Impromptus

Sweet freedom of conscience, &c.

President Trump talks to reporters as he stands with Republican Senate leaders on Capitol Hill, January 9, 2019. (Jim Young/Reuters)
On senators and impeachment; closet cases; Yale and art history; and more

On the right, I hear a particular line: Republican senators have no choice but to defend the president all the way. He has boxed them in, by conceding no error whatsoever in his handling of relations with Ukraine. He was “perfect,” he says. Therefore, other Republicans have to agree. They are not free to say, “What the president did was wrong but, in my view, does not rise to the level of impeachment.” They are forced to say, “Hoax,” “Witch hunt,” etc.

Yet this is untrue. The president cannot make one senator do anything. Each was independently elected. Each swore an oath to defend the Constitution, not to defend a particular man. Each could think, speak, and act independently, if he wanted to: but he would have to want to. No senator is boxed in by anything, except perhaps a lack of spine.

You know what one of the sweetest freedoms of all is? Freedom of conscience.

“But what if a senator winds up losing his seat?” you might ask. So? Worse comes to worst, he’ll have to sit on a few corporate boards. He will not be shipped off to a gulag.

This is America.

(You recall Caddyshack, of course: “Oh, Danny, this isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia, is it? I didn’t think so.”)

• Two kinds of people come out to me: conservatives who live and work in left-wing environments; and anti-Trump conservatives who live and work in right-wing environments. I was reminded of this by recent comings out.

In other words, you’ve got closeted conservatives in left-wing environments, and closeted anti-Trump conservatives in right-wing environments. Are there closeted liberals in conservative environments? No doubt.

Such a shame. I wish people could be open about their politics, in these United States. I again ask (or the Chevy Chase character asks): “Is this Russia?” No one should have to breathe an illiberal atmosphere in America.

• As I have noted before, nationalists and populists on the right have learned a neat trick: What until two seconds ago was basic American conservatism, in the realm of economics, they label “libertarian.” More and more, this trick is succeeding, I’m sorry to say. And more and more, nationalists and populists are succeeding in equating American conservatism with European rightism. For generations, they have been two very different things.

As Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University says, the role of the American conservative, traditionally speaking, has been to defend the liberal tradition. Conservatives stood up for the Founders, not Franco.

To be continued . . .

• The year is still young, but Jonah Goldberg has written, perhaps, the essay of the year: here. I could quote and comment on everything, but will content myself with two or three paragraphs — beginning with,

Political scientists have been documenting for a while now that in this age of polarization, ideological and partisan affiliation is mapping across society in ways once reserved solely for race, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Conservatism is becoming an identity.

“It is never long,” Leon Wieseltier once observed, “before identity is reduced to loyalty.”

Oh, yes. Jonah continues,

And while loyalty is vital in foxholes, friendships, and families, it is often poisonous to the frank exchange of ideas.

Have another paragraph of Jonah, before I bring in WFB (William F. Buckley Jr.):

. . . conservatism is anti-utopian and offers only a partial theory of how to live. Political conservatism doesn’t have a lot to say on what you should eat or wear, or what movies you should love. I don’t think one need go as far as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who said “it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” I think there’s some inconsistency if you’re radical in religion, culture, etc., but not in respect of government or politics. But you can see the point. Conservatism, at its heart, is comfortable with contradiction . . .

I of course think of Bill Buckley, who in 1967 said to Time magazine, “I feel I qualify spiritually and philosophically as a conservative, but temperamentally I am not of the breed.”

(That was for sure — and I’m glad of it!)

• One thing WFB was — maybe the primary thing — was a writer. Do you know this passage, from Raymond Aron?

To me, loyalty to one party has never been a decision of fundamental importance. . . . According to the circumstances, I am in agreement or disagreement with the action of a given movement or a given party. . . . Perhaps such an attitude is contrary to the morality (or immorality) of political action; it is not contrary to the obligations of the writer.

I admired this essay by George Packer, published last week: “The Enemies of Writing.” The following sentence arrested me, for it sings my song — a song I have been singing in recent years: “. . . writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives.”

Yes, yes. More and more, readers treat writers like politicians, and it’s the writers’ fault: because they act like politicians. They cultivate constituencies. They put their finger to the wind. They play to the gallery. They deliver applause lines.

Hell, I may have delivered a few myself.

More than once, I have listened to colleagues — on panels, podcasts, and such — and said, “Are you running for office?”

(I am increasingly unelectable, by anyone, for anything, anywhere. Maybe that makes me more of a writer . . .)

(On Twitter, someone once said to me, “Do you realize you’ve offended millions of voters?” Yeah, so? On a panel I moderated, a conservative activist once said that George F. Will was “out of touch with the rank and file.” Who is he supposed to be, Hugo Chávez? No, he is no one but himself.)

• This may be the most important news of the month, despite impeachment, war and peace, and many other things: “Art History Department to scrap survey course.” That is a headline from the Yale Daily News. The article begins,

Yale will stop teaching a storied introductory survey course in art history, citing the impossibility of adequately covering the entire field — and its varied cultural backgrounds — in one course.

Decades old and once taught by famous Yale professors like Vincent Scully, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present” was once touted to be one of Yale College’s quintessential classes. But this change is the latest response to student uneasiness over an idealized Western “canon” — a product of an overwhelmingly white, straight, European and male cadre of artists.

Okay, but get this:

While concerns about the class’s singular focus in Western art has led to its cancellation, student enrollment in [the class] skyrocketed this semester after the department’s plan was announced. Over 400 students shopped the class last week, though the course is capped at 300 . . .

There is hunger for the good stuff — and administrators and others would deprive students of the good stuff. They themselves had it, when they were in college: Homer, Shakespeare, Bach, Leonardo, and so on. They were well fed. But they would deny this food to others, which is, among other things, mean.

“This may be the most important news of the month . . .” Why did I say that, above? I’m thinking of the long term. In a sense, this is the ballgame: whether Western civilization is worth defending and appreciating or not. Whether we will commit suicide or build on the glorious, if obviously flawed (because human), heritage we have been given.

• “Michael Karkoc, Exposed as a War Criminal, Is Dead at 100.” For that obit, go here. As you do not have to be told, a long life is no proof of virtue.

• “Michael I. Sovern, Who Led Columbia in Eventful Era, Dies at 88.” Go here. I met him at a dinner one night. I wanted to quiz him about one thing: his debate prep with Walter Mondale (a former student of his) in 1984. He played Reagan. Great tales, Sovern had to tell. I wish I had had a tape recorder running!

• Republicans like to say that the liberal media have them “pouncing” all the time: A Democrat will slip up in some fashion, and Republicans will “pounce,” according to headline-writers.

Well, lookie here, from the New York Times: “Trump Tries to Walk Back Entitlement Comments as Democrats Pounce.”

• Over the years, you get many strange or interesting things from readers, in the mail — I’m talking about the U.S. Mail, not e-mail. Even now. Last week, I got a thank-you card. It was not signed. And there was no proper return address: just a city, a state, and a zip code. (Valparaiso, Ind.) The card said,

Dear Mr. Nordlinger,

Please take time to study the numbers and scenarios with global carbon emissions and use your position to help the National Review address this topic with the seriousness it deserves.

I will put in a word — but ask for something in return: No “the” before “National Review,” please! (We’ve been saying this since 1955, with limited success.)

• End with a little language? I was watching University Challenge, the British quiz show. One team did not know an answer — could not even guess. Its captain said, “We haven’t a scooby.” A what? A clue, an idea. The team didn’t have a clue.

A scooby. I like it.

Thank you, everyone, and see you!

If you’d like to receive Impromptus by e-mail — links to new columns — write to jnordlinger@nationalreview.com.

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