The occult power of Donald Trump to expose what everyone really is continues its hard-hacked path through the jungle of modern culture.
One of the things being clarified for us is that many in the conservative Old Guard are elitists before they are anything else.
I think a lot of people knew that already. But it has taken the Trump phenomenon to make me aware of how unforgiving some of these Old Guard folks are. They really are more concerned about social solecisms – i.e., what count as social solecisms in the circles they run in – than they are about whether liberty, the pursuit of truth, and the rule of law are actually being served.
That, at least, is how they come across.
For multiple reasons, I don’t SMH so much over the progressive left when it assumes, a priori, that it has some reason to “condescend” to – oh, let’s say, at random, Trump voters.
The progressive left has a different worldview to begin with. In one sense, it is far more in sync with the Charles Murrays of the world than it would ever acknowledge, assuming that race and class dictate an individual’s prospects, and that this must be taken as a given for policy and politics.
But in another sense, the progressive left’s leadership is simplistically cynical about this – it’s a fruitful realm for political exploitation – and one knows that in advance. Someone like Murray, on the other hand, wants earnestly to study the patterns for knowledge’s sake. Tellingly, he doesn’t seem to have either the touchy arrogance of the elitist, or the politico’s (often better) sense of what matters to human affairs (i.e., not IQ patterns among the races).
Sadly, the evidence is mounting that the conservative right’s Old Guard does have the touchy, elitist arrogance – but not so much the politico’s blunt, useful sense.
George Will’s Wednesday op-ed, showcasing a new book by Alvin S. Felzenberg on William F. Buckley, Jr., presents such evidence. I’m a fan of Buckley myself – the original “WFB” – and have read Will with enjoyment for many years. But in Will’s piece, I would have been struck mainly by the remorseless peevishness and gratuitous social divisiveness, if not for the conclusion at the very end. The conclusion struck even harder.
First, however, the peevishness. Was this absolutely necessary?
Liberalism, [Lionel] Trilling declared [in 1950], was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America because conservatism was expressed merely in “irritable mental gestures.” Buckley would change that by infusing conservatism with brio, bringing elegance to its advocacy and altering the nation’s trajectory while having a grand time.
Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it…
Or this, about Communist-turned-anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers?
[WFB], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography “Witness” became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.”
Frankly, I never detected any such tone in Chambers’ Witness, and even have to wonder if Will and I read the same book. I did find the prose somewhat, oh, florid, and at times overheated, for lack of better words. But the manner of the prose wasn’t nearly as important as the book’s revelations about how young, despairing radicals like Chambers came to throw in with organized Communism. Their mental construct of inhabiting an epic “world-historical” moment was so significant to the trajectory of the 20th century that our common history cannot be understood without it.
Perhaps I read too much into Will’s aversion to “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” But he seems to imagine an army of conservative rubes plowing through Witness, and then naively adjusting all their modes of thought to it, right down to the personal tics and lifestyle perspectives. I, on the other hand, very much doubt that anyone ever did such a thing. (Rather, I would bet that many conservatives did exactly that with the example of Bill Buckley.)
For what it’s worth, Chambers was fluent in multiple languages – he worked as a translator for much of his adult life – and spoke with reminiscent fondness of the cultural contribution of classical music and literature to his impoverished, often-dysfunctional childhood. To my ear, when he excoriated snobbism and elitism, he was impugning snobbism and elitism, not college or culture.
Chambers’ social unseemliness arose in large part from the fact that he pointed out how America’s social elites dabbled in, and gave shelter to, hostile Soviet-sponsored penetration of our institutions.
And that seems to be where the fault of exposure is opening wider and wider at the moment: precisely at the complicity of Western “elites” in ideology-based schemes that deceive, harass, and eat out the substance of the people.
If I had to systematize Will’s aversion in a few words, I would put it this way. He is fine with conservatives who passionately and intelligently articulate conservative principles. But it’s uncomfortably prole and sentimental, from his perspective, to point out that the opposing leftist ideologies, when implemented, actually hurt actual people. The people who get hurt first are the non-elite. They often fail to play the harpsichord or make jokes in Latin when they’re complaining about their treatment by an ideology-infested government.
In a political sense, it is actively stupid to go out of your way to ignore their just concerns. I’m no fan of sentimental populism. But reality has overtaken the premise of 50-odd years ago that conservatism’s best role is as an abstruse debating society. So much of Americans’ liberty has been compromised, with the undermining of our constitutional guarantees and the mockery now made of the rule of law, that if conservatism doesn’t acknowledge that the crisis is already here, then conservatism is irrelevant.
I have thought for some time now that “conservatism” may be a misnomer for what today’s constitutionalist, limited-government advocacy is really about. The best role of a movement on these principles has become one of defining the crisis, to keep it from being hijacked, and to make sure that what comes out of it is based on a good and sustainable view of man’s relationship to the state.
It’s not about hanging onto an increasingly undesirable past. Who wants to have the last 25 years back? What was worth “conserving” about them? They only continued the long process of setting us up for the Obama break with the rule of law and constitutionalism.
No: the old “conservative” project is now more about a vision of shaping and defining limitations on government, and true equality of all men before an accountable law, for the future.
But Will prefers to pick out from Alvin Felzenberg’s work this tone-deaf coda to his op-ed on the Buckley legacy:
Buckley, a Bach aficionado from Yale and ocean mariner from the New York Yacht Club, was unembarrassed about having good taste and without guilt about savoring the good life.
“His true ideal,” Felzenberg writes, “was governance by a new conservative elite in which he played a prominent role.”
Eh. I think we can discount the period 2001 to 2007 – George W. Bush in the White House, Republicans holding both houses of Congress – as “governance by a new conservative elite,” in a sense Buckley might have been associated with.
But that’s really the point. Conservatives (or at least Republicans) finally managed to get governance by an elite for a few years, as the Democrats have done for most of the last century. And look where it got us.
The voters have lost patience with trying to get governance by elite to function in their interests. If that makes them scowling primitives and whining crybabies, well, they’ll have to take their chances on that. They seem to be a lot more sensible in their scowling vulgarity than the people who just keep coming up with excuses for why government must stay big, and cannot be ordered off its collectivizing course.
For my part, put me down for a scowl, a whine, and a vulgarity or two. If it helps, I’ve also met with universal appreciation as a utility alto (swelling throngs and starting a scene or two), and I wield a mean pastel crayon. If you rolled me out of a sound sleep and asked me my favorite French poet, I would not of course say anything as banal as Victor Hugo (what am I, a Yankee-rube Longfellow-memorizer?); I’d say something grad students could argue all night about, like Baudelaire.