Monday, September 12, 2016

Tonsor #6 -- Interlude: Who Was This Man?

As I think back to the lecture on Ernst Cassirer -- the first I heard Tonsor deliver -- I linger over it and ponder the melancholy it evokes -- not just about the course of European history but also about the career of Stephen John Tonsor. Who was this man, Stephen John Tonsor?

The question must be asked in the light of the most notorious speech Tonsor ever delivered -- The Drake Hotel Speech, as I call it. It was "witty, scathing, and highly controversial."[1] For it confirmed critics' suspicions that he harbored anti-Semitic feelings, at least when he edged into his traditionalist conservative mode, as opposed to his more liberal conservative mode (more about which in due course). Whatever the truth of his feelings, that one speech damaged his reputation with not a few movement conservatives and no doubt keeps him from being more appreciated to this day.

Recall that early in 1987 I had a conversation with Gregory Wolfe in which he told me about something controversial Tonsor had said at the Philadelphia Society meeting in Chicago the previous year.[2] Tonsor told the morning session that the true conservatives in America were invariably Roman Catholic or Anglo Catholic. And like a fresh boy looking for a cheap laugh, he couldn't resist adding something outrageous about the mostly Jewish neoconservatives who had joined the conservative movement of late:

"It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far."[3]

A delayed, uncomfortable laugh rolled through the Drake Hotel ballroom. Tonsor's blast of anti-Semitism startled even his admirers. As for the Jewish neoconservatives in attendance, they were outraged. So: to Tonsor they were "the town whore"? An ugly throwback, this. In America. In a professional setting. In 1986.[4]

I later learned that both his wife Caroline Tonsor and his good friend Henry Regnery saw a draft of the remarks and urged Tonsor to strike the offending passage. The clever analogy wasn't worth it. But there was no stopping him. At 62 years of age, Tonsor would stand or fall on his own decisions.[5]

Following the Chicago meeting, there were heated letter exchanges, both in private and in the pages of National Review. Daniel Bell and other prominent neoconservatives took Tonsor to task for calling them second-class conservatives.[6] In private correspondence with Henry Regnery, Tonsor criticized Jeffrey Hart's coverage of the meeting in National Review. Hart's aim was merely to "butter up the neoconservatives."[7] In his public statements, Tonsor went into a defensive crouch. He struck the pose of one taking umbrage at being misunderstood. His explanation? He attacked the neocons not because they were Jewish, but because they were full-throated modernists and former Marxists who had abandoned their faith. Yet the more indignant he sounded, the less persuasive he became. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that his statement was inescapably anti-Semitic. According to his peck order (a concept he liked to use), there was no way lapsed Jewish neoconservatives could rise to the level of the true conservatives, the Catholic conservatives.

Of course, there is always a larger context to these disputes. By 1986 the conservative intellectual movement in America seemed to be unraveling. Compelling evidence comes to us from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which published Modern Age and The Intercollegiate Review, the chief outlets for Stephen Tonsor's cultural criticism in the 1980s. About the time of The Drake Hotel Speech, the spring 1986 number of IR ran a symposium titled "The State of Conservatism." The symposium had more than a little shock value. Its editor, Gregory Wolfe, observed that something wholly unexpected occurred as the essays started to come in. While it seemed "that conservatism in America was at its peak in influence and intellectual rigor" -- it was during Reagan's second term, after all -- "several distinguished conservative scholars characterized the movement as 'adrift' and 'in trouble,' suffering from 'attenuation,' 'apostasy,' and a sense of 'malaise.'" Furthermore, noted Wolfe, "The dangers that threaten the integrity of the conservative movement can be summarized in a single term: 'politicization.'" The cultural conservatives believed the neocons were the Trojan Horse in the movement, modernists who politicized the culture.[8]

There are also personal background stories to this particular dispute. Tonsor occasionally got into intellectual brawls with neocons and their Straussian allies and perhaps wanted to use the Philadelphia Society as a platform to settle scores. One academic who seemed especially to get under Tonsor's skin was Cornell University political philosopher Werner J. Dannhauser. This particular "town whore" was a nominal Jew, a modernist, a neocon, and a Straussian all wrapped in one -- thus a juicy target for a Catholic conservative spoiling for a fight.

