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Summer 2005 cover

National Observer Home > No. 66 - Spring 2005 > Article

Middle American Radical:
Samuel Francis (1947-2005)

by R.J. Stove

National Observer
(Council for the National Interest, Melbourne),
No. 66, Spring 2005,
pages 54–60.

 

Viewed from Australia, the vigour, range, craftsmanship, and depth of America’s magazine culture at its most intelligent all form a continual pleasure, far surpassing anything the local product has to offer. The only problem with this abundance is that authorial competition to attract global fame is dreadfully acute.

Therefore a mere handful of American magazine authors become at all familiar abroad, and their wider renown occurs at the expense of other authors with equal if not greater talents. This is the most evident (though not the sole) explanation for the obscurity in which Samuel Francis, who died on 15 February 2005 when only fifty-seven years old, remains outside the United States. A formidably effective stylist at his best — and one whose courage even his numerous enemies had to concede — Francis serves as a microcosm of modern intellectual history, in his early rise, abrupt fall, and incomplete but extremely gratifying rehabilitation.

Some commentators have observed that worthwhile American literature is entirely the product of Southerners and Jews. Certainly Francis’s career does nothing to invalidate this assumption. Born on 29 April 1947, Samuel Todd Francis first acquired a following among his fellow graduate students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. (North Carolina’s unofficial nickname is “The Tarheel State”; one well-wisher — Walker Percy, the novelist — called Francis’s circle “The Tarheel Conspiracy”. 1) Francis emerged during what we can now recognise as the last hurrah of Confederate intellectual life: the early 1970s, before the politics of self-abnegation had turned the Southern States’ academia into, by all accounts, an even more absurd instance of rampant thought-policing than its Yankee counterpart. With this Confederate background went, in Francis’s case, a passionate concern for British history: this concern being rare among Americans, whose besetting ideological vices — especially before Blair became a transatlantic fashion-plate — have been apt to include Anglophobia. (Theodore Dreiser’s wartime denunciation of Britain as “a nation of horse-riding snobs” — to which Orwell sardonically retorted “Forty-six million horse-riding snobs!” — illustrates an all too widespread American delusion.)

Characteristically, Francis devoted his doctoral thesis to the Earl of Clarendon and other leading figures of seventeenth-century English political life, a milieu that he found much more vivid and (dread adjective) relevant than many subjects closer to his own time. Even more characteristically, he let his thesis remain unpublished, although every month dissertations by neophytes lacking his literary skill manage to emerge from collegiate printing presses. His choice of topic — and subsequent failure to promote adequately this choice — tells much about the man.

Friend and fellow scholar Paul Gottfried (whom National Observer’s Autumn 2003 issue eulogised) remarked last February 2 that Francis, not content with looking kindly on the Cromwellian Roundheads, “took pride in being descended from French Huguenots who had settled in the South. This Calvinist connection was something from which he never shrank.” In itself, the connection separated him from his preponderantly Catholic allies. By the time Francis attained a nation-wide rather than a regional audience, he had himself ceased to practise any religion. Yet he implied again and again that if he were to revert to religious belief, it would be of a stringently Protestant kind. 3 There is something of the Scottish dominie about Francis’s idiom: its syntactic elaboration (he would pile on the subordinate clauses with a zeal that must have horrified many a newspaper editor), its disenchantment, its tendencies towards gallows humour, its brisk and genial slaps at friends as well as foes, its flair for the climactic and utterly unexpected mot juste. His last column of all for Chronicles, where he had a regular berth from 1980 until the very month of his demise, contains a splendid instance on the mot juste in its opening paragraph: 4

“By ‘Hard Right’, in this context, I mean neither what has by now evolved into the establishment conservatism of the neocons and their Christian Right allies nor the collection of conspiracy-mongers, captives of various ethnic and class resentments, and neck-twitchers of all descriptions whose bottomless buckets of e-mails seem magnetically attracted to my inbox.”

Who else but Francis would have had the ingenuity to devise so mimetic a description of the crank genus as “neck-twitchers”?

A man who could show that discernment will seldom relish a purely academic existence; thus it is unsurprising that Francis should have entered public life in a way much more common in his parents’ generation than in his own. He worked in Washington as assistant to North Carolina’s Republican Senator John East, from 1981 until East’s tragic death in 1986 (for reasons never fully made clear, East perished by his own hand). Francis also undertook periodic consultancy duties for a better-known North Carolina Senator, the veteran Jesse Helms. Anyone less inclined to use, or less capable of using, the legislative sector as a private feeding-trough than Francis would be hard to imagine. His political outlook’s stoic austerity is well captured in two of his own sentences: 5

“A nation, or even a planet, that recognises no god other than its belly will quickly start wallowing in the ignorance, crime, corruption, and avarice that today afflicts the United States, and it will find itself unable to free itself of them . . .

