Books and Ideas; 12; Conservatism in America by Clinton Rossiter
This is National Educational Television. From the Library at Syracuse University, books and ideas. This is Books and Ideas, a program about books and the ideas in books. Today our friends in the Library are already talking together about conservatism in America by Clinton Rosseter. Before we settle down to listen in, let me tell you who they are. Albert George, who is chairman of the Department of Romance Languages at Syracuse University. Stuart Gary Brown, professor of citizenship and American culture in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.
Edwin Katie, professor of American Literature in the English Department. And this is Arthur Weld, he is your host. They're talking now about conservatism in America by Clinton Rosseter. Our address is itself to the realities of American life more than most of the others do. Excuse me a second gentlemen. Hello ladies and gentlemen. We've already started talking about our book for today conservatism in America by Clinton Rosseter. I had just mentioned a moment ago that essentially occasionally do make a remark about the physical aspect of the books we talk about. I somehow feel impelled to say today that this one to me is an example of not very inspired bookmaking. The cover is kind of brown, which would be nice enough in its way, but the newspaper gothic type in the heavy black ink doesn't please me a bit.
This of course has got nothing to do with what's inside the book. It's sort of a general spanking for the men that designed the binding. And now that that's done, I have got a serious question to ask of these gentlemen here. This book which was published in 1955, and which starts out when in fact spends a good two thirds, I would guess, of its pages describing what Mr. Rosseter considers to have been conservatism in its various manifestations down through American history. And in attempting to define what conservatism really is, after this was into what somebody called a tract. For the West, who do you mean 80, 100 pages, attempting presumably to sell his brand of conservatism to the public for which his book is written. I've got a question and it's a serious one that depends on the fact that I had a hard time reading this gentleman.
I can't make up my mind in all sincerity to what extent the ideas he's giving here as a sort of a survey, and his own ideas, his own conservative ideas are intended to match. I can't tell when he's setting forth these ideas as simply historical documents, so to speak, and how much he is quoting them with approval. Can somebody help me out on this one? Well, I could make it stead, perhaps. As I'm sure you're aware, I suspected maybe the source of a little of the confusion you were complaining about. The word conservatism is used in this book in a number of different ways, with a big capital C, and with many different kinds of modifiers, adjectives of one kind or another. But I think there are, I suppose, three, perhaps, patterns of conservatism that he's most concerned with here.
One is what he calls conservatism with a capital C, a kind of perennial, age-old, recurrent philosophy, which has come into the American scene from many sources, at least in the history of Western civilization as a whole, and the fate of patterns of conservatism in American history as he traces them through, and finally his hopes or his dreams, or perhaps simply the seeds for his dream perhaps, of what an American conservatism could be for our own time, if it were somehow revivified and restored and creatively reconceived. What kind of witch of the various kinds of conservatism would you say Rosseter himself stands for? I think the third. That is something that knew or that it's a kind of maybe synthesis of older conservative views and so on,
but not the capital C. I mean, this is not a restatement merely a burk and then saying, I'm for burk. Well, on the spectrum of political parties running all the way down from the stand pat of the all the way around to the far left and the revolutionary radical, I think that he's concerned primarily with the center, that is left center and right center, he's talking to these people. He disclaims as you remember all people in the far right, and he spends a great deal of time on that and all people in the far left. And that's why he gets concerned with this special kind of conservatism for these two groups. I think that the word center is the key here and I'd like to react to art's question differently from the way Ed did and not really disagreeing with that, but I think a different point of view. Because I read this book, it seems to me that as Bill puts it, this is a man who rejects fascism on the extreme right and ultra reaction and so forth on their extreme right.
He rejects communism on the extreme left, he rejects socialism, he rejects well, what he calls radicalism in general. And having rejected all these things, what is he for? He's for the center, but in the center, standing in the center, he looks a little bit to the right rather than a little bit to the left. Now the problem arises, here is a man who wants to persuade people to agree with him, to become his kind of a conservatist. Whom therefore shall he address? The people in the center. And I think that this is the reason that the book reads very often as though he cared more about attacking the right than he did about the left because he's trying to appeal to the liberal who in his analysis is standing right beside him anyway. He wants to get this liberal who means to the left to lean over his way to the right.
It's also true that he makes a kind of contribution, I think, to our discussion of the I think much more of the current political scene in history. I'm not too happy with his history though, Rossiter has written an extraordinarily fine historical volume called Seed Time of the Republic. I'm nevertheless not too happy about the history in this book, though I am quite happy with the other book. His survey of the present, the current political scene, I think, is valuable because not enough people I would agree with him have been talking about this kind of thing. People from the far right have been cat-calling at the liberals with all kinds of fancy adjectives and that sort of thing, and the liberals have been returning their charges of reaction and so forth and so on. Not enough people have been seeing, I think, that there is a kind of vacuum in political discussion. It's impossible to be neither a liberal nor a reactionary, but somewhere in between.
That's the position of a voice that needs to be heard in America. I think there's a second value to agree with that. I think there's a second value to the book too, and that is that a load infuriated me in some spots. I was at the point where I wanted to tear out some of the pages. Nonetheless, it makes you go back to his assumptions and to evaluate yourself in terms of them. When I got all the way through, I was surprised and annoyed to see how closely I'd come out with him because I really didn't expect it from the first year. This is what I mean. I think that this is the strategy of the book, and in your case you see it worked. If, when I take it that sort of in broad general terms, you would say that you belonged in the liberal current in the American sought. He's a voluntary Democrat. But not all liberals or Democrats, as Rossiter himself would hasten to point out and notice that some of his chief liberal heroes in our time are men like Senator Case of New Jersey as a Republican and President Eisenhower and so on. It seems to me that this is the strategy of the book.
He's taking the position that the intellectual, the literate, the cultivated man of the era since 1929 has tended to be a liberal. And this is the person who will listen to him if his language is properly attuned to the mood of the liberal in 1955-56. And he threw out his line and he called a fishman. Why, he certainly didn't catch me. Not so much because I'm any less in sympathy with the ideas, as you said, though, but simply because I couldn't always figure them out. Now, I'm laying myself wide open and this will no doubt. I'm not merely talking about his use of small and capital C's in conservatism, which leads up to sentences like this sort of statement certainly sounds conservative, but it isn't conservative. And one with a small C and one with a capital, which I admit through me.
It's the attempt that you mentioned, Stuart, to sympathize possibly with the men who are left of centered, but which bothered me to the extent that I couldn't figure out what Harry was. This is perhaps naive. It's so much of his... No, I don't think it's naive, but I think that what's your question points to is one of the really useful characteristics of this book, which may not have quite worked in your case and perhaps didn't work in the case of a lot of his readers. But he's trying to distinguish between conservatism, properly so-called, and the right. Whereas in popular terminology, the word conservative or conservatism tends to get identified with the right. Just as liberal tends to get identified with the left. Now this is a man who is against the right with a capital R, from the extreme end of the spectrum down to the middle. He's in the middle. He doesn't want to identify conservatism with reaction. He won't buy McCarthyism, for example.
He won't buy...well, you can't get dignified by calling it Buckleyism, but Buckley's a god-man at Yale fellow has now got a weekly magazine called the National Review. He won't buy that. He won't buy...to pick on some Democrats for a moment. He won't buy Senator Eastland, for example, or McCarran. But I think he assumes that in the popular mind conservatism and the right are the same thing. So he tackles the problem of how to divorce them, and this isn't an easy thing to do. But I think he does it awfully well. I had trouble finding myself in the book. He was interesting that Bill tended to find himself in a way, at least in some places in the book and was surprised to do so. I think of myself as some kind of a conservative. I am at least a Republican, or at least I usually both that way, and as if you didn't know. At the same time I found it difficult to find myself in Rossiter's book until he came to the place where he was trying to make his distinction between what he thought the conservative ought to be, and on the other hand the people of the far right.
And here I could begin to find myself, and I felt, therefore, that he was making a real contribution at that point. I think this is only really another way of saying, from a conservative slant, what Bill has said, from a liberal slant, or what I would say. I think the reason that you and I, and you're not the only fish, I mean he caught me, too, in the last chapter. In the last chapter was the program for conservatives. I mean what he's really done there is to put down the main items that belong to the center. And for the liberal, who was just to the left of center, there are enough items there that he recognizes in his fore. So that he feels that he's on the side of the book, and this works. This is a good strategy. So that I think one needs to say, or at least what he is, after all, trying to label conservative in the long run.
The conservative, he thinks, is the man, who is willing to see his society changed. Who is willing to see growth, who is very slowly, very slowly, wants to keep the break on. He wants to make sure that nobody runs away with things. He wants to be sure that it's quite thoroughly proved that change has to be made before it is made. But, on the other hand, they must be made. I have a real quarrel with him in some instances, and that is he bases what is essentially a thesis on certain assumptions. And this is one fish who didn't bite our nose, lose to her. First of all, the statement that America is in the right on the verge of stopping. In fact, we may be facing some kind of a period of decay. Consequently, we need a new conservatism. The other thing is the curious attitude of neoclassicism. The idea that the conservative somehow...
This professor was neoclassic. Simply the idea that there are immutable laws to which this new kind of conservative must adhere. Also, the fact that his insistence on status, the new conservative must be a man who has certain rank. This is what was called humanism 25 years ago. Well, let's say neo-humanism. Yes, that's what I mean. This is Bavarian laws. Standards, ethical disciplines, the image-cash, the inner-check, the whole higher conscience. There's a lot of that there, though. I think I found Rossider a little inconsistent about this sort of thing. He said the conservative must adhere to the higher law as he found it. At the same time, he said there must be a kind of creative pluralism right here. On the one hand, you have authority and absolutes. On the other hand, you have relatives and the devotion to the many. The same thing is true, I think, about the whole business of rank and status and aristocracy and class and so forth. You seem to me to be thoroughly confused about some of that.
Well, he's firm and he's also, again, and he doesn't quite understand what some of the best American thinking has been about that kind of feeling. One reason why I don't hesitate to introduce a kind of invidious comparison here. This book, and incidentally, my shop has required me to read practically all of this new conservatism literature. And I got the same reaction with each book. Actually, way back in 1922 in democracy and leadership, Irving Babet laid out this whole business once and for all, with a crystal clarinet, which you either accepted or you rejected, but it isn't muddy. You know what it is that you're buying or not buying. And I think that these new Conservatives, they have a mission which is important, but they could take more of a lesson from that book. In terms of defining what they really mean and examining their real convictions. I'm interested that you should point this out because I know that you happen to be a student of Paul Almamour and originally came from this.
I think what they have done to the old Babet tradition, however, is that there seems to be an element of mysticism in here. They've gone beyond that. This is a great big ideal to which the very best of us can tend. And somehow rather, it's a kind of messianic attitude that runs through the book. These will save. Yes, and of course Babet remember always said that he was for conservatism and politics. He was for humanism and literature and classicism and literature and humanism and conduct and so forth. And Elliot, you remember T.S. Eliot said that he was classist and literature or royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic and religion. These are ways of saying neatly and in a pungent sort of way. What the conservative nowadays is saying. But these were much clearer. And it seems to me that the Rossiter kind of thing tends in a way to do a disservice to conservatism by in a way emptying the ideas of their content in order to make them abstract enough to get very broad agreement. Of course, this is a Babet more sort of thing is what Rossiter would call conservatism of the capital C.
And he's awfully anxious to bring the thing down to the place where it can be more functional in the area of politics. And I think this is one of the things that leads him to confusion. Of course, Babet tried the same kind of strategy for his own time. You remember that Babet I mentioned the isms that he identified and that he stood for but he was always adding to this as modifies that he was positive and critical about it. Now, this Babet wrote in the era of positivism. He wrote in the beginning of what Wilson has called a age of criticism and so forth. So he was trying to appeal to the popular interest that was being cited by these words in the same way that I think that Rossiter now is trying to appeal to the liberal by mentioning things that the liberal is for. I mean, there's a common kind of attempt to persuade here. Except that Rossiter would bring this down even to the level of program as he calls it, although the program doesn't get awfully specific. I like, however, what he had to say about the things he considered the great successes of democracy. And he was saying that, after all, the American conservative couldn't usefully be very conservative from a liberal, from a European standpoint.
He would have to seem awfully liberal, even when he was most keeping up the conservative side of things. But on the other hand, it seemed that he had three major failures in American democracy, to which the conservative want to address himself. I think that's right. I think liberals have addressed themselves to these three failures. That is, well, he thinks that America hasn't done enough or as much as it should have in the cause of world peace. Certainly hasn't succeeded sufficiently there. It hasn't succeeded sufficiently in solving the problem of the Negro and of race in America. And it hasn't succeeded sufficiently in solving the problem of a really viable popular culture. I think liberals have addressed themselves to this. A good deal. And conservative is not nearly enough. I think it's worth pointing out. I think this is true. I mean, he raises the right questions. He points his finger at the right weaknesses. But I would want to give him a little more praise at this point because I think that as a conservative, he has laid a great share of the blame on the people who think of themselves as conservatism in America, namely the business community.
One of the most important things about this book, to my view, is that he's really lecturing the businessman and he's saying to them, you call yourselves conservatism. But now let's look at what you really believe and what you say and what you do and is it conservatism. And he comes to the conclusion that these people could well read a book. Yeah, definitely. He's addressing himself to this businessman from that middle group politically. I think he should have been a little more careful. For instance, you pointed out Ed when he says that there is no such thing as an exciting popular culture in the United States. This, I think, is nonsense. And also when he begins to be very careless with some of his phrases when he talks about the daydreams of 1929, the untrammeled intellect, all of these things.
This is too much of an appeal to his audience for a man who's a respectable historian with something to say. Of course, this raises really a basic literary difficulty, doesn't it? How you can make a book which is a historical analysis of ideas, whether it's conservatism or any other kind ofism. And at the same time, turn it into a track for the time. It's a terribly hard kind of problem to solve in purely literary terms. Or call for talents. I suspect Rossiter hasn't quite developed at any rate. He has had sure he has shown great talent, I think, as a historian. But at least on the basis of his book, I think his attempt to bring this down journalistically to a popular level is not a success. There's too much G-whiz vocabulary. There's too much looseness in the handling of things.
Well, if somebody at this stage willing to take on the chore of telling me what the track says at the end, we've, some of you referred to it, but I'm still in my confusion, although bless your hearts, I'm better off than we were. And I was when we sat down here, thank you very kindly. But do I take you to say, Ed, that his program for American conservatism, his last chapter here, is intended to be primarily an exhortation to do something about these three problems that you mentioned? Well, it's that in part, though I think he brings up the problems mainly as a, for instance. This is the kind of thing to which creative conservatism should be addressing itself. But for the most part, I think he's trying to communicate his own sense of a vision to these people whom he has managed, he hopes to interest with his book. This is what a conservative could be. This is the sort of realm in which a conservative ought to be working and thinking and caring.
Do you think he's to do his job so much of program as an enthusiasm? I think there's some extended news. I think that the reader had better be wary if he just looks at the table of contents to say a program for conservatives suggests that he's got a number of measures that he wants to Congress to enact by popular demand and so forth. And it's not that kind of thing. Which, incidentally, is true also of another leading new conservative Russell Kirk, who recently published a book called A Program for Conservatives. And it turns out to be very similar in a sense to the last chapter of Rossinger's book. It isn't a series of measures. It's not a platform on which he stands. But I, and to go back to Rossinger, I agree that it is a kind of enthusiasm. And it's an attempt really to promote an attitude of mine in America, stimulate it and push it forward, then it is to get people to agree that this specific thing should be done or that. Isn't he saying that these things are, for instance, as of what right-thinking people should address themselves to in the near future? And that by doing that, the liberal conservative and his term complex can save itself and still be the dominant force in American life.
All right, gentlemen, next question then. All right, is he? I don't think he's right at all. No, that's too broad a state. He has something to say, which is important here, but I do not myself believe that the crying need of these times is for conservatives. Conservatism understood, as Rossinger understands it here, as marking time, taking it easy, being very gradual, being very cautious, being rational about everything. I'm for the reason part of it. But reason is a tool, you can use it one way or another. I think the times call rather for a new liberalism. I think that our fight throughout the world against communism calls not for conserving what we have, primarily but for innovation, which is a nothingness to conservatives. They don't like innovation. Rossinger said we don't want any more of that now. I think we need innovation. I think we need imagination. I think we need to go back to the liberating ideas of the American revolution itself.
And talk that kind of language to the uncommitted peoples of the world. I think that the neo-conservatives, and I don't mean any insult to my friend Clinton Rosseter. But I think that the end product is to disarm the American people, ideologically, in the face of the communist challenge. I think that's what it does. Well, I can agree with you, and I think Rosseter, both, in this steward, I agree that we need a new liberalism, that the old ones rather worn out in weary. I'm not so sure about that. But I think we also need a new conservatism. As long as we have people standing so far away that they have to shout violently at each other, and never communicate. As long as people simply scream insults at each other across a great abyss, from the far right and from the left and so forth and so on. You're never going to get the kind of creative dialogue you really need.
No, I think we need both. One idea for the center, because liberal and conservative in his terms, relative terms, wouldn't it be that we need one idea and we could discuss it from the left hand to the right hand and vice versa to see precisely how this, this main philosophy is going to work. Not an opposing kind of philosophies, where they would be against each other, but a single idea that we could explore. A revolutionary idea, if you will. At this point that you've left me with an idea, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is the idea that I'm going to have to go home and read this again. We'll all be here next week, ladies and gentlemen, talking about books and ideas, and of course we all hope you will too. Until then, Mrs. Art Well saying so long for books and ideas. See you next week. We've been listening in on an informal conversation about conservatism in America by Clinton Rosseter.
And before we say goodbye, please let us remind you who these men are. Albert George, who is chairman of the Department of Romance Languages at Syracuse University. Stuart Gary Brown, professor of citizenship and American culture in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. At one Katie, professor of American literature in the English Department. And Arthur Weld, who has been your host. Books and Ideas is produced for the Educational Television and Radio Center by Syracuse University. This is National Educational Television.
This is the National Educational Television.
- Books and Ideas
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- Library of Congress (Washington, District of Columbia)
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- This book includes a good history of conservative thought from the classic conservatism of Burke down to the present time. But it is also a call to action and, as such, is directed at the American businessman, who Rossiter says is not a real conservative, and at the American liberal who he wishes to convert. An active and thoughtful conservative himself, Rossiter attempts to show that many people are mistaken in applying the term to themselves. (Description adapted from documents in the NET Microfiche)
- Series Description
- This series on important books in western civilization features three professors from Syracuse University men who love books and enjoy exploring the ideas behind mans creative processes who meet for informal ad lib discussion of books, contemporary and ancient, which have influenced American culture through the ideas expounded in their pages. Participants include Stuart Gerry Brown, professor of citizenship and American culture in the Maxwell graduate school at Syracuse; Edwin H. Cady, professor of American literature and author of The Gentleman in America, and Albert J. George, professor and chairman of the department of Romance Languages. Discussion moderator is Arthur Weld, Jr., television program director at the Syracuse Radio and Television Center. The 20 half-hour episodes that comprise this series were originally recorded in black and white on kinescope. (Description adapted from documents in the NET Microfiche)
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- Published Work: This work was offered for sale and/or rent in 1960.
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Moderator: Weld, Arthur, Jr.
Panelist: George, Albert J.
Panelist: Cady, Edwin H.
Panelist: Brown, Stuart Gerry
Producing Organization: Syracuse University
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Library of Congress
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- Chicago: “Books and Ideas; 12; Conservatism in America by Clinton Rossiter,” 1956-00-00, Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed November 28, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-512-j96057ds7h.
- MLA: “Books and Ideas; 12; Conservatism in America by Clinton Rossiter.” 1956-00-00. Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. November 28, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-512-j96057ds7h>.
- APA: Books and Ideas; 12; Conservatism in America by Clinton Rossiter. Boston, MA: Library of Congress, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-512-j96057ds7h