As a student at the University of Indiana in Bloomington, Emmett Tyrrell Jr. founded a campus magazine called The Alternative -- the alternative, that is, to routine academic liberalism. He continued to edit the magazine after graduation and it acquired a national audience. Today, renamed The American Spectator, it is one of the most important conservative journals in the country, distinctive for publishing equal portions of "old" and "neo" conservatives and distinctive also because of Tyrrell's own feature, "The Continuing Crisis," a monthly string of firecrackers tied to the tail of liberal folly.
The book at hand addresses itself to the liberalism that emerged from the 1970s and now swirls around us. Tyrrell has coined for it a useful term, "New Age Liberalism," and it is his view that New Age Liberalism is quite different from the older liberalism of the New Deal, which was for the most part hard-headed and concerned with such practical matters as the TVA, the CCC, Social Security, and the Arsenal of Democracy. Tyrrell sees New Age liberalism as faddish and absurb, a matter of poses, illusion and junk thought.
"Liberalism had ripened into imbecility . . . The feminist movement evolved into a lunatic jihad against femininity and manliness, a neurotic flight from biology, reproduction, and history itself . . . No sooner had Liberals brought America through the sexual revolution and into carnal bliss than their feminist storm troopers rebelled against the heterosexual paradise."
In politics, "Led by an array of eminences extending from Herbert Marcuse in the upper atmosphere to Fritz Mondale on terra firma, they would bring America toward a new historical synthesis, the dictatorship of the idiot smile. They would be the dictators. The common folk would smile."
"The Liberal Crack-Up" tears into New Age liberalism as it manifests itself in the extremes of environmentalism, anti-nuclearism, the perpetual Easter-Egg Hunt for Victims and Suffering Situations, feminism, Third Worldism, the egalitarian frenzy, and so forth.
Since Tyrrell views the avatars of New Age liberalism as fools or frauds, his mode of dealing with them is comic, and the comic persona he establishes here is that of a dandy heavily influenced by H.L. Mencken. Did some think his previous book, "Public Nuisances," impolite?
"Frankly, the accusation jarred me, for I have been a Christian and a gentleman all my adult life, lapsing only once when a rowdy in a Chicago cafe made sport of my white gloves and bowler. Why would anyone call me impolite -- and besides, how would anyone know? American manners have grown very lax. We can blow our noses on the American flag and on some foreign flags too without fear of obloquy or of legal action of any kind. At universities idealists can hoot and howl at visiting speakers. Near-naked joggers sweat and wheeze up Fifth Avenue at high noon unmolested; they pass Saks and Bergdorf Goodman, but no lady shopper would dream of bashing one with her parasol. In fact, few ladies even carry parasols these days. My mother carries one, but she is an exception."
Tyrrell does succeed in bringing before us a cavalcade of people as examples of fools or frauds. Two of my favorites: Prof. Richard Falk of Princeton University and the Militant Bedwetter.
"The entourage around Khomeini," wrote Falk in 1979, "has had considerable involvement in human rights activities and is committed to a struggle against all forms of oppression. The constitution he proposes has been drafted by political moderates with a strong belief in minority rights. Contrary to the superficial reports in the American press about his attitude toward Jews, women, and others, Khomeini's Islamic republic can be expected to have a doctrine of social justice at its core." That degree of asininity really is comic, well suited to Tyrrell's modern "Dunciad."
The Militant Bedwetter is pretty funny too. She appears in the chapter on feminist excesses, and demands on feminist principle the right to urinate in the bed during sexual intercourse, even though this practice "turns off some men." As a matter of fact, the chapter on feminism may be the funniest in the book.
The very comic successes of the feminism chapter, however, indicate some of the limitations of the comic stance Tyrrell adopts throughout the book. The wacky feminist extremists he howls at really are funny, ridiculous self-caricatures. He does not need to caricature them himself.
The Menckenish comic perspective does not quite suffice, however, with, say, John Kenneth Galbraith or Arthur Schlesinger Jr. They are ideologues, certainly, but they are not to be considered mountebanks writing flapdoodle, to adopt the idiom of this book. Neither case is comic. But qualifications aside, it must be said that the verve and humor of this book are remarkable. Indeed, the comic texture of the prose is so rich that I would recommend against reading straight through. Try a chapter at a time. Cheers.