President-elect Donald Trump salutes as he and his wife Melania arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, ahead of Friday’s inauguration. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
Not since 1980 — or perhaps 1932 — has such a political revolution hit the banks of the Potomac River.
Donald Trump comes into the White House with a bright, clear mandate to make wholesale changes to every aspect of the federal government.
From the darkest corners of the bloated federal bureaucracy to the bright marble columns of the Supreme Court, Mr. Trump’s mandate is as broad as it is dramatic. Illegal immigration, international trade, education, Obamacare and America’s war against terrorism are all on the table for complete overhauls.
Refreshingly, Mr. Trump’s mandate is not a partisan one. He owes very little to the Republican Party and absolutely nothing to the Democratic Party. He handily defeated partisans on both sides of the political aisle.
He also owes nothing to any industry or special interest group except the voters who elected him and the free market system that made him a billionaire. He is owned by no one.
As a result, Mr. Trump stands poised to reinvent the entire federal government in favor of the American people alone. He is a tireless agent of disruption and an unbending force for creative destruction.
The fabulous, entertaining, funny, unpredictable and daring real estate tycoon achieved this historic political realignment using one very simple strategy: attack political correctness and all its vestiges and all its purveyors at every turn.
After all, what is Washington and the Leviathan federal bureaucracy and all of American politics today but a Cathedral of Political Correctness? Here there are protocols for everything. Everyone has titles, dress codes. Everybody knows their pew and if they sit in the wrong one there will be consequences.
Political campaigns and congressional hearings and Rose Garden announcements are all the little chapels inside the Cathedral where highly rehearsed skits and services play out over and over and over again. Speech is so tightly restricted here that politicians usually stick to carefully vetted — and often meaningless — “talking points.”
Donald Trump would not know a “talking point” if he saw one. He could barely get along with the teleprompter.
But he could talk.
And in plain English, he promised to re-invent the federal government from the ground up. People here were shocked, horrified, scandalized, frightened. But, outside Washington and the establishment media, people loved it.
Since the election — a stunning upset for all the “experts” around here — Mr. Trump has made abundantly clear he intends to complete the revolution he sparked. Just look at the people he has picked to fill his cabinet.
To a person, every single one of them threatens the very existence of the departments they have been picked to run.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry ran for president on the promise to eliminate the very Energy Department he has now been tasked to run. He may have reversed that bold promise, but that certainly doesn’t mean he won’t still radically alter the department.
Betsy DeVos has devoted her life to rescuing children from a deplorable public education system designed entirely to promote the interests of teacher’s unions and the Democrats they elect — students be damned. Her hearings to be Education Secretary devolved into ridiculous partisan squabbling over how many questions each senator got to ask.
During Rex Tillerson’s hearing to become secretary of State, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, demanded that the globe-trotting dealmaker denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal.” Mr. Tillerson declined. Instead, he highlighted his desire to work with Russia to eliminate ISIS around the world.
It was a telling moment. A face-off between a grandstanding politician who just wanted to make a point and a strategic-thinking pragmatist who wants to accomplish something very concrete and vital to America’s existence.
Sen. Jeff Sessions used his hearings to become attorney general to showcase his commitment to enforcing all federal laws fairly and equally, without prejudice — something the Obama administration has failed to do, particularly with illegal immigration.
Retired Gen. Jim Mattis vowed to be Defense secretary over the most lethal fighting force possible. And all Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, New York Democrat, cared about was how to make the military better accommodate people who are lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or questioning.
“Frankly, Senator, I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” Gen. Mattis replied.
Not since Rhett Butler has the word “frankly” been so skillfully used to silence the pleadings of a desperate and delusional woman.
Perhaps the best example came in the written response Retired Gen. John Kelly supplied to senators considering his nomination to head the Department of Homeland Security.
Asked about how noncitizens are accepted in the Marine Corps, Gen. Kelly responded at length.
“The world inside the U.S. military is one many Americans would find fairly alien,” he wrote.
“It is a meritocracy. Achievement is earned, not given. It is a world where political correctness is rejected and not given any place at any table, a world where no one cares about skin color, what religion you might follow — if you follow any religion at all — or what political party you belong to, but only that you vote. Our only focus is to defend the nation.
“Once you make it through the entry-level process of background checks, you then complete boot camp, and, in my case, once you earn the title “Marine” — and it isn’t easy — no one cares whether you are a citizen or not. The non-citizen was no different from the citizen.”
An alien world, indeed, especially in the United States Senate.
President Barack Obama gives his final presidential news conference Wednesday at the White House. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Barack Obama did not go out quietly. His unquiet final acts were, in part, overshadowed by a successor who refused to come in quietly and, in part, by Obama’s own endless, sentimental farewell tour. But there was nothing nostalgic or sentimental about Obama’s last acts. Two of them were simply shocking.
Perhaps we should have known. At the 2015 White House correspondents’ dinner, he joked about whether he had a bucket list: “Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.”
Turns out, he wasn’t kidding. Commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning, one of the great traitors of our time, is finger-in-the-eye willfulness. Obama took 28 years off the sentence of a soldier who stole and then released through WikiLeaks almost half a million military reports plus a quarter-million State Department documents.
The cables were embarrassing; the military secrets were almost certainly deadly. They jeopardized the lives not just of American soldiers on two active fronts — Iraq and Afghanistan — but of locals who were, at great peril, secretly aiding and abetting us. After Manning’s documents release, the Taliban “went on a killing spree” (according to intelligence sources quoted by Fox News) of those who fit the description of individuals working with the United States.
Moreover, we will be involved in many shadowy conflicts throughout the world. Locals will have to choose between us and our enemies. Would you choose a side that is so forgiving of a leaker who betrays her country — and you?
Even the word “leaker” is misleading. “Leak” makes it sound like a piece of information a whistleblower gives Woodward and Bernstein to expose misdeeds in high office. This was nothing of the sort. It was the indiscriminate dumping of a mountain of national security secrets certain to bring harm to American troops, allies and interests.
Obama considered Manning’s 35-year sentence excessive. On the contrary. It was lenient. Manning could have been — and in previous ages, might well have been — hanged for such treason. Now she walks after seven years.
