Shots Fired by Sam Francis

The context of a book can matter as much as its content, and this is such a case. It’s a work that invites conservatives to search their souls, and it suggests a good place to start is with the legacy of Edmund Burke.

For all his greatness, Burke bequeathed to conservatism a fatal flaw that would help make it the Stupid Party, forever undermining its own true role. The flaw was his trust in Whiggery and in the capitalism preached by his friend Adam Smith. With their creed of “creative destruction”, British Whigs and capitalists were the ideological cousins of the French revolutionaries that Burke denounced. In the long run they were no less foes of the Western heritage, but were allowed to pose as defenders and extenders of that heritage. Whiggery and capitalism might both be good things in moderation, but they are tied to a modernity which is always out of control. Sam Francis observes: “As the Left always understands, and the Right never does, granting the premises of your enemy is the key to his victory; the rest is merely haggling over the consequences that the premises imply.”

Burke granted the enemy premise that the modern agendas of Progress and Profit were compatible with the good stewardship of an actual human society. He thus addled the brains of conservatism as to its proper duty, which was to defy the “creative destruction” doctrine on behalf of what we might call “creative continuity”.

For its patron spirit conservatism really needed a composite of Burke and, say, William Cobbett, someone willing to confront the society-wreckers at home as well as abroad. It needed a fiery conviction that the task is neither to crush the battlers nor to turn them into yuppies, but to defend the sources of meaning that allow battlers, along with everyone else, a life worth living.

Saul Bellow wrote that: “For every avenue liberation opens, two are closed.” The “liberating” forces that Burke endorsed have given us the kind of world in which you can wear $400 sneakers but aren’t allowed to say “Merry Christmas” any more.

Sam Francis was a “paleo-conservative” thinker who died three years ago at only fifty-seven. It was he who coined the term “Anarcho-Tyranny” to describe the system he saw in place throughout the Western world, what he called “a sort of Hegelian synthesis of two opposites—anarchy and tyranny”:

“What really drives the system is the revolution of our time, the internal onslaught against traditional identities and values that is usually termed the ‘culture war.’ When we think about which laws are enforced and which are not, this becomes clear.”

It’s the system that would rather go after parents who spank their kids than after thugs who terrorise the streets. The latter are no threat to the regime. Indeed, says Francis, they are its “de facto field troops” against the common population. But the former are dangerous, for they might raise up future citizens with the moral fibre to resist.

The essays and articles in this posthumous volume are varied, but the deep theme is the conflict waged in the USA for twenty years now between the “paleocons” and the “neocons”, the so-called “old” and “new” conservatives. The more personal nuances of that conflict can be lost on a non-American, for many old grudges are involved, but the overall relevance to the Australian scene is clear, and one feels the “paleos” are the kind of people James McAuley would have got on with.

From the paleo perspective, the story is that in the 1980s many leftist intellectuals, declaring they’d been “mugged by reality”, came over to the Republican side of politics. But they kept their leftist outlook, with its supreme vice of always putting abstract utopian dogmas ahead of real people and communities.

These neocons were revamping the “creative destruction” doctrine. The Socialist Brotherhood of Man having proved a fizzer, the new vision would be of Global Market Democracy, or World Democratic Capitalism, or whatever you call it. The key point was that Progress and Profit would again be in tandem, as back in the days of the dark satanic mills of industrialisation, but the sheer numbers of the exploitable and the expendable would now be of global magnitude. If all the blue-collar towns of America had to die in the name of Free Trade and the offshoring of jobs to China, for example, then so be it. And since blue-collar Americans were by definition xenophobes, they had it coming.

All this chimed wonderfully with the mindset of the New Class managerial elites, for they were as willing to ditch their national attachments as they’d once been to cut un-chic ties with family, class or region. Here was the nth degree of gentrification, what Francis calls “the ruling class that has revolted against the very nation and people that gave them life”.

Instead of being kicked out, the neocons were allowed to take over. As paleo professor Paul Gottfried says of the conservative movement: “Its rushing into the arms of bizarre leftist invaders suggests its deplorably weak convictions.” The curse of Burke’s Mistake had struck again. Again the Stupid Party was granting the premises of the enemy.

The paleos were those who chose to resist, the best-known being Pat Buchanan, who ran three times as an alternative presidential candidate. The aim was to save the conservative movement from its own folly, and more broadly to spark a populist revolt against what Buchanan called “the bipartisan betrayal of our citizens”. As Francis drily put it: “Conservatism in this sense ceases to be an ideology offering justifications for the current distribution of power in American society.”

In identifying with the great constituency of the betrayed, one might say the paleos had finally brought in the Cobbett element. And Solzhenitsyn also comes to mind as a paleo prototype. Back in the 1970s he gave the smug Western elites a whack in the kisser by telling them they were little better than their Soviet counterparts and were engaged in essentially the same inhuman project.

Then the clash intensified hugely with 9/11, one of the direst consequences of which was to unleash the neocons both at home and abroad, and now armed with real thunderbolts.

