Here is a far from exhaustive list of things that George Kennan, the great US diplomat, had misgivings about: automobiles, hot dogs, moving pictures, the universal franchise, advertising, Los Angeles, “national distribution chains”, women who work, men who cry, “modern hygiene”, artificial fertiliser and jeans. What he liked was the pre-industrial Russia of Anton Chekhov. He used the verb “re-primitivize”, and meant it as a good thing. “I hate the ‘peepul’,” he once wrote to his sister.
Having read Frank Costigliola’s new book about the old grouch, I come away with a question: where did all the reactionaries go? Where is the elitist, pessimistic, anti-modern vein of thought that, in the US, also went by the name “paleoconservative”? Where are the fogeys?
The right, as we know it now, exalts the peepul. It gives them referendums. It backs them against the “establishment” (a word no reactionary would use as a pejorative). Even the traditionalist alt-right speaks in a blur of sci-fi references that a Kennan would regard as cultural trash. It salutes, in Donald Trump, a man he would have seen as the distillation of all modernity’s crassness. No movement that centres on Palm Beach has a tragic view of life and history.
If anything, it is the left, with its qualms about economic growth, that has a trace of reaction in it. But just a trace. It wouldn’t sign up to the belief in eternal hierarchies. Or the taste for ethnic homogeneity. Or the dislike of any visual art after 1900.
And so an entire way of looking at the world has faded from the anglophone intelligentsia. This, I think, is the definitive reactionary opinion: Britain should have left the EU, but there should never have been a referendum. I am able to name but one commentator, Peter Hitchens, who tends to that view. In fact, reactionary thought is so marginal that even the word itself is shifting in common usage. It now seems to mean something like “over-reactive”. If you want to sack a football coach after a few bad results, you are being reactionary.
Kennan’s legacy is not the “long telegram” he wrote from Moscow in 1946. That was, in the end, and by his own reckoning, a sort of failure. What he advised in that document was constant vigilance and counterpressure against the Soviets. What he got was a moral crusade and the militarisation of much of the world. Given the west’s ultimate triumph, the hundreds of millions brought into the democratic fold from Kyiv to Seoul, he can’t even claim to have been vindicated. In the Washington he once dazzled, his reputation in his later decades was that of an amiable crank.
No, his significance is that he was the last great reactionary. A man who never quite adjusted to the 20th century managed to live into ours, long after Evelyn Waugh had died and Margaret Thatcher had turned the fogeys of The Spectator and the Telegraph on to the disruptive beauty of commerce. The nearest thing to a reactionary at the upper end of Anglo-American public life now is King Charles III. And I am basing that on old gripes about glass buildings and industrial farming that he has kept mostly under his hat for years.
I should make myself a hot dog and celebrate. Reaction is the geometric opposite of not just my outlook, but my life, which has relied on immigration, social mobility, big cities and romantic freedom. I find modernist LA more beautiful than baroque Rome. The sound of traffic is my birdsong.
But no civilised society can go without reactionaries. This has something to do with their occasional wisdom: lots of them opposed the Iraq war. It has far more to do with the style they bring to public life. The ones I have known tend to be wry, convivial and at ease with ambiguity. (Kennan was both a moral traditionalist and, as they say, a hard dog to keep on the porch.) Precisely because they don’t view politics as all that important next to eternal human nature, they come alive on aesthetics and other subjects. A modern rightwinger would ban TikTok to set China back in the epic struggle for mastery of the world. A reactionary would ban TikTok because it is ghastly.
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