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The Conservative Exiles’ Reading List

Joseph P. Duggan

The isle of Elba, just off the coast from Tuscany, a friend who visited there has assured me, is palmy, balmy, serene—a great place for a retreat of the mind and the spirit.

I plan to stay in this part of the world, but as I climb aboard a skiff for my own private Elba—perhaps among the towheads of Huck’s Big River, or chasing Bierce’s ghost across the Río Grande—I’ll take some reading with me. These are books I’ve read before but need to study again, probably for a period of years, to recover my bearings. For those of you in the same boat, welcome aboard. If we are in this together, it is likely because we are philosophical-political conservatives—adherents of moral realism, some of whom first got into the fray as part of the Reagan team—who feel that we’ve just been through a catastrophe.

How did the catastrophe happen? It will take a long time for the dust to settle, but the departure from conservative first principles has to be at the top of the list. Working through what I have called the “Conservative Exiles’ Reading List” may help us understand how it happened and show us the way to recovery.

These are classic writings that invite readers to think deeply and to learn by contending with the authors’ provocations. They are not, it should be emphasized, indoctrination manuals. They are not right-wing; fascists and Nazis were right-wing but were enemies of conservatism, enemies of truth. These are thoughtful works that may help us become conservative thinkers in the true sense. These are antidotes to ideology and propaganda. In our coming political exile, we will have a long time to read, and re-read, these and other essential works, and to think things over.

A Descent into the Maelstrom,” the short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Marshall McLuhan maintained that this tale demonstrated how people can keep their minds and souls intact amid the onslaught of ever-new electronic media and other rapid technological changes.

book cover imageThe Roots of American Order, by Russell Kirk. He who fails to learn the history of what happened before he was born will remain forever a child, said Cicero. This, therefore, is adult reading about the mainsprings of our civilization.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, by Walker Percy. An excellent companion is Aliens in America: The Strange Truth about Our Souls, by the political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler. book cover imageBoth books try to explain who and what we really are.

Happy Days Were Here Again, by William F. Buckley, Jr. This or most any other collection of Buckley’s newspaper columns and essays still provide a cheerful guide to political sanity. Statecraft as Soulcraft and other works by George F. Will are worthy companions to Buckley’s writings.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America’s Decline, by Robert H. Bork. Profoundly insightful as to the perils of corrosive ideologies, notably those threatening the institutions of marriage and the family. (Bork should write a sequel about the twelve years since Slouching was published. He should call it Sprinting Towards Gomorrah.)

From Under the Rubble, edited by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Essays written by Solzhenitsyn and other persecuted Russian authors envisioning, during the darkest days of the Brezhnev tyranny, a post-communist Russia. Our situation, of course, is not quite like theirs, but they can teach us profound lessons about the moral clarity and strength that we will need to overcome the dictatorship of relativism.

book cover imageEquality, the Third World, and Economic Delusion, by P. T. Bauer. If the great economist Bauer had had as much as one percent of Jack Bauer’s audience, sanity might have had a fighting chance during the past decade. Worthwhile sequels on foreign-aid waste and travesty are William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth and The White Man’s Burden. Wilhelm Roepke’s A Humane Economy also is a solid foundation for economic understanding.

Mugged by Reality, by John Agresto. Recounts the misadventures in “nation-building” by callow know-it-alls. They imagined that the culture of political liberty under law was as easy to transfer across oceans and deserts as prefab structures and freeze-dried meals, but they understood nothing about how our ancestors had taken centuries of learning and living to build our nation. A worthy companion book is Sands of Empire by Robert W. Merry.

Understanding Media and The Classical Trivium, also by Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature who had profound insight into how new media and new technologies—being extensions of man—change people. The Classical Trivium is an excellent history and interpretation of great tradition of the liberal arts—the arts of being free. Both books can help us recover our equilibrium in a dizzying technological environment.

Politics and Culture in International History, by Adda S. Bozeman. This book is to international politics what McLuhan’s work is to media and the liberal arts—profound investigations into how we must understand others not as “just like us,” but as others.

Dictatorship and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics, by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Some of the best essays of the late, sorely missed moral realist.

Scouting the Future, by William J. Casey. Collected speeches of the wise and courageous strategist who, like Kirkpatrick and a few others, was of the core group that helped Reagan win the Cold War without firing a shot.

The Reagan Diaries by Ronald Reagan. How he did it, day by day, in his own words.

The Prince of Darkness, by Robert D. Novak. Candid, insightful memoirs by the Washington reporter par excellence.

book cover imageThe Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz. This book by the great Mexican poet and diplomat shows how one of the most perceptive of the “others” saw the United States, and his own country. It may be no mere coincidence that the mysterious homeland of Paz, without heavy-handed “nation-building” or other “assistance” from Washington, has found its way from its own roots to hold two free and dramatic national elections since 2000, each resulting in a conservative, free-market, God-fearing Christian, pro-life President. At the rate things are going, it may not be long before American conservatives seek to ford a great river and climb a border fence to find a culture and a regime hospitable to understanding, enterprise, faith, family, and freedom.

Mr. Duggan is a visiting professor at Universidad de Celaya in Mexico. He has been a newspaperman, an advisor to Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick during the Reagan Administration and, later, a speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush.

Posted: November 8, 2008 in Essays.

Imagination it is that shapes society—moral imagination, or idyllic imagination, or diabolic imagination.

Russell Kirk

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