Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations, by Henry Fairlie, edited by Jeremy McCarter (Yale University Press, 368 pp., $30.00)
Henry Fairlie, one of the most colorful characters ever to practice political journalism and a self-defined conservative, first came to public attention in the wake of the Burgess and MacLean spy scandals in Britain. The scandals, a cognate of the Alger Hiss case in the United States, erupted when two members of the British elite were exposed as having spied for the USSR. In 1955, the 31-year-old Fairlie, writing for the Spectator, a Tory British weekly, coined the now-commonplace but then-scalding phrase “the establishment” to describe the ways in which the spies’ social peers had collaborated to close ranks on their behalf. Both a lowercase-d democrat and a Tory, Fairlie was outraged by the smug defense of privilege.
For Fairlie, the politics of a free society was a noble enterprise in which ordinary men and women performed extraordinary public service by doing their best to reconcile the inevitable competition of ideals and interests. The politician, he wrote, was “a potter who cannot choose his own clay, a painter who cannot mix his own paints, a composer who must score for a brass band what he perhaps intended for a string quartet. That is the measure of his art.” Fairlie recognized that—just as in Albany or Sacramento or Washington today—many politicians fit his description of “lobby-fodder,” but he insisted that politics was at its core “a humane pursuit, fit to engage the whole life of a whole man.” At his best, wrote Fairlie, the politician engaged in the passionate pursuit of limited objectives. Politics could be “the supreme art of a highly civilized society”—or so it might have seemed before it became the handmaiden of public-sector unions and bored billionaires.
In 1965, the hard-drinking Fairlie fled to America—deeply in debt; embroiled in a scandal over a love affair with the wife of his friend, novelist Kingsley Amis; and harassed by accusations that he had slandered Lady Antonia Fraser. In 1973, he made his mark in the U.S. with the publication of The Kennedy Promise: The Politics of Expectation, a highly effective and as yet unsurpassed critique of the Kennedy administration’s rhetorical zeal and political excesses. Fairlie argued that, contrary to what his latter-day apologists claimed, Kennedy knew full well what he was doing when he pushed America deeper into Vietnam. “Activity was his method,” Fairlie wrote of JFK’s unwillingness to acknowledge the limits of politics. “An entire people was to be governed by keeping it in a constant state of expectation of the achievements which would be made possible, not merely by political actions, but the actions of a single ruler.” (Sound familiar?) He followed this up in 1976 with his best American book, The Spoiled Child of the Western World: The Miscarriage of the American Idea in Our Time, and in 1978 with The Parties: Republicans and Democrats in This Century, a lesser work that was an extension of the many pieces he wrote for The New Republic and other magazines.
A force in his day, Fairlie has been largely and undeservedly forgotten. Fortunately, Newsweek’s Jeremy McCarter has assembled Bite the Hand That Feeds You: Essays and Provocations, a collection of Fairlie’s writing from British and American publications. In his admiring foreword, Leon Wieseltier, one of Fairlie’s editors at The New Republic, rightly points to the strength of his “intellectual vehemence.” Fairlie, Wieseltier notes, excelled in the course of charting “the baroque entanglement of political ideas and political personalities.” An English admirer praised Fairlie for writing with “the wit and psychological insights of a novelist.”
McCarter’s substantial introduction has a good ear for Fairlie’s virtues. He quotes Fairlie, a self-described “ink-stained wretch,” on the art of essay-writing: “Paul Klee once said that drawing ‘is taking a line for a walk,’” and the essayist is really taking his ideas (and his words) for a walk.” A Tory democrat like his hero Churchill, Fairlie insisted on the importance of a cohesive society, centralized power, and social egalitarianism. He was a great admirer of Harry Truman–style Democrats in the United States.
McCarter has selected some of Fairlie’s best essays, including “Evolution of a Term: The Establishment,” “Volcanic Flash: Winston Churchill,” and “Greedy Geezers,” Fairlie’s attack on the redistribution of wealth from the working poor to well-to-do retirees. He also reprints some of Fairlie’s numerous attacks on Ronald Reagan and free-market conservative populism. Today, these critiques seem mostly wide of the mark, but Fairlie scores when he argues that the Reaganite contempt for government, which easily translated into contempt for politics, would over time redound to the Republicans’ disadvantage.
To read McCarter’s introduction and selections, you might think that Fairlie found his targets solely on the right. But much of what made Fairlie important reading was his withering criticism, across the political spectrum, of those he deemed the enemies of politics as a noble calling. He had no use for the technocrats, literary types, McGovernites, environmentalists, and neo-aristocrats (the categories obviously overlap) who hoped to displace politics by imposing their revelations and pretensions on the America he had fallen in love with—a largely self-governing land of freedom-loving citizens.
