FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Some Thoughts For Washington Generals “Conservatives”
Kyle Smith had a brilliant column earlier in the week – really, it’s so good you need to read it in its entirety, so I won’t excerpt it here – satirizing conservative/Republican pundits who keep getting invited to appear in left-leaning media because of the potshots they keep taking at their own side’s most faithful and stalwart defenders, a group we called out back in October. I tend to think of these as Washington Generals conservatives, after the basketball “team” that travels with the Harlem Globetrotters, serving no purpose other than to be defeated. But a more interesting question is what motivates such people. Some, undoubtedly, are genuinely offended by, say, social conservatism, some have taken too easily to heart their own social circles, some have personal axes to grind, some just need the money, what have you. But I have been reminded frequently enough of late to be worth reposting here an extended quotation from George Orwell’s fine essay on James Burnham (himself a major figure of the Right of his day), as so much of what Orwell says could seem to apply as well to the Eeyores and ingratiators on today’s Right:
It will be seen that Burnham’s predictions have not merely, when they were verifiable, turned out to be wrong, but that they have sometimes contradicted one another in a sensational way. It is this last fact that is significant. Political predictions are usually wrong, because they are usually based on wish-thinking, but they can have symptomatic value,
especially when they change abruptly. Often the revealing factor is the date at which they are made. Dating Burnham’s various writings as accurately as can be done from internal evidence, and then noting what events they coincided with, we find the following relationships:
In THE MANAGERIAL REVOLUTION Burnham prophesies a German victory, postponement of the Russo-German war until after Britain is defeated, and, subsequently, the defeat of Russia. The book, or much of it, was written in the second half of 1940–i.e. at a time when the Germans had overrun western Europe and were bombing Britain, and the Russians were collaborating with them fairly closely, and in what appeared, at any rate, to be a spirit of appeasement.
In the supplementary note added to the English edition of the book, Burnham appears to assume that the USSR is already beaten and the splitting-up process is about to begin. This was published in the spring of 1942 and presumably written at the end of 1941; i.e. when the Germans were in the suburbs of Moscow.
The prediction that Russia would gang up with Japan against the USA was written early in 1944, soon after the conclusion of a new Russo-Japanese treaty.
The prophecy of Russian world conquest was written in the winter of 1944, when the Russians were advancing rapidly in eastern Europe while the Western Allies were still held up in Italy and northern France.
It will be seen that at each point Burnham is predicting A CONTINUATION OF THE THING THAT IS HAPPENING. Now the tendency to do this is not simply a bad habit, like inaccuracy or exaggeration, which one can correct by taking thought. It is a major mental disease, and its roots lie partly in cowardice and partly in the worship of power, which is not fully separable from cowardice.
Suppose in 1940 you had taken a Gallup poll, in England, on the question “Will Germany win the war?” You would have found, curiously enough, that the group answering “Yes” contained a far higher percentage of intelligent people–people with IQ of over 120, shall we say–than the
group answering “No”. The same would have held good in the middle of 1942. In this case the figures would not have been so striking, but if you had made the question “Will the Germans capture Alexandria?” or “Will the Japanese be able to hold on to the territories they have captured ?”, then once again there would have been a very marked tendency for
intelligence to concentrate in the “Yes” group. In every case the less-gifted person would have been likelier to give a right answer.
If one went simply by these instances, one might assume that high intelligence and bad military judgement always go together. However, it is not so simple as that. The English intelligentsia, on the whole, were more defeatist than the mass of the people–and some of them went on being defeatist at a time when the war was quite plainly won–partly because they were better able to visualise the dreary years of warfare that lay ahead. Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger. The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory. But there was more to it than that. There was also the disaffection of large numbers of intellectuals, which made it difficult for them not to side with any country hostile to Britain. And deepest of all, there was admiration–though only in a very few cases conscious admiration–for the power, energy, and cruelty of the Nazi régime. It would be a useful though tedious labour to go through the left-wing press and enumerate all the hostile references to Nazism during the years 1935-45. One would find, I have little doubt, that they reached their high-water mark in 1937-8 and 1944-5, and dropped off noticeably in the years 1939-42–that is, during the period when Germany seemed to be winning. One would find, also, the same people advocating a compromise peace in 1940 and approving the dismemberment of Germany in 1945. And if one studied the reactions of the English intelligentsia towards the USSR, there, too, one would find genuinely progressive impulses mixed up with admiration for power and cruelty. It would be grossly unfair to suggest that power worship is the only motive for russophile feeling, but it is one motive, and among intellectuals it is probably the strongest one.
Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving, toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change, the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible.
It has always been thus, as one can see in the past predictions of pundits like David Frum and the misdirected wishcasting of the Palinophobes. The GOP and conservatism hold the weaker hand today, and there are legitimate reasons not to be complacent about the challenges required to regain the upper hand. But let us never give in to the easy reflex to assume that all present trends will continue and that those in power will always be thus. Fortune’s Wheel will turn again, and we should be ready when it does to make new trends of our own.