What makes this commutation so spectacularly in-your-face is its hypocrisy. Here is a president who spent weeks banging the drums over the harm inflicted by WikiLeaks with its release of stolen materials and emails during the election campaign. He demanded a report immediately. He imposed sanctions on Russia. He preened about the sanctity of the American political process.
Over what? What exactly was released? A campaign chairman’s private emails and Democratic National Committee chatter, i.e., campaign gossip, backbiting, indiscretions and cynicism. The usual stuff, embarrassing but not dangerous. No national security secrets, no classified material, no exposure of anyone to harm, just to ridicule and opprobrium.
The other last-minute Obama bombshell occurred four weeks earlier when, for the first time in nearly a half-century, the United States abandoned Israel on a crucial Security Council resolution, allowing the passage of a condemnation that will plague both Israel and its citizens for years to come. After eight years of reassurance, Obama seized the chance — free of political accountability for himself and his potential Democratic successor — to do permanent damage to Israel. (The U.S. has no power to reverse the Security Council resolution.)
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. who went on to be a great Democratic senator, once argued passionately that in the anti-American, anti-democratic swamp of the U.N., America should act unwaveringly in opposition and never give in to the jackals. Obama joined the jackals.
Why? To curry favor with the international left? After all, Obama leaves office as a relatively young man of 55. His next chapter could very well be as a leader on the international stage, perhaps at the U.N. (secretary-general?) or some transnational (ostensibly) human rights organization. What better demonstration of bona fides than a gratuitous attack on Israel? Or the about-face on Manning and WikiLeaks? Or the freeing of a still unrepentant Puerto Rican terrorist, Oscar Lopez Rivera, also pulled off with three days remaining in his presidency.
A more likely explanation, however, is that these are acts not of calculation but of authenticity. This is Obama being Obama. He leaves office as he came in: a man of the left, but possessing the intelligence and discipline to suppress his more radical instincts. As of Nov. 9, 2016, suppression was no longer necessary.
We’ve just gotten a glimpse of his real self. From now on, we shall see much more of it.
George Soros and Hillary Clinton in 2004. (Getty Images)
When the dust was cleared and the debris swept away, he stood revealed as Hillary Clinton’s most generous billionaire donor. Yet his name rarely surfaced during the presidential campaign—and that’s generally the way he likes it.Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s book about covert political funding, refers to the Koch brothers more than 300 times in its excoriation of the “radical right” but mentions progressive icon George Soros just six times; three are footnotes.
One of the planet’s richest men, his past marred with crimes and misdemeanors, the 86-year-old billionaire skates on. More than a decade ago, he moved his financial headquarters to Curaçao, a tax-free haven in the Caribbean designed for monied hypocrites who talk one game and play another. The place is not bulletproof; on occasion, Soros has been accused—and even convicted—of insider trading. A French court found him guilty of that crime and levied a fine of $2.3 million. In the parlance of the billionaires’ club, that was small change. Investigative journalists, a dwindling cadre, show little interest in him. They prefer to scrutinize safer, softer targets.
If they took even a cursory look, though, they would see that Soros’s global reach and influence far outstrip those of the Koch brothers or other liberal bogeymen—and that underlying it all is a vision both dystopian and opportunistic. “The main obstacle to a stable and just world order,” Soros has declared, “is the United States.” Ergo, that constitutional republic must be weakened and its allies degraded. The Sorosian world order—one of open borders and global governance, antithetical to the ideals and experience of the West—could then assume command.
George Soros has been an escape artist since his adolescence in Budapest, when Nazi occupiers gave him his first life lessons. Until then, the Schwartz family lived in a large house, located on an island in the Danube. György’s mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of affluent silk merchants. His father, Tivadar, was a prominent lawyer and eccentric; in good weather, he commuted to his office by rowboat.
But all was not as it appeared, even before the predations of the Third Reich. Anti-Semitism ran deep in Eastern Europe, and Hungarian Jews lived on a knife blade, no matter how large their bank accounts. The secularist Tivadar never attended synagogue, but he had a devout belief in Esperanto, the artificial language that he and other disciples believed would eventually become the world’s tongue. The Tower of Babel would be razed, and nationalism would disappear, along with dialects, local attitudes, and national boundaries. But that world lay in the future. For the present, Jewish identity would have to be papered over.
Accordingly, the family changed its name to Soros—“to soar,” in Esperanto. In 1944, the personification of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann, came to German-occupied Hungary to administrate the Final Solution. But Tivadar had anticipated him. By then, he had purchased false identity documents for himself and the family. He bribed a government official to “adopt” György and testify to investigators that the boy was his Christian godson.
Now came the fulcrum of Soros’s life and career. The bureaucrat who housed teenage György was assigned the task of confiscating Jewish land and property. Acolyte in tow, he went from house to house, making inventories for Nazi officers. It’s unfair sweepingly to condemn those individuals, Jewish and Gentile, who, in order to survive, sometimes collaborated with evil. Still, most of those who did escape the Holocaust were tormented by pangs of remorse and survivor’s guilt.
Not Soros. In 1998, 60 Minutes profiled the man whose stock-market manipulations were making news. CBS interviewer Steve Kroft asked him about his wartime experiences:
KROFT: You watched lots of people get shipped off to the death camps.
SOROS: Right. I was 14 years old. And I would say that that’s when my character was made.
KROFT: In what way?
SOROS: That one should think ahead. One should understand and—and anticipate events and when—when one is threatened. It was a tremendous threat of evil. I mean, it was a—a very personal experience of evil. . . .
KROFT: I mean, that’s—that sounds like an experience that would send lots of people to the psychiatric couch for many, many years. Was it difficult?
SOROS: Not—not at all. Not at all. Maybe as a child you don’t—you don’t see the connection. But it was—it created no—no problem at all.
KROFT: No feeling of guilt?
KROFT: For example that, “I’m Jewish and here I am, watching these people go. I could just as easily be there. I should be there.” None of that?
SOROS: Well, of course I c— I could be on the other side or I could be the one from whom the thing is being taken away. But there was no sense that I shouldn’t be there, because that was—well, actually, in a funny way, it’s just like in markets—that if I weren’t there—of course, I wasn’t doing it, but somebody else would—would—would be taking it away anyhow. And it was the—whether I was there or not, I was only a spectator, the property was being taken away. So the—I had no role in taking away that property. So I had no sense of guilt.
