WORD PLAY Someone I admire a great deal said to me yesterday, “Jonah, you know what I love about you?” Now, if I were embellishing, I would finish that sentence with “Your ability to maintain your perfect physical condition and razor-keen intellect while drinking a case of beer every day and preventing your couch from escaping or being kidnapped.” But that’s not what she said. Instead she finished her sentence by saying, “You’re one of the only people who goes on these ridiculous shows and talks about “the Left.”
I never noticed until she said it, but she’s right. Most people don’t talk about the Left. We hear every minute of the day about “the Right.” (Oh, I’m not being naïve or self-promotional; Irving Kristol and others have written for almost three decades about the tendency of the media to use phrases like “hard right,” “rock right,” “far right,” “arch-conservative,” “ultra right,” “ultra conservative,” etc. If anyone can find more than three instances when Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, Bernard Shaw, or Peter Jennings used “arch-liberal” or “ultra Left” when talking about an American politician, I will give you a free subscription to NATIONAL REVIEW.) I was on MSNBC last week and I was introduced as a conservative writer. Can any of you remember the last time anybody was introduced as a liberal writer?
But why don’t most conservatives even talk about the Left anymore? It’s strange. Never have conservatives been more proud to be conservatives than in the 1990s. And yet, we seem particularly ashamed to call the Left what is it is. I mean, by definition there has to be a Left, right? Even if it isn’t as powerful as it once was, it’s still there. Even if it’s not as Left as it was, it’s still to the left of the Right. If you cut off twelve inches of wood at the left end of a yardstick, the middle twelve inches instantly becomes the left side.
Conservatives still say “liberals” but we do it in a way that makes it sound as if we’re too afraid to get “caught up in labels.” I never understood what was so bad about labels. But the hypocrisy kills me. I would bet that at least once a week some mainstream journalist goes on C-SPAN and says, “Look I don’t believe in labels.” Within 60 seconds of making this very haughty and high-minded declaration, he or she will then talk about how the far Right of the Republican party is holding the primaries hostage, invading bedrooms, leaving toilet seats up, etc. Saying you don’t believe in labels almost always means you’re ashamed to admit you’re a liberal. The Left may not be supporting Stalin anymore, but that doesn’t mean the same psychological utopian impulses aren’t at work. The Left still believes in making society better through politics. The Left still believes in the cult of the expert. The Left still believes that infinitely complex social arrangements can be quantified. The Left still believes in lying for justice. The Left still believes facts can be dismissed if the motives of the messenger can be maligned.
Arguably to their credit, Leftists believe they can make things better. And I think this may be at the heart of conservative reluctance. The Right has allowed itself to be painted as the party of do-nothings. Oh, if that were only true. My kingdom for a real party of do-nothings. The Left is the party of concern. The Left cares, and because motives matter more than facts, that caring makes their policies better. Last week I wrote about Stalin versus Hitler and a lot of you wrote to me about the topic. I think, ultimately, the reason why the evil of Stalin (or Mao) has little resonance in the culture is that the Left convinced people that Stalin’s intentions were better than Hitler’s. Killing tens of millions of people according to some entirely fictitious utopian scheme is a mitigating factor. Killing millions because you’re a bigot is a compounding factor. Maybe this makes moral sense, I don’t know.
But conservatives need to take away the concern card. In the past, prominent conservatives were the nation’s greatest philanthropists. The Astors, Carnegies, Guggenheims, et al. comprised the American aristocracy. They founded and funded orphanages and soup kitchens, museums and schools — with their own money and with little government aid. Today their legacy is a stinking pile of cash which fuels foundations who effectively lobby for the government to do what they once did themselves. The fact that government is terrible at such things doesn’t matter. The goal is to “raise awareness,” to “arouse concern.” Conservatives — compassionate and otherwise — must make the case that just because something should be done, it doesn’t follow that the government should do it. Do you care if the government collects your garbage or if a private contractor does? But, in a media culture which lazily insists on covering Washington as if it were the engine of social change, this is a very difficult proposition. But nobody said being a conservative was supposed to be easy.
What got me thinking about this concern thing was that yesterday the president of “Concerned Women of America” (a conservative group, my above screed notwithstanding) was on C-SPAN. And the on the CBS evening news a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists made an appearance. I was watching CBS because I wanted to find out if it still exists. It struck me as such an odd word — “Concerned” — for a political group. The Union of Concerned Scientists is concerned with appeasing Soviet aggress…. — whoops. It’s concerned with containing the spread of nuclear threats, or something like that. The Concerned Women of America are concerned with restoring “Biblical Values.”
I grabbed my thesaurus (feel free to use your own, it’s fun) and found ten words that are most synonymous with “concern” or “concerned.” Do any of these sound like groups you’d want to join or that you’d be glad have a voice in public policy?: