Politics & Policy

Taking Conservatism Seriously

Yes, Virginia, conservatives mean what they say.

For three years, I served on the Board of Trustees of my college as a “Young Trustee.” As with most colleges, Young Trustees are selected as a means of co-optation; bring a recent grad on board and then claim to be “in touch with the concerns of the students.” Why I was there is a whole other story.

This story is about something else. While I was on the board it was determined that Goucher College desperately needed a “Diversity Statement.” Other schools were declaring, for all the world to hear, their love of diversity, their thirst for diversity, their loyalty to diversity, and, damn it, we needed to proclaim ours as well. Never mind all that other “equal opportunity” boilerplate to be found throughout campus publications, Goucher needed to “get out in front” of the diversity issue.

Or so we were told. I didn’t think so. I thought that being a liberal arts college was in itself an acceptance of the very best form of diversity — the intellectual kind.

The “liberal” in “liberal arts” does not refer to what Barbra Streisand “thinks,” and “arts” does not refer to a federal subsidy for inserting things in your rectum in front of a wide-angle lens. The liberal arts — as derived from the writings of Locke, Jefferson and others — refer to the intellectual skills and historical and literary knowledge that free people need in a free society in order to keep it free.

My problem — or one of them — with a diversity statement was that I thought it was either redundant or insulting. It was redundant because the liberal arts already embrace diversity and insulting because some board members and administrators were talking as if this were somehow a brave and bold break with the past.

Anyway, I was a pretty intense young man about such things in those days, and I decided it was imperative that I be a big pain. So I kept trying to insert language about standards, tolerance, Western civilization, and how true diversity was consistent with, rather than a break from, the liberal arts. Half of the board was pissed because they wanted to make it to the golf course on time, and the other half was angry because, well, they thought I was a little brown shi(r)t.

In any event, during a coffee break a high-powered liberal lawyer from Washington came up to me and said that she’d read my letter to the board and found my comments interesting and so on. But she was “very concerned” that I was trying to insert various “right-wing code words” into the soon-to-be sacred diversity statement.

I told her that if “tolerance” and “standards” were now “considered by the Left to be right-wing code words, then woe betide the Left.” (I remember being proud of the phrase “woe betide”; I was that kind of dork).

In any event, the moral of this story is that a lot of people think conservatives don’t mean what they say.

I was reminded of all this when I finally finished this morning a very long essay by Sam Tanenhaus in last week’s New Republic.

Tanenhaus, the author of a magnificent biography of Whittaker Chambers, is now writing a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. and I’d hate to put a bee in anyone’s bonnet on that front. Still, it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a huge fan of his treatment of conservatism.

Anyway, there’s a brief passage in Tanenaus’s essay that conjured up the spirit of the “woe betide” lady. In his review of various books about Goldwater, Reagan, and the history of the Republican party, Tanenhaus writes:

When Kennedy announced that he would protect James Meredith, who courageously broke the color barrier at the University of Mississippi, Goldwater’s challenge was direct. “We haven’t turned over to the federal government the power to run the schools,” he declared. “I don’t like segregation. But I don’t like the Constitution kicked around, either.” In the next two years the man who desegregated schools in Phoenix would become a fierce advocate of “free association” and “property rights.”

What bugs me are those quotation marks.

Tanenhaus clearly thinks free association and property rights are code words. And in the context that he’s discussing that’s a fair point. Though Tanenhaus clearly sees a lot of hypocrisy in being in favor of desegregation and property rights and free association. I don’t.

Indeed, isn’t it possible that for some followers of Goldwater, “free association” and “property rights” actually meant — oh I don’t know — free association and property rights? No quotation marks, no code words.

This is a huge peeve of mine whenever I read non-conservatives who write about conservatism. Forget Tanenhaus. Take a look at the Nation or the American Prospect, or even the New Republic on a bad day. We are constantly being told that “federalism” or “state rights” or “individualism” or “family values” or, yes, “free association” and “property rights” are really code for segregation, racism, homophobia, greed, Muppet-hating, whatever.

And sure, sometimes they may actually be code for all of those things — the Right is not immune to the natural distribution of schmucks in the population. But sometimes words actually mean what they mean.