Classical conservatism nourished and upheld an aristocratic and limited state that operated on predicates completely different from those of its bloated, abused, alien, suffocating, and often ineffectual modern descendant — ‘bureaucracy tempered by incompetence’, as Evelyn Waugh described modern government.”

In October 1983 Helms read into the Congressional Record a research paper by Francis on the ideological motivations — various, but uniformly objectionable — behind the move to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national vacation. Those most vocal in denouncing the paper (temperately phrased, and remorselessly accurate, though it was) included Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who tossed it scornfully to the floor, and stomped on it. “He later”, Francis afterwards recalled, “repeated his stomping off the Senate floor for the benefit of the evening news.” 6 (These deeds of Moynihan’s failed to inflict the slightest damage upon his own hyperbolic — indeed cultic — reputation, especially outside America, as a “conservative”.)

Following East’s suicide, Francis became in 1986 a staffer for TheWashington Times, where his columns appeared and where eventually he rose to a deputy editorship. Unfortunately he seems never to have predicted — or perhaps he did predict, but hoped against hope that he could defy — the horror he inspired (not least through his authorship of the King paper) in the breasts both of outright liberals, and above all of those whose “right-wing” philosophy consisted in wanting a slightly moderated and deodorised leftism. In such circumstances the cause for astonishment is not that he eventually lost his job at a major Beltway newspaper, but that he should have lasted, as he did last, for nine years. Meanwhile he turned out erudite essay after erudite essay — for such small-circulation but large-minded magazines as Chronicles, Modern Age,The World and I (a Washington Times stable-mate) and, down the track, The American Conservative — dealing with issues beyond the purview of any daily journal, however good (and the Washington Times has been, overall, much better than most). In the leisured format of fortnightly, monthly and quarterly periodicals, Francis could analyse thinkers too remote from day-to-day politics to be worked into his newspaper columns: above all, his lifelong hero James Burnham, and those earlier sociologists from Continental Europe — Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Georges Sorel — whom Burnham had provocatively called in 1943 The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. Another profound influence on Francis came from the late Chronicles contributor Donald Warren, who coined the phrase “Middle American Radicals” to describe that populist strain in politics (socially rightist but by no means always economically so), snubbed and derided by the major parties’ leaders.

An invigorating scepticism coursed through Francis’s prose, as through his veins: a scepticism which never turned into nihilism, yet which unfailingly realised the Sisyphean nature of trying to effect even the most modest political improvement. To that mentality — prevalent in plague-like proportions among think-tank inhabitants — which always underestimates the difficulty of stamping out fashionable nonsense, Francis furnished correctives like this one, from the preface to his 1993 essay collection Beautiful Losers: 7

“Perhaps because they were too uxuriously wedded to [Richard] Weaver’s principle that ‘Ideas Have Consequences’, most of the conservative intellectuals [from the immediately post-war Old Right] . . . seemed to assume that it was only a matter of time before their own beliefs would creep up on the ideas of the Left, slit their throats in the dark, and stage an intellectual and cultural coup d’état, after which truth would reign. I have never thought so.”

Again, note the felicitous lexical touch: “uxuriously”, where a lesser writer would have contented himself with “passionately” or “incurably”, or else with no adverb at all.

• • •

Francis’s fall from Washington Times grace occurred in 1995, when it came to public knowledge that the previous year he had addressed the conference of a white-nationalist monthly, American Renaissance. Besides, he had dared to entitle his speech to this conference “Why Race Matters”. Worse still, American Renaissance had published his speech. And as if that were not shocking enough to diversity commissars (whose notion of “diversity” — in America as in Australia — ranges through every shade of leftish thought), he delivered himself of such observations as these: 8

“The Martin Luther King holiday in 1983 was the first and most important instance of the trend [towards an anti-white polity] but by no means the last; indeed, it can be argued that the King holiday was merely the legitimising agent of the attacks on other symbols that have occurred since. Attacks on the display of the Confederate battle flag and on other Confederate and Southern white symbols are now commonplace, but the Alamo in San Antonio is another traditional white symbol that is also under attack – by Hispanics. The Custer battlefield in Montana now celebrates the Indian victory, although what is historically memorable about the battle of the Little Big Horn is not the victory of several thousand Indians over a small American cavalry detachment but rather the defeat of whites at the hands of non-whites . . .

The holidays, public anniversaries, flags, songs, statues, museums, symbols, and heroes that a people shares are fundamental to its identity and its existence as a people. What we are witnessing on the official level of public culture in the attacks on these traditional symbols and their displacement by the symbols of other races is the effective abolition of one people and the gradual creation of another.

