Up From Conservatism
Way back in the early 1950s, when I was in my twenties, a favorite pastime was to take the first sentence of that day’s lead editorial in the New York Times and, putting the newspaper aside, deduce the rest of the commentary. If I was unable to draw that deduction from the first sentence, I went to the second sentence. If I failed again, I betook myself outside and chopped half a cord of wood in expiation of my obtuseness.
The acceptable thinking of those days—the conventional wisdom; the Walter Lippmanesque by way of Ed Murrow liberal cant—was so predictable that it was easy, young and callow as I was, to anticipate at breakfast what that evening, at cocktails, the earnest pillars of society in my flossy northwestern Connecticut town would be pontificating. They seemed all to have graduated from Princeton or Dartmouth, from Smith or Vassar or Sarah Lawrence. They wore Bendels and Bergdorf. The pearl necklace and the regimental striped tie were their signatures. Oh, their solemnity! How avid their desire to be respectable. They could oooh and aaah over a Picasso yet fail to gain a single insight into the evils of modernity. They could listen to the Fifth Symphony of Shostakovich and learn nothing about Joe Stalin. I fled to Spain.
This is what I fear establishment thinking among conservatives is becoming. Dull. Derivative. Predictable. Lacking in zip and sting and mordancy—in the agenbite of inwit. And sometimes also emptied of libertarian principle.
We conservatives have our own New York Times, our own cathedral of acceptable right-wing wisdom, the Wall Street Journal. Paul Gigot is the latest in a distinguished line of chief editorial writers, and he is almost always informative. During the dispiriting demarche of the George W. Bush administration, moreover, he displayed the sterling virtue of holding the feet of Republicans in the Congress to the fire of conservative principles, which that unprincipled breed of nincompoops didn’t enjoy, and for which they paid in 2008. But scanning the editorial pages of the WSJ or papers from the several erudite conservative and libertarian fonts, I often feel that I can play the old game: I can foretell from the first couple of sentences where that editorial or op-ed or conservative think-tank essay is going—what tried and true and trite right-wing lessons can be gleaned from it. Reading the National Review and American Spectator issues on the electoral defeat this past fall impresses one with how so many good, well-meaning, and intelligent commentators are able to miss the point.
I cry within myself, where is the inspiration? Where is the audacity? And I wonder often whether the young radical today reading conservative publications does not suffer from the tedium that suffocated me as a young man reading the liberal press.
Tell me quickly: what is new in conservative political thinking since 1955? Can you come up with a single tenet that rises fresh to the mind in treating vicissitudes that were undreamed of back when my brother founded National Review—the worldwide torrent of the Internet, bursting through ethnic, national, and ideological barriers, maybe reducing all philosophies of government to chauvinism; or the impact of economic globalization, which snatches some Third World peoples from penury but as suddenly dumps them back into it; or the acceptance of infanticide and euthanasia by a majority of the American people, upon whom, according to populist conservative creed—descending from Ronald Reagan, intoned from all platforms—we conservatives exhort ourselves to depend; or the religious and imperial irredentist menace of Islamic terrorism, which threatens a 100-year war of civilizations? What have conservatives to hurl at these urgent historic challenges other than the same bromides? For 40 years, smug, snide right-wingers have made merry mocking Greenpeace fanatics and ecological doomsayers without learning a blessed thing about the precariousness of the ecology and the effect of human action (not to speak of avarice) on it, as when we promiscuously exfoliate the rain forests or condemn yet one more green acre on the southeastern shore of New Jersey to the desolation of heedless urban development. We conservatives are so self-satisfied that we have incapacitated ourselves from peering beneath the antics of idiots and the wild exaggerations of scruffy environmentalist kooks to the gathering of real dangers that their hysterical rhetoric obscures. The climate is most probably changing, and the human impact on it should be studied.
When last did you hear a conservative spokesman deplore yet another six-lane highway, yet another fast-food alley, yet another graceless subdivision, yet another Super Wal-Mart or Lowe’s that sucks the life out of small village businesses, yet one more onslaught against neighborhood and nature that is masked under the name of progress? Unless it is a bridge in Alaska from nowhere to nowhere, you will not hear the deepest red-dyed congressman denounce the progressive uglification of our natural inheritance, as though beauty is of no concern. Have you flown recently from Newport News to Boston at 25,000 feet on a clear day and gazed down upon the horror of American civilization? What man hath wrought! What we have done to this beautiful land? Dear God, forgive us! But when last did you hear a conservative oppose a new mall because it is ugly, an affront to the eye, accustoming thousands of human beings to dehumanizing blows against the aesthetic sense until it is benumbed? The good, the true, and the beautiful are inseparably joined. One cannot damage one without doing harm to the others. Those who fail to comprehend this are morally in error on the dialectical front, though they may be personally virtuous.