This is, hands down, the source of my biggest arguments with very thoughtful (and occasionally very unthoughtful) liberals who disagree with what I write. Sometimes, I even hear from writers for various lefty magazines. They lecture me about how the GOP has all sorts of racist baggage from its Southern strategy, or how I must not actually believe my rhetoric about a colorblind society, federalism, etc.

Of course, this is often just a clever way to argue which is not unique to the Left. If your opponent doesn’t say anything objectively wrong, you subjectively reinterpret what he says so that it means something else.

But the Left has truly mastered this art, perhaps because they get so much practice in university English departments. After all, if you can reduce the millions of pages of the Western canon into a bumper sticker of racism, sexism, and homophobia, how hard can it be to make a conservative sound racist when he talks about a “colorblind society” or “equal opportunity”?

It may also have to do with the fact, as Hanna Arendt noted, that the Left has mastered the art of disputing facts by attacking motives. If you can’t disprove that, say, Headstart, doesn’t work, you simply say, “Anyone who says it doesn’t work is saying so because they hate poor black children.” We heard a lot of that during the 1990s. Sid Blumenthal and others, for example, have argued that anti-Communism was just an effort by closeted gays and open homophobes to punish liberal homosexuals. I’m not making that up.

But the fact remains that many conservatives actually mean what they say. They may be wrong in their analysis, they may be bad at math, they may just be too stupid to breathe without instructions — but the vast, overwhelming, super-majority of conservatives I’ve ever had a conversation with actually mean what they say when they use what the Left consider to be “right-wing code words.” They think quotas are bad for black people and they care about black people. They actually believe low taxes on the rich are good for the poor because they make the country grow faster. They think property rights and free association don’t need quotation marks.

“Aha,” the lefties say as they channel some Marxist literary theorist, “that may be so, but that doesn’t change the fact that these words have historical meanings that your conservative friends aren’t even aware of.”

To which I say, “Aha, that’s my point.” If people aren’t aware of the fact that “property rights” was once code for segregation, you can hardly accuse them of being in favor of segregation when they use the phrase “property rights.”

And if you can do that, then I want to be able to say, for example, that supporters of abortion rights are racists because Planned Parenthood was founded by a despicable eugenicist (See “Nazis vs. Conservatives“).

Look, it’s just not fair. Leftist historians are obsessed with the experience of various “marginal” groups. What was the plight of hemophiliac lesbians during the Gilded Age? How did criminally insane Asian dwarfs in the Hudson Valley react to the Boxer Rebellion? Inherent in all of these investigations is the imperative to understand the perspective of these groups — and to give it equal or higher standing to the views of the pale penis-people. But whenever conservatives are discussed, it seems to me, there’s very little effort to take their perspective at face value. And when the effort is made, invariably there’s this “You-won’t-believe-these-people-really-buy-this-crap” tone.

Tanenhaus praises Matthew Dallek (a friendly acquaintance of mine) and the other liberal historians covered in his review for their ability to see that Republican politics — with all its code words and historical agendas — is as much about the “social order” as it is about the free-market. But he oddly seems to imply that this is somehow a new insight, when it seems to me the only insight liberal commentators can be reliably counted on to make.

I think one of the reasons for this predicament is that many people on the Left need to feel that they are in a fight against evil of some kind. There’s no glee like that found in a liberal when he attacks racism. So great is this need, liberals often can find racism where it doesn’t exist. And, equipped as they are with the latest tools in deconstructionist theory, it’s not hard for liberals to find it wherever they look. If conservatives are sincere about their concern for minorities and their opposition to affirmative action, then the liberal cause is reduced to a mere public-policy debate.

The reason this bothers me so much is simple. I have no problem with people dedicating their lives to fighting racism, I just don’t like being called a racist if I disagree with them on, say, D.C. Statehood or the SAT. I have no personal problems with people who want a bloated welfare state, but I really don’t like being called a liar or greedy when I say they’re wrong.

Another reason the political Left resorts to this sort of thing is that it’s ideologically exhausted, as Tanenhaus notes. The movement that Goldwater began has climbed over the corpse of the liberal-reformist tradition that sputtered out with LBJ, thanks to arguments that still have charged batteries. And much like people who become obsessed with petty motives, so do movements. When you can no longer take arguments seriously you start looking for hidden slights and secret intentions. And when you start doing that, woe betide you too.


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