It must be said that Roman- and Anglo-Catholic conservatives tended not to care for the works of Leo Strauss's students. Stephen Tonsor, Russell Kirk, M. E. Bradford, Peter Stanlis -- they had their reasons for criticizing much of the Straussian intellectual program. In the same way they were critical of anybody who downplayed or rejected the West's Christian stamp, they were critical of the Straussians for doing so. To Catholic conservatives, the typical Straussian in his philosophy was a thoroughgoing modernist and thus not friendly to traditionalist Christians. As a scholar the Straussian tended to privilege the pagan classics over the Christian classics. In his politics the Straussian looked like an embattled liberal democrat. And in his foreign policy, the Straussian made common cause with neoconservatives since the security of the state of Israel was among their highest priorities.[9]

None of the above makes Catholic conservatives inherently anti-Semitic. Indeed, Tonsor called one of Leo Strauss's greatest students, a Jewish scholar and former leftist named Martin Diamond, "my friend." He had great respect for Diamond's work on the American founding.[10] And yet. And yet.

A few months prior to The Drake Hotel Speech, Tonsor and Dannhauser had crossed swords in the pages of Commentary magazine over an article Dannhauser had written. Dannhauser charged conservatives with not dealing in an intellectually honest way with Nietzsche.[11] Is that article what set Tonsor off? The Jewish paleoconservative, Paul Gottfried, read the exchange and speculated that Tonsor took offense at how Dannhauser used Nietzsche's critique of religion "as a club to beat traditional Christians." In any case, Tonsor accused not just Dannhauser but a large contingent in the Commentary crowd -- Jews, neocons, Straussians -- of "recklessly modern tastes, including a passion for Nietzsche."[12] Remember: For Tonsor the task of the cultural conservative was to confront modernity, to sift and test it, not recklessly indulge it.

A second background story unfolded in March, just weeks before the meeting in Chicago. In a letter to Henry Regnery, Tonsor reported that the University of Michigan history department was interviewing applicants for a high-level appointment in German history. One scholar in particular earned Tonsor's favor. He was the distinguished historian, Hans Mommsen, from the University of Bochum, and in his lecture he talked about his work on Hitler's Final Solution. Mommsen apparently rankled some in the audience. "At his lecture," observed Tonsor, "two of my Jewish, Pro-Israeli colleagues behaved badly and it seems, because of this undercurrent of hostility, that Mommsen's appointment will be impossible." As if that disappointment were not enough, Tonsor enlarged his complaint, adding that "German guilt [for the Final Solution] is kept alive when Soviet and Japanese guilt is forgotten because it is useful ... to Israel. However, that string has about been played out. Pro-Israeli Holocaust propagandists are now convincing only themselves. There is wholesale reaction to this deluge of cynical propaganda -- and I say the more the better." Tonsor knew there was heat behind his report of Mommsen's visit to Ann Arbor. At the end of the letter he apologized to Regnery and closed with, "Oh! I have much more to say but I have already overstayed my leave." Tonsor's agitation with his "Jewish, pro-Israeli colleagues" and with "pro-Israeli Holocaust propagandists" was palpable and no doubt fed the decision to compare pro-Israel, Jewish neocons to the "town whore."[13]

I had the chance to talk to Tonsor about The Drake Hotel Speech on four separate occasions, and never once in our conversations did he repudiate or modify his remarks. So I can only assume that he wanted the analogy between the mostly modernist Jewish neocons and the "town whore" to stand. It sounds anti-Semitic, but did this mean that Tonsor was anti-Semitic?

The first time I asked Tonsor about The Drake Hotel Speech was in April 1988, when he sponsored me to attend my first Philadelphia Society meeting. Before departing for the meeting, I wanted to understand the controversy better so I asked him for a transcript of his remarks to see if his words varied from what had been reported in The New Republic and National Review. I confirmed that what was reported was accurate. When I talked to him, I had to be careful that my tone did not come across as prosecutorial but as merely intellectually curious. He held my professional fate in his hands, after all. Tonsor recounted the Philadelphia Society meeting without appearing defensive. In fact, he made a joke about how conservatives had a talent for circling their wagons -- then firing into each other. The main point, though, is that he said nothing remotely anti-Semitic in this conversation.

