Yoram Hazony has had a wild summer. The release of his new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery has sparked significant discussion across the political right. As Chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, he assisted in a collaboration that generated the National Conservatism Statement of Principles. And now, he is preparing to address the third American conference of National Conservatism (colloquially referred to as NatCon 3) when it is held in Miami next month.
I, too, will be in Miami covering the conference, and I was fortunate to be able to catch up with Hazony last week to discuss a broad range of issues: the premise of his new book, the right-wing politics of the frogs, and the role of personal repentance in national salvation. We also talked about the agenda at NatCon 3.
One of the major theses of the book is that conservatism is not a species of liberalism, but many people do believe the opposite. Explain to me why this is a dangerous idea.
Yoram Hazony (YH): It’s always dangerous to have a misconceived view of political reality. And one of the book’s main projects is to examine the set of assumptions that make you a liberal, and to compare that to the assumptions that underlie a conservative or traditionalist political worldview. The liberal assumes that all men are perfectly free and perfectly equal by nature; and that moral and political obligation arises only by way of the consent of the individual. Liberals also tend to believe that government doesn't have any purposes other than protecting the liberties and equalities that belong to the individual by nature. I think that every one of these liberal assumptions is false.
What I'm calling the conservative paradigm begins with the empirical fact that everywhere we look, human individuals are born into families, tribes, and nations. These loyalty groups are based on bonds of mutual loyalty, which are natural ties that all human beings develop. They’re also based on a competition for honor and standing within human hierarchies that is likewise natural to human beings. Although some individuals do, as they grow up, transfer their loyalties from one family or nation to another, conservatives understand that political and moral obligation is rooted in our membership in these loyalty groups—membership that is largely inherited.
These assumptions about human nature are built into the premises of a conservative view of political reality.
But these kinds of conservative assumptions have no foundation from within the liberal paradigm. And every paradigm blinds you to anything the paradigm isn’t built to describe. And that's how we end up with this situation in which liberals (in both political parties) don't have any problem with moving factories from America to China. It's not just a matter of jobs. It’s a matter of elites profiting by weakening your nation. The liberal axiom system does not give you resources for understanding why this poses a problem. But conservatives see it instantly. The aim of the book is to equip people with the ability to understand politics from within a conservative framework—so that they can at least understand the problems that we’re talking about.
You’ve written about “the virtue of nationalism.” One thing that I encounter when I talk to people about nationalism is that rhetorically, they see the term as being synonymous with a kind of cultural chauvinism. But your work has emphasized that nationalism is actually the precondition of the toleration of cultural difference. Nationalism and national sovereignty are what actually protect cultural difference. Liberalism claims to be the great defender of diversity, but in fact we see that it has this great homogenizing effect on global culture. It kind of steamrolls everything into sameness. How can conservatives reclaim the idea of nationalism since it's a concept that's so poisoned in the public discourse by false assumptions?
YH: We have to understand that every concept and every turn of phrase that is natural and useful to conservatives has by this point been slandered and tarnished by Marxists and liberals. This is true of the terms like conservative, nationalist, Christian, Jewish, traditional, biblical, and so on.
But if we speak in the language of those Marxists and progressive liberals who’ve already decided that conservatism is not a legitimate political perspective, then we’re going to lose for sure. You have to be willing to use conservative terms unflinchingly, despite the fact that our detractors are working hard to make our terms unusable.
In the last few weeks, for example, there were three or four excellent essays published by young Protestants and Catholics defending the term Christian nationalism. I found it refreshing and liberating to see these really sharp young Catholics and Protestants taking this up and saying “Look, we’ve had enough. There’s nothing shameful about being a Christian nationalist.” This same attitude needs to be applied in other areas as well.
Do you happen to see my essay on it? I'll say this: the Christian faith has thrived when it exists outside the political establishment. This has been true since the birth of faith. Early Christianity grew rapidly in the face of persecution. It existed outside the sphere of political authority. And in the Middle Ages, when Christianity and the state were intertwined, we saw that religious orthodoxy was corrupted in many ways. In some sense, then, Christian nationalism would be great for America, but perhaps bad for the faith.
YH: Can I just push back a little bit? Do you think that there’s anything worse for the Christian faith than the current direction in which things are headed in America? We’re watching a situation in which Christianity is effectively banned from most schools and in which Christianity is being humiliated and abused by the political system—so that Christianity, which was once the inheritance of almost all Americans, is now being rapidly reduced to a persecuted minority? I just can't imagine a worse direction for Christianity in America than this.
There’s no question that this persecution is happening. But I’m going to skip a few questions in my notes here because I have the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago fresh in my head from last night.
You have described “fusionist” conservatism as a response to the realities of fighting the Cold War and the rise of socialism in the United States in the late fifties and sixties. You could say that the victory of fusionism was possible in part because the state itself was still very much committed to the traditionalist wing of American thought, and it wasn’t in the corner of the cultural revolutionaries. But now, it seems to me that the state is solidly in their corner.
