere religious faith and resistance to radical and unnatural change, migrated to the Republican Party. The GOP, beginning in the Nixon years, employed what was called a “Southern strategy,” largely elaborated by consultant Kevin Phillips and spelled out most clearly in his volume, The Emerging Republican Majority (1969). GOP spokesmen learned to speak a language and offer symbols that millions of Southerner found attractive, even compelling.

Not only that, but early on the election of former-Democrat Jesse Helms as a Republican US senator from North Carolina (1972), with his huge following of “Jessecrats”—mostly Democrats or soon-to-be former Democrats—and the conversion of political leaders like South Carolina’s Senator Strom Thurmond, turned what had been a trickle into a kind of stampede into the ranks of what had hitherto been seen as the discredited vehicle of the Reconstruction.

But this new home, this refuge from the increasingly liberal, left-leaning modern Democratic Party, would not be for Southerners a recreation of the type of familial, regional and traditional conservatism which they had been accustomed to.  Increasingly as the 1980s and 1990s progressed, the older traditional Southern conservatism, with its enduring devotion to its Confederate heritage and its illustrious catalogue of admirable statesmen and heroes, first became downgraded, then finally largely despised by both a national conservative movement and national Republican Party dominated by ideologues who were self-denominated “neoconservatives.”

These former Leftists—in the main ex-Trotskyite Marxists who migrated into the conservative movement and the GOP—with their mastery of communications and conservative media, and their unswerving zeal which arguably was a carry-over from their days advocating for a kind of Trotskyite universalism, soon vanquished the older, much more inviting and older conservatism. Where once the “conservative movement”—as exemplified by a Dr. Russell Kirk—welcomed traditionalist Southerners; and where once the national Republican Party accepted a Senator Helms and or Senator Thurmond and conferred on them positions of authority; now with the zealous neoconservatives seizing control of both the movement and the party, older icons—whether a Robert E. Lee (so praised once by President Eisenhower) or a John C. Calhoun (given status as one of America’s great conservative minds by Kirk) were shown the door, even condemned as “racists,” often paralleling accusations made by those on the further Left.

New heroes and models were erected, and in the place of a Lee or Calhoun, Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., were pronounced as the conservative and Republican models for Americans…and for Southerners. Indeed, arguably the specter of Lincoln had never been far from Republican mythology. But at first, as Southern traditionalists streamed into the GOP, it seemed that there might be some co-existence with the party of Calhoun and his descendants.

But it was not to be. At venues such as the formerly-conservative magazine of record, National Review, brilliant Southerners like Mel Bradford were shown the door and unceremoniously removed as contributors. Gone were the days when founding editor of the Modern Age quarterly, Russell Kirk, could dedicate an entire issue to the South and an appreciation of Southern traditions (cf. Modern Age, Fall 1958 issue).

Indeed, National Review led the Never Trump charge in 2016, suspecting darkly that the MAGA movement was a not-so-subtle attempt of unreconstructed Southerners and (largely marginalized) Old Rightists to regain control of what Paul Gottfried has called “Con Inc.”—both the modern conservative movement and the national Republican Party.

That battle continues, and it continues not just politically since the election back in 2016 of Donald Trump (who probably didn’t realize the full import of his initial success). For it is at base a contest of fundamental ideas about what is a country—what is our country—and the role and position of the American South in (and outside) of that geographical entity we call the United States.

For the most part, the neoconservatives still control “Con Inc.” Every night on Fox News or Newsmax one is likely to see a Nikki Haley, Jonah Goldberg or Victor Davis Hanson (he who praised Sherman’s blitzkrieg through South Carolina as exemplary and a “good thing for South Carolinians—they deserved it!”). Save for occasional minutes on the Tucker Carlson Tonight program, a continual drumbeat for “equality” as the central principle—the essential element in what is termed “American exceptionalism”—is heralded as undebatable. Globalism—a key tenet of neoconservative (and Trotskyite) thought—marinates conservative news coverage. And, of course, Lincoln and King have been turned into plaster, canonized “conservative” saints, untouchable, undefilable. Monuments to Confederate heroes,  indeed, symbols of most anything honoring Southern tradition are shunned and now condemned…perhaps not as hysterically or “woke” as by the demonic denizens of the far Left, but certainly the targets are the same.

The words recently written by David P. Goldman ring, in retrospect, ever so true: Now under Biden the neoconservatives, partially sidelined under Trump, are back. And “their ideology is a sort of right-wing Marxism,” which definitely has no room whatsoever for defenders of a Lee or Calhoun and those who reject the idea of a “proposition nation,” those in opposition to across the board domestic and global equality and imposed universal democracy. To paraphrase the Kennedy brothers, Ronald and Donald, who in turn quote General Lee, this is the legacy of Lincoln: a country "aggressive abroad and despotic at home," now conjoined with the evangelical zeal of the neocons.