The second occasion was in mid December 1991. I served as his graduate teaching assistant at the time, and we were standing in front of his Western civ class in Angell Hall, proctoring the final examination and speaking quietly so as not to disturb the students writing in their blue books. We had considerable down time as we waited for the student exams to trickle in. In this conversation The Drake Hotel Speech came up, and he revealed what motivated him to speak out against the neocons. How was it, he asked, that the Reagan administration gave all the plum jobs to neocons and not to the traditionalist conservatives? The case of M. E. Bradford was indicative of the problem. In 1981 Bradford, who taught English at the University of Dallas, was cruising for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He had estimable support.[14] But the neocons began to campaign against him, and he eventually lost out to William Bennett, who was the neocons' pick. Tonsor saw this incident as proof that the neocons were tribalistic and would stick together at the expense of traditionalists. Neocons now had the personal contacts, the institutional connections, the funding, and the power to advance their own. To Tonsor, the rejection of Bradford marked a depressing transition for conservatives in American public life. Henceforward, traditionalist conservatives were a setting sun, neocons a rising sun. This realization added fuel to the already burning embers of traditionalist resentment.

The third occasion we discussed the matter arose later that same month of December 1991. It was more than five years after the Philadelphia Society speech, and National Review allowed the charge of anti-Semitism against Tonsor to resurface in its pages. I pondered Tonsor's lecture on Ernst Cassirer as well as his regard for the Hebrews when he taught Western civ. Outside of the 1986 remarks, I'd never heard anything in his classroom teaching that struck me as anti-Semitic. I had never heard anything in conversation with him that struck me as anti-Semitic. To me the charge was unjust. So in 1991 I wrote a letter to the editor of National Review that defended my Doktorvater against the charge of anti-Semitism. The morning I wrote the letter, I drove to Tonsor's house and showed him what I wanted to say. I asked if there were anything in his lectures, publications, or communications (especially with Henry Regnery) that might point to anti-Semitism. He assured me that there was not. So I sent the letter off to National Review's editors in New York.[15] It was never published.

The fourth and final time we discussed The Drake Hotel Speech was in 2003, following the outbreak of the Iraq War on March 19-20 of that year. It was in a phone call to set up a time to meet with him. Stephen Tonsor's name had come up again in the pages of National Review, this time more ominously than ever. In an influential article whose purpose was to trace the origins and development of paleoconservatism, David Frum pointed to the significance of Tonsor's Philadelphia Society remarks in 1986: "I happen to have been in the room when 'paleoconservatism' first declared itself as a self-conscious political movement. It was in the spring of 1986, at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society, and Professor Stephen Tonsor of the University of Michigan read the birth announcement.... Tonsor startled the room by anathematizing the neocons and their works.... 'We are all delighted,' he said (I am quoting from memory), 'to see the town whore come to church -- even to sing in the choir -- but not to lead the service.' I wish I could say that Tonsor's outburst was motivated by a deep disagreement over important principles." Frum concluded, as many have, that it was not. Rather it was a display of pique that neoconservatives were getting jobs in the Reagan administration and traditionalist conservatives were not.[16]

No mistake about it: Frum's intention was to depict Stephen Tonsor as the father of the paleocons -- a new, self-conscious movement that veered from cultural conservatism in that it was openly anti-Semitic, racist, and white nationalist. He lumped Tonsor in with people who became notorious for the views they held. Today some would call them "alt-right": Paul Gottfried, Samuel Francis, Llewellyn Rockwell, Joseph Sobran, Patrick Buchanan, and others. As will become apparent in other conversations in this series, the characterization of Tonsor as a paleocon is highly inaccurate. He certainly shared some of the same preoccupations that paleocons had -- the fate of Western civilization chief among them. But that hardly put him in the paleocon camp. For one thing, Tonsor himself denied that he was a paleocon. He did not like it that Paul Gottfried claimed for him the label "paleoconservative."[17] As he said in our phone conversation in 2003, with resignation, "The neocons are still trying to make me out to be a paleocon." Chuckling he added: "I guess they don't realize I am besieged from all sides and have clashed as often with the paleocons as with the neocons!"[18]