Adolf Eichmann offered an oddly similar rationale at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem. “Why me?” he demanded. “Why not the local policemen, thousands of them? They would have been shot if they had refused to round up the Jews for the death camps. Why not hang them for not wanting to be shot? Why me? Everybody killed the Jews.”
When the war ended, Hungary’s troubles continued. Soviet troops moved in, and the new rulers ruthlessly expunged the Germans—and their collaborators. Yet György was never punished, never even reprimanded for aiding the Nazis. Petr Cibulka, a onetime Czech dissident, told a British journalist that the only way for Soros to avoid reprisals “would be an agreement to co-operate with the GRU Soviet [Russian] military intelligence or perhaps also with the NKVD [later KGB].” Somehow, the 16-year-old Soros passed through “countless Red Army check points, without a passport that would be valid, without a Soviet approved permit to leave the country, without money and without any outside help. . . . His stay in the U.K. and his 1947 enrollment to the London School of Economics, and to be able financially to support himself during that time, with no mentioned help or financial backing, and to be able to graduate in 1952 at that young age, this all gives me chills.” In his own account of his days at the London School of Economics, Soros maintained that he had been a scholarship student.
The undergraduate, his name now Anglicized, was beguiled by the writings of Karl Popper (1902–94). The Viennese-born professor devoted his life and work to what he called the Open Society—a place free of such “tribal” affinities as religion, nationalism, and traditional economic formulas. But he also denounced, as a “monument of human smallness,” Plato’s concept of the philosopher king. “What a contrast,” Popper wrote, “between it and the simplicity of humaneness of Socrates, who warned the statesman against the danger of being dazzled by his own power, excellence, and wisdom. . . . What a decline from this world of irony and reason . . . down to Plato’s kingdom of the sage whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men; although not quite high enough to forgo the use of lies, or to neglect the sorry trade of every shaman—the selling of spells . . . in exchange for power over his fellow-men.”
Was Soros beginning to confront the implications of these big ideas? No one knew—perhaps not even Soros himself, as he strove to find a place in postwar Britain. Alas for the new graduate, the financial world proved to be a closedsociety. No one seemed interested in his sheepskin or his multilingual abilities. Finally, he found work at the London-based merchant bank Singer and Friedlander because, he stated in a rare moment of self-deprecation, the managing director was a fellow Hungarian.
In 1930s Hollywood, when former Magyars like Alexander Korda, Peter Lorre, Leslie Howard, and Bela Lugosi reigned supreme, so many of their countrymen applied for positions that one film studio put up a sign: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian, you must also have talent.” So it proved in 1950s London, where the new hire could not rest on his Budapest connections. He had to demonstrate a gift for creating revenue—and he did. Within a few years, he had mastered the craft of arbitraging—making profits by trading different currencies. As befit a man with his background, he also promoted European stocks, then winning favor with U.S. institutional investors. Through Soros, they gained opportunities in the new Coal and Steel Community, soon to become the Common Market.
By 1959, Soros had relocated to New York City, the financial nexus of the West. He continued to be a salaried employee but a high-level one. He told colleagues that he planned to work for three more years—enough to accumulate a personal fortune of $500,000. He would then return to England to study philosophy. That event never occurred. His ego kept getting in the way. “I admit that I have always harbored an exaggerated view of my self-importance,” he later admitted. “To put it bluntly, I fancied myself as some kind of god.”
In the 1960s, the fancied god conceived his Theory of Reflexivity. Despite its Einsteinian overtones, the concept had a great deal of mumbo and not a little jumbo. Essentially, it stated that those who observe a phenomenon—like economics or politics—become a part of what they’re observing, and thus risk losing their objectivity. Economic arenas—Wall Street, for example—are particularly vulnerable to forces that have little to do with empirical evidence or historical precedent. Knowing this, the cunning witness can make a whacking good profit if he stays above the fray, the tipsters, and the “smart money.”
The recession of 1973 provided one of many examples. After years of wild, bullish ascents, the market seemed impervious to business cycles. Then it crashed. Investors waited for the predicted rebound—and were still waiting five years later. The resignation of Richard Nixon, the oil shortages, the seizing of American hostages in Iran, and the inept response of Jimmy Carter all put paid to the good times. And yet, a few speculators profited from these disasters; Soros was one of them.
Soros went on to enjoy many other triumphs, and none did more for his image than a killing made across the pond two decades later. He had gone out on his own by then. Aware that the British government was propping up the pound sterling, he and his associates acquired millions of pounds and then shorted the currency, betting that its worth would decrease. After some bad press and some bloody political infighting, Prime Minister John Major caved, withdrawing the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). The pound plummeted, and Soros pocketed more than $1 billion. Retirees on fixed incomes saw their pensions diminished and their savings wiped out. But the human consequences had no effect on Soros; indeed, he gained in stature. In high-finance circles, he was the “man who broke the Bank of England.”
The subprime mortgage crisis of the 2000s offered another opportunity. Houses had been overvalued and underfinanced. The day of reckoning occurred in 2008. It led to the downfall of Lehman Brothers, the failure of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the near-collapse of the entire global financial system. Again, Soros came smiling through. “I’m having a very good crisis,” he told a reporter.
Soros had long since become wealthy beyond avarice. Two large alimonies (he married for a third time in 2013) and the education of his heirs (like Donald Trump, he has five children), plus lavish homes in Westchester and on Long Island, scarcely made a dent in the family fortune, which continued to grow. But along the way, it occurred to Soros, as it had to many another financial giant before him, that mere getting and spending were not enough for a man of his colossal self-measurement. He put his sons and other principals in charge of his companies and hedge funds. Thereafter, like the owner of beach frontage whose landscape is obstructed by trees, he devoted himself to cutting down whatever blocked his worldview.
His presidential candidate lost in 2016, but this setback likely won’t slow Soros down. His political activism portfolio is well diversified. Backing organizations dedicated to social agitation and change-for-change’s-sake, Soros has caused tsunamis of upheaval, in the United States and around the world.
