Tuesday, August 3, 2010
My friend Steve Bainbridge has attracted a lot of outraged attention for his lament that conservatives are no longer as old school stylish as WFB was back in the day and for his implication that many currently on the Right are embarrassing. Some of this comes down to purely personal tastes and preferences but some of it is political in interesting ways, and thus I am moved to share some thoughts on what some are saying has already become a tedious discussion. Alas this is usually the point at which I enter an argument.
I should disclose that I consider Steve a friend and I'm an admirer of his scholarship, use his book in my class and so on and so forth. At the risk of diverting any wrath from him to me, which I certainly do not want to do, I think we should acknowledge that he has some points, but then qualify or discount some of them. Also, I don't want to be putting words into his mouth -- I am working with my interpretation of what I take to be the gist of his general inquietude about current conservative style.
So there is a tradition is this country of a sort of old school, Tory, elitist conservatism and there was a strain of that in Bill Buckley's conservatism that he revived after the War. I think his was an idealized version of it. He was the son of a wealthy Catholic businessman, more cosmopolitan and intellectual than the crusty old WASP Bonesman conservatism that he seem to affect. Though, in truth, I think the Buckley style was just an invention of his own, analogous to the partly fictional Old North Country aristocratic Catholic style that Evelyn Waugh invented and affected in Brideshead Revisited. This is the style of a conscious traditionalism and it is has long been a part of anything you could call conservatism in this country and personally I think a very valuable part.
But, and this is a critical point I think, something new and interesting is happening at the moment in this country, or maybe something not so new, but happening in a new way. And here one has to be careful not to go all dopey and Noonanesque. I don't think any of it makes sense except against the background of new communications technologies that are just transforming our society. Progressive historians love to go on about the transportation and communications revolution of the nineteenth century, but we are really in the middle of a gigantic communications revolution now. One thing we are seeing is an enormous expansion of the intellectual engagement of ordinary people, many of whom turn out to be not so ordinary, in national politics. Legacy institutions and affiliations and the prestige and style that go with them mean something but not what they used to. But it's not all good. The disruption caused by this revolution creates opportunities for all sorts of people. Indeed, I think our current president is one who would never have stepped into an office he really is not qualified for except for the fact that we are living through a time of profound disruption in many ways. And one of the things that means is that many shrill, rude, out of key and downright offensive voices are getting heard that before would have been filtered out by various intermediary institutions. That's not an unalloyed good.
Just to take one of Steve's points -- I agree with him in a general way that the legacy conservative media of talk radio (if this is what he is saying, otherwise it is just me) has lost a lot of its freshness and has matured into a medium that leaves a lot to be desired as any sort of thought leader or opinion shaper. I'm reluctant to be specific but I will just say a lot of time, right wing radio talkers just seem to be selling schtick, using conservatism the way some insincere televangelists use religion. And that's to be expected. If people were angels, we should indeed support progressive government. It's only in the real world that we need such strict limits on power.
Or take Sarah Palin, who graduated from the University of Idaho, whose alma mater was sung at my father's funeral, so don't neg the U of I around me. She's not as well educated as Michelle Obama. She's not as well educated as a President or Vice President should be. But had she gone to Harvard Law her ideas about the constitution would be a lot less sound than they happen to be. That is what we have come to. The prestige of such ancient institutions as we have are now used as weapons against the most fundamental principles of our frame of government and really our way of life. This means we are in a bad way. It's as if we have to defend ourselves against invaders and for the last 50 years West Point had been teaching that war is wrong and love is all you need. We have just put a former dean of the Harvard Law School on the Supreme Court in the certain knowledge that at the first opportunity she will rule that absolutely nothing in the Constitution prevents the federal government from requiring a person to buy insurance from some private company. Nothing. And it was probably the right thing to do because there were many far worse people our president would have been happy to nominate, all of them with resumes to die for.
One could go on. So does it embarrass me that talk radio conservatives, some of them some of the time are ranting hucksters selling prostate vitamins or gold or their latest semi-literate screed and rolling over every nuance in sight? Sure. Do I wish Sarah Palin could go through a time warp, spend ten years getting finished at say Oxford in 1920, Notre Dame in 1950 and the University of Chicago Law School in 1970? Sure. But there are others, too, like Mitch Daniels with his reading list and Chris Christie with his massive gonads. They are not embarrassing but encouraging. But the point is, being embarrassed in the least of our problems. I'm sorry I have to run around in my underwear trying to extinguish my burning house, but my house is on fire.
But at the same time, the embarrassments point to some genuine concerns, just not the most urgent ones perhaps. Those fighting the progressives, the statists, the current administration, have to be aware of the needs to build new institutions, educate up and comers, and trim old, dead wood. If somebody has become or is an embarrassment to good, old cause, then that's a problem. Embarrassment is your good sense and taste trying to tell you something.
Yet it needs to be remembered that embarrassment is also a weapon that the enemies of liberty and our best traditions have used with great effect. We are supposed to be embarrassed to, for example, believe in God, to think that Queer Theory is a joke, that Derrida is a fraud, that John Donne is a much better poet than Sylvia Plath let alone that ubiquitous African American woman who is always showing up knowing why the caged bird sings, and who writes the most dreadful drivel. To be embarrassed is to have standards and so much of whatever it is you should call the left these days is about the abandonment of moral standards, in which I include those of taste. So one can be a little embarrassed about the low points of current conservatism, but one has to consider the alternatives.