Finally, years later, when I began doing research for this series and went through Tonsor's letters, I occasionally encountered the intensity of his pique when it came to conservatives who had converted from Marxism (read: neoconservatives). Their Marxist (and thus modernist) background really bothered him. Representative is a splenetic passage he wrote to his friend Henry Regnery in 1984: "I ... slaved away at a manuscript for the University of North Carolina Press.... The manuscript I am reading untangles the tangled skein of Marxist-Hegelian thought in some American Marxist converts to conservatism. I have waded around in Marxist sewers for so much of my life that I am thoroughly disgusted with the whole intellectual enterprise. Too bad the former Marxist and Marxist residents of the Hoover Institution can not all come down with cholera or at least some disabling disease which would prevent their writing another word.... we have had enough. It's time to forget Marxism and other intellectual errors and get on with the puzzles and difficulties of life. Nonetheless I have to read this damned book...."[19] Clearly in this passage it is not the Jewishness of the neoconservative converts -- however "Jewishness" is defined -- but their Marxist pedigree that Tonsor cannot abide.

In light of the evidence, what are we to make of The Drake Hotel Speech on that Saturday morning, April 18, 1986? That Tonsor was a tweedy anti-Semite and that his trademark sarcasm revealed as much? Yet if he were truly anti-Semitic, wouldn't there be a pattern of such utterances? I have searched the public record and his private correspondence, and I can find little else that Tonsor wrote or said that even approaches the anti-Semitic taint of the 1986 speech. It seemed to be a unique event. Still it must be explained since it cannot be excused.

The only way I can explain The Drake Hotel Speech is to look at Tonsor's entire way of thinking. As I have explained elsewhere, it was governed by the hermeneutic of accommodating opposites. This hermeneutic was presaged in the apostle Paul, who said that he would try to be all things to all people to win them over to the God of the Jews and Gentiles.[19] It is presaged in the Walt Whitman verse Tonsor liked to quote: "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"[20] Complexity is a familiar characteristic of intellectuals, seen in autobiographies as early as St. Augustine's Confessions and as recently as Wayne Booth's My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony.

The hermeneutic of accommodating opposites also applied to Tonsor's ways of being a conservative. Most of the time he expressed himself as a liberal conservative[21], sifting and testing modernity with his fierce intellect. As he once put it, "I have been a fortunate man because of my rejection of so much of the nonsense of modernity. I can stand outside it -- and I think above it -- and make my own independent judgments."[22] When Tonsor expressed himself as a liberal conservative in the manner of Tocqueville and Acton, he was at his best. Indeed, he was the liberal conservative's liberal conservative. He believed in the transcendent power of religious faith, he believed in the humanism that had been nurtured within Christendom, and he believed in the spirit of liberty that reached a higher level of development in the modern West than anywhere else on the planet. Neither his faith nor his humanism nor his defense of ordered liberty smacked of anti-Semitism, white nationalism, or any ugly prejudice.

But some of the time Tonsor expressed himself as an old traditionalist -- The Drake Hotel Speech being Exhibit "A." The old traditionalist could be tribal and Eurocentric. At such times Tonsor could fall into the ancient prejudices of the West. Even the Catholic Church has officially acknowledged the anti-Semitism that sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly infused Western society and old-school Catholic teaching.[23]

Apparently these two strains of conservatism -- the liberal and the old traditionalist -- were not always successfully reconciled in Tonsor's mind. But he would accept that very human shortcoming. His worldview, after all, was "large" and "contained multitudes."

It seems that a volatile combination of old traditionalist prejudice, professional resentment, personal conflict, and prickly stubbornness account for The Drake Hotel Speech. It was an unfortunate event in the life of Stephen J. Tonsor. He would never live it down.

In my first months at Michigan, I did not yet know the terrain well enough to measure the fallout of Tonsor's speech. In my oblivion, I thought it rather exciting to have such a formidable polemicist as my thesis advisor. But as time went by and I learned more about the backlash, my attitude changed. I would grow more vigilant. It was with a weather eye that I monitored people's relation and reaction to Tonsor. Would The Drake Hotel Speech isolate him further? Would The Speech diminish his status as an intellectual historian, cultural critic, mentor, and recommender?[24] Would being a new doctoral student of his make me guilty by association, and thus damaged goods in both the conservative movement and the history profession? Sometime during my second year of study at Michigan, I found myself worrying -- rather guiltily because such a thought seemed dishonorable and ungrateful -- about the effect Tonsor's words and behavior would have on this young historian-in-the-making. I had left Colorado and gambled all to pursue the Ph.D. under his direction. But would Stephen Tonsor prove to be a tar baby from which I could never extricate myself?

