As loathe as I am to give advice to the liberals who have just been so badly routed in the recent election, my sense of Christian compassion makes me feel a twinge of pity and a desire to at least prevent their total destruction. So here's my advice: the left has to rediscover cold war liberalism or it is finished. The cold war liberals were the leaders of the early and mid 20th Century, men like JFK, Lionel Trilling and Norman Podhoretz, who advocated social programs, racial tolerance and a safety net but where fiercely pro-defense, anti-communist and unapologetically patriotic.
Elsewhere in the world, such a combination can still be found. I recently picked up a copy of the great newspaper Irish Times and was stunned to see that Desmond Fennell, a man I met in a tiny village on the west coast of Ireland twenty years ago, was still alive. Fennell, a professor and prolific author who is a well known figure in Irish letters, is perhaps most notorious for a fracas he started with poet Seamus Heany, which I'll get to. He's also one of those eccentrics, an all but lost breed in America, who, so unlike a rote, crushing automaton like Ralph Nader or the hate-America-first crowd in Hollywood, is thoughtful, full of surprises, and impossible to categorize. Fennell had written a letter to the Times. It consisted of two paragraphs:
"Before Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, Hitler made fiery speeches about the dangers posed by those countries to Germans living within their borders. It is interesting to compare resident Bush's speeches about the danger posted by Iraq to Americans living in America. Invasions dressed up as pre-emptive strikes are nothing new.
"The fact is that aggressive, militaristic power has appeared once again in the West, and the choice, now as then, is between resistance and appeasement. Once again, a British prime minister is leading the appeasement camp. Yet how often have we been told that 'the next time' an aggressor will be 'stopped in time'?"
Yep, Fennell is comparing President Bush with Adolf Hitler. This was too much for Irish Times columnist Kevin Meyers. "Bush as Hitler - is that it?" Meyers wrote incredulously a week later. "Though I'm sure Desmond Fennell manages to write such stuff without any special assistance, you really have to have eaten magic mushrooms to understand it. What have Hitler and Bush in common? Teetotalism."
Fennell 's views are farrago of socialist claptrap, Irish nationalism, nostalgia for pre-modern society, and social conservatism. He may hate Bush, but only because - and this is no excuse, but it does separate him from American Sarandonites - he so fiercely loves Mother Ireland. Fennell has argued that Western civilization no longer exists, having forfeited its values after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ushered in a new American system of senseless violence and money worship. It is not a civilization, but rather what Fennell calls "Amerope."
Yet this is not the usual hate America caterwauling, as Fennell's despair stems from a tough social conservative. On the website iranexpert.com he wrote a piece, "Western Democracy Not the Best of All Possible Worlds." The headline would led one to expect Sontagian rant - and indeed, there is the usual talk of "economic and military imperialism" - but Fennell's writing is also full of unforeseen switchbacks. "On most issues, large and small, the media teach and preach in unison," he wrote. "The State, mass media and the civil law largely ignore God and his law.Because of threatening violence, the spaces in which women and children can safely move has been decreasing . . . More and more girls who have engaged in reckless sex are getting abortions.it is a society in which many young people suffer from desperation and find life senseless; it has to much violence and deliberate killing - of self, of others, and even of the unborn - to be considered exemplary." In his 2000 book The Post-Western Condition, Fennell indicts consumerism, capitalism - and homosexuality, the worship of youth over age, and public displays of affection. If Chomsky would toss such curves, he might not be so orthodox and dull.
Fennell's odd iconoclasm has given his critics ammunition. Irish Book reviewer Bill Sweeny called Fenell a "staunch, if not always lucid defender of his own personal take on the human condition." John Kirkaldy, in Books Ireland earlier this year, offered probably the sharpest assessment of Fennell - "Fennell fits into no neat little box; conservative, old-fashioned and bigot are unfair or inadequate descriptions . . . There is a touch of Swift about him, but also a bit of Malvolio and Eeyore." Fennell even incurred the wrath of the great Irish poet Semus Heaney. In 1991 Fennell published a brittle attack on Heany in the form a of a pamphlet entitled The Heany Phenomenon. There is speculation in Ireland that Heany was addressing Fennell in the line "the anvil brains of some who hates me."
I met Fennell almost exactly twenty years ago. It was 1982 and I was in my third year of high school when my family went on a trip to Ireland. My father, a writer for National Geographic, had recently done a story about Ireland, and had returned to show his family our heritage. Through his connections at the Irish embassy my father was given the name of a write who had offered our family a place to stay for a night.
Fennell lived in Maoinis, a tiny village on the sea in western Ireland, near Connemara. It is one of the most beautiful and desolate places I've ever seen. The town itself is nothing more than a pub and a few houses scattered amidst the rock fences and windy hills. Standing on the beach, it felt like being on the edge of the earth. This was in the days before the Celtic tiger blasted Ireland into the modern age; people in the town still spoke Gallic.
Maoinis also provided one of my most vivid memories of Ireland. During our stay a funeral was held about a hundred yards down the road from Fennell's house. I'll never forget looking through the binoculars at the handful of mourners, their sharp black shapes stark against the cold, grassy hill. It was right out of Joyce.
My father and Fennell were both great talkers, and stayed up all night arguing politics. I regret to say that I fell asleep early, so I never heard the conversation. However, Fennell came to visit America the next year, and stayed with us for a couple days. I was at the age when rock stars are considered wise men, and I remember trying to convince my father and Fennell, via a song by some band, that the IRA were a bunch of terrorists. I played them a song and Fennell said he liked the melody but resented the part about Ireland. The argument we had was all done in good humor, however. Like my father, I liked Fennell, who was full of intensity and a weird charisma. Unlike America's left, there was just no denying that the guy plain loved his country.