Right Punks on Dope


Gary Kamiya
February 25, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

"I once threw a party at my house on Capitol Hill where 40 right-wingers danced with crazed abandon to 'Burning Down the House' by the proto-punk band the Talking Heads," writes John Podhoretz in his contribution to "Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing." "A pretty blonde who worked for then Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole shouted out, 'It's our anthem! Burn down the House! Smash the State!' I can assure you this is not what David Byrne intended what he wrote the song."

It is a vision that would have terrified Hieronymus Bosch: A roomful of Young Beltway Conservatives in heat, doing the frug and other wild, proto-punk dances with crazed abandon, while forbidden thoughts of immoral, value-destroying premarital sex stir deep within and those relentless, hypnotic, jungle rhythms drive them closer...closer...closer to a burning, explosive, proto-punk climax -- "END THE WELFARE STATE!!!"

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Podhoretz's horrifying reminiscence recalls a peculiar beer ad that ran during the Bush administration. In an attempt to prove the dubious and frightening thesis that "The night belongs to Michelob," Anheuser-Busch presented a triumphantly gyrating yuppie, power tie loosened, wailing some heavy rock guitar in a bar.

"Backward and Upward" tries to do for conservatives what the Michelob ad attempted for beer-quaffing young stockbrokers: make them hip.

It doesn't work.

American conservatives are doomed to suffer in squaredom for a simple reason (besides weak hair): their stance of Permanent Moral Disapproval. Whatever virtues this state may possess, hipness is not one of them. Fred MacMurray may be an admirable paterfamilias and a model of bourgeois rectitude, but he will not win the dance contest on Soul Train.

The Right has a serious fun problem. Like evil runes possessed of a curious power, the words carved on the id of every teenager worth her salt -- sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll -- send conservatives into a howling, medieval fury. The inconvenient fact is that all hipness contains a spice of nihilism, a tiny but flavorful soupcon of who-gives-a-shit, that is anathema to the Right. To the degree that conservative writers embrace Cool Style, they simply cease to be conservative.

Well aware of the Right's venerable dorkiness, editor David Brooks (a senior editor at conservative strategist William Kristol's The Standard), tries to stick some blue suede shoes on its moist, deodorized feet. It is instructive that he opens his introduction by referring to a 1995 New York Times Magazine cover story about the new right-wingers whose not-so-subtle point was: Hey, they're YOUNG! (Just as Susan Sontag's beauteous book-jacket photo is probably the only thing most readers remember about "Against Interpretation," so the image of one young female reactionary -- I think it was former Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren -- in a tigerskin top was pretty much the entire justification for the Times' forgettable piece. Right-wing blondes in tigerskin have an Ayn Rand-ian, whip-me appeal that transcends partisan allegiances.)

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For the under-40 conservatives flooding into the Beltway in the wake of the Republicans' '94 congressional landslide, the Times Magazine story must have seemed like a harbinger of way-coolio times ahead. Here they were, the former killjoys, the ideologues, the perversions of nature, finally getting to bust a dope move on the big cultural stage. (The fact that this book is published by Vintage, not the usual Right organ Free Press, is another measure of the conservative's supposed new cultural sexiness.) According to Brooks, the result has been "a new conservative personality that is urbane, self-assured (rather than defensive), cosmopolitan, and diverse in race and gender."

Part of this new urbanity, Brooks says, is an openness to fun. One of the book's six sections, in fact, is titled "Pleasures"; it contains celebrations of such bipartisan amusements as romantic love, Cole Porter, and Dorothy Parker, as well as the slightly gamier pleasures of TV violence, multiple-car ownership, and -- yoicks! -- "hunting to hounds." There are repeated denunciations of the supposed liberal bias against smoking. And one writer finds the image of a man settling down with "his hound and his jug" so wonderful, he uses it in each of his two pieces.

While conservatives are having all this vigorous fun smoking up a storm, pushing the speed limit, watching Chuck Norris and rinsing their Rottweilers with Old Grand-Dad, liberals are worrying about whether their lo-fat ice cream will save the rain forest. The Left, says Brooks, has authored a "new form of social puritanism...Everything in liberalism gets wrapped up in a prissy etiquette."

In other words, we had it all backwards: The Right, far from being the uptight faction, is the party-down party -- the Left is may-I-touch-your-breast-world.

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It is not an argument that is immediately convincing, and closer inspection does not improve it. Brooks' equation of liberalism with PC is crude -- PC is primarily a disease of academia, and while the Left has much etiquette-mongering to live down, smarminess isn't innate to it. And in his desire to present a cooler, sexier Right, Brooks shoves the distasteful Torquemada wing of the party under the bed -- where, no doubt, it sets about monitoring the proceedings.

