Ernest once told me that, for most of his political life, he had been a neoconservative without knowing it. He did not mean that he necessarily admired or agreed with the godfathers of neoconservatism, but that he was a child of the Enlightenment, an enemy of credulity and superstition, whether those commodities came packaged in the form of Marxist ideology or of the Christian right. He believed in reason and science, and his nostrils quivered at the scent of irrationality. But if van den Haag was a disciple of the Enlightenment, it was the well-ordered Enlightenment of Voltaire, Gibbon, and Dr. Franklin. He saw the devil in Rousseau, but he failed to see him beneath the ironic masks of the illuminist bon-vivants he so much admired.
We met first at a conference on the Enlightenment, held about 1990 in Southern California. As I was introduced by William Rusher, Ernest did not catch my name, and he asked me if “that wild man Fleming” was really going to attend, as the program promised. I assured him that the program was correct. He asked if I knew the fellow, and when I confessed to knowing him as well as anyone in the room, he wanted to know if he was really as unpredictable as people said. In the midst of explaining that the fellow in question took orders from no one, I was interrupted by Bill Rusher: “He’s putting you on, Ernest.”
After this somewhat rocky start, Ernest and I found that we agreed on little except the pleasures of life: good wine, good food, pleasant places, good books. There are worse foundations for a friendship, and, over the years, though we met infrequently, we exchanged letters and telephone calls, and Chronicles published several of his pieces. We were always making plans for dinners in New York that never came off, which I regret.
Since I was not a reader of conservative publications at the time, I cannot estimate van den Haag’s impact on young conservatives of the 1960’s and 70’s. Peter Brimelow, in an obituary on Vdare.com, recalls discovering him “in the library of an English university in the late 1960’s when, charged with writing on the ghetto riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, I found a powerful essay by van den Haag demonstrating—from observation in his own New York West Side neighborhood—that the demoralization of the authorities was actually to blame. This was exactly my own intuition. I felt a profound intellectual click, the first of many. (My tutor felt consternation.) . . .
“It was a joy and an honor to get to know van den Haag, some fifteen years and many cities later, in the Manhattan of Ronald Reagan’s Decade of Greed. I would say that the salient characteristic of his mind was extreme ruthlessness. It was always a forensic thrill to see him shoot across a seminar table, with the startling speed of an angry armadillo, and grip a just-concluded lecturer, sinking unwarily into his seat to entertain the usual supportive questions, with a crushing and crippling bite.
“Van den Haag was of course an immigrant, and so not surprisingly he realized the disaster for America that the 1965 Immigration Act threatened to be. It was not van den Haag’s fault that National Review subsequently fell into a Rip Van Winkle sleep on the subject of the evils of immigration for almost thirty years.”
Ernest van den Haag exulted in debate and could not tolerate the strictures imposed on political discussion by pious liberals. But then, he liked to be honest about everything. Johnson once said that “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” but Johnson lived in a more honest age. Ernest was far from being a Puritan, but he was no hypocrite, and his lack of hypocrisy extended to the ordinary courtesies of life. If he said he enjoyed your company, he meant it. You could take him at his word. This is why I was disturbed when he promised that he was going to set the record straight about Chronicles among New York conservatives. This was the only false note in our budding friendship, since expenditure of moral capital to help a chance acquaintance is about the last thing that any New York intellectual, especially a conservative, would undertake. Much to my surprise, I began to hear rumors of Ernest’s good-hearted diplomacy. He was actually saying nice things about us behind my back.
Ernest van den Haag was an honest man whom I could not help admiring. He never disclaimed (but hardly discussed) his Sephardic heritage, but even before his conversion, he never betrayed a particle of hostility toward the Christian traditions of his adopted country. Dying at the age of 88, he had lived a long life. Nearing the end, his ruthless pursuit of understanding led him away from the rationalist certainties of the Enlightenment. He died, so we are informed, in the Church and was buried after a Catholic funeral. His friends will mourn his loss.