Do you agree that’s the case? And if the state is now in the revolutionaries’ corner, it will be much harder this time around to reclaim the tradition that we’re after. How do we do it?
YH: We don’t have a lot of choices here. We need to take steps that allow the life of conservation and transmission to be restored. To begin with, in those places where there is still a traditionalist majority, people must be willing to support a restoration of a biblically-based public life. There are some places in America where it's still possible to muster such a majority for that. In those parts of the country, it is crucial to reject the idea that America was founded on a “separation of church and state” – a view of history that was invented by the Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947 and imposed on all 48 states. This rewriting of history needs to be rejected by Christians, by Orthodox Jews, and anybody who wants to fight the woke neo-Marxism effectively. Then, you can start talking about putting Bible in the schools and negotiating what kinds of public morality can be built on a biblical vision. That will need to happen in the political arena.
But at the same time, people cannot assume that the political arena can save us. The present fight requires us to embrace a personal repentance and renewal. John Bolton reviewed my book and said that when he got to the word repent on page 8, he “almost stopped reading right there.” I think that’s exactly our problem: The idea that you might need to reconsider and repent and rethink the way you’ve been living is just this completely alien thing to many people now. Liberals, in particular, find it very difficult to believe this, because under the liberal paradigm, it’s assumed that as long as you as an individual have consented to the way you’re living, then there just aren’t any further obligations you’ve overlooked and everything’s okay.
But everything is not okay. We’re really in bad shape right now, and there is a crying need for a personal repentance, which will have to pave the way if there’s going to be any kind of national salvation.
Individuals, families, and couples, young and old, are going to have to start asking themselves: “Did I contribute something to this catastrophe?” They need to find their way to orthodox Christian congregations and orthodox Jewish congregations, to places where the life of conservation and transmission is still taking place. If there is a broad-based repentance like that, then America has a chance.
You mention repentance. This is the topic of my recent book, and there's a little bit of a dichotomy in that concept when viewed from the Jewish and Christian angles. The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuva, denotes “a return,” or a “coming back” to some earlier place. Early Christians reinvented this Hebrew concept and used a Greek term for it: metanoia. Metanoia is the opposite of the return. It’s a turn away from the past, a total rejection of the earlier, sinful self (rather than a return to it). As I read your book, I saw these two themes in tension. On the one hand you’re talking about a rediscovery, a return: you’re calling for us to go back. But then there are those on the American right who call for the opposite of a return. They are, as Matt Peterson puts it, aiming at a “New Founding,” which implies a need to turn away from the past. Patrick Deneen and Charles Haywood also insist that we need to begin again with something new.
Where do you stand on these tensions?
YH: You’re right that I naturally use the Old Testament and Jewish language of return. But I also use the traditional Anglo-American term restoration, which has a similar Old Testament-inflected resonance. When English and American conservatives talk about restoration, they are talking about a return. They assume that earlier in their history, there were things that worked and that these things are still a part of their inheritance—something that their great-grandparents would have recognized as a part of themselves. I believe this profound human desire to return to a better way of life that was known to our forefathers can still move people even now.
But you are right that, at this time, there are many young people who are in despair. They’re telling one another that there’s no hope for the Anglo-American conservative tradition, and that there’s no hope for a restoration of Christianity or Judaism. These things are often expressed in a language of contempt and ridicule and abuse that blames the older generation for handing down things that are said to be poisoned and fundamentally unworkable.
Of course, this kind of despair—which borders on a hatred of one’s own people and one’s own past—does not lead to repentance or to the kind of Christian or Jewish “new founding” that would in fact amount to a restoration. Instead, it leads to Curtis Yarvin or Bronze Age Pervert, or to others on the right who peddle fantasies of a revolutionary overthrow of inherited tradition. These are all cults of despair, based on an assumption that our forefathers failed us, that our inheritance was always rotten, and that nothing we do in the political arena has a chance of putting things on a better course.
Notice that none of these personalities were able to utter a word in praise of the Dobbs decision, or of the people who labored for fifty years to bring about this unprecedented restoration of the Anglo-American constitution. Why couldn’t they join us in celebrating this astonishing victory?
It’s because they can’t accept the possibility that any kind of Anglo-American conservative or nationalist or Bible-revivalist has a hope of achieving a restoration worth the name. Rather than encouraging the young to stand up and fight for their nation and their inheritance—which is what the Dobbs decision did—they prefer to have the young lose hope entirely, placing their faith in the vacuous dream of a rightist coup d’etat that will one day set everything right.
These daydreams of rightist revolution and dictatorship are just like the daydreams of the Marxists and the liberals: In them, we find no place for honoring our forefathers or for upholding what was good in our inheritance. And just like the Marxists and the liberals, they know nothing about what makes a nation or a religion propagate through time.