A few cases in point: last August, DC Leaks, a group of adroit hackers, got into the Soros files and released them. Perhaps the most notorious of the disclosures concerned Soros’s Open Society Foundations, named in honor of Sir Karl Popper. Underneath its lofty rhetoric, the organization was clearly devoted to the eradication of national sovereignty. A key Open Society paper, hacked in its entirety, described the Syrian refugee crisis as an opportunity to “shape conversations about rethinking migrations governance.” Translation: use agitprop to flood Europe and the U.S. with evacuees (among them some probable terrorists); make the old borders and institutions irrelevant; and, in the process, create a world liberated from the restraints of constitutionalism, American exceptionalism, free-market capitalism, and other obsolete isms.
One of Soros’s long-standing targets is the State of Israel. Providing funding for groups devoted to BDS (boycott, disinvestment, sanctions) against the Jewish State is only part of the equation. According to DC Leaks, Soros gave more than $2 million to Adalah, an “independent human rights organization.” As a matter of policy, Adalah demands that governments sever diplomatic relations with the only democracy in the Middle East. Soros also donated more than $1 million to the Palestinian media center I’lam, which regularly accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. Though the Open Society Foundations’ biases are obvious, its members prefer to work under deep cover, as one of the leaked documents describes. “For a variety of reasons, we wanted to construct a diversified portfolio of grants dealing with Israel and Palestine . . . as well as building a portfolio of Palestinian grants and in all cases to maintain a low profile and relative distance—particularly on the advocacy front.”
Print reporters were enlisted in the cause of propagating the Soros mind-set. As recorded by WikiLeaks, Soros operatives, determined to shape media coverage of events in Ukraine, were instructed to “select journalists from the five target countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece) and offer them long stay reporting trips in Ukraine. Rather than specify what they should write about they should make suggestions for articles; we retain a veto on stories we think are counterproductive. Suggestion that we liaise directly with journalists to determine interest.”
In the United States, Soros bankrolls a broad range of political and cultural causes. One is to destabilize the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. In 2015, he dedicated $650,000 for the purpose of shaping Pope Francis’s U.S. visit, using left-leaning Catholic groups to promote gay marriage, abortion, and physician-assisted suicide. Leading the effort was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, a self-professed Catholic. Bill Donohue, outspoken president of the Catholic League, vainly called for Podesta’s dismissal. “He is fomenting revolution in the Catholic Church, creating mutiny and is totally unethical,” Donohue said. “He is the front man for George Soros to create a host of phony anti-Catholic groups. These are not just bad comments, as some have suggested. These words are orchestrated, calculated and designed to create fissures in the Catholic Church.”
Another Soros favorite is Black Lives Matter, the radical protest group dedicated to the proposition that police are inherently racist. Working the streets with incendiary rhetoric, at odds with the truth about black-on-black crime, BLM has helped foster “depolicing,” as Heather Mac Donald describes it, in high-crime urban areas. In 2015, after days of rioting in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, an Open Society Foundations memo excitedly commented that “recent events offer a unique opportunity to accelerate the dismantling of structural inequality generated and maintained by local law enforcement and to engage residents who have historically been disenfranchised in Baltimore City in shaping and monitoring reform.” Three straight acquittals of police officers involved in the matter left the prosecution’s case in shreds but made no difference to the Open Society Foundations. It has donated at least $650,000 to Black Lives Matter and pledged more assistance to antipolice factions across the country. These activities prompted the father of one of the Dallas police officers killed during a Black Lives Matter protest to sue Soros (along with other individuals and groups) for inspiring a “war on police.”
Soros’s open-borders obsessions can be seen in the $2 million he gave to opponents of Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio, an outspoken critic of illegal immigration. The sheriff’s “influence on the national conversation about immigration has been poisonous,” said a Soros spokesman. Arpaio fired back, calling the billionaire a “far-left globalist” who was trying to “buy a local race.” The sheriff failed to ride in on Trump’s November wagon, though, and Soros enjoyed one of his few election-night victories. Soros also spent millions backing liberal-minded district attorneys—they all opposed jail time for nonviolent drug offenders—in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, and Texas. Some of these candidates won; most lost.
The emphasis on leniency for drug offenders is no accident. Two decades ago, Soros began an ardent campaign to decriminalize marijuana and other illegal drugs, which he promoted as an issue of fairness: Why should abusers be arrested and imprisoned when what they really needed was counseling and rehabilitation? To that end, he backed the Lindesmith Center, a “drug policy institute,” which served as Soros’s echo chamber on matters concerning proscribed substances. “I’m sure Lindesmith’s desire to take us into nihilism and chaos and to jam our hospital emergency rooms with more users has some useful purpose,” scoffed a spokesman for General Barry McCaffrey, during his tenure as Bill Clinton’s drug czar. Since then, Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have all legalized marijuana, and Heads, a pro-drug magazine, enthusiastically dubbed Soros “Daddy Weedbucks.” But data are confirming what skeptics like McCaffrey had argued all along: that legalization serves as a forerunner to more drug use rather than less, more emergency-room visits rather than fewer, increased danger to the health of the young, and a consequent weakening of the social fabric.
As the postpresidential fever abates, Soros’s work carries on. In a New York City luxury hotel, Soros recently huddled with other devastated operatives in the so-called Democratic Alliance, including former House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and Congressional Progressive Caucus cochairman Keith Ellison. According to Politico, they discussed strategies to combat President-elect Trump’s “terrifying assault on President’s Obama’s achievements.” Not all Democrats were pleased with the occasion. “The DA itself should be called into question,” said one attendee. “You can make a very good case it’s nothing more than a social club for a handful of wealthy white donors and labor union officials to drink wine and read memos, as the Democratic Party burns down around them.”
With the threat that a Trump presidency poses to their power, Soros and his allies figure to be even more voracious for influence—and secrecy. This is no time to let up. Yet Soros must occasionally think back to the professor whose writings he cherry-picked, using what was digestible and abandoning what could not be stomached. When he does, one tocsin is likely to cause discomfort even to this most insensitive of plutocrats: Popper’s reference to the figure “whose magical powers raise him high above ordinary men.” Popper warned about this type long before George Soros perverted Sir Karl’s teachings and crowned himself a philosopher king.
Stefan Kanfer, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of The Eskimo Hunts in Miami.
Photograph of the uprising and general strike in May 68 in France.
