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Getting It Right

THE HISTORICAL PRESENT: Uses and Abuses of the Past.\o7 By Edwin M. Yoder Jr. (University of Mississippi Press: 192 pp., $25)\f7

April 26, 1998|JOHN LUKACS | John Lukacs is the author of "The Hitler of History" and of "A Thread of Years."

One of the strangest things about the American conservative movement is how its leaders and spokesmen are indifferent, if not altogether ignorant, about history. "Tradition is the enemy of Progress," declared Herbert Hoover's secretary of Commerce in 1928. "Everything is before us," proclaimed Ronald Reagan in 1984. "I don't think we need to waste any more time listening to those who tell us what we can't do." (Other speeches of Reagan's were studded with futuristic references to the movie "Star Wars": "The Force is with us," Reagan said.)

House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said about the Internet: "More people will have more opportunities to pursue human happiness in more different ways than at any time in human history." In the writings and public statements of William F. Buckley Jr., the architect of the conservative intellectual movement, there is hardly any trace of an interest in history and only selective references to traditions--to certain traditions. George Gilder preaches that, because of technology and capitalism, paradise is around the corner. The chief literary hero of the conservatives is Tom Wolfe, whose heroes ("The Right Stuff") are supersonic airmen. In sum, most of America's conservatives are extreme Progressives. They have a limitless faith in capitalism, technology, popular wisdom and an almost limitless disdain for the preservation of land. (It remains true that the latter cause is compromised by the hobbling and inaccurate term "environmentalism.")

There are, of course, notable and honorable exceptions among them. "The past is another country," wrote the English novelist L.P. Hartley (a phrase that sounds better than it is). At its best, this may be a motto of the Buckleyites. What William Faulkner wrote--"The past is not even past"--seems to be the motto of many of the conservative intellectuals of the South, less known but deserving of more respect than the talkative spokesmen of neoconservatism, now well ensconced in or near the centers of intellectual commerce in the Washington-New York-Boston corridor.

Still there is trouble with Southern conservatism too. In the Southern tradition of the Agrarians, their spokesmen are skeptical of technology and of unlimited immigration and of untrammeled capitalism, which is to their credit, but almost all of them are populists, which is not so good because it suggests a faith in the divine-inspired wisdom of The People. Their problem is the opposite of that of the Buckleyites. These Southerners know the Past--their Past; but they do not know the Present--their Present--well enough. Some of their best minds, like the late M.E. Bradford, not only assailed the legend of Father Abraham but also aimed to discredit the character of Lincoln.

Now a partisan misreading of history may still be better than no reading of history at all. Yet the trouble with most of these Southern conservatives has less to do with their misreading of the past than with their misreading of the present. They do not seem to realize how much of the present South has become the Southland of Elvis, Newt, Trent, (and now) Bush. They do not see that populism and true conservatism are irreconcilable, since the essence of the latter is a healthy (and, yes, religious) skepticism about human nature and of the cult of popularity.

But this is still a big country and there are exceptions, often outside these groups. There is Wendell Berry, the new "Arator," the defender of America's land. There is the remarkable exception of Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Southerner, North Carolinian, onetime Rhodes scholar, onetime columnist and at present professor at Washington & Lee University. The title of Yoder's book, "The Historical Present: Uses and Abuses of the Past," is as precise as it is honest. It is a collection of essays but, unlike many such collections, they all cohere. It is as if they were chapters of a book that is suffused with history--with a respectable knowledge of and an abiding respect for history. It is written with a kind of admirable modesty, which is not only the mark of good manners (and of a good style) but representative of the quality of Yoder's historical knowledge. He is concerned not only with the ignorance but with willful misconceptions of history: in short, with those kinds of half-truths that are more dangerous than are outright lies.

The 22 essays in "The Historical Present" are grouped into four sections about presidents, about "Constitutional Divinations," about nationalism and World War II and about "Games Historians Play" (a telling title). I do not agree with him about everything. I am impressed by his profound concern with and knowledge of the Constitution. (In this, he is in full harmony with other Southern conservatives who insist that the Constitution was, and remains, a far greater achievement than the Declaration of Independence.)

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