Not all development is bad, not all logging is reprehensible, and some eyesores cannot be avoided. Industrialization, which provides surcease from want, can neither be stopped nor should it be. But within the hysteria and exaggeration of political activists, mostly of the Left, too often supported by cooked science, there is often a kernel of legitimate concern, be it economical, sociological, aesthetic, or environmental. We conservatives have shut our ears.
How stupid. Full 480 moons have my brother James and I bemoaned this cretinous yet apparently incurable kneejerk conservative response to abuses of nature, real or alleged. Indifference to environmental damage is not only saddening, it’s a deplorable exhibition of urban-bred removal from reality. This should be our cause, for pity’s sake, not theirs. Too many conservative solons were city-born, methinks, and would be terrified to spend a single night in the wilds of Central Park, where a screech owl might whistle at them.
On most of the political issues, George Will makes one think. My brother Bill’s columns were classically inquisitive and inimitably analytical. Bob Tyrrell and P.J. O’Rourke are puckish. Ann Coulter is our very own Shirley MacLaine in terms of wackiness (though not quite so weird). Yet have we not slipped behind the phenomenology of the postmodern, post-Christian world?
Are we not perhaps talking too much to ourselves? Are we not writing too much for the applause of our fellows? Is any of us—with few exceptions—saying anything that we have not heard before, and are we not—all of us—submitting intellectually to conservative political correctness and the inertia of the modern super state?
Perhaps I have been living too long as a semi-recluse in the rural South. Maybe I spend too much time on my tractor. I am a temperamental maverick—which can also be boring and is often a cheap, posturing, faux-cynical attitude. But I become ill at ease when anything I may say is politely received. I am not proposing that 21st-century conservatives be clinically half mad, like Mr. Dean or doddering Mr. Byrd of West Virginia or the several unforgettable conservatives of the past whom I was lucky to know—say Fritz Wilhelmsen, of the weeping left eye and the radical, impious, universal intelligence, or Willmoore Kendall, who never lost a polemic but could not keep a friend. In their lunacy, there was a rare precious brilliance. Nor am I suggesting that conservatives must once again be deemed by society as uncouth, though I feel that it ill-becomes true conservative independence of spirit to feel comfortable in the Rose Garden, in the private chambers of the speaker of the House, in a big corporation boardroom, in dining rooms where finger bowls are served before dessert, or in any other center of establishmentarian power and complacence.
Please understand me, I am not holding that there is a Euclidian equivalency between boorishness and independence of mind, between the social outcast and genius. But the persecuted Church is oft the true Church. The worldly Church is too often the corrupted Church.
So with the conservative movement. We must ask ourselves: is there in the thousands upon thousands of pages of conservative scholarship being ground out every year sufficient original critical thinking about conservative premises, conservative social and political principles?
I am not asking this question rhetorically. I don’t know the answer. What is certain is that I do not find the post-Reagan/Buckley revelatory iconoclastic vision I seek in the pages of any conservative journal today, though I glimpse snatches of it in a Daniel Henninger or a Charles Krauthammer, and I am deeply respectful of such as Michael Novak and Roger Scruton. Charles Murray possesses a rare original mind, but we cannot claim him as our own—would that we could. Has there been published in conservative literature a single scholarly tome as provocative as Brent Bozell’s essay in National Review over 40 years ago on the tension between virtue and liberty, an ideological dilemma that has never been bridged, but only, under the Soviet threat during the Cold War, glossed in the interest of unity? (Bozell’s famous essay was, in essence, a carefully reasoned restatement of Plato’s dictum that money does not come from virtue, but from virtue comes money and every other good of man, including personal freedom. The sole justification for freedom, in Bozell’s view, is that freedom permits human beings to act virtuously in the sight of God, to do God’s will, not theirs. In those early days of the renaissance of the conservative movement, when all allies were precious—and a precious few—this reasoning put him at odds with libertarian conservatives and was thus, for its divisiveness, respectfully read though not pursued. But the argument has been vindicated by the solipsistic permissiveness of the sexual revolution of the New Left under the aegis of libertarianism.)
I wonder—I am nagged by the doubt—has the disheartening failure of the conservative movement on the domestic front, dating from the second Reagan administration, been anywhere sufficiently acknowledged or analyzed by our great conservative institutions of scholarly learning? Has sodomy become the groovy kinkiness in our society? Is prayer ever to be restored to our schools? Are the unborn in America never to be safeguarded? And our infirm or derelict elderly—are they now to be at the mercy of the avariciousness of their heirs or the parsimony of the state? Will ever an amendment to the Constitution win through defining the Republic now and forever as Christian bred and born and deliberately affirmed at the founding, putting the quietus to secularists, who seek to desacralize society as well as life?