I was brought up at a time when half the English people voted Conservative at national elections and almost all English intellectuals regarded the term “conservative” as a term of abuse. To be a conservative, I was told, was to be on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation, the “structures” against spontaneity and life. It was enough to understand this, to recognize that one had no choice, as a free-thinking intellectual, save to reject conservatism. The choice remaining was between reform and revolution. Do we improve society bit by bit, or do we rub it out and start again? On the whole my contemporaries favored the second option, and it was when witnessing what this meant, in May 1968 in Paris, that I discovered my vocation.
In the narrow street below my window the students were shouting and smashing. The plate-glass windows of the shops appeared to step back, shudder for a second, and then give up the ghost, as the reflections suddenly left them and they slid in jagged fragments to the ground. Cars rose into the air and landed on their sides, their juices flowing from unseen wounds. The air was filled with triumphant shouts, as one by one lamp-posts and bollards were uprooted and piled on the tarmac, to form a barricade against the next van-load of policemen.
The van—known then as a panier de salade on account of the wire mesh that covered its windows—came cautiously round the corner from the Rue Descartes, jerked to a halt, and disgorged a score of frightened policemen. They were greeted by flying cobble-stones and several of them fell. One rolled over on the ground clutching his face, from which the blood streamed through tightly clenched fingers. There was an exultant shout, the injured policeman was helped into the van, and the students ran off down a side-street, sneering at thecochons and throwing Parthian cobbles as they went.
That evening a friend came round: she had been all day on the barricades with a troupe of theater people, under the captainship of Armand Gatti. She was very excited by the events, which Gatti, a follower of Antonin Artaud, had taught her to regard as the high point of situationist theater—the artistic transfiguration of an absurdity which is the day-to-day meaning of bourgeois life. Great victories had been scored: policemen injured, cars set alight, slogans chanted, graffiti daubed. The bourgeoisie were on the run and soon the Old Fascist and his régime would be begging for mercy.
The Old Fascist was de Gaulle, whose Mémoires de guerre I had been reading that day. The Mémoires begin with a striking sentence—“Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”—a sentence so alike in its rhythm and so contrary in its direction to that equally striking sentence which begins A la recherche du tempsperdu: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.” How amazing it had been, to discover a politician who begins his self-vindication by suggesting something—and something so deeply hidden behind the bold mask of his words! I had been equally struck by the description of the state funeral for Valéry—de Gaulle’s first public gesture on liberating Paris—since it too suggested priorities unimaginable in an English politician. The image of the cortège, as it took its way to the cathedral of Notre Dame, the proud general first among the mourners, and here and there a German sniper still looking down from the rooftops, had made a vivid impression on me. I irresistibly compared the two bird’s-eye views of Paris, that of the sniper, and my own on to the riots in the quartier latin. They were related as yes and no, the affirmation and denial of a national idea. According to the Gaullist vision, a nation is defined not by institutions or borders but by language, religion, and high culture; in times of turmoil and conquest it is those spiritual things that must be protected and reaffirmed. The funeral for Valéry followed naturally from this way of seeing things. And I associated the France of de Gaulle with Valéry’sCimetière marin—that haunting invocation of the dead which conveyed to me, much more profoundly than any politician’s words or gestures, the true meaning of a national idea.
Of course I was naïve—as naïve as my friend. But the ensuing argument is one to which I have often returned in my thoughts. What, I asked, do you propose to put in the place of this “bourgeoisie” whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barricades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them? I was obnoxiously pompous: but for the first time in my life I had felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.
She replied with a book: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the “discourses” of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue—by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies—that “truth” requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the “episteme,” imposed by the class which profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window was the translation of that message into deeds.
My friend is now a good bourgeoise like the rest of them. Armand Gatti is forgotten; and the works of Antonin Artaud have a quaint and dépassé air. The French intellectuals have turned their backs on ’68, and the late Louis Pauwels, the greatest of their post-war novelists, has, in Les Orphelins, written the damning obituary of their adolescent rage. And Foucault? He is dead from AIDS, the result of sprees in the bath-houses of San Francisco, visited during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity. But his books are on university reading lists all over Europe and America. His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it. Only in France is he widely regarded as a fraud.
By 1971, when I moved from Cambridge to a permanent lectureship at Birkbeck College, London, I had become a conservative. So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birkbeck, and that was Nunzia—Maria Annunziata—the Neapolitan lady who served meals in the Senior Common Room and who cocked a snook at the lecturers by plastering her counter with kitschy photos of the Pope.
One of those lecturers, towards whom Nunzia conceived a particular antipathy, was Eric Hobsbawm, the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools. Hobsbawm came as a refugee to Britain, bringing with him the Marxist commitment and Communist Party membership that he retained until he could retain it no longer—the Party, to his chagrin, having dissolved itself in embarrassment at the lies that could no longer be repeated. No doubt in recognition of this heroic career, Hobsbawm was rewarded, at Mr. Blair’s behest, with the second highest award that the Queen can bestow—that of “Companion of Honour.” This little story is of enormous significance to a British conservative. For it is a symptom and a symbol of what has happened to our intellectual life since the Sixties. We should ponder the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honor to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. We should ponder some of the other recipients of honorary degrees from British academic institutions—Robert Mugabe, for example, or the late Mrs. Ceausescu—or count (on the fingers of one hand) the number of conservatives who are elected to the British Academy.
Suffice it to say that I found myself, on arrival in Birkbeck College, at the heart of the left establishment which governed British scholarship. Birkbeck College had grown from the Mechanics Institution founded by George Birkbeck in 1823 and was devoted to the education of people in full-time employment. It was connected to the socialist idealists of the Workers’ Education Association, and had links of a tenacious but undiscoverable kind to the Labour Party. My failure to conceal my conservative beliefs was both noticed and disapproved of, and I began to think that I should look for another career.
Because of Birkbeck’s mission as a center of adult education, lectures began at 6 P.M. and the days were nominally free. I used my mornings to study for the Bar: my intention was to embark on a career which gave no advantage to utopians and malcontents. In fact I never practiced at the Bar and received from my studies only an intellectual benefit—though a benefit for which I have always been profoundly grateful. Law is constrained at every point by reality, and utopian visions have no place in it. Moreover the common law of England is proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault.
