Paul Gottfried's Encounters With History

The Property and Freedom Society conference, hosted annually in lovely Bodrum, Turkey, by Austrian School economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, is an eye-opening experience in urbanity for provincial Americans like myself. For the benefit of monoglot Anglophones, the speeches are all in English, but many of the Continental speakers, such as economist Jorg Guido Hülsmann, are more suavely articulate in their second, third, or fourth languages than I am in my one and only.

Fortunately, the presence in Bodrum of Paul E. Gottfried—the distinguished intellectual historian, contributor, and coiner of the term "paleoconservative"—demonstrated that not all Americans are as unsophisticated as I am.

Each time I passed Dr. Gottfried in the gleaming lobby of the Hotel Karia Princess, he seemed to be carrying on a lively conversation in a different language. He was even rumored to have started acquiring some Turkish, a non-Indo-European language from the Asian steppe whose mere placenames (e.g., the nearby resort of Göltürkbükü) baffled me with their unfamiliarity.

Gottfried's energetic erudition reminded me of the international man of mystery who saves the day in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, "Mr. Baldwin", who plays world-class ping-pong while keeping up all the while "a bright, bantering conversation in demotic Greek" and "singing snatches of lugubrious Baltic music" in Swedish.

Gottfried's new memoir, Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers, provides an ideal introduction to the works of this scholar, who is perhaps the most acute "political genealogist" of our time.

Having spent an enormous amount of time trudging through  Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance to write my reader's guide to the President's autobiography, America's Half-Blood Prince, I was pleased to see that Dr. Gottfried made consistently opposite choices in molding his memoir. While Dreams is long, Encounters is short. Dreams is evasive, featureless, and self-absorbed, while Encounters is forthright, anecdotal, and interesting about Gottfried's better-known friends.

Gottfried's academic career has been notoriously incommensurate with his talents. In Encounters, he refers to his professional frustrations with a melancholic wit reminiscent of Nabokov's narrators, in asides such as "… a point that I have made to a generally unreceptive public in my recent books".

Yet, the lack of an Ivy League chair is not an impediment to striking up a dialogue with idiosyncratic thinkers, as Gottfried repeatedly did through the U.S. Mail: "What makes my life … perhaps even worth reading about is that it has gone nowhere in particular but has been nonetheless packed with fascinating encounters".

Somewhat similarly, in 1994 when I was an unknown market researcher, I mailed out an essay I had written, but couldn't yet get published, to a variety of public intellectuals. I soon found myself in correspondence with heavyweights such as Milton Friedman, Edward O. Wilson, and Richard Herrnstein (who, I found out later, was dying of cancer while he answered my letters with generous challenges to sharpen my thinking).

(Paradoxically, the convenience of email may have since made it harder to get in touch with strangers due to the now-universal wariness of spam, but a carefully personalized Subject line can sometimes help.)

Gottfried, for example, wrote to Richard Nixon, the most intellectual President since at least Coolidge, after the former President had publicly praised his 1986 book The Search for Historical Meaning. They became rather good friends. In Encounters, Gottfried notes:

"Like John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Nixon was a brooding political thinker who fitted badly into a job that depended on public favor."

The portrait of Nixon that Gottfried paints is rather similar to the onscreen portrayal that  stage great Frank Langella essayed in last year's film Frost/Nixon, especially in the touching final scene in which screenwriter Peter Morgan has Nixon muse that talk show host David Frost, with his gift for being liked, would have been a natural politician, while he, with his incisive mind, should have made a career out of asking tough questions. (Gottfried commented in a column after he finished his book that "I had the impression while watching Langella that I was standing again in Nixon's presence".)

Gottfried argues that the source of Nixon's policy of détente with the Soviets and Red Chinese was that:

"Nixon belonged to a tradition of pessimistic realism that would place him well to the right of his neo-Wilsonian critics … The question is not whether this approach was correct. It is rather whether it was actuated by conservative assumptions about politics and human nature. … He was thoroughly Hobbesian, in the sense that … Nixon thought that violence was inherent in human nature. The purpose of statecraft was to institutionalize and restrict the manifestations of an all-too-human propensity."

Encounters focuses less on retelling Gottfried's own life tale than on providing a buffet of succinct personal and political portraits of the more intriguing personalities he's befriended. Even limiting himself to those who are deceased, or at least older than he is, leaves him quite an array.

For example, Gottfried profiles such unlikely bestseller-writers as historian John Lukacs, social critic Christopher Lasch, and Eugene Genovese. Genovese, the pre-eminent historian of antebellum plantation owners, puzzlingly called himself a Marxist until converting to Catholicism in the 1996. Gottfried pegs the always stylishly-dressed Genovese more plausibly as "an antibourgeois elitist trying to fit into American academia".

Gottfried recounts a 1993 meeting called by Pat Buchanan "to come up with advisors for a new foundation … [that] would serve as the intellectual nucleus for a second presidential campaign …" The confab featured the penetrating Southern rightist Sam Francis, the exuberant libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, and the gentle traditionalist political philosopher Russell Kirk.

Gottfried notes, however, with some understatement, that what Buchanan "needed was advice from someone who would be able to get Pat lots of votes on Election Day. While the present company was more honorable and more interesting than this hypothetical strategist, my friends did not strike me as being well-suited to manipulating the public".

Still, Gottfried makes good use of this opportunity to sketch vivid portraits of Francis, Rothbard, and Kirk, and sympathetically yet critically outline the differences in the thinking of these influential thinkers.