Recall heroic General Armistead pinning his hat on the tip of his sword and—thrusting the blade high, yelling to his brave men to follow—charging through the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, at once to fall mortally wounded. That’s been called the high-water mark of the Confederacy. Did the high-water mark of the 20th-century conservative movement of the United States take place back in December 1995/January 1996 when—in what might as well have been a railroad car’s tobacco-sodden men’s room, among the cuspidors—squat, puffy Newt Gingrich stonewalled smooth, sleazy Bill Clinton?
Judging from the political deportment of the Republican Congresses and the White House in domestic matters since that time, has anyone had the audacity, courage, and honesty to tell the bald truth—which is that the Republican Party has failed the cause to which my brother Bill and so many other brilliant souls—Frank Meyer, Jim Burnham, John Chamberlain, to mention just a few—gave unstintingly of their lives? Is any establishment conservative organ today declaring unequivocally that conservatives who have any respect at all for the political philosophy they profess must forswear the Republican Party and on many major issues break ranks with government-trusting (and agnostic) neocons? Or is that fresh young mind this minute deciding that whatever the right wing says about anything is tired polemics from which candor and the imagination have long since leaked out?’
When I ponder the future of American culture, I wonder, first, whether in the future there will ever again be respect for truth in this Republic or whether we conservatives, like the vainglorious Greeks 2,500 years ago, are so tainted intellectually and corrupted philosophically that we have lost the capacity for critical thinking about ourselves, relying on euphemisms in place of truth.
Today we are trespassing on vital conservative and libertarian tenets without compunction. Here are three.
1. We Americans have turned our backs on the founding ideal of small government. The polecat is out of the bag: charming neocon Fred Barnes published a book candidly calling George W. Bush a “big government” conservative. With the president’s blessing, Republicans in the hallowed halls of Congress fattened a monster state and empowered it at every turn without pausing to consider whither we are going, what we are doing, or what the consequences may be to the Republic down the road. Democrats have now succeeded on a platform that leans ever more toward the corporate state. Must we not ask ourselves: is small government out of date? Is that battle lost to the tides of historical forces and to the rampant march of technology?
2. Though reluctant, Republicans have submitted to the takeover of the economy by the federal government, a foray into the corporate state from which we may never recover. Yet to my knowledge no conservative voice has articulated the ringing indictment that such highhanded action merits, and the American people have submitted meekly. As I write, events on this front are raging more quickly than inflation can destroy an economy.
3. Putative conservatives in the White House and in the Republican Congress plunged the country further into debt through legislation such as the farm bill and the new Medicare entitlement paying for prescription drugs, in the meantime bowing to the perpetuation of established entitlements. Yet no conservative voice was raised to bring up first principles by showing why Social Security et al. are inimical to the rationale for republican government and must be phased out or subjected to radical reform. Many conservative voices have written scathingly about the financial woes of the present Social Security administration—which are apocalyptical—but to my knowledge none has yet proposed that Republicans abandon the New Deal-era concept all together.
In my opinion, such candor is necessary. It may be understandable—no less disgusting—that our politicians do not have the stomach for it. But independent conservative intellectuals are keepers of the flame or they are burnt cartridges. It is insufficient that our conservative organs and think tanks denounce the fiscal lunacies of Social Security while never explicitly grounding themselves in political science, never declaring that we must abolish Social Security as it is currently conceived. Tant pis. One has to suppose they are afraid of sounding anachronistic, of talking themselves into irrelevance, of being disparaged as freaks from the lunatic fringe. But that prudence, that tactical wisdom, seductive as it may be perceived, submits without a fight to the accommodationist politics of the Nelson Rockefeller/Dwight Eisenhower GOP of the 1950s and ’60s. Those politics are every bit as craven, mistaken, defeatist, and unworthy today as they were back then. My brother’s National Review was born to stand athwart history, not to tickle the teats of the belly of the beast Leviathan as it strides over us.
On the political level, then, what will be the future of American civilization as far as we conservatives are concerned? Why, of knaves and charlatans on both sides of the aisle driving the Republic headlong into a metastatic colossus of a state in which the citizen has been reduced to a hapless serf; in which blunt, honest language has been euphemized out of existence; and in which a bland and servile acceptance of the inevitability of Big Brother is the received wisdom.
Where are our Friedrich Hayeks of The Road to Serfdom, our Eric Voegelins of The New Science of Politics, our Russell Kirks of The Conservative Mind? Where is our philosopher? Meantime, on the practical front, what can conservatives do? The very first thing is to dissociate from the Republican Party, which has become an albatross around the neck of integrity.
Reid Buckley was founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking and author of An American Family: The Buckleys. He died on April 14 at the age of 83.