Wednesday, December 8, 2004

When Chilton Williamson Jr. was asked to compile a book about the 50 greatest conservative books of all time, he began with the Bible and ended with Ann Coulter.

“The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today’s Conservative Thinkers” is a series of essays about books, including many titles familiar to right-leaning readers: Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Richard Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences,” Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and William F. Buckley Jr.’s “God and Man at Yale.”

But “The Conservative Bookshelf” also features a section on literature that includes Ernest Hemingway and French novelist Jean Raspail, as well as a section on contemporary conservatism that overlooks some famous names in favor of such thinkers as South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson and journalist Joseph Scotchie.

The following are excerpts of a telephone interview with Mr. Williamson, a senior editor at Chronicles magazine, from his home in Laramie, Wyo.

Question: What was the inspiration for your book?

Answer: Actually, the book was not my idea. It was the idea of a guy named Bob Shuman. He’s an editor at Kensington [Publishing Corp.]. They had published a book several years ago called the “Civil War Bookshelf,” and Bob Shuman had the idea to have a book called “The Conservative Bookshelf.” …

I almost didn’t do it. I was in the middle of a novel, and [my agent] persuaded me that it was a good thing to do. And also my wife, who used to be in the conservative publishing business. … She strongly pushed me to do the book. I made sure I had full discretion about which of the books would be chosen.

Q: How did you go about choosing the books to include?

A: That was a tough thing to do. It was almost cause for me to back out. They wanted the books ranked in order of importance. … What I decided to do was to break the subject down into categories — religion, politics, society, economics. … I chose books within those categories and ranked the books within those categories.

Q: Have you received much argument about your choices?

A: Some have questioned the inclusion of Ann Coulter [for her 2003 book, “Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism”]. … I have no bone to pick with Ann. …

One or two people expressed incredulity that I was including Ernest Hemingway. I’m not in the business of handing out awards to accredited conservatives. … Many of these books are by people who would not call themselves conservatives, but who nevertheless wrote a book that was profoundly conservative in its implications. Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” is such a book. … It was partly intended as a pastiche of [T.S.] Eliot’s “The Wasteland” … corroborating Eliot’s view of the West as a wasteland culture. …

Q: What titles did you leave out that some conservatives might like to see on the bookshelf?

A: Chronicles is having a symposium devoted to that exact question. … I already had my 50 and then thought of Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law.” … I wanted a selection that was more free market; [though] I don’t consider a pure free market to be conservative. I think Wilhelm Ropke and G.K. Chesterton to be more representative of traditional conservative economic thought.

Q: Your skepticism toward the free market runs against the grain of much contemporary conservatism. Is this a forgotten conservative idea?

A: It’s traditional, and it’s substantially European and Catholic. … [The 1891 papal encyclical] “Rerum Novarum” [which begins the book’s section on economics] represents the traditional thought that is opposed to socialism. Leo XIII was in favor of private property and considered socialism to be a heresy. … “The just ownership of money is distinct from the just use of money. … Such is the economy of duties and rights according to Christian philosophy.” He’s not in favor of an unfettered private economy.

Q: You purposely excluded the neoconservatives. What is neoconservatism, and what’s unconservative about it?

A: It’s really liberalism, and, in fact, it traces back to Jacobinism. Claes Ryn has written a book [“America the Virtuous: Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire”] on the subject. … Irving Kristol said in 2003 that neoconservatives have no fear that the modern welfare state might be the Via Dolorosa that Hayek warned against in “The Road to Serfdom.” My point is that anyone who could say that is no kind of conservative at all. Their aggressive approach to foreign policy is totally contrary to the American conservative tradition. Their support for the modern welfare state, plus their willingness to contemplate modern so-called “values” as represented by liberalism, put them totally outside the conservative tradition. …

Their spin on immigration — the more immigrants, the better — is completely untraditional. It’s ahistorical. … If America becomes half Mexican, to them, it’s still America, as long as these people shop at Wal-Mart or work at Wal-Mart. …

Q: Many of the books you include are very old — Cicero, St. Augustine, the Bible, Edmund Burke. Are old books in some sense the best books?

A: No, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Obviously … in immediately contemporary times, the Western intellect has suffered serious degradation. First of all, the educational system is so bad, even graduates of the best schools don’t know anything. They don’t know any history, so their idea of ancient history is the Kennedy administration. In addition to that, we live in a society that deals in images instead of words and that intensifies the illiteracy of the contemporary world. …

The reason there are old books in this collection is that conservatism has a long and distinguished pedigree. It’s got deep roots going far back into the past, as far back as the 10th century B.C. I wanted to suggest the entire tradition. …

Q: Do you see this book as possibly being used as a textbook on conservatism?

A: Yes, I do. … I think it could certainly be used as a supplementary text in a number of college courses. There will be a paperback edition in a year.

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