Prefix Conservatism

by Jonah Goldberg

I am whole-heartedly with Mark Steyn on this one, though not necessarily because I have anything particularly interesting to say against or in favor of punk rock or because I’m an idolator of Steyn — though both things are true. Rather, my agreement stems from my continuing objection with prefix conservatism. I define this as the tendency to mint new “schools” of conservatism based upon superficial distinctions or tastes. This objection explains some, though not all, of my problems with Rod’s “Crunchy Con” stuff. I like the following things: women’s prison movies, science fiction, comic books (Marvel comics particularly), dogs, TV (ah, TV, you’ll never let me down), Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, meat dishes covered with cheese dishes and so on. I do not think any of this necessarily distinguishes me as, say, a “Couch Conservative.” But I am sure that if I were to ask “Are there any couch conservatives out there?” I would discover that there are legions of us. We could even claim to be the inactivist core of the conservative movement, and that our ideas and sentiments form a distinct school of conservative thought. But this would be stupid.

Why can’t discussions of punk music be about, hmmm I dunno, punk music? If there are conservative points to be made, make them. If you need to talk about the overlap between conservatives and punk music more generally, you could talk about “conservatives who like punk music…” I know, I am making a big deal out of a very little thing. I admit, “Punky cons” is useful shorthand, less clunky than my way of doing things.

But my only point is that there’s no end to this sort of prefix conservatism and it bespeaks a desire to be ideologically pure, something conservatism doesn’t require. As with the crunchy con stuff, the rationale seems to be: I like A. “Typical” conservatives do not like “A.” Therefore I am an “A” conservative; a different species. In other words, prefix conservatism assumes the existence of prixe fixe conservatism; a rigid, set menu of ideas that is immune from debate and reason. Yeah, of course, there are some bedrock values at the core of conservatism. But these values do not translate themselves automatically into a fixed set of policy proposals or personal tastes. Virtually all conservatives believe in a smaller government and fewer taxes. But there’s hardly universal agreement about how to translate those values into programmatic reality. Some conservatives like punk music because they see it as a rebellion to hippydom. Interesting argument. Other conservatives hate punk because it represents villainy and sloth. Good argument there. But neither camp disagress with the other camp’s values. The anti-punk people like rebellion against hippydom and the pro-punk people are not in favor of villainy and sloth. Their disagreement is over how these sentiments are translated or mistranslated into music. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

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