To Be a Conservative

Posted: Dec 12, 2007 12:01 AM
To Be a Conservative

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.

I believe that answers your basic question, "Why blast Rush as a loudmouth?" You also have a few other pointed questions about my antipathy to Rush's style, questions you seem to think are rhetorical: "Is it simply his personality? His bombast? His presentation? Are you offended by his assertiveness? Do you feel he lacks the proper social graces? Do you find him short on gravitas appropriate for the high calling of opinion maker? Are you that uppity?"

In a word, Yes.

Conservatism is a matter of style, and style can be all - and not just in political discourse. Someone, namely Alfred North Whitehead, once described style as the last acquirement of the educated mind - the ultimate morality of mind that pervades the whole being. Style in its best sense involves not just power but restraint, which is not the first quality that would occur to me if asked to describe Rush's rhetoric.

With another presidential campaign looming like a year-long, low-hanging cloud that shuts out all light, a little restraint would be a welcome addition to the public dialogue. It would certainly be an improvement - a step up, as in uppity - over the kind of Reality Show that now passes for political debate. Lincoln-Douglas might be too much to expect in these tasteless times, but we could at least aim for Eisenhower-Stevenson.

The way in which an argument is framed may matter more to the future of the Republic than the specific policy being defended or attacked. Scoring points, winning elections, eliciting cheers and applause, seeing conspiracies everywhere, getting your own back, passing out patronage. It may all be quite satisfying for a little, thoughtless while - like all power over others. But political tides come and go. Ideas, character, manners and morals those endure.

Despite my better self, I do enjoy Rush on occasion, bless his heart and mouth, just as I do tabloids like the Boston Herald and New York Post. Now and then, we all experience a craving for empty calories and the Daily Show, but no one should confuse a little mind candy with substance or sustenance. That way lies rhetorical indigestion, and soon enough mental sloth.

Irony is a pleasing enough style, one among many others, but all-irony-all-the-time is poisonous. It crowds out any real meaning. Much the same could be said of bluster, anger, ridicule or any other popular substitute for reasoned thought and time-tested principles.

The object of political rhetoric should be to raise the level of public discourse, not lower it. Our politics ought to be something more than a mutual exchange of insults between left and right. It ought to have a higher, more thoughtful level. If that's being uppity, I'm all for it.


Inky Wretch