Paul Greenberg

Dear Dittohead,

It was wholly a pleasure to hear from you, even though yours was not exactly a fan letter. But we learn most from our critics, and you gave me a chance to think on what it is to be a conservative in these raucous times. It seems I'm not a true conservative by your lights because I dared criticize Rush Limbaugh in passing, specifically his brash, take-no prisoners approach to political rhetoric.

It won't matter to true believers like yourself that I did so in the course of defending Rushbo against those who want to ban him from Armed Forces Radio. (Censorship is the first resort of those who have no real rebuttal.) Do I have to praise Rush without reservation, vulgarity and all, to avoid being read out of conservative ranks?

The whole idea of conservative ranks, like talk about a "conservative movement," raises problems for those of us who think of conservatism as an individual inclination rather than a mass movement with its own party line, litmus tests and infallible oracles on the order of Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and, Lord help us, Ann Coulter.

I gladly plead guilty to being ideologically unreliable, for ideology itself seems to me the antithesis of conservatism, which is a preference for lived experience over abstract theory.

Right-wing and conservative are not synonyms. Right-wing and left-wing are just labels used to describe someone's position on the ever-shifting political spectrum of right, left and center. Conservatism is an attitude, a disposition, not a party program. It's an approach to the world marked by a respect and even reverence for the past. It is the perspective of Burke and Tocqueville, Marcus Aurelius and Ecclesiastes. I don't believe I'd put Rush Limbaugh in that conservative company. Rush is definitely right-wing, not necessarily conservative.

What marks the conservative, or should, is a regular recurrence to first things, permanent things, and an awareness that there is much in the past worth conserving. Conservatism, or at least my definition of it, does not lend itself to the broadcast media with its sound bites and Gotcha putdowns. It needs the printed word, the formal address, the thoughtful conversation and well-mannered debate in order to flourish. To reduce it to talk-show patter is to reduce it to nothing, however flashy.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.