In 2002, Buchanan published The Death of the West,giving chapter and verse on our predicament, and relating it to the whole course of modernity: “Western man may be living out the final act of a tragedy than began five centuries ago.” As Francis observes, even when the neocons defend the West, it is only the feckless modern West, not the deep civilisation that includes medieval Christendom and classical antiquity.

As Australians have seen, insurrectionary politics can get you chopped off at the socks, and the paleos have been endlessly smeared. In a touching foreword to this volume, Buchanan tells how Sam Francis had his career and livelihood destroyed in the mid-1990s:

“Before the term lost most of its toxicity, Sam was denounced as a racist … He was the victim of hatred, of those who advance by slandering, censoring, and silencing braver men to appease the prevailing power.”

The silencing failed, thanks partly to the rise of the internet—Buchanan’s website The American Cause is the best way into the paleo scene—and Francis did some of his finest writing in the final decade or so covered by this book.

A few samples, taken almost at random, will convey the gist and flavour of the 320 pages. In “Culture War Despatches”, Francis recalls the dim poltroonery at the heart of even the Reaganite triumph of the 1980s. He tells how conservative thinker Mel Bradford was up for a post in the Reagan administration and was interviewed by a White House official. An item in the resume worried that worthy person. It was a scholarly analysis of an Elizabethan poem called “The Fairies Farewell”, lamenting that the elves and fairies of England had been driven out by Puritanism. Because the essay included the word fairies in its title, the official “was afraid that it might be an attack on homosexuals and that might be a problem for the administration in the current political climate”. Bradford did not get the post.

In “Patriotism True and False”, Francis dwells on a notorious 2003 article accusing the paleos of being “unpatriotic” in their opposition to the Iraq war. He patiently explains the difference between allegiance to the deep historic nation,or what’s left of it, and lickspittling to whichever parcel of rogues happens to run the coercive state apparatus at a given moment. He cites a peevish question posed by neocons in the Wall Street Journal:“How can Americans love their nation if they hate its government?” Since this automatic equation of the two things is the very hallmark of the totalitarian mind, it almost of itself clinches the whole paleo case.

In “Social Issues, Social Ills”, we get a federal arts bureaucrat declaring that, thanks to people like himself, “The arts, once found only in metropolitan areas, today are flourishing in Alaska and Alabama, Maine and Montana,, and everywhere in between.” Insofar as this “calculated insult” had any truth, it meant that alienating trash was being foisted on the heartland as a social solvent, a culture war ploy which “paves the highway by which the rest of the managerial apparatus will one day roll into town”. But, says Francis, a good way to see the whole thing straight is just to reflect on neolithic cave paintings of bison and elk, works of more profound artistry than yuppie sophisticates could ever hope to match.

In “A Child’s Garden of Lawsuits”, Francis comments on one of the first cases in the 1990s of a child being allowed to “divorce” his parents, despite the lack of any evidence of “what the real world normally means by abuse or neglect”:

“What comes from this babe’s mouth is the motto of the modern word: ‘I’m doing this for me so I can be happy.’ [But] nature has not constructed 12-year-old boys that they know more than their parents, let alone what happiness really is, nor has it so constructed judges and lawmakers that they are able to improve on what nature normally does construct.”

As a native of Tennessee, Francis looks at the plight of his own heritage in “In Defence of Symbols, Southern and Otherwise”. Southerners are painted as the very models of rednecked evil, and are first in line for liquidation, though a mocking hope is held out that if they are spineless enough in reviling their own ancestors they might be half-tolerated for a while. Francis shows how the brutal purging of southern flags and memorials is a rehearsal for the eventual outlawing of all traditional American and Western symbols. The Irish of Boston would not have dreamt that the “cleansing” of the South had any bearing on them, until their local public housing authority banned the shamrock as an offensive emblem, along with “the swastika and the Confederate flag”.

Nor would the Italian-Americans of Colorado have felt any common cause with Dixie, until their annual Columbus Day was banned on the grounds that Columbus is a “racist” figure not to be vaunted in public. They mounted a rare fightback in that case, and Francis speaks of “a world-historical clash in Denver”, to point up that the meaning of these things is huge and touches us all, as for example in the war against Christmas, which he discusses in “Happy Holidays!”

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote of “the farcical aspect of human bondage”. An example is our puerile inability to grasp one essential truth: What goes around comes around. That blindness allows the enemy to pick us off piecemeal, and the best current antidote is to see that, as Francis wryly remarks, “We are all Southerners now.”

Even with its fine prose and frequent subtle humour, this book tells a dark story. But there is a brighter story in it too—that of a brand of conservatism at last finding its proper role, and not least through the fortitude of people like Sam Francis himself. As Buchanan says: “He had a battlefield commission in the culture war and took more than his fair share of wounds.”

Peter Kocan’s most recent novel, Fresh Fields, was published in an Italian translation last year under the title Un Nuovo Inizio.

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