My brand of conservatism, reiterated

His Lordship and Mr. Carson are both conservative.

His Lordship and Mr. Carson are both conservative.

This was originally written as a reply to something Bud said on a previous post, but I got sufficiently carried away with it that I thought I’d turn it into a separate post…

Bud says my definition [of the word “conservative”] is 19th century, seeming to imply it’s hopelessly passé, but here’s the thing: As he also notes, people who call themselves “conservative” use it to mean very different things. That means the definition is up for grabs, and my version is at least as valid as anyone else’s. I assert that it is far MORE valid, as it is the correct one. Precedent is on my side.

DA3_ss-violet-char-01_crop_648x327Tradition, of course, is something that true conservatives embrace. When you read the word, try to imagine it being pronounced as Maggie Smith does on “Downton Abbey” (our dialect coach on “Pride and Prejudice” told us to use her as our model). A couple of episodes back, she said the word with such emphasis that she practically whistled on the “sh” sound — “trah-DISH-shun.” Hear, hear, I thought. Quite right. Capital, capital…

Anyway, observe the dowager countess — SHE is conservative. (Although she seems to possess an adaptability that her son does not.)

Another way to look at it is the way I did in this 2008 column, “Give me that old-time conservatism,” which I essentially wrote to defend John McCain from the so-called conservatives in his party who disapproved of him. An excerpt:

By now some of you think I have it in for all things “conservative.” I don’t. I just grew up with a different concept of it from that which has in recent years been appropriated by extremists. I grew up in a conservative family — a Navy family, as a matter of fact. To the extent that “conservative ideas” were instilled in me, they weren’t the kind that make a person fume over paying his taxes, or get apoplectic at the sound of spoken Spanish. They were instead the old-fashioned ones: Traditional moral values. Respect for others. Good stewardship. Plain speaking.
And finally, the concept that no passing fancy, no merely political idea, is worth as much as Duty, Honor and Country.

A young John McCain with his parents, under a monument to his grandfather.

A young John McCain with his parents, under a monument to his grandfather.

Note the capitalization of virtues, which was me, as editorial page editor, demonstrating that I didn’t have to follow AP style when I didn’t bloody feel like it. It was a way of deliberately evoking an older style of writing, a traditional style, of visibly rejecting the tyranny of modernity. When I read that now, I think, hear, hear. Quite right. Capital, capital.

Bottom line, I consider myself much more conservative than these radicals running around with their snake flags railing against the very existence of one of our bedrock institutions, our government.

Imagine me “harrumphing” now.

Tom Branson is NOT a conservative.

Tom Branson is NOT a conservative.

25 thoughts on “My brand of conservatism, reiterated

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Then, of course, there are the neoconservatives, who believe in using military power to assert liberal values in the world. There was nothing, for instance, conservative about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was a Wilsonian enterprise, based in optimism about what government could do in the face of intractable challenges abroad.

    I tend to agree with the neos on international affairs.

    In fact… while I can’t be a liberal today, I would have been happy being one during the Kennedy administration. On the other hand, I think I would have been comfortable being a conservative during the Eisenhower administration. Basically, I would just be more comfortable in the middle of the last century. Which I suppose makes me reactionary.

  2. bud

    Reactionary indeed. As we’ve discussed here numerous times I tend to think people have this romanticised notion of what the middle of the 20th century was like. The very fact that men always wore hats and woman alway wore long dresses in any situation remotely “formal” makes me want to reject the whole era between 1935 and 1962 out of hand. Not sure why any thoughful person would want to return to that overly stuffy and suffocating era.

    1. Dave Crockett

      I think the romance of the mid-20th Century was captured by Sheldon Hamick’s little ditty “The Merry Minuet” popularized by the Kingston Trio during that shining period, observing in part:

      But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
      For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud
      And we know for certain that some lucky day
      Someone will set the spark off and we will all be blown away

      Yes, those were good times…. And just think, since then we’ve even managed to extend the list of ways we may end our collective existence.

        1. Steve Gordy

          Sheldon Harnick also penned one of my favorite Broadway lyrics:
          Lord who made the lion and the lamb
          You decreed I should be what I am
          Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?
          If I were a wealthy man?

  3. JasonG

    I agree.

    I think the older type of conservatism, of Eisenhower and the fictional Carson & Grantham is one that not only had privileges, but regarded its obligations at least as important as its privileges.

    The modern GOP is a classical liberal party in practice. Real conservatives get drummed out of it – see Inglis.

  4. bud

    I had a thought the other day about the decades. What movies qualify as THE quintessential movies for the decade. The 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s seem easy and maybe the 80s also. But I’m really stumped on the 90s and 00s. My definition of what makes a quintessential movie for a particular decade are fairly straighforward. It has to be a movie made in the decade in question that portrays that decade accurately. The easiest of all decades is the 70s. What other movie illustrates the dress, culture and emotions of the 1970 better than Saturday Night Fever. For the 40s I chose Casablanca; the 50s – Rebel Without a Cause; the 60s – The Graduate; and the 80s – Wallstreet. I had Gone with the Wind for the 30s but realized it was a period movie about the Civil War so it’s out. Anyone have any ideas?

    1. Silence

      1990’s would be 1997’s “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman (of The Graduate fame).
      For the 2000’s it would almost certainly be 2004’s “Team America: World Police”

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I didn’t like “Wag the Dog.” I had heard it was supposed to be awesome, and was let down. I didn’t find it either true or funny. Sometimes dark humor clicks; sometimes it doesn’t. I liked Hoffman better in “I Heart Huckabee’s,” as odd as it was.