Inspired by my new studies I began to search for a conservative philosophy. In America this search could be conducted in a university. American departments of political science encourage their students to read Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville, and the Founding Fathers. Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and others have grafted the metaphysical conservatism of Central Europe on to American roots, forming effective and durable schools of political thought. American intellectual life benefits from American patriotism, which has made it possible to defend American customs and institutions without fear of being laughed to scorn. It has benefited too from the Cold War, which sharpened native wits against the Marxist enemy, in a way that they were never sharpened in Europe: the conversion of important parts of the social democratic Jewish intelligentsia of New York to the cause of neo-conservatism is a case in point. In 1970s Britain, conservative philosophy was the preoccupation of a few half-mad recluses. Searching the library of my college, I found Marx, Lenin, and Mao, but no Strauss, Voegelin, Hayek, or Friedman. I found every variety of socialist monthly, weekly, or quarterly, but not a single journal that confessed to being conservative.
The view has for a long time prevailed in England that conservatism is simply no longer available—even if it ever has been really available to an intelligent person—as a social and political creed. Maybe, if you are an aristocrat or a child of wealthy and settled parents, you might inherit conservative beliefs, in the way that you might inherit a speech impediment or a Habsburg jaw. But you couldn’t possibly acquire them—certainly not by any process of rational enquiry or serious thought. And yet there I was, in the early 1970s, fresh from the shock of 1968, and from the countervailing shock of legal studies, with a fully articulate set of conservative beliefs. Where could I look for the people who shared them, for the thinkers who had spelled them out at proper length, for the social, economic, and political theory that would give them force and authority sufficient to argue them in the forum of academic opinion?
To my rescue came Burke. Although not widely read at the time in our universities, he had not been dismissed as stupid, reactionary, or absurd. He was simply irrelevant, of interest largely because he got everything wrong about the French Revolution and therefore could be studied as illustrating an episode in intellectual pathology. Students were still permitted to read him, usually in conjunction with the immeasurably less interesting Tom Paine, and from time to time you heard tell of a “Burkean” philosophy, which was one strand within nineteenth-century British conservatism.
Burke was of additional interest to me on account of the intellectual path that he had trod. His first work, like mine, was in aesthetics. And although I didn’t find much of philosophical significance in hisEssay on the Sublime and the Beautiful, I could see that, in the right cultural climate, it would convey a powerful sense of the meaning of aesthetic judgment and of its indispensable place in our lives. I suppose that, in so far as I had received any intimations of my future career as an intellectual pariah, it was through my early reactions to modern architecture, and to the desecration of my childhood landscape by the faceless boxes of suburbia. I learned as a teenager that aesthetic judgment matters, that it is not merely a subjective opinion, unargued because unarguable, and of no significance to anyone besides oneself. I saw—though I did not have the philosophy to justify this—that aesthetic judgment lays a claim upon the world, that it issues from a deep social imperative, and that it matters to us in just the way that other people matter to us, when we strive to live with them in a community. And, so it seemed to me, the aesthetics of modernism, with its denial of the past, its vandalization of the landscape and townscape, and its attempt to purge the world of history, was also a denial of community, home, and settlement. Modernism in architecture was an attempt to remake the world as though it contained nothing save atomic individuals, disinfected of the past, and living like ants within their metallic and functional shells.
Like Burke, therefore, I made the passage from aesthetics to conservative politics with no sense of intellectual incongruity, believing that, in each case, I was in search of a lost experience of home. And I suppose that, underlying that sense of loss is the permanent belief that what has been lost can also be recaptured—not necessarily as it was when it first slipped from our grasp, but as it will be when consciously regained and remodelled, to reward us for all the toil of separation through which we are condemned by our original transgression. That belief is the romantic core of conservatism, as you find it—very differently expressed—in Burke and Hegel, and also in T. S. Eliot, whose poetry was the greatest influence on me during my teenage years.
When I first read Burke’s account of the French Revolution I was inclined to accept, since I knew no other, the liberal humanist view of the Revolution as a triumph of freedom over oppression, a liberation of a people from the yoke of absolute power. Although there were excesses—and no honest historian had ever denied this—the official humanist view was that they should be seen in retrospect as the birth-pangs of a new order, which would offer a model of popular sovereignty to the world. I therefore assumed that Burke’s early doubts—expressed, remember, when the Revolution was in its very first infancy, and the King had not yet been executed nor the Terror begun—were simply alarmist reactions to an ill-understood event. What interested me in the Reflections was the positive political philosophy, distinguished from all the leftist literature that was currently à la mode, by its absolute concretion, and its close reading of the human psyche in its ordinary and unexalted forms. Burke was not writing about socialism, but about revolution. Nevertheless he persuaded me that the utopian promises of socialism go hand in hand with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind—a geometrical version of our mental processes which has only the vaguest relation to the thoughts and feelings by which real human beings live. He persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.
Most of all he emphasized that the new forms of politics, which hope to organize society around the rational pursuit of liberty, equality, fraternity, or their modernist equivalents, are actually forms of militant irrationality. There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality, and fraternity, not only because those things are lamentably underdescribed and merely abstractly defined, but also because collective reason doesn’t work that way. People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency—when there is a threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved. Even then, they need organization, hierarchy, and a structure of command if they are to pursue their goal effectively. Nevertheless, a form of collective rationality does emerge in these cases, and its popular name is war.
Moreover—and here is the corollary that came home to me with a shock of recognition—any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve exactly the same conditions: the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy. Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature—the hate-filled, purpose-filled, bourgeois-baiting prose, one example of which had been offered to me in 1968, as the final vindication of the violence beneath my attic window, but other examples of which, starting with the Communist Manifesto, were the basic diet of political studies in my university. The literature of left-wing political science is a literature of conflict, in which the main variables are those identified by Lenin: “Kto? Kogo?”—“Who? Whom?” The opening sentence of de Gaulle’s memoirs is framed in the language of love, about an object of love—and I had spontaneously resonated to this in the years of the student “struggle.” De Gaulle’s allusion to Proust is to a masterly evocation of maternal love, and to a dim premonition of its loss.
