Last night I gave a rambling, sweaty, discursive talk to a bunch of Georgetown University students at the invitation of the Edmund Burke Society. It was a nice, smart gaggle of kids, willing to endure a sauna-like room made all the warmer by the protracted hot-air emissions of the invited speaker. But I got the definite vibe that at least a few of these kids felt the world was against them. And let’s be honest, it is. To be a conservative college kid is to endure liberals peeing in your cornflakes every time you pour yourself a fresh bowl.
And then this morning I was reading through another ream of angry e-mails from my conservative confreres: “You are confusing power with liberty, you $?!,!?* techno-Nietzschean idiot!” was a common response. Now, I don’t want to go down for a third time on the whole “Whither Freedom?” fandango of the last two columns. Let’s just say it’s a rich topic for further discussion, with excellent points to be made on all sides (seriously, I’ve reconsidered a few things). But I do think it’s worth addressing the reflexive, ideological grumpiness of many conservatives.
Despite what you may have heard, there is nothing inherent to conservatism that says we must always give off the impression that we’re chronically in need of a riot-control-hose enema. I think most conservatives know this in their bones, if for no other reason then the fact that by now, everyone’s noticed how liberals are unfunny. Even the jokes about the lugubriousness of liberals are old, if still true (Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: That’s not funny!).
Yes, in a political culture that prefers untried new ideas over proven old ones; that tends to value feelings over insight, and self-esteem over integrity; and that has the long-term memory of a three-day-old titmouse — conservatives will have an uphill climb.
I know I keep quoting Emerson on this point, but he was right when he said “there is a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority of fact.” We have to be the ones who say, “That’s not a good idea.” We have to say, “Um, you do know we tried that before, it was called ‘the Reign of Terror.’” And, sometimes, when some buffoon from Princeton argues that we should crank up the bawmp-bawmp-ditty-bawmp-bawmp porn music so we can get down with a sheep or cow, we’ve got to be the ones to say, “Shh, we’ll get you the best doctors.”
(If you think I’m kidding, click here to read a column much superior to the one you are reading now.)
The price we pay for this is that we get called “mean” or “mean-spirited” (similarly, the price liberals pay for constantly coming up with new ideas based on their feelings is being called “idiots”). But none of this amounts to an excuse to mope around as if you just found your long-awaited Christmas pony slumped over dead under the Christmas tree.
We Aren’t Liberals
Remember: Conservatism recognizes that politics is only a small slice of the pie. Religion, charity, family, sports, school, and most art are just a few of the spheres of life which are supposed to be relatively distinct from the realm of politics, according to conservatism. It is the Hillary Clintons of the world who want to craft a “politics of meaning”; who believe that the entire country sits on the edge of its collective seat waiting for Congress to pass the Omnibus Rubber Doorstop and Accumulated Navel Lint Act of 2001; who think that every joint and muscle of the body politic aches from racial, sexual, or psychological pain in need of a salve which only the government can provide.
You know, it’s funny. Conservatives get this rap for being “authoritarian,” eager to pry into the private nooks and crannies of everyone’s life. Of course, this is propaganda. As Russell Kirk liked to say (invoking H. Stuart Hughes), “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”
Meanwhile, the further left you go, the more instructions you find for how to behave in almost every aspect of your life. You can learn what to eat, what to wear, where to shop, what kind of language is acceptable or unacceptable, even what kind of sex is okay — usually, all kinds (if you have a problem with that policy, you’ve got “hang-ups” or “issues”). In college, I remember getting into a debate in student government with a girl who wanted to implement a mandatory water-conservation policy for all campus bathrooms. She summarized it as, “If it’s brown, flush it down; if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”
Conservatism is a rich and comprehensive philosophy, but it just doesn’t have a rule on the specific circumstances when you can pull the lever on your crapper.
I apologize for straying a bit far afield, but the point remains: Liberalism requires that you take everything too seriously. In its contemporary literary-academic-activist forms, it finds symbolic meaning in every detail of our lives — from advertising to automobiles. And because of its inherent solipsism, offense can be taken even when none is offered, simply because your feelings are the only relevant factor.