The dirty secret of modern American conservatism, one which goes all the way back to the bitter '50s disputes between Russell Kirk and Frank S. Meyer, among many others, is that it is not in fact one ideology, but two fundamentally irreconcileable ones: classic economic liberalism on one side, and Christian traditionalism on the other. As George H. Nash points out in his fascinating study "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945" (Basic, 1976), a shared anti-Communism and the exigencies of political ambition allowed the libertarian, free-market followers of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises to paper over their differences with the "values" conservatives like Kirk and Richard Weaver (who thought the West went off the tracks in the 14th century) -- traditionalists who held no brief for big business or festishized capitalism. But despite the best efforts of William F. Buckley and Meyer, who championed a so-called "fusionism" of the two positions, no final reconciliation was, or is, possible. It's hardly surprising that Brooks plays up the Right's less strident libertarian face and downplays its appeals to resentment and its tendency to authoritarianism and theocracy.

Still, even if mainstream conservatism is more censorious than Brooks wants to admit, the very fact that he and others on the Right are proclaiming the virtues of irreverence might seem encouraging -- if one didn't suspect that it was just another partisan strategy to exploit the perceived "moralism" of liberalism. Some of the essays in "Backward and Upward" do indeed demonstrate a commendable open-mindedness: Richard Brookhiser, in his piece on Cole Porter, deals directly and respectfully with Porter's homosexuality and even writes, heretically, that "couples and families can lead lives as coldly empty as those of promiscuous narcissists."

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But such willingness to challenge received conservative pieties is rare. More often, these pieces simply reflect no political perspective whatsoever. Of the 41 essays and articles reprinted here, about half are completely non-ideological, chosen, it would seem, because their authors hold right-wing political views. Thus, there are articles on the pleasures of life in Washington, on a scandalous child-abuse case, on spaying a dog. Brooks clearly intends these pieces to demonstrate the new breadth of conservative thinking -- but all they demonstrate is that right-wingers, like left-wingers, centrists, Trotskyites and followers of Idi Amin, can write mediocre pieces on a wide variety of issues.

For, unfortunately, a lot of the work here is mediocre -- or downright awful. There's some good stuff -- a fine essay by classicist Donald Kagan knocking the stuffing out of George Will's "Men at Work," Kay Hymnowitz's intelligent analysis of how we have demystified love to our peril, Clifford Orwin's stirring tribute to Allan Bloom, Florence King's critique of the Left's de-clawing of Dorothy Parker -- but overall this is a remarkably tepid collection, devoid of literary elan. Even the stars don't shine: Christopher Buckley can be a howlingly funny writer, but his essay here, on how truly tough guys don't posture (he should tell it to some of his hairy-chested mates on the Right), is no more than competent. Philosopher Roger Scruton, another big gun, doesn't do much except egregiously stick his fox-hunting hobby in the Left's sure-to-be outraged ear.

One would like to believe that the breezy, sophisticated, multicultural new Tory proclaimed by Brooks does exist -- the stagnation of American intellectual life cries out for fresh approaches. But if the mark of intellectual self-assurance is a willingness to question one's own beliefs and values -- not to mention those of one's political party, a feat which requires considerably less mental integrity -- there is little evidence here that political success has bred anything more than partisan complacency in the Right.(This isn't actually surprising: conservative writers, by definition, already know the answer&nbsp-- which is why their prose so often exudes an airless smugness.) With a few exceptions, those dozen or so pieces in "The New Conservative Writing" that address central issues of conservative ideology -- welfare, the role of government, patriotism, self-defense, the nature of liberalism -- betray the same old doctrinaire, resentful, I've-got-mine-Jack dogmas familiar to readers of National Review.

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Take the bombastic-frat-boy rantings of Rolling Stone correspondent P.J. O'Rourke, captured here in embarrassingly sectarian Libertarian Toastmaster mode as he leads the faithful of the Cato Institute in a fatuous attack on the very idea of government, stopping to lustily excoriate that Satan of "liberalism," Bill Clinton. (The frequent demonization of Clinton, perhaps the most centrist President since Eisenhower, in this collection reveals the humiliation that can befall a putatively intellectual movement when its "thinkers" are speechwriters, columnists, radio bullies, and party hacks.) At his best, O'Rourke is one witty reactionary, but he comes off here like a second-rate attack comedian working a room of drunks. (My favorite line: "We believe in God. Clinton believes in going to church." The Ayatollah K., almost as adept as O'Rourke at using "God" as a club to bludgeon the unrighteous, couldn't have put it better.)

Or take the challenging but ultimately mean-spirited speech by novelist Mark Helprin to a West Point class, in which he confesses to his own guilt over not fighting in Vietnam -- then denounces all those others who refused to serve. By Helprin's logic, no citizen of any state could ever follow his own conscience and refuse to fight. (Strange -- all the other conservatives say the state is too coercive.) In this showdown between Thoreau and Helprin, Helprin does not emerge victorious.

To judge by this singularