Conservatism and community, &c.

President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush in the Treaty Room at the White House in 1987 (National Archives)
On Reaganism, populism, baseball, a girl named Zaila, and more

There has been some buzz about friendship lately, occasioned by a poll. A poll? Well, a survey, showing that friendships in America are on the decline. David French has written a column about this, and a powerful column it is: “Lost Friendships Break Hearts and Nations.”

I thought back to 20 years ago (almost). Digby Anderson, a Brit who contributed frequently to National Review, wrote a slim volume on friendship. “Losing Friends,” it was called. You can tell by the title that he, too, was worried about decline.

I reviewed this book for the January 28, 2002, issue of NR. Do you happen to have a copy of that issue lying around? You don’t? Not to worry: My friend and colleague Chris McEvoy has made my review available online, here. The title of the review is “A Love and a Virtue.” Aristotle described friendship as both “a love” and “a virtue.”

Anyway, I was very impressed with Anderson’s book. Beautiful piece of thinking and writing (with liberal doses of scholarship).

In the last several years, I’ve noticed something: The populist Right — the nationalist Right, the “post-liberal” Right, all that crowd — is blaming Reagan conservatives and classical liberals for the fraying of communities and society. The Left has been accusing us of this for generations. But the Right is in on the act too, in a big way.

Let me assure you: I never prevented the formation of any friendship. I never prevented the formation of any marriage or family. Me likey friendship. Me likey marriage and family.

You know what I mean?

If people screw those things up, they are responsible — not me, or Reagan, or Thatcher, or Buckley, or Uncle Miltie (not Berle, Friedman).

What’s more, we Reagan-Thatcher types have always been hot on civil society, and a lot hotter than most, frankly. We cherish platoon after platoon after platoon. And you will recall that Vice President Bush, accepting the Republican presidential nomination, hailed “points of light.”

I will quote:

This is America: the Knights of Columbus, the Grange, Hadassah, the Disabled American Veterans, the Order of Ahepa, the Business and Professional Women of America, the union hall, the Bible study group, LULAC, Holy Name — a brilliant diversity, spread like stars. Like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.

Bush continued,

Does government have a place? Yes. Government is part of our nation of communities — not the whole, just a part.

Well said, GHWB.

His son, GWB, promoted an “ownership society”: a society in which people could own property and have a greater say over their health care, education, retirement, etc. Senator Hillary Clinton derided the “ownership society” as an “on-your-own society.”

George W. Bush’s successor as president, Barack Obama, repeatedly caricatured conservative philosophy as “You’re on your own.” He said it over and over and over again. Republicans didn’t like it. Until they did.

In 2018, Senator Marco Rubio denounced “the radical you’re-on-your-own individualism promoted by our government and by our society in the last 30 years.”

Did government and society really promote a “radical you’re-on-your-own individualism” for 30 years? Not that I ever noticed, and not that anyone else ever noticed, so far as I’m aware. This was all made up, after the fact. It is surreal.

The best answer — short answer — I ever heard to this “on your own” business was given by George W. Bush. The occasion was the opening of his presidential center, in 2013. The living ex-presidents and their wives were assembled behind him. That meant that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, among others, were listening. Bush said,

Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.


When the Left and the Right tell you that conservatism, as it was understood in America until two seconds ago, is responsible for social decay, tell ’em — in words we used in the 1990s — “You must have smoked something, and you must have inhaled.”

• Above, I mentioned David French’s column on friendship. He uses a phrase I had never heard before: “faction friendships.” These friendships provide a sense of “community” and “purpose,” he says. But they are also “fragile.”

They depend on an extraordinary degree of agreement and conformity. I’ve experienced this myself. Many of us have. Friendships built up through years of engagement in politics and activism vanished in the blink of a tweet.

“You’re not with us? Then we’re not with you.”

Oh, yes. I could sing a few verses of that song. Very, very painful stuff. Still smarting . . .

(“Git on the Trump Train or git crushed,” went the expression. “Crushed” was right.)

• Like Marco Rubio and many others, J.D. Vance has undergone a remarkable transformation since 2016. In a piece published on the Fourth of July that year, Vance wrote,

Trump is cultural heroin. He makes some feel better for a bit. But he cannot fix what ails them, and one day they’ll realize it.

I think that is all true, except for the last part. In any event, Vance is now running for office — for Senate in Ohio. This GOP primary contest, like almost all such contests, is essentially a Trump-off: Who is the Trumpiest of them all? Vance? Josh Mandel? Someone else?

On Friday, Vance tweeted,

I can’t get over how many weak-willed “conservatives” defend the right of “private companies” to censor US citizens. Wake up.

You can talk about the quote marks around “conservatives.” You can talk about the quote marks around “private companies.” You can talk about the historic relationship between conservatism and property rights. But I want to talk about will for a minute — as in “weak-willed.” Wherever there is nationalist-populist politics, there is emphasis on will: a strong will, a weak will, what have you. Watch it.

You also have “general will,” as in Rousseau. Is that so different from “common good,” the phrase that now trips from Rubio et al.?

• Zaila Avant-garde? Holy smokes. This 14-year-old from Louisiana just won the National Spelling Bee. And she holds three Guinness world records, in the field of basketball dribbling. A prodigy and a half. A prodigy times ten.

Her winning word was “murraya.” I’m afraid I kept thinking of puns, from musical theater: “They call the wind murraya.” “I’ll never stop saying murraya.” “How do you solve a problem like murraya?” (Okay, I’ll stop.)

Did you ever see a documentary called “Spellbound”? It came out in 2002, and it’s about the bee. Marvelous film. And so American. Donald Rumsfeld told me that, if he could present America in one film, it’d be that.

For many years now — more than ten — Indian Americans have dominated the bee. A comedian named Hari Kondabolu has just made a video about this: about a streak brought to an end, by Miss Avant-garde. Read about it, and see it, here. Fantastic.

Are there any common words that you can’t spell? Or that you pause over? I’ll give you a couple of mine. Almost all of mine have to do with double letters — double versus single. Here are two of my trouble words: vacuum and raccoon. I have to look up those bad boys regularly. Irritating.

• There is an old saying, which apparently originates with Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland. In the House of Commons, he said, “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” This is one of the most conservative utterances on record.

I thought of it when George F. Will published a column advocating changes in baseball. Believe me, he would not advocate them lightly. So he really got my attention (here).

• Stick with baseball a moment. I’m reading an obit headed “John Clem Clarke, a Pop Art Perennial in SoHo, Dies at 83.” All of a sudden, I get this:

He and his former studio assistant, Jane Purucker, married in 1979 and divorced in 2003. (Ms. Clarke later married the Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax.)

Didn’t see that one comin’.

• “Iran’s doomsday clock for Israel’s end halts amid power cuts.” The subheading of that article: “Public timer, which is set to mark destruction of Jewish state in 2040 as predicted by Khamenei, reportedly stops working amid rolling blackouts that are crippling Iranian life.”

This articulate was circulated by Haviv Rettig Gur, the writer for the Times of Israel. And I loved — loved — his comment:

As my mother has been telling me since grade school, you don’t run a doomsday clock without an emergency generator. Any idiot knows that.

Thank you, everyone, and bless you. Have a good week.

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