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Politics & Policy

Civil Wars, Hot and Cold

Mona Charen at CPAC in 2018 (Gage Skidmore)

“This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read.” That’s how I begin a review, or review-essay, today. (Here.) “And it’s strange that I picked it up in the first place.” Once I started, “I couldn’t put the book down.”

All true. I’ve written about Lord of All the Dead, by Javier Cercas, a book about the Spanish Civil War. I was all done reading about that war — I really was. But Cercas sucked me back in.

Here is a little post telling a funny story — a very funny story. (Not mine.) (I merely retell it.) Here’s another little post, making a point about music, which is amusing itself (possibly).

Back to the Spanish Civil War. Reading the book by Cercas, I thought a little about America — present-day America. The boiling hatreds. Neighbor against neighbor, brother against brother. “We are not to the point of civil war — we had one of those, a while back — but I nonetheless felt a tremor or two.”

(I’ve quoted from my piece.)

On Friday, I recorded a Q&A with Mona Charen, my erstwhile podcast partner and always friend. We talk about things corona (of course). Also about politics, baking, and more.

A week ago, Kevin Williamson had a sharp post, taking issue with Mona, and also taking issue with some of her critics. One of those critics made a crack about “the coveted Mona Charen constituency.” He further said that she represents “just a very, very, very narrow slice of American conservative opinion.”

I have a few things to say.

Sir Georg Solti was one of the most famous conductors in the world, at the top of the heap for decades. He received many accolades, many ovations, many honors. He always said that the greatest compliment he ever received was a single word: bene, meaning “good” or “well done.” It was uttered to him by Toscanini, when Solti worked as an assistant to that maestro at the Salzburg Festival.

That was it: just bene. Nothing ever topped it.

When I was young, I knew a pianist who was considered a very big deal. He was lauded by one and all. There was one opinion he cared about, above all — no, not even above all, but exclusively: that of his teacher (a great musician).

Now, Mona Charen is not my teacher, but she has taught me many things, and I admire her tremendously. A good word from her would mean a great deal to me, and has. Such a word outweighs a host of others.

You no doubt could say similar things about your own life, and the people in it. There are people whose approval means a lot to you. And if others disapprove — well, so be it.

(You also remember the wonderful old saying, “One with God is a majority.”)

Like anyone else, I have my ego and ambitions. I guess I’d rather be a rock star than a leading bassoonist on the chamber circuit. But I don’t know. Sometimes you are a minority taste, whether you like it or not. A significant question is: Who’s your minority?

If the world blows raspberries at you, but you have enthusiastic notes from Bill Buckley, Paul Johnson, Robert Conquest, George Will . . . that’s all you need, certainly if you’re a conservative writer. To ask for more would be, among other things, ungrateful.

Mona Charen began her career working for Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan. She is a scourge of dictatorship, raising the flag for freedom, democracy, and human rights. She is also a scourge of dictatorship’s apologists. (See, for example, her book Useful Idiots.)

She is an advocate of a free economy, understanding such an economy to be the greatest enemy that poverty ever knew. And she is — remember these? — a social conservative. She believes, for example, that character in office matters. A lot.

Twenty years ago, Peggy Noonan wrote a book called “When Character Was King.” It’s about Reagan.

More recently — in 2018 — Mona published Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense. I would submit that there is more conservatism in one paragraph of that book than there is in any number of Trump rallies, let’s say.

Of course, it depends on what you mean by “conservatism.” The word has been battered lately, the way “liberalism” was, crucially, sometime in the mid 20th century. Who’s a conservative? Bannon, Burke? Lincoln, Le Pen (any of them)? I agree with Terry Teachout, who wrote the other day, “I don’t think the word is going to have any intelligible meaning going forward from here.”

Mona’s critic, cited by Kevin, and me, above, says that Mona represents “just a very, very, very narrow slice of American conservative opinion.” I think you may be looking at a very or two too many. Granted, right-wing populism and various illiberalisms are riding high. They are certainly very loud. But I get a lot of mail, from people unlikely to “comment” or tweet (or complain to employers). I don’t say that this is a silent majority. Would that it were. But if we met, we would need more than a phone both — maybe a good-sized high-school gym.

A couple of years ago, I was on a panel with people who are very confident about what conservatism is, and is not. They said that John McCain and Mitt Romney were not conservatives — but Donald J. Trump, yes.

I thought of them last week as I listened to Trump: “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total. And that’s the way it’s got to be.” This goes with “Article II allows me to do whatever I want,” etc. I also thought of Mitt Romney and CPAC.

In a column last month, I made some points about this. Suffice it to say now that CPAC’s chairman made clear that Romney was unwelcome at the 2020 conference. “We won’t credential him as a conservative,” he said. (The concept of CPAC as credentialer is interesting.) The chairman added, “I would actually be afraid for his physical safety, people are so mad at him.”

Once the conference was underway, Alex Jones, the InfoWars man, weighed in. “He’s a Republican in name only, a RINO,” said Jones of Romney. (InfoWars as credentialer of Republicans is interesting.) “And I’m proud of CPAC telling him not to come here.”

At last, Donald Trump himself took the stage, hugging the American flag, literally, as has become his tradition at CPAC. (We conservatives would ralph if a Democrat pulled this stunt. We would probably do the same if any other Republican did it. Only Trump is exempt.) The president called Romney a “low-life,” twice.

Mona Charen appeared at CPAC in 2018. Caused a stir. She is still causing them, in some quarters. So is David French, so are other stubborn Reaganites. (David says he has been a Reagan conservative since the age of 14. He watches others evolve, embracing all sorts of isms, and feels very — well, conservative, is one word for it. Practically square!)

Last summer, I wrote an essay called “May I See Your ID? On ‘conservative’ and other contentious identities.” (Go here.) I wrote it so that I would not have to write such an article again. I pretty much poured what I feel and believe into it. But here am I again, in this long — disgracefully long — post: sucked back in, as by Cercas into the Spanish Civil War. A presidential candidate once spoke of a “giant sucking sound.” With that, I’m out . . .


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