In the United States today, whites exist objectively but do not exist subjectively, and that is in my view the fundamental racial problem they face, the basic reason they (I should say ‘we’) are losing the racial war against us, the very reason we are in a war at all . . . the spineless abnegation of their own country and culture that is at the root of white male paranoia offers proof of the absence of a subjective existence. Whites do not exist subjectively because they do not think of themselves as whites, they do not act cohesively as whites, and they do not think being white is important or even meaningful.

As long as whites continue to avoid and deny their own racial identity, at a time when almost every other racial and ethnic category is rediscovering and asserting its own, whites will have no chance to resist their dispossession and their eventual possible physical destruction. Before we can seriously discuss any concrete proposals for preserving our culture and its biological and demographic foundations, we have to address and correct the problem we inflict on ourselves, our own lack of a racial consciousness and the absence of a common will to act in accordance with it.”

Indeed, by what other, more salubrious means except identity politics — as Francis would have responded — does one achieve anything in rolling back the multicultural tide? If blacks may hog taxpayers’ funding as blacks, and Hispanics may hog taxpayers’ funding as Hispanics, and Zionists may hog taxpayers’ funding as Zionists, and Native Americans may hog taxpayers’ funding as Native Americans, then why assume that whites — already regarded through most of the world as The Great Satan — will hold out forever with virtuous pride against the desire to hog taxpayers’ funding purely as whites? No obvious answer to these questions occurs.

If Francis’s antagonists had achieved their goal, consistent attacks by leftish critics would have meant for him permanent pariah status. What neither they, nor their target, imagined was the revolutionising of cultural life by a mass phenomenon which in 1995 remained the plaything of a few academic and military circles: the Internet. Because of the Internet, Francis’s post-1995 career — though nothing like as profitable as it should have been — attained a modest but sustained success. Thanks to the Griffin Internet Syndicate and later to the Creators Syndicate (both organisations stood by him, though they cannot have found palatable every single piece he wrote), Francis could bypass the more obviously dinosaurian mass media and still reach a sizeable public. The problem with Internet publication is that whilst it seldom loses vast amounts of money (unlike print publication), it even more seldom makes vast amounts of — or for that matter any — money either. So Francis was fortunate in retaining his Chronicles and American Conservative outlets, as well as appearing regularly in VDARE and the lesser-known Middle American News.

Till the end, he enjoyed — among those elements not wholly debased by the golden calf of professional “anti-racism” — friendships of an enviable sort. Those friendships came at a price, given the extreme hostility Francis inspired among the left. Joseph Sobran, in his “Washington Watch” column for The Wanderer on 3 March 2005, mused upon the paradox by which “[Francis’s] enemies were dancing on his grave before he was even laid to rest in it.”

As for the private Francis, here is Sobran again: “I knew Sam well for many years, though not intimately, and he is oddly hard to describe. Gruffly good-humoured, at once cynical and jolly, he did not invite intimacy. Though I saw him often, we never had anything I would call a heart-to-heart talk. He was outspoken and restrained at the same time. His mind was both searching and sceptical.” 9 All who had even the slightest dealings with him, to say nothing of those who actually knew him, can give a similar account.

Jerry Woodruff, Middle American News’ editor, wrote in his obituary tribute: “He [Francis] never betrayed his principles for a job, never apologised for telling the truth, and never for a moment congratulated himself for his virtues.” Francis’s readers will do well to ask themselves if, in their own lives, they are meeting these standards of valour.

 

 

ENDNOTES:

1. Thomas Fleming, “Requiescat in Pace Domini: Goodbye to a Fellow Tarheel Conspirator”, Chronicles, April 2005.

2. Paul Gottfried, “Parallel Lives: William F. Buckley vs. Samuel T. Francis”, VDARE, 24 February 2005.

3. It seems, nevertheless, that in his very last days Francis embraced Catholicism. See Fleming, op. cit.

4. Samuel Francis, “Toward A Hard Right”, Chronicles, February 2005.

5. Samuel Francis, “The Case of George Will”, Modern Age, Spring 1986.

6. Samuel Francis, “The King Holiday and Its Meaning”, American Renaissance, February 1998.

7. Samuel Francis, Beautiful Losers: Essays on the Failure of American Conservatism (University of Missouri Press, Columbia, 1993), page 2.

8. Samuel Francis, “Why Race Matters”, American Renaissance, September 1994.

9. Joseph Sobran, “Samuel Francis R.I.P.”, The Wanderer, 24 February 2005.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

R.J. Stove is a writer and commentator on public affairs and has had numerous articles published in Quadrant, National Observer, Chronicles and The American Conservative, and his work The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of the Secret Police and Their Victims was published in 2004.