Conservatism, meanwhile, says, Don’t take things so seriously. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious issues out there, but we lose half the battle when we take on the liberal’s all-or-nothing panic that the world will end if the government does just one more bad thing.
Whenever I talk to Lefty college kids, at least a few of them will insist that multinational corporations control every aspect of their lives, consigning them to a futile, alienated existence. It all sounds impressively stark and dramatic until I ask them, “How exactly is Phillip Morris or GE doing that?” And they either have absurd answers or no answers at all — they just feel that it must be true. Similarly, some conservatives sound equally hysterical when they sit in their nice homes with good jobs, doing whatever they want with their lives, and claim that they live in a police state because they have to wait a few days to buy their 15th gun or because they can’t chop down a tree on their property. I’m all for gun and property rights, but a little perspective is in order, don’t you think?
Besides, things have been going our way for a while now. First of all, the Cold War is over and we won it. If you think that’s trivial, you’re a fool. The Communist threat largely created the post-WWII conservative movement, and that movement deserves an outsized portion of the credit for the demise of Soviet Marxism. Geopolitically, the world is a vastly better and safer place than it was prior to 1991.
Then there’s Bill Clinton. If he has any self-awareness at all, he’s got to be sitting in a cold, dark room muttering to himself as he maintains a white-knuckled grip on a bottle of Jack Daniels, while every nightly news report casts him a bit further out on the sea of historical, political, and moral irrelevance. Schadenfreude isn’t a nice quality, but how can we not indulge it a bit as we watch Bill Clinton become the randy Neville Chamberlain who launched the new era of global conflict?
And look, for all of the terrible things he did — and he did many terrible things — he did a lot more damage to the Left than to the Right, and not just because he made so many of his defenders look like buffoons. Programmatically he moved the Democratic party to the right, by co-opting a longstanding conservative domestic agenda on such things as free trade and welfare reform. Hell, he even opened the door (or was pushed through it, actually) to privatizing Social Security, the bedrock program of the Democratic party.
On social issues, he supported school uniforms and all of that substantially petty but culturally significant stuff. He completely surrendered on the death penalty, and at least rhetorically conceded that it’s better if abortions are rare. He may have been a lying, lecherous crap-weasel of a president, but those are good things nonetheless.
And then there are the actual social trends. They’re not all great, but very few of them are getting worse, and most are getting better. Thanks to a sustained conservative effort, crime is no longer the romantic rebellion depicted in Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, and prisons aren’t denounced as political gulags. Once again, we recognize that crime is what bad people do and prison is where bad people go. And that’s why crime has plummeted over the last decade. Marriage rates are up, abortion rates down. Since the 1970s, fewer teens are on drugs and more are in church. Republicans have moved to the right while becoming the majority party in much of the country, and hardcore liberal Democrats are a beleaguered minority in their own party. Al Gore is not president. Say that a few times and you’ll cheer up.
Now, all of this doesn’t mean there aren’t hard battles worthy of fighting. But let’s have a bit more fun and a bit less hysteria. If you meet a liberal who’s wetting himself over the allegedly arbitrary authority of roving military tribunals, say, “See, that’s precisely why we want guns!” If, some hemptivist tells you that violence never solved anything, make like a pimp and bitch-slap him every time he tries to reason with you (“That wasn’t necessary…” Whap! “Seriously, cut that out!” Whip-whap!) until he finally tries to defend himself. Then say, “See.”
Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that. But you should enjoy yourself a bit more, if for no other reason than it annoys, baffles, and sometimes scares liberals to see a happy conservative.
If you’re sorry you missed my sweaty presentation at Georgetown, and even if you’re not sorry you missed it, you might want to catch me on TV tomorrow night and Friday night. I will be cohosting Crossfire on CNN at 7:30 PM. They asked Cosmo, but he couldn’t do it. Keep your fingers crossed that I keep the profanity to a minimum, I know the producers’ will be.