These rightist cults aren’t going to achieve anything. Not now and not in the distant future. They say: “Follow me into the wilderness!” But seriously, now. Where is that going to lead? It contributes to the decadence around us—by channeling youthful enthusiasm away from any kind of healthy rebuilding of the biblical norms that until recently existed in Christian countries.
But these cults of despair also lead to personal oblivion for those who sink into them. I have nothing against bodybuilding as a way of building up self-esteem. But if what Yarvin or Pervert or any of the others is offering is a carefree individualist life, political passivity, and a cultivated contempt for everything that came before—well, I’m sorry, but these things simply don’t add up to any kind of personal redemption, to say nothing of national salvation. These things can be accomplished only by way of teshuva: A return to things that our forefathers knew.
I worry about the guys on the right who are younger than I am. I'm 44, so I think I'm a little old to be part of the Bronze Age Pervert/Yarvin cult. But the reason that a lot of young men are into bodybuilding, the reason that they're attracted to the Yarvins and the Bronze Age Perverts, is that they want to fight. And getting married and going to church doesn’t feel like fighting. They’re young, they’re angry, and they want to fight. So, how do they fight? What’s the most productive thing that those guys can do?
YH: I understand that the glories and the honor of being a warrior have been destroyed along with everything else that was customary and traditional in our society. That’s very clear. But I think it’s a mistake to say that fighting a political battle isn’t fighting. The fight to stay married to a single woman and to raise many children and grandchildren and great grandchildren—you think that’s not a fight? The idea that these things are not fighting is a perversion of our tradition. All these fellows like to talk about Nietzsche. But they completely miss the fact that Nietzsche was no bodybuilder—and he was not much of a warrior either, at least in the physical sense. They ignore Nietzsche’s own awed assessment of the Old Testament, and of the Old Testament tradition in which God’s spirit is allied with the warrior. God’s spirit infuses Moses and Joshua, Saul and David, and countless other figures. In Hebrew Scripture, God’s spirit is a fighting spirit. It’s the spirit of drawing the sword both physically and intellectually.
Many young men today didn’t grow up with first-hand experience of an Old Testament-inflected Christianity. They don’t understand the Israelite kings and soldiers who were literally the models for the Christian warrior. They can’t even imagine it. So, we’re going to have to return to that: For both Christians and Jews, the tradition of righteous and Godly warfare, righteous and Godly masculinity, and righteous and Godly pursuit of victory is going to have to be reemphasized. And not just because we need to compete with Yarvin’s and Pervert’s followers. We also need to compete with dying versions of Christianity and Judaism and bring our young people back to an ability and willingness to fight. But you can’t do this without the Hebrew Bible.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that if we’re going to have a counter-revolution, it begins with you: With the self, right? It sounds like we could maybe say that there’s no better way to “Own the Libs” than to get married, have children, find a good church, and be happy.
YH: I do identify with what you just said. That is the story of my life. At the end of my book, there is an autobiographical chapter about my wife and me deciding to live a conservative life. When we were in college, we became practicing Orthodox Jews. We moved to Israel. I served in the Israeli army. We’ve had nine children and now we’re having grandchildren.
I don’t want to tell you that this is easy. But every single day of our lives for the last 40 years, we have been making a clear statement to all those people who told us that the great tradition is meaningless, that the Bible is a benighted relic, and that Israel is a fossil that should have disappeared long ago. In school, our children sing “the nation of Israel lives,” “our father Jacob still lives.”
This is the secret of the Jewish people’s presence on the world stage for the last 3,000 years: The secret is that, no matter what happens, we don’t let go of our fathers, our Scripture, our language, our land. We will not forget them, as Enlightenment rationalism insists that we must. I think the only way to have an honorable life is to take part in the story of your ancestors.
If you can’t identify with your own ancestors, then you find some ancestors that you can identify with and join them. But your obligations to these adopted ancestors are still going to be the same.
NatCon 3 happens in Miami in less than a month. When we talked before NatCon 2 last year, you said that an important goal of the conference was to explore an alliance between conservatives and anti-Marxist liberals. I assume that that work has not concluded. But what’s different at this year’s conference?
YH: Anti-Marxist liberals and conservatives are going to have to get it through their heads that they are on the same side of a fight to restore a two-party democratic system, a system in which elections determine political outcomes.
But on the other hand, we also have to be clear that we’re not going to go back to the 1960s confusion between liberalism and conservatism. That’s over. And it’s over because fusionism did not lead to the flourishing of a conservative life, either at the national level or in the private sphere. It led to cutting the conservative life to ribbons.
The people who still understand that God and Scripture were always the foundation of Britain and America stopped saying it in public during the 1990s. They’re going to have to start saying it in public again. They’re going to have to go back to teaching it in schools. And by the way, this includes the so-called “classical schools” where Christian children are being taught Greek and Latin. If they’re not being taught the Bible and, in particular, the Old Testament as decisive for politics, law, and morals, then they’re not going to get the awakening they’re hoping for or the strength they’re hoping for.
Powerful ideas. Thanks for this conversation, and I look forward to seeing you in Miami next month.