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Peter Viereck, many will say, is a sloppy historian, a traitor to his class, an accomplices of McCarthy's, and a panderor to the public taste. For his is an annoying book, with a host of annoying features--and the most irritating one of all is that Viereck is so very often right.
He does have a wonderful target. The intellectuals of his title are a specific group; they are the habitudes of "cocktail parties of New York, Boston, and the choicer Eastern universities." Not all of them, of course, but the ones who huddle today under the banner of academic freedom although in 1940 they strove to lynch any professor who said a favorable word about fascism. Not all of them, of course, but those who signed petitions drawn up by people they didn't know, in favor of causes that they hadn't even heard of, but who today shrug off anti-Semitism in Russia because it is something "we don't really know anything about." Not all of them, of course, but the ones who fulminated--justifiably--about a lynching in Georgia, while condoning mass executions in Russia with the remark that "you've got to break some eggs to make an omelet."
The glory of these intellectuals, Viereck writes, was their early opposition to fascism, while the shame is their long collaboration with communism. The book stresses the similarity between the two totalitarian systems--the word "communazi" is, I am afraid, Viereck's way of emphasizing this--but does not bother to explain why one system was accepted and the other fought. Instead by means of some dialogues with a ludicrous stereotype named Gaylord Babbitt, Viereck creates a phony example of a deluded intellectual, and proceeds to rip into his artistic, economic, and political beliefs.
The equating of eggs with human lives is one of Gaylord's follies which provides Viereck with a second chance to push over a tottering strawman. The "bloody-minded professors" who introduced communism into this country prove the dangers of moral relativism.
Opposed to this, are the values which Viereck identifies with "the new conservatism," the quest for traditional Western, Christian values, primarily live. There are absolute standards here, and the schools must teach them.
Indoctrination? Surely. But there are some things that should be indoctrinated, and one of them is that man's nature can be permanently improved, not through an economic leveling, but through an moral uplifting. And Viereck, like Niebuhr, stresses the recognition of evil as a positive force.
Ortega y Gassest's "mass-man" is one such evil. Viereck's method for conquering that bogey is "not to retreat into un-American class lines in order to make some men aristocrats," but "to subordinate economics to cultural values, and to subordinate external coercion to internal self-discipline, in order to make all men aristocrats."
Not that Viereck urges a return to catch-as-catch-can capitalism. The New Deal had its faults--and he delights in confronting his intellectuals with them--but its conservative contribution to the idea of a mixed economy far out weighs its blunders. However, Viereck feels that government can go too far, and that this limit is now being approached.
This summary indicates one of the book's weaknesses. Viereck bounds from topic to topic, scattering epigrams and insights in his wake. Sometimes the epigrams fall flat, and often the insights are marred by Viereck's sense that he alone has seen the light. His sense of possession in the "the new conservatism" is so blatant that one might forget that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had been over much of the same ground in his more-convincing "The Vital Center." There is also the feeling that this book is at least two years too late, that first Czechoslovakia and then Korea aroused almost all American intellectuals from their long flirtation with popular frontism. Yet, if there have been more convincing books about that infatuation, there have been few more irritating, and, for those still-slumbering intellectuals, a good irritant might prove the cure.
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