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Letter to a Conservative, by Steve Allen, (Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965)

letter to a conservativeIt is no easy task, in the space of a brief review, to convey the distressing fatuity of this book; as Mr. William F. Buckley once said of another man’s work, “You have to read it not to believe it.” If Steve Allen is even remotely to be considered a representative American liberal, then conservatives have nothing whatever to fear.

Of course he is a very amiable gentleman, versatile, often witty, and quite sincere; but his business encourages superficiality—his forte is the swift riposte. Letter was dictated (presumably between shows) over a four- or five-year period and so is conversational in tone throughout; but to engage in sharp repartee with a dictaphone is no guarantee that the play­ back will constitute persuasive dialogue.

A willingness to participate in dialogue, though, ought surely to be expected of persons concerned for truth. Those who have not the truth seek it, we hope; and those that think they have it already need reassurance. Few can be so self-righteously confident as to suppose dialogue wholly unnecessary or serious discussion a waste of time. I am not talking about argument for argument’s sake. That can be, and often is, a waste of time—especially if the participating arguers aren’t really serious. What I am talking about is dialogue—the sharing of views or knowledge or both by persons equally anxious to arrive at truth or understanding. Unlike formal debate, a proper dialogue need not be entered upon by persons whose views lie in direct opposition to one another: Dialogue is appropriate to the search for compromise and a broadening of outlook. Its intent is not to settle something once and for all: There are no lost causes, Eliot said, because there are no gained causes. The search for truth goes on from generation to generation, and each must go over much old ground anew.

Steve Allen

Allen at work

No doubt Mr. Allen means well by his Letter, but really, what are we to think of an affable conversationalist who begins a sentence: “Not all McCarthyites are Catholics but….”? Elsewhere, the author refers disparagingly to “Mindszentyites” who, partly because they do not carry Ezra Pound paperbacks in their briefcases, reveal “a mammoth insensitivity to [the] potential reality [of indiscriminate nuclear burning.. .of entire continents…]” (One performs Mr. Allen a service by quoting him out of context, by the way: in context he is quite impossible.)

In ten loosely-disorganized chapters, Letter ranges over The John Birch Society, Communism, Foreign Policy, China, Latin America, Government Planning, Freedom, War, Morality, Extremism, Reaction, and Conservatism—the latter term emerging as the vaguest of the lot, printed with an upper- or lower-case “c” according to whim. No attempt is made to distinguish between political Conservatives and “natural” or temperamental conservatives.

“What we see demonstrated time and again,” writes Mr. Allen of the present stalemate in dialogue, “is essentially an inability to think properly.” (Italics in original.) True, alas, too true. Consider these few random samples of liberal (Steve Allen) thought:

It was not, according to [the expostulations of some reactionaries], the enormous hordes of Mao Tse-tung’s highly motivated Communist armies that won the Chinese mainland; rather it was we who lost it. The question of how we could lose something we never had seems rarely to be faced. [Italics in original.]

Are the people of Russia free? One hundred ninety million American voices unite to roar “No!” to the question. But consider the case of a man who is released from prison in the Soviet Union. He is said to have “regained his freedom.” [Italics in original.]

I could introduce here the observation that the overwhelming majority of American intellectuals are members of [the] liberal community but perhaps you would object that the point, however true, is irrelevant and you might be right. The point, however valid, is proof of nothing, although it may be indicative. [Italics in original.]

Now the Russians are philosophically aggressive. They are single-minded, determined, in some cases fanatical. Consequently, they are dangerous competitors. But there has emerged no evidence that their idea of world domination is anything at all like that of the Nazis.

It is true, of course, as Marshall Wind­ Miller has pointed out, that although the British had their revolution in 1648 they did not achieve full, male adult suffrage until 1918 and equality of women until 1928, but two wrongs do not make a right.

From time to time throughout the book, Mr. Allen tries his best to characterize Conservatives (or conservatives) for their benefit as well as his own, that all concerned might have a clearer understanding of what to expect when comes America’s “takeover by forces of the right.” (“The novel Seven Days in May shows one way such a golpe might occur.”)

Almost all Conservatives, you see, come from middle-or-upper-class homes and are at least reasonably well fixed economically.

…most rightists are authoritarian.

…they [conservative spokesmen] have almost a monopoly on a certain hostile style of political expression, equaled for vitriol only by the Communist and Nazi press at their worst. The [Conservatives] also have a virtual monopoly on anti-Semitism.

steve-allen2

His favorite word is “irrelevant,” used to describe cogent conservative arguments; his most persistently reiterated complaint against “extremists” is that they write him a great many nasty, unsigned letters. (I gather wastepaper-baskets are hard to come by in Hollywood.) He does not love Barry Goldwater, Douglas MacArthur, General Walker, Joseph McCarthy, Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, Franco, Diem, or Trujillo, but he does love The New Leader, The Nation, Commonweal, The Progressive, The Reporter, The New Republic, and Unitarian liberals who “seem never to be encountered in saloons, prisons, criminal gangs, corrupt political machines, shady business operations, hate groups or other locales to which representatives of some other religious denominations [Mindszentyites?] are not strangers.”

So much for my half of the dialogue, Mr. Allen. Now it’s your turn again.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1966).

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3 replies to this post
  1. I remember a discussion about humor maybe related to allowable subjects on the air,, or in public, involving Mort Sahl and Steve Allen, and probably a host. Sahl tried to deal with the subject seriously, but Allen kept trying to be “cute.” He was versatile, without depth, with intellectual pretentions, as his PBS television series. for PBS featuring actors Impersonating historical figures attests. As best I can tell, without having seen it, his late night “Tonite.” (or was it spelled correctly?) show wasn’t bad, if you stayed up late enough,without
    something more worthwhile to occupy you. He was one of the numerous people without talent that television has allowed to intrude into television addicts’ lives.

  2. I read enough to be bored, three or four sentences? His views were standard progressive patter minus the affectation and allowing for some smugness. Compared to the seeming multitudes of nitwit show biz cretins today who feel obliged to display their seriousness, bad move, he was a giant of intellect.

  3. And yet — “Meeting of Minds” was a serious attempt to introduce The Great Conversation to a generation who “knew not Joseph”.

    Other than snarky purists, who objects to the Fifties Liberalism of Steve Allen? It was the milieu in which he lived. Had he survived into our more Enlightened Age, he would surely have been a Conservative.

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