A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Monday, June 21, 2004 :::
Do Young Conservatives Know Anything?

A number of years ago, perhaps five or ten, a woman who wrote for the National Review and worked around conservatives wrote a short column marking a generational change. Younger conservatives, she noted, were as well versed in popular culture as anyone else their age, but seemed unschooled in history and traditional culture. Now, as a Burkean conservative who listens to the blues more than classical music, a certain pudgy, balding English teacher may plead guilty to being the forerunner to that kind of conservative, although her point is clear enough. A Mind That Suits took piano lessons as a child, and has an extensive collection of classical music. He also is well versed in history, philosophy, and science. (Truth tell, he listens to Gregorian chant far more than he listens to either Bach or the Beatles these days and he prays in Latin.) Younger conservatives, she maintained, probably didn’t walk around with that back catalogue of classical culture in their heads.

A highly respected friend demurred on that judgment, which prompted the following thoughts.

That conservatives are even aware of pop culture is in itself good. When the National Review was the only game in town, its official “The Week” editorial section was fully capable of running sentences that ran something like this: “John Lennon, leader of the British “rock” music band, the “Beatles”...” and, no, that is not an exaggeration. (As A Mind That Suits is a “Beatles expert,” according to the Weekly Standard (click here and scroll down), he feels it might be necessary to highlight the silliness of saying the Beatles even had a leader, which they certainly did not. They practiced Mutual Assured Destruction as a management style.)

So the day when conservative publications felt free to just say “John Lennon” was welcome for what were then the younger generation of conservatives.

Actually, though the National Review is an old friend whose fortnightly visits are still eagerly anticipated, the day when one could say “conservative publications” with an “s” on the end was even more welcome.

But has this comfort with the tastes of hoi polloi gone to far? One self-styled young fogey described how his colleagues eagerly awaited the arrival of the latest CD from Eminem. Now, it is true that youngish Marshall Mathers is free from leftwing cant and revels, if that is the word, in the natural differences between men and women. But he is Rousseau’s worst onanistic fantasy. He rejects all moral and societal controls on his animal appetites. He is a social disease, and not someone who springs to mind as a conservative hero.

More to the point raised by the woman, if young conservatives are so immersed in popular taste, do they maintain the connection with older culture, the very hallmark of conservatism?

There are probably several answers. One is that conservatives are now much more involved in running the government, which naturally leads to a preoccupation with present days matters. And conservatives who cut their teeth in government service and then switch over to writing carry that presentism with them. The present—whichever present one lives in—is at war with conservativism as an instinct, so that is surely part of it.

But the honest truth is, conservatives have always had to educate themselves. A certain pudgy, balding English teacher prides himself on having marched to the beat of different drummer in college, majoring in Classics and sneaking away to read The Conservative Mind and The Road to Serfdom, which means the truth is he acquired most of his conservative education on his own. He has always said that he educated by the National Review. That storied publication is a different creature today than it was under the even more storied William F. Buckley, Jr., but one can still get much profit from the book review section and its news commentaries. There is also, one must add, the scintillating review section run by J. Bottum over at The Weekly Standard, and all of First Things.

A Mind That Suits has recently reacquired the habit of reading the Times Literary Supplement. He discovered that publication thanks to an article in the National Review, and for much of his twenties he read every issue religiously and deliberately, twice through. He would not part with one until each article had a check with another line through it signifying a second perusal. It is perhaps the only thing he ever did systematically. He can’t keep up that standard anymore, and eschews literary reviews in any form, but the TLS has kept its standards, and its reviews are so very informative.

Are young conservatives pursuing that kind of self-education? A good question. Despite the horror of most academic history programs, such old fashioned histories as Ron Chernow’s magisterial study of Alexander Hamilton are immensely popular. That testifies to the huge appetite out there for real history, which involves biography, ideas, cold hard facts, and thoughtful writing. With all due respect to those on the Left, the market on that side of the aisle cannot be so great for books about anything that happened much before 1960, so, perhaps young conservatives are getting their education.

But they might want to look into the Times Literary Supplement. It’s like getting a second BA.

There are two caveats: One is that conservatism has simply gotten very big, leading to a certain intellectual flabbiness. Far, far too much ink and way too many pixels have been wasted over some comment made by some conservative over dinner the other night, hardly news as he put it into his column on another conservative website, where he quoted the chap who quoted him. Documents are the essence of good reporting, and it might not have taken conservatives so long to understand what was happening in Iraq if they had skipped a meal or two and poured over Congressional testimony.

The other is that, frankly, conservatives are not the storehouse of wisdom about Islam that they were about Communism. They certainly have a whole raft of sunny interpretations of Islam that they have come up with and passed around the table at conferences. It is not at all clear that their own ideas bear any relation to ones held by actual Muslims, or that actual Muslims who might agree constitute a majority.

There was a real discussion started in the wake of 9/11, but that came to a screeching halt with the Iraq war. The three major publications of conservatism marched in lockstep up to the beginning of the war, and it was decided sometime, somehow, somewhere that one simply asserted that democracy could take root in any soil. As Mr. Buckley pleaded some months ago, we should not make a fetish of democracy in any case, and instead be concerned with good government and security, however achieved. But the relationship of Islam and democratic principles takes deep thought and deep reading, deep reading of texts that make one deeply uncomfortable.

Following 9/11, this writer read two or three books on the classical doctrine of jihad . If he sees one more statement about how highjackers and suicide bombers cannot be good Muslims because they spent a night at a strip joint, he will tear whatever magazine he is reading in half. Those out on jihad are free from many strictures of shari’a (religious law) while in the dar-al-Harb, because the burden of resisting temptation in the dar-al-Harb are simply too great. And what is the dar-al-Harb? “The world of war,” that is, the non-Islamic world, that is, us.

Conservatives should also know that last bit by now.

The division of the world into “the world of submission (Islam)” and “the world of war” bears an eerie resemblance to the “zones of peace” and “zones of war” of Leninism. Southern Russia and Ukraine were controlled by Muslims for 250 years or so—they call it “the Tartar yoke.” Much has been made of communist theory being based on Christianity; it would be interesting if Bolshevik strategy came from another religious source. That seems like a fruitful topic for a conservative historian of ideas to work through.

To raise Bolshevism is to remember that it was the Right that paid attention to what the totalitarians actually believed, even as moderates and Leftists said that to even mention the reality was war-mongering. With very few exceptions, it really cannot be said that conservatives have grasped the current nettle firmly enough. But they must, if they are to remain conservative.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 2:53 PM



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