Two of his best essays on America, neither of which McCarter includes, ran in the great British magazine Encounter. In “The Practice of Puffers,” he took down Charles Reich’s bestselling 1970 counterculture classic, The Greening of America. The book, which featured blurbs by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Senator George McGovern, was excerpted in the New Yorker and published to ecstatic reviews. Fairlie was unimpressed. He alternated quotations from Reich, a Yale law professor, with his own rebuttals. Reich: “Today both dissent and efforts at change are dealt with by repression.” Fairlie: “As I write, [Black Panther] Bobby Seale has just been released on the ground that the publicity given to his first (mis)trial for murder might prejudice his chance of a second fair trial.” Reich: “The media systematically deny any fundamentally different or dissenting point of view a chance to be heard at all—it is simply kept off the air and out of the newspapers.” Fairlie: If society’s mechanisms for shutting down dissent were so heavy-handed, then why was another sixties culture hero, Herbert Marcuse, complaining about “repressive tolerance”? Watching liberals crumble before the hysteria and irrationalism of the New Left, Fairlie insisted that “now is the time for all good conservatives and true to come to the aid of the liberals.”
In “Left at the Post,” a 1971 attack on the Washington Post’s “plastic hippy” columnist, Nicholas Von Hoffman, Fairlie took the measure of early 1970s nihilism. Fairlie quoted Von Hoffman on college students’ ennui and contempt for their elders: “The only hope we’ll have that they don’t burn these institutions is that we can keep them stultified with dope, liquor, sex, athletics and psychiatric therapy.” Von Hoffman’s columns were one long bellow, Fairlie felt, because the Post columnist seemed unable to “differentiate, unable to ask the most basic political question of ‘compared to what.’” Whatever the subject—Vietnam, race, the young, women’s liberation—“there is no escape from the numbing monotony” of Von Hoffman’s complaints, wrote Fairlie. To everything, the columnist applied “the same vocabulary, the same shrillness, the same definitions—the environment has been raped, blacks have been castrated, the female is a eunuch.” Fairlie was prescient in spotting the danger that existed in politicizing “every concern in our society—every longing, every need, every activity.” In the universities, this led to the “footnoted anger” of historian-activists who, in advancing their agendas, betrayed their responsibility to educate for citizenship.
In his memoir Recollections, written in the aftermath of the French revolution of 1848, Tocqueville wrote of “the literary spirit” in politics. It consisted of “seeking for what is novel and ingenious rather than for what is true; in preferring the showy to the useful; in showing one’s self very sensible to the playing and elocution of the actors, without regard to the results of the play; and, lastly, in judging by impressions rather than reasons.” Fairlie, in writing The Spoiled Child, updated Tocqueville for the present day. The “contrived alienation” of “68ers” and their adult enablers meant that “an entire generation had been taught to despise both the reality and ordinariness of the human situation.” He worried that a politics cut off from the importance of fellowship between citizens would necessarily degenerate. The literature of alienation from American life associated with Mencken and Fitzgerald in the 1920s, and its subsequent institutionalization in the universities of the 1960s, were a “calamity,” Fairlie wrote. Their effect was that “we’re deprived of . . . our sense of the actual. . . . what is common to us in our everyday lives is too often represented to us as inauthentic in contrast with our authentic selves.”
The Spoiled Child also took aim at liberals’ love affair with Europe, which similarly dated back to the 1920s. Americans, Fairlie warned, “should not be surrendering their youth to an aged and painted courtesan.” The advanced European arts that Americans were so eager to imitate were, he insisted, elements of the European disease that had twice brought war to the continent. America, Fairlie insisted, had its own destiny. In America, the idea of a free people “was realized in the new man, out of his experiences in the new land.” And in turn, “the idea had grown out of an actual experience.”
A man who so loved both America and the elevated (if limited) sway of politics would have found the current climate unfriendly. McCarter recounts that near the end of his life, Fairlie felt dispirited by the 1988 presidential campaign and planned to write a book called The Death of Politics. It was to discuss the ways in which political life, once a school for appreciating the complexities of friendships, had been displaced by direct-mailers, PACs, consultants, and the like, so that “it is the very activity of politics that is being drained of life.” It’s good for his sake that Fairlie never lived to see the arrival of the 24-hour news cycle, which leaves little room for “ink-stained wretches” of wide reading habits.