[1] Gregory L. Schneider, "Tonsor, Stephen J.," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 862.
[2] The meeting program is available at URL
[3] For a transcript of the Philadelphia Society remarks, delivered on April 18, 1986, at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, see Stephen J. Tonsor, “Why I Too Am Not a Neoconservative,” in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), pp. 303-08. The offending paragraph is found on p. 305.
[4] The Jewish neoconservative, David Frum, was in the audience. See his reaction and analysis in the article, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review Online, March 25, 2003; at URL
[5] Caroline Tonsor to Gleaves Whitney, Chelsea, MI, July 2014.
[7] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 19, 1986, p. 2; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[8] "The State of Conservatism: A Symposium," ed. Gregory Wolfe, Intercollegiate Review (spring 1986), pp. 3-28. The contributors were M. E. Bradford, George Carey, Paul Gottfried, Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, George A. Panichas, and Clyde Wilson. Note that Stephen Tonsor did not contribute an essay to the symposium.
[9] For a succinct discussion of the internecine conflicts between paleocons and neocons, see Bradley J. Birzer, Russell Kirk: American Conservative (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), pp. 345-56. See also Paul Gottfried, "Straussians Talk amongst Themselves -- in The New York Times," The American Conservative; at URL
[10] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Why Democratic Technocrats Need the Liberal Arts," Freedom, Order, and the University, ed. James R. Wilburn (Malibu, CA: Pepperdine University Press, 1982), p. 23.
[11] Werner J. Dannhauser, "Religion and the Conservatives," Commentary, December 1, 1985.
[12] Paul Gottfried, "The New York Jewish Intelligentsia," Modern Age (spring 1986), pp. 169, 170.
[13] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, March 16, 1986, pp. 4-5; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[14] URL
[15] In my letter to National Review, I pointed to Tonsor's first classroom lecture in 1987, his foundational lecture in modern intellectual history wherein he heaped praise on a Jewish humanist named Ernst Cassirer, the same Jewish humanist who had supervised Leo Strauss’s dissertation. Leo Strauss! – the North Star of the Straussian school and an inspiration to many a Jewish neocon. My mind also went back to Tonsor's teaching of the Western civilization survey at Michigan, in which he stressed the importance of the Hebrews to the development of so many of the values, attitudes, and beliefs that would characterize the West. How could such a teacher be anti-Semitic?
[16] Frum, "Unpatriotic Conservatives," National Review Online; at URL
[17] See, e.g., Paul Gottfried, "Paleoconservatism," American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), p. 651.
[18] GW phone conversation with Stephen J. Tonsor, October 2003.
[19] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 18, 1984, pp. 2, 3-4; letter in GW's possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[19] Paul, 1 Corinthians 9: 19-23.
[20] Whitman, "Song of Myself," quoted by Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Conservative Search for Identity," in Equality, Decadence, and Modernity, ed. Gregory L. Schneider (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), p. 248.
[21] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, August 17, 1987, p. 2; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[22] Stephen J. Tonsor to Henry Regnery, May 18, 1985, p. 3; letter in GW's private possession, courtesy of Alfred Regnery.
[23] Some years later, Pope John Paul II would apologize to the Jewish people for the anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church and its communities. See URL
[24] Almost two decades after I began studying under Tonsor, historian John Lukacs, in a review of Gregory L. Schneider's collection of Tonsor's essays, commented on Tonsor's obscurity without, however, linking it causally to The Drake Hotel Speech: "In the academic circles of professional historians Tonsor is hardly known, perhaps even not at all. This is regrettable, but perhaps right too, because of the nearly inevitable false and corrupting conditions of recognition, publicity, success in the world in which we now live." John Lukacs, "The Art of History," The American Conservative, September 12, 2005; at URL, accessed December 10, 2016.

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