The upside of being stuck in the car is listening to AM radio, and then, when that stops being an upside (right around 3 p.m. Eastern), listening to music.
Which brings us to a problem that has long bedeviled conservatives: The commies have all the best songs.
With profuse apologies to the ghost of Joe Strummer, I was somewhere between Whole Foods and the dry cleaner when the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” came up on my playlist. It is probably my favorite Clash song, and, as is the case with any halfway self-respecting child of the 1980s, the Clash looms large on my greatest-of-all-time list. “The only band that matters,” their promoters boasted, and that wasn’t too far from the truth.
“Spanish Bombs” is pure left-wing propaganda, connecting the romantic elements of the Spanish Civil War (Federico García Lorca! Abraham Lincoln Brigade!) with equally romanticized nods to the left-wing heroes of the late 1970s, IRA terrorists in the United Kingdom and Marxist revolutionaries in Latin America. Of course, it’s all a little vague — vaguer is better for songs like that — but it adds up to something evocative:
Spanish songs in Andalusia:
The shooting sites in the days of ’39
Oh please leave the vendetta open:
Federico Lorca is dead and gone. . . .
The hillsides ring with “Free the People”
Or can I hear the echo from the days of ’39?
With trenches full of poets, the ragged army
Fixing bayonets to fight the other line.
There was a time, long after the last battle had been fought, when how one stood on the Spanish Civil War remained a lively political question, even for those who’d never set foot in Spain. For the Left, the answer was easy: “We were fighting fascism!” Of course, the Left always says “We’re fighting fascism!” even when they’re firebombing Kentish homosexual journalists or physically assaulting mild-mannered intellectuals. But in that case, the Left really was fighting fascism, in the form of Francisco Franco and the authoritarian movement associated with him. (If you are preparing to send me an essay on how Generalissimo Franco was really coopting the Falangists and cleverly turning Adolf Hitler to his own ends, please, please don’t bother — I’ve already read it.) It was easy to be anti-Franco. Even some of the pro-Franco people were anti-Franco, because of what Franco was fighting against and who the romantics in those “trenches full of poets” were in effect fighting for: the Soviet Union, the central force in a worldwide totalitarian conspiracy that murdered 100 million people over the course of the 20th century. There were an awful lot of officers with Russian names among those Spanish “patriot” forces.
You can put the relevant part of a left-wing argument into a really good punk song: “Spanish Bombs,” “Kill the Poor,” “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.” The right-wing version of “Spanish Bombs” wouldn’t be a pop song at all — it would be a French novel about moral compromise in a situation presenting a choice between two great and undeniable evils. (Ask a genuine winger who his favorite living novelist is, and you’re bound to get Michel Houellebecq for an answer.) And it wouldn’t even necessarily be right-wing: Even an old Communist such as Graham Greene or an iconoclastic socialist such as George Orwell could produce novels about the ugly realities of politics that make conservatives shake their heads in sadness simultaneous with recognition, in much the same way that the golden age of Hollywood saw an enormous number of biblical epics and moving patriotic paeans made by outright Reds. In our time, great artists may have a liberal bias, but great art does not. Great art, like Russell Kirk’s conservatism, negates ideology.
William F. Buckley Jr. scoffed at American progressivism as the ideology of “free false teeth,” i.e., the belief that wherever there is want, it is the duty of the state to provide. Do progressives favor free false teeth? Yes, of course. Do conservatives also want impoverished grandmothers to have false teeth? “Well, it’s not that we don’t want grandmothers to have false teeth, but somebody has to pay for those false teeth, and you have to consider the opportunity cost and what they might have done with that money otherwise, and what the false-teeth subsidy will do to incentives and the long-term capital structure of the artificial-dental-implant markets, dentistry-related questions of moral hazard, interstate dental standards, and, hey, have you read Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth? Because it has some really interesting things to say about . . . ”
You can put the relevant part of a left-wing argument into a really good punk song.
You’ll never make the top 40 with that.
In 2016, conservatism underwent a kind of intellectual flattening with the rise of “binary choice” rhetoric. You’ll be familiar with the general outline of that approach: If you weren’t all in for Donald Trump, then you were effectively all in for Hillary Rodham Clinton — it’s to the wall for one or to the wall for the other. That’s not an especially intelligent line of argument, but it is one that has found some favor on some parts of the populist Right. If God were to smite Donald Trump’s Washington tomorrow, the last thing Sean Hannity would say before being turned into a pillar of salt would be: “But what about Neil Gorsuch?”
Notwithstanding the criticism of English rock stars, the anti-Communists were not wrong to prefer the likes of Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet to the Moscow-backed forces arrayed against them. But they would have been wrong to mistake them for good men. The problem repeats itself throughout history: George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson are not available for service in Afghanistan or Syria — so which of the sundry sons of bitches on the ground shall our favor rest upon?
If the answer comes to you as easily as humming a catchy tune, you probably have the wrong answer.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.