Tom Bethell, Debunker of Progressive Orthodoxies, Fearless Defender of Truth: RIP

With the death in February of Tom Bethell (1936 – 2021), the refuseniks of what Orwell called the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls” have lost an eloquent and redoubtable champion. Over the course of Bethell’s five decades as a writer (of seven books and hundreds of essays), the malodorous certitudes of political correctness have been piling up to Augean proportions. Bethell waded into them one by one—from cultural relativism to Einsteinian relativity—hosed them down, and dressed them in motley for our sport.

Bethell’s doubts about the scientific rigor of Darwin’s theory of evolution began to germinate while he was studying philosophy, psychology, and physiology at Oxford in the Sixties. In his ground-breaking 1976 Harper’s Magazine article, “Darwin’s Mistake,” he was the first to confute that epochal dogma root and branch; and having shattered the taboo, he paved the way for the many critiques that would follow.

By far the most readable of these was his own book, Darwin’s House of Cards (2018). In a 2017 interview, Bethell pointed out that the natural selection argument is a brazen sorites: “You can’t find a criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. So it’s the survival of the survivors.” Again, Bethell was one of the first to recognize the political valency of postmodernist junk science: that Darwinism was ab initio a Trojan horse for the bashing of religion in general and Christianity in particular (cf. the New Atheists), just as the pseudo-scientific linkage of AIDS with HIV was harnessed to the narrative of homosexual innocence and victimhood, and “global warming” to the whole panoply of progressive desiderata. On these and other themes, Bethell’s 2005 The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science remains essential reading.

How, but for Bethell’s Questioning Einstein (2009), would the average layman know that even the theory of relativity has been guarded with idolatrous zeal by its dedicated priesthood? The dirty little secret of contemporary “science” is that “authority more and more replaces evidence,” a trend that has only accelerated during the current COVID hysteria.

That science is always “settled” when it supports progressive causes (Bethell quipped that the journal Science should be renamed “Science for Liberals”) is more broadly related by him to the besetting irony of modern liberalism. “Question authority” is its brave mantra, even as it demands supine obedience to its own authority exclusively, and in its thinking displays the most abject intellectual conformism. Bethell and his good friend, the late Joe Sobran, were surely the two most brilliant (and funniest) diagnosticians of liberal mass-mindedness of their generation. (Indeed, Sobran gives Bethell joint credit for the indispensable term “the hive” to describe the way in which liberals instantly communicate the acceptable opinions on every issue of the day.)

On the faddish cant of the postmodern Left, Bethell’s 40 years of columns in The American Spectator are a treasure trove of mordant wit and irony. In 1977, Bethell observed, “Surely Malcolm Muggeridge was right. The behavior of our contemporary ‘liberal’ can be explained only in terms of a death wish…. Take Soviet expressions of good will at face value. Kill off unwanted, unborn infants who have done no harm to anyone, but keep alive convicted murderers.”  “In some ways,” Bethell wrote in 2012, “present-day liberalism is far more radical than Communism ever was. Consider, for example, the current pretense that there are no real differences between the sexes, or that same-sex marriage is a desirable policy goal. Communists entertained no such delusions.” In an essay on the retrograde morality of TV’s “Downton Abbey,” Bethell asks, “When was the last time you heard a leftist urge the working class to get married before having children?”

Such sunbursts of moral clarity and common sense lighten every page of Bethell’s copy. On England’s current progressive elites: “The ruling class in Britain is rotten to the core. Now that they no longer rule the waves it might be better for all concerned if they were submerged beneath them.” Responding to Frank Gehry’s scoff that the Lincoln memorial is “in the form of a Greek temple,” Bethell muses, “Maybe they should have built him a log cabin.” On Obama’s inaugural “poet”: “The artistic career of Elizabeth Alexander suggests that the self-esteem campaign has gone on for long enough.” On the state-subsidized modern poetry industry: “The market for poetry … consist[s] mostly of other poets. It’s wise for a publisher to anthologize 100 poets in one volume; that way it will at least sell 100 copies.” On traditional American jazz (the subject of Bethell’s first book): “All the best black music in this country, and there was a lot of it, was created in the era of segregation.” On a liberal cleric’s insistence that hell is a fable: “If Bell’s message is that his parishioners are all going to enjoy an eternity of bliss whether they go to church or not, it’s only a matter of time before they stop going.” On a fellow journalist, with an exquisitely understated animadversion on the mainstream media’s pretensions of “fairness”: “Sometimes [Jim Barnes] appears on Gwen Ifill’s PBS program Washington Week, which features three or four Washington journalists who help Ms. Ifill frame the conventional wisdom of the week [my underscore].” And on the difference between the rabid leftism of PBS intellectual-in-residence Bill Moyers and the homespun liberalism of Garrison Keillor:

[Moyers] seems to think of democracy as a substitute for socialism, as though all wealth naturally belongs to a common pool and a proper democracy would share it out equitably.…  Lots of people in America are saddled with this unremitting, burning sense of grievance. You have to be both well off and well educated to reach that mental state…. I suppose Keillor is a liberal of sorts, but his faculty of appreciation, his love of traditional hymns, and the contentment he derives from describing the world, show conservative tendencies. A great gulf separates him from those, like Moyers, who want to change the world, not describe it.

As a journalist, Bethell both “described” the world into which he was born and defended its traditions and truths, all with the same eloquence as he mustered against the spurious dogmas of the Church of Progress. And as a conservative, he never forgot his primary obligation of gratitude for God’s creation. Taught by the Benedictines as a boy in London, he remained a lifelong Catholic, gravitating inevitably to the traditional Latin liturgy. As Monsignor Wadsworth relates in his eulogy, though Bethell “did not suffer fools gladly,” he “conceded the gift of his friendship easily and was fiercely loyal to his many friends.”  When Conservative Inc. and the rest of the journalistic beau monde shunned Joe Sobran like a miasma, Bethell remained imperturbably at his side. In this, as in his life in general, he perfectly exemplified the Christian virtue of fortitude, fearlessly speaking his mind, while knowing that in doing so he would be despised and rejected by the world.

One hesitates to say this sort of thing in an age of emotional hyperinflation, but for this writer, as I suspect for many conservatives of a certain age, the death of Tom Bethell will be felt like the loss of a beloved old friend. I never met him, alas, but his columns in TAS were my boon companion over half a lifetime. Whenever the latest issue emerged through my mail slot, it was to Bethell that I turned first, though I am otherwise quite capable of deferring my pleasures. And what a pleasure it has been! Bethell’s reading was so wide and his learning so deep that only Northrop Frye, in my experience, could cite more ancient and modern authorities on a single page. Like the aforementioned Sobran, Bethell had that rare ability to set his readers’ heads oscillating with wonder at the brilliance of his insights, to raise the hairs on the backs of their necks in response to the grandeur with which he evoked the beauty and genius of the Western Tradition, and to make them laugh, all within the span of a single essay, and all in prose of apparent artlessness.