        Another political movie that let me down… “Ides of March.” I had heard from people whose opinion I trusted that it was GREAT, and I found it pretty pedestrian (although, of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman was great). As corny and silly as it was in parts, I much preferred Primary Colors. “Apple fritter?”

        A movie that actually did what I think Ides of March was trying to do was “The Candidate,” with Robert Redford. That said something fresh about power and politics, and did it well.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    Bud, you’re absolutely right on The Graduate. Even though it has a lot of competition — the 60s was a decade that was fascinated with itself — that’s the quintessential one.

    Casablanca is ONE correct answer for the 40s. If you looked at the latter half of the decade, though, it might be something like The Third Man, or The Best Years of Our Lives. Although those aren’t the parts of the decade we like to remember. I don’t, anyway.

    I’m not sure Rebel Without a Cause really captured the era, as most people experienced it. To me, some cheesy sci-fi flick like The Blob at least captures the style and feel and aesthetic of the times.

    Saturday Night Fever — OK. I recently learned that was Gene Siskel’s favorite movie. But I prefer to remember the decade through a film made in 2000, Almost Famous. Or Dazed and Confused (1993). Of course, those violate the rules.

    For the 2000s, I like High Fidelity — although that feels a little like the 90s, too. The novel came out in 1995. Possibly the best movie of the decade was The Departed, but it didn’t describe most people’s experience.

    As for the 90s… Fight Club? I can’t imagine. My favorite of that decade was Saving Private Ryan, which was about the wrong decade.

    And this decade… I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything I liked in recent years that was set in the present day, that I can think of offhand. The best movie of the past year, for instance, was Lincoln. The Hurt Locker was good, although I can’t say it spoke for the times the way, say, The Graduate did.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      … and particularly relevant to the times, since it’s about a guy who fires people for a living. As someone who both laid people off and was laid off during the decade, I had a certain identification. Although Clooney’s character enjoyed doing it, which makes for a big difference.

  6. die deutsche Flußgabelung

    You ,Mr. Warthen, are a Burkean conservative (maybe Christian democrat) living in a state dominated by liberal conservatives. And I’m using the term “liberal conservative” as an European would use the term. Liberal conservatives, like classical liberals, support capitalism and laissez-faire economics, while at the same time holding traditional, conservative attitudes toward society. They are a paradox. They believe the individual is free to do as he like in the economic realm, while at the same time he should be a slave to society’s norms and traditions.

    Oh how I wish America could develop a more diverse and sophisticated political palate, but sadly due to archaic political institutions (e.g. single member districts and first-past-the-post voting) and outright barriers (e.g. the winner-take-all Electoral College and the Commission on Presidential Debates) we are stuck with a dichotomous, binary political taxonomy. Darwin, or is it Duverger, has spoken and, sadly, only two creatures are left in America’s political environment: Homo democratus and Homo republicanus.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t know enough about European parties to say for sure, but I have at times thought I might be a Christian Democrat, or something like it.

      I also liked Tony Blair’s New Labour way of approaching things.

      1. die deutsche Flußgabelung

        So your saying your some where in between a Christian democrat and a democratic socialist/Christian socialist. That’s a pretty wide range on the political spectrum. I get it in terms of economics. Despite being considered on the center-right, Christian democrats like most social democrats and democratic socialist have a very communitarian stance when it comes to economics. Konrad Adenauer and his CDU/CSU created the modern German welfare state. Same thing happened in Italy.

        However when it comes to social issues Christian democrats and social democrats/democratic socialists are worlds apart.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I also confess to not having studied Burke. I suspect he might have been too materialistic in his world view — all that going on about property. I do like “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” although it’s not known for sure that he said it.

      1. die deutsche Flußgabelung

        Your beliefs in communitariansim and subsidiary would fit well into Burke’s philosophy. Burke was not a classical liberal. He didn’t believe one had to own property to hold office like most of the Founding Fathers. No he believed in natural social hierarchies like the English aristocracy. It just happen to be that same people he believed to be the natural leaders of society also happened to the wealthiest in the 18th century. As depicted in “Downtown Abbey” during the 19th and early 20th century those same aristocrats were not as wealthy as compared with the new capitalist/industrialist class. And if Burke had lived into the 19th or 20th century he would probably had still prefer England be ran by the bankrupt landed aristocracy and not the new wealthy industrialists.

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      To go back and react to the second part of your comment: Amen! And the cardinal sin of our system is that it is, as you say, “dichotomous.” To operate as though there are two (and only two) sides to everything is deeply wrong; it distorts everyone’s ability to cope effectively with reality.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    I got to thinking of this post this morning, reading a book review in the WSJ. Here’s the lede:

    As I turned the pages of this engaging collection, I thought: Here is a writer, a fellow newspaperman, who is as hardened a cultural tory as I. Tories, of course, must be distinguished from reactionaries. They—we—explain our reactions on classical grounds, and those responses are rarely and only incidentally political.

    The writer thus described is “William Zinsser,” author of The Writer Who Stayed.

    His cultural conservatism extends so far as to refusing to use email, and resenting the modern construction, “snail mail.”

    OK, I’m not that culturally conservative. In fact, I have an aversion to touching snail mail. It grabs you and demands a time commitment that I resent, involving awkward juggling of documents, often the tedious business of fumbling with a checkbook (which I avoid touching as much as possible, vastly preferring debit cards), physically writing, folding, licking, addressing. It’s ridiculous, in a world in which you can just hit “reply” and let your response flow naturally through your fingers.

    At the newspaper, I’d get a thoughtful note from someone, and I’d think “how nice,” and put it in a pile of similar correspondence that I intended to answer someday, if I found the time. A big IF…


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