There are few print magazines left that boldly and intelligently oppose the dominant neoconservative vision of America and the world with its increasingly explicit rejection of a Kirkian Old Right conservatism that once-welcomed defenders of Southern heritage and tradition. The most significant is Chronicles magazine.

In the April/May issue, the magazine took pains to answer some questions of newer readers regarding the differences between traditional conservatism and the newer ersatz neocon version, which although at times appearing to defend what Kirk once called “the verities,” is in reality exactly how Goldman described it: a warmed over, right wing re-incarnation of Trotskyite globalism, anti-Communist—yes, but inimical to the older traditions and inherited beliefs of both Southerners and other Americans, concerning not just the nature of these United States, but about the very founding and creation of it.

The editors at Chronicles, in response to several letters inquiring about these differences, which, I would suggest, are fundamental to our understanding of our history as well as our current politics, have offered a somewhat detailed answer. And that answer also admirably offers a critique of Lincoln and his disastrous legacy in both America and in the world.

With the permission of the Chronicles editors (Paul Gottfried and Ed Welsch), I offer their full explanation and response. I believe it is an excellent summation of what defines so-called “Con Inc.” is today, the stark cleavages that separate members of the Old Right and traditional Southern conservatives from the dominant neocon globalists, and the dastardly role of Father Abraham in unleashing successive devastation on America and eventually the world.

That same issue, April/May, includes a superb analysis by the Abbeville Institute’s Dr. Brion McClanahan of both the “1619 Project” and the “1776 Commission” counter-project (initiated unfortunately under Trump). Both emit from the same fetid swamp that assures us that America is founded on a “proposition”: the principle of universal equality. The editors end their response with a gloss from Bruce Frohnen, summing up the late Wilmoore Kendall and George Carey (in Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, 1971): “…any principle is a dangerous thing for any tradition to take as its common, collective goal. Traditions, societies, peoples, are not dedicated to principles. Ideologies are dedicated to principles. And ideologies are the motive force for armies and for campaigns to punish heretics and enforce a uniformity of life that spells death for human variety and living tradition."

The critical analysis of Lincoln and his inheritance is something all Southerners should read.

A General Reply to Some Recent Letters and a Reflection on the Legacy of Abraham Lincoln, From the Editors of CHRONICLES Magazine - April/May 2021

https://www.chroniclesmagazine.org/no-mere-christian/

[Two letters from confused or angry readers, appeared in the April/May issue of Chronicles as examples of others that had arrived at the journal. In general several expressed the concern: “In simple terms, what separates Chronicles conservatism from the neoconservatives, in your mind? Also, I’ve been confused by more than one of these writers who seem to have a problem with Lincoln—what’s that all about?... Can you enlighten me there?”]

RESPONSE from the Chronicles Editors:

We have been noticing lately a spate of letters from a small handful of angry readers who demand that Chronicles cease publishing articles that challenge their political or religious world views. Despite often threatening to unsubscribe, some of these correspondents write month after month, seemingly unwilling to follow through with their threats.

The complaints of this group are varied, and often their letters are too long-winded to publish in full in this section. Some recent examples that we’ve published in this “Polemics & Exchanges” section include the letter in this issue, which objects to our profile of (the apparently morally retrograde) C. S. Lewis. Another was upset with our critique of a well-known popular historian “On Victor Davis Hanson” (January 2021 Chronicles). Our perturbed correspondents also include a handful of piqued Poles who are hypersensitive to any mention in the magazine of Polish history, and who took umbrage in lengthy, unpublished letters at matters too minute to be of interest to a general readership. 

Other letter writers have more substantial objections to disagreements with one or another Chronicles writer’s definition of true versus false conservatism, or the true versus the false ideals of the Founding Fathers, or—perhaps especially—of matters relating to the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression, if you like).

Even as we have received these letters of outrage, our list of subscribers continues to grow. We think these things are not unrelated. Unlike many bland magazines that are the products of establishment conservatism, Chronicles continues to be a provocative outsider voice that challenges the establishment orthodoxy, and which allows debate within its pages.

Our commitment to publishing a selection of interesting reader letters every month, even (or especially) angry or critical ones, sets Chronicles apart. What distinguishes us from the “cancel culture” in either its standard leftist or Conservative Inc. form, is that we take our commitment to a free exchange of ideas seriously.