Chilton Williamson, Jr. defines paleoconservatism as "the expression of rootedness: a sense of place and of history, a sense of self derived from forebears, kin, and culture—an identity that is both collective and personal". [What Is Paleoconservatism? Man, Know Thyself!, Chronicles Magazine, January 2001] Gottfried's clarity about his own idiosyncratic roots and his empathetic sensitivity to others' roots makes him an ideal explicator of the evolution of schools of thought over time.

Gottfried's father was an assimilated German-speaking Jewish furrier from Budapest. Having lived through the Bela Kun Communist regime in 1919 and the assassination of the Austrian Chancellor by Nazis, he immigrated to Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1934. There, the hearty businessman became a respected local figure, serving in Republican politics and on the municipal Fire Commission. In a prelude to the Ricci case in nearby New Haven two decades after his death, Gottfried's father heartily broke ties with the Fire Commission on principle when blacks with lower scores on the firefighter's test were hired due to race.

Gottfried's distinctive "Central European mentality" combining (he says) "Teutonic pedantry with Jewish moral righteousness" is very much a product of a particular segment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Amusingly but tellingly, one of his neoconservative detractors, Gertrude Himmelfarb, wife of Irving Kristol and mother of Bill Kristol, "had assumed that I was a 'German Catholic' who was only pretending to come from a Jewish refugee family". (Gottfried indeed got along well with the paradigmatic German Catholic conservative political philosopher Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddihn; but, then, he gets along well with most people other than academic and journalistic "careerists".)

Gottfried explained his roots to me in an email:

"But there used to be a small upper-crust Hungarian Jewish community, mostly from Budapest, the ancestors of whom had come from German-speaking regions. [Novelist Arthur] Koestler, [sociologist Karl] Mannheim, [literary critic] Georg Lukacs, and some of the famous atomic physicists during and after the Second World War [such as Edward Teller and John von Neumann] came out of this hothouse environment. … My father's family belonged to this German-Hungarian Jewish upper stratum but had become déclassé because of social scandals and financial ruin following the lost war. (No, I am not a Wilsonian for obvious family reasons.)"

Gottfried admires his beloved father for "working his way into bourgeois respectability", a status which his father's mother had cast away by abandoning her husband and child to run off with his grandfather.

Not surprisingly, Gottfried was culturally (but not politically) prepared to admire his Communist professor at Yale, Herbert Marcuse of the now-notorious Frankfurt School, for his dazzling Old World elegance and erudition. Marcuse falls squarely in the first category in Gottfried's delineation of Jewish leftists:

"The first two types were Jewish but divided easily into two categories. One, the representatives of which were predominantly Central European in ancestry, were conspicuously bookish and spent considerable energy working to make the world conform to a Marxist scheme of reality. Such leftists were usually multilingual and typically shared my interest in German philosophy. … Although themselves the products of elitist humanistic educations, they also professed great love for the unwashed, a group whom they rarely dealt with. I would have greatly enjoyed the company of such leftists except … I found their denials or whitewashing of the most gruesome tyranny in modern history, equaled only by the crimes of the Third Reich, to be inexplicably repulsive."

Gottfried notes (although he doesn't fully agree) that

"In provocative reviews of my last two books [The Strange Death of Marxism and Conservatism in America ]  the analytic philosopher David Gordon has portrayed me as a right-wing exponent of the Frankfurt School. I am what Adorno or Marcuse would have been if they had been bourgeois conservatives, applying their critical method to leftist targets."

Gottfried goes on to explain that:

"The second, and more tedious, type of academic leftists was composed of New York Jews of Eastern European origin who were fixated on one overriding fear: anti-Semitism. They seemed to experience this danger in proportion to how far they traveled outside of the New York metropolitan area. They were and are the most insecure group I have known …"

Gottfried told me one evening in Bodrum that, when you look deeply into the roots of the political views of modern liberal and neoconservative Jewish intellectuals, they often turn out to be some petty incident out of a Philip Roth novel, such as something bigoted that a Southerner said to an aunt while she was changing trains in Atlanta in 1948 on her way back to Brooklyn.

Thus Himmelfarb's allegation that Gottfried was a German Catholic pretending to be a Jew is understandable due to her obsession with

"German Catholic anti-Semitism. Such a threat may now be a silly anachronism, but it had been a real concern for my ancestors as well as for those of Professor Himmelfarb. People may suffer from atavistic fears that complicate social and professional relations. But one must take those fears into account if one is trying to understand their personalities."

Neocons, however, don't want to be understood; they want to be believed.

Gottfried's superbly-informed scholarship makes him an unpopularly keen observer of the neoconservatives, whom he describes as "post-Marxist leftists:"

"The neoconservative belief cluster, much of which has been imposed on 'conservative' foundations and publications, cannot be reduced to the one position of unconditional support for the Israeli Right. At the heart of that body of beliefs and feelings is a leftist vision of the world, one in which historical nations are replaced by aggregations of individuals held together by a shared belief in equality and 'human rights.' … Both their enthusiasm for Third World immigration and their opposition to immigration restrictionists flow from their view that populations are interchangeable."

Gottfried's analysis hasn't made him popular with the regnant neoconservatives. Yet it's precisely their dominance that makes it so important.

Although he would certainly to the idea react wryly, he will be remembered when they are forgotten—because his way is the only way forward for the American nation.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]