Three other arguments of Burke’s made a comparable impression. The first was the defense of authority and obedience. Far from being the evil and obnoxious thing that my contemporaries held it to be, authority was, for Burke, the root of political order. Society, he argued, is not held together by the abstract rights of the citizen, as the French Revolutionaries supposed. It is held together by authority—by which is meant the right to obedience, rather than the mere power to compel it. And obedience, in its turn, is the prime virtue of political beings, the disposition which makes it possible to govern them, and without which societies crumble into “the dust and powder of individuality.” Those thoughts seemed as obvious to me as they were shocking to my contemporaries. In effect Burke was upholding the old view of man in society, as subject of a sovereign, against the new view of him, as citizen of a state. And what struck me vividly was that, in defending this old view, Burke demonstrated that it was a far more effective guarantee of the liberties of the individual than the new idea, which was founded in the promise of those very liberties, only abstractly, universally, and therefore unreally defined. Real freedom, concrete freedom, the freedom that can actually be defined, claimed, and granted, was not the opposite of obedience but its other side. The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect was really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy. Those ideas exhilarated me, since they made sense of what I had seen in 1968. But when I expressed them, in a book published in 1979 as The Meaning of Conservatism, I blighted what remained of my academic career.
The second argument of Burke’s that impressed me was the subtle defense of tradition, prejudice, and custom, against the enlightened plans of the reformers. This defense engaged, once again, with my study of aesthetics. Already as a schoolboy I had encountered the elaborate defense of artistic and literary tradition given by Eliot and F. R. Leavis. I had been struck by Eliot’s essay entitled “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in which tradition is represented as a constantly evolving, yet continuous thing, which is remade with every addition to it, and which adapts the past to the present and the present to the past. This conception, which seemed to make sense of Eliot’s kind of modernism (a modernism that is the polar opposite of that which has prevailed in architecture), also rescued the study of the past, and made my own love of the classics in art, literature, and music into a valid part of my psyche as a modern human being.
Burke’s defense of tradition seemed to translate this very concept into the world of politics, and to make respect for custom, establishment, and settled communal ways, into a political virtue, rather than a sign, as my contemporaries mostly believed, of complacency. And Burke’s provocative defense, in this connection, of “prejudice” —by which he meant the set of beliefs and ideas that arise instinctively in social beings, and which reflect the root experiences of social life—was a revelation of something that until then I had entirely overlooked. Burke brought home to me that our most necessary beliefs may be both unjustified and unjustifiable from our own perspective, and that the attempt to justify them will lead merely to their loss. Replacing them with the abstract rational systems of the philosophers, we may think ourselves more rational and better equipped for life in the modern world. But in fact we are less well equipped, and our new beliefs are far less justified, for the very reason that they are justified by ourselves. The real justification for a prejudice is the one which justifies it as a prejudice, rather than as a rational conclusion of an argument. In other words it is a justification that cannot be conducted from our own perspective, but only from outside, as it were, as an anthropologist might justify the customs and rituals of an alien tribe.
An example will illustrate the point: the prejudices surrounding sexual relations. These vary from society to society; but until recently they have had a common feature, which is that people distinguish seemly from unseemly conduct, abhor explicit sexual display, and require modesty in women and chivalry in men in the negotiations that precede sexual union. There are very good anthropological reasons for this, in terms of the long-term stability of sexual relations, and the commitment that is necessary if children are to be inducted into society. But these are not the reasons that motivate the traditional conduct of men and women. This conduct is guided by deep and immovable prejudice, in which outrage, shame, and honor are the ultimate grounds. The sexual liberator has no difficulty in showing that those motives are irrational, in the sense of being founded on no reasoned justification available to the person whose motives they are. And he may propose sexual liberation as a rational alternative, a code of conduct that is rational from the first-person viewpoint, since it derives a complete code of practice from a transparently reasonable aim, which is sexual pleasure.
This substitution of reason for prejudice has indeed occurred. And the result is exactly as Burke would have anticipated. Not merely a breakdown in trust between the sexes, but a faltering in the reproductive process—a failing and enfeebled commitment of parents, not merely to each other, but also to their offspring. At the same time, individual feelings, which were shored up and fulfilled by the traditional prejudices, are left exposed and unprotected by the skeletal structures of rationality. Hence the extraordinary situation in America, where lawsuits have replaced common courtesy, where post-coital accusations of “date-rape” take the place of pre-coital modesty, and where advances made by the unattractive are routinely penalized as “sexual harrassment.” This is an example of what happens, when prejudice is wiped away in the name of reason, without regard for the real social function that prejudice alone can fulfill. And indeed, it was partly by reflecting on the disaster of sexual liberation, and the joyless world that it has produced around us, that I came to see the truth of Burke’s otherwise somewhat paradoxical defense of prejudice.
The final argument that impressed me was Burke’s response to the theory of the social contract. Although society can be seen as a contract, he argued, we must recognize that most parties to the contract are either dead or not yet born. The effect of the contemporary Rousseauist ideas of social contract was to place the present members of society in a position of dictatorial dominance over those who went before and those who came after them. Hence these ideas led directly to the massive squandering of inherited resources at the Revolution, and to the cultural and ecological vandalism that Burke was perhaps the first to recognize as the principal danger of modern politics. In Burke’s eyes the self-righteous contempt for ancestors which characterized the Revolutionaries was also a disinheriting of the unborn. Rightly understood, he argued, society is a partnership among the dead, the living, and the unborn, and without what he called the “hereditary principle,” according to which rights could be inherited as well as acquired, both the dead and the unborn would be disenfranchized. Indeed, respect for the dead was, in Burke’s view, the only real safeguard that the unborn could obtain, in a world that gave all its privileges to the living. His preferred vision of society was not as a contract, in fact, but as a trust, with the living members as trustees of an inheritance that they must strive to enhance and pass on.
I was more exhilarated by those ideas than by anything else in Burke, since they seemed to explain with the utmost clarity the dim intuitions that I had had in 1968, as I watched the riots from my window and thought of Valéry’s Cimetière marin. In those deft, cool thoughts, Burke summarized all my instinctive doubts about the cry for liberation, all my hesitations about progress and about the unscrupulous belief in the future that has dominated and perverted modern politics. In effect, Burke was joining in the old Platonic cry, for a form of politics that would also be a form of care—“care of the soul,” as Plato put it, which would also be a care for absent generations. The graffiti paradoxes of the soixante-huitards were the very opposite of this: a kind of adolescent insouciance, a throwing away of all customs, institutions, and achievements, for the sake of a momentary exultation which could have no lasting sense save anarchy.
It was not until much later, after my first visit to communist Europe, that I came to understand and sympathize with the negative energy in Burke. I had grasped the positive thesis—the defense of prejudice, tradition, and heredity, and of a politics of trusteeship in which the past and the future had equal weight to the present—but I had not grasped the deep negative thesis, the glimpse into Hell, contained in his vision of the Revolution. As I said, I shared the liberal humanist view of the French Revolution, and knew nothing of the facts that decisively refuted that view and which vindicated the argument of Burke’s astonishingly prescient essay. My encounter with Communism entirely rectified this.
Perhaps the most fascinating and terrifying aspect of Communism was its ability to banish truth from human affairs, and to force whole populations to “live within the lie,” as President Havel put it. George Orwell wrote a prophetic and penetrating novel about this; but few Western readers of that novel knew the extent to which its prophecies had come true in Central Europe. To me it was the greatest revelation, when first I travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1979, to come face to face with a situation in which people could, at any moment, be removed from the book of history, in which truth could not be uttered, and in which the Party could decide from day to day not only what would happen tomorrow, but also what had happened today, what had happened yesterday, and what had happened before its leaders had been born. This, I realized, was the situation that Burke was describing, to a largely incredulous readership, in 1790. And two hundred years later the situation still existed, and the incredulity along with it.
Until 1979 my knowledge of Communism had been entirely theoretical. I did not like what I had read, of course, and was hostile in any case to the socialist ideas of equality and state control, of which I had already seen enough in France and Britain. But I knew nothing of what it is like to live under Communism—nothing of the day-to-day humiliation of being a non-person, to whom all avenues of self-expression are closed. As for Czechoslovakia, as it then was, I knew only what I had gleaned from its music—the music of Smetana, Dvo?ak, and Janá?ek in particular, to all three of whom I owe the greatest of debts for the happiness they have brought me. Of course, I had read Kafka and Hašek— but they belonged to another world, the world of a dying empire, and it was only subsequently that I was able to see that they too were prophets, and that they were describing not the present but the future of their city.
I had been asked to give a talk to a private seminar in Prague. This seminar was organized by Julius Tomin, a Prague philosopher, who had taken advantage of the Helsinki Accords of 1975, which supposedly obliged the Czechoslovak government to uphold freedom of information and the basic rights defined by the U.N. Charter. The Helsinki Accords were a farce, used by the Communists to identify potential trouble-makers, while presenting a face of civilized government to gullible intellectuals in the West. Nevertheless, I was told that Dr. Tomin’s seminar met on a regular basis, that I would be welcome to attend it, and that they were indeed expecting me.
I arrived at the house, after walking through those silent and deserted streets, in which the few who stood seemed occupied by some dark official business, and in which Party slogans and symbols disfigured every building. The staircase of the apartment building was also deserted. Everywhere the same expectant silence hung in the air, as when an air-raid has been announced, and the town hides from its imminent destruction. Outside the apartment, however, I encountered two policemen, who seized me as I rang the bell and demanded my papers. Dr. Tomin came out, and an altercation ensued, during which I was thrown down the stairs. But the argument continued and I was able to push my way past the guard and enter the apartment. I found a room full of people, and the same expectant silence. I realized that there really was going to be an air-raid, and that the air-raid was me.
In that room was a battered remnant of Prague’s intelligentsia—old professors in their shabby waistcoats; long-haired poets; fresh-faced students who had been denied admission to university for their parents’ political “crimes”; priests and religious in plain clothes; novelists and theologians; a would-be rabbi; and even a psychoanalyst. And in all of them I saw the same marks of suffering, tempered by hope; and the same eager desire for the sign that someone cared enough to help them. They all belonged, I discovered, to the same profession: that of the stoker. Some stoked boilers in hospitals; others in apartment blocks; one stoked at a railway station, another in a school. Some stoked where there were no boilers to stoke, and these imaginary boilers came to be, for me, a fitting symbol of the communist economy.
This was my first encounter with “dissidents”: the people who, to my astonishment, would be the first democratically elected leaders of post-war Czechoslovakia. And I felt towards these people an immediate affinity. Nothing was of such importance for them as the survival of their national culture. Deprived of material and professional advancement, their days were filled with a forced meditation on their country and its past, and on the great Question of Czech History which has preoccupied the Czechs since Palacky’s day. They were forbidden to publish; the authorities had concealed their existence from the world and had resolved to remove their traces from the book of history. Hence the dissidents were acutely conscious of the value of memory. Their lives were an exercise in what Plato callsanamnesis: the bringing to consciousness of forgotten things. Something in me responded to this poignant ambition, and I was at once eager to join with them and make their situation known to the world.
Briefly, I spent the next ten years in daily meditation on Communism, on the myths of equality and fraternity that underlay its oppressive routines, just as they had underlain the routines of the French Revolution. And I came to see that Burke’s account of the Revolution was not merely a piece of contemporary history. It was like Milton’s account of Paradise Lost—an exploration of a region of the human psyche: a region that lies always ready to be visited, but from which return is by way of a miracle, to a world whose beauty is thereafter tainted by the memories of Hell. To put it very simply, I had been granted a vision of Satan and his work—the very same vision that had shaken Burke to the depths of his being. And I at last recognized the positive aspect of Burke’s philosophy as a response to that vision, as a description of the best that human beings can hope for, and as the sole and sufficient vindication of our life on earth.
Henceforth I understood conservatism not as a political credo only, but as a lasting vision of human society, one whose truth would always be hard to perceive, harder still to communicate, and hardest of all to act upon. And especially hard is it now, when religious sentiments follow the whims of fashion, when the global economy throws our local loyalties into disarray, and when materialism and luxury deflect the spirit from the proper business of living. But I do not despair, since experience has taught me that men and women can flee from the truth only for so long, that they will always, in the end, be reminded of the permanent values, and that the dreams of liberty, equality, and fraternity will excite them only in the short-term.
As to the task of transcribing, into the practice and process of modern politics, the philosophy that Burke made plain to the world, this is perhaps the greatest task that we now confront. I do not despair of it; but the task cannot be described or embraced by a slogan. It requires not a collective change of mind but a collective change of heart.
Roger Scrutonis resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is Beauty (Oxford University Press).