This does not, of course, mean that Chronicles is not committed to traditional conservative tenets, because it most certainly is. The magazine’s publishers and editors believe in traditional families with assigned gender roles, the eternal validity of biblical morality, the unmitigated evil of the modern administrative state, and the perversity of egalitarian politics. We also believe the conservative establishment in the United States has done pitifully little to hold back the advance of the left for several decades, and that its only major accomplishment has been to disable everything to its right.

Chronicles also has a record of being quite open to views that the conservative movement does not want to talk about, for example, the right of Southern states to secede from the Union in 1861 without having their section decimated by invading Northern armies, the unfortunate consequences of Reconstruction, and the international disaster of American military intervention in the Great War or in the Kosovo fiasco (which resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Serbian Christians from that region). 

Although we do take positions for which the left may hate us, we are also keen on open debates, and have often featured articles that express different views from those held by our staff.

The second letter writer in this number is surprised that our contributors have dared to criticize Abraham Lincoln, and, to his bemusement, we don’t address the problem of unbalanced budgets and other matters that are standard Republican Party talking points.

But we are not part of the GOP or of the standard “movement” conservatism. There are lots of magazines, websites, and cable news programs that are covering those topics that our reader thinks we should engage. Why must we duplicate what others are already doing?

Furthermore, why are we not permitted to raise questions about the rhetoric or war policies of Abraham Lincoln? Is our 16th president a divinity who stands above critical judgment? In his life Lincoln was a controversial figure, and we see no reason he should be treated differently in historical perspective.

We repeatedly hear the same bizarre historical interpretation about Lincoln’s moral mission from Conservative Inc. and with vehemence from Mark Levin and Glenn Beck. These media celebrities insist that slavery was our collective original sin as a country, which Abraham Lincoln helped us expiate in a purgative ritual that cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

This was apparently well worth the price since we have now been shriven (at least on Fox News) of our shared guilt. The tens of millions of advocates of reparations for American blacks would naturally differ on whether we’ve been absolved. If our sins were as wicked as both the leftist media and the establishment conservative media would lead us to believe, these special pleaders may have a point.

Some historical perspective may be helpful here. When the United States came into being in the late 18th century, slavery existed in much of the world, including in the British and French empires, and perhaps most brutally in Africa, from whence most of American slaves came. If slavery were a collective sin, it existed everywhere since the dawn of humanity as a desirable form of labor. The American South did not produce a slave system of unsurpassed brutality, but one that allowed the slave population to multiply at an unsurpassed rate for servile labor. We may point this out even when speaking about an institution that we are well rid of.

We’ve never bought the argument that slavery was especially wicked on these shores because of the passage in the Declaration about all men being equal. The French proclaimed their Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens in August 1789 but still maintained a vast slave population in the West Indies. Robert Paquette, a leading historian of slavery in the western hemisphere, raises the rhetorical question: Does anyone think that a slave in 19th-century Virginia would have preferred being relocated to a sugar plantation in Cuba or Brazil, or to becoming a serf in Russia or China? Unlikely.

Paquette also finds it remarkable that the data he learned as a university student from a Jewish Marxist professor, Robert Fogel, about the relatively benign condition of slaves in the American South (relative to other places where slavery was practiced) can no longer be discussed even in supposedly conservative journals.

If there were a conflict between the notion of universal individual rights and human bondage for non-citizens, this was not as obvious to most people in the 18th century as it would be to a more passionately egalitarian posterity. Although opponents of slavery could be found at the time of America’s founding, at most these opponents with very few exceptions favored manumitting slaves without granting them full rights of citizenship, which, as far as we can tell, was the position of the author of the Declaration. 

Jefferson wanted slaves gradually freed and colonized outside the United States. Although Lincoln changed course during the Civil War, he too long favored the settlement of manumitted slaves in Haiti or Central America. One could accuse these critics of slavery of not being as sufficiently committed to egalitarian principles as they should have been, or as committed as Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, or perhaps Kamala Harris would have wanted them to be. 

There is also no evidence that most of those who died in the American Civil War gave their lives specifically to rid this country of slavery. Lincoln grasped Northern sentiment properly and for that reason fought a war motivated primarily to save the republic. In his famous letter to New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862, and in his second annual address to Congress, Lincoln made clear that he was prosecuting war against Southern secessionists to keep the Union together. 

Lincoln’s “paramount object in this struggle,” as he told Greeley, “is to save the Union.” He was first and foremost a nationalist, not an abolitionist. It is also inconceivable that slavery would not have disappeared even without the bloodbath that Lincoln’s invasion of the Southern states brought about. Slavery disappeared elsewhere without the catastrophe that befell the United States in the 1860s. 

Allowing for local variations, Lincoln, the nationalist and consolidator, was a child of the mid-19th century, like the unifiers of Italy and Germany, Camillo Cavour and Otto von Bismarck. All these figures fought against regionalists wedded to agrarian, and partly seignorial economies, and they established centralized nation states, or states that were more centralized than those that preceded them. Lincoln has been the most honored of the three, but his state-building was by far the most destructive of human life, and his legacy perhaps the most dangerous in its ultimate consequences. 

Unlike other nationalists of the 19th century, as Willmoore Kendall correctly pointed out, Lincoln urged his country to spread the ideal of equality, “the proposition” to which America had committed itself in becoming a nation. This ideal was assigned universal significance, and Kendall correctly observed that it provided a moral basis for perpetual crusades on behalf of a mischievous abstraction. 

If, as Conservative Inc. now insists, Lincoln’s idea that a “proposition” has made America an “exceptional nation” unique in human history, we would rather find some other reason to be exceptional or unique. For example, by especially exemplifying ordered liberty in a particular time and place, or by being uniquely successful in allowing citizens to prosper in a lawful society.

We do not write this to demonize Lincoln, who was an extraordinary historical figure and one of the most impressive orators in the English language. Also, like historian and philosopher Richard Weaver, we are impressed by the argument from principle that Lincoln makes in his debates with Stephen Douglas in their race for the U.S. Senate in 1858. 

Unlike Douglas, Lincoln emphatically challenged whether a deep moral question, which is what he considered the extension of slavery into the territories, could or should be settled by majority votes. Of course, back then there were real majority votes, unlike the current imitation of an electoral system, in which the media and their friends in the Deep State shape the outcomes.

But Lincoln was also a problematic hero, who was fully complicit in initiating a bloody, fratricidal war and seeing it through to its brutal end. Among the long-range consequences of the Civil War was the permanent damage done to the dual sovereignty with which the American republic was established, with shared, inalienable powers assigned to both the federal and state governments. Lincoln further launched the never-to-be fulfilled mission of bringing equality first to American citizens and then to the rest of the world. We are still living with the consequences of that dubious achievement.

We do not intend to do what Lord Acton urged us to do when he encouraged historians to “play hanging judge over the past.” The students of the past should generally avoid indulging that obnoxious habit. But it would be unfair to Lincoln’s legacy if we did not mention the political implications of what he said and did. And since he is today honored precisely as an upholder of a universal value that it behooves Americans to bestow on humankind, it would be remiss of us to look at his statesmanship without noting that fact.

It may be less noteworthy that Lincoln (along with the very leftist children’s book author Dr. Seuss) is now being “canceled” by those on the left than the fact that he appealed to the very idea of radical equality that the left glorifies. And, that Lincoln asserted the primacy of that value in the context of a national mission to be vindicated through war.

It is also futile to make academic distinctions between Lincoln’s armed pursuit of equality and the more extreme forms that ideal has taken 150 years later. As a Genevan critic of the French Revolution warned as the Jacobins were taking power in France : “Like Saturn, revolutions devour their children.”

As we on the right work desperately to quell the egalitarian passions that are destroying constitutional government in this country and elsewhere in the West, it would be proper to pose the question of whether Lincoln should have been turned into a living god by the conservative establishment. There are other candidates for national honor (but not the divinization bestowed on Lincoln) whom we would gladly put before him, starting with George Washington. 

A second problem with the current Lincoln-worship was stated by the political-legal thinker Bruce Frohnen in the once-illustrious but now discontinued online magazine, Nomocracy in Politics. Frohnen offered this critical observation while discussing Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1971) a study published by George Carey after the death of Willmoore Kendall, with whom Carey collaborated in producing this work. Frohnen expresses the deep reservations of Carey and Kendall regarding the cult of Lincoln when he wrote:


The problem with Lincoln, for Kendall and Carey, is that he dedicated the United States to a principle. And dedication to any principle would be a problem for the American way. Certainly a case can be made for a certain definition of equality as a good thing. But any principle is a dangerous thing for any tradition to take as its common, collective goal. Traditions, societies, peoples, are not dedicated to principles. Ideologies are dedicated to principles. And ideologies are the motive force for armies and for campaigns to punish heretics and enforce a uniformity of life that spells death for human variety and living tradition.


It would be hard for us to improve on that criticism.

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Reprinted with permission of Chronicles magazine. The editorial is available fully online

                                                         April 30, 2021   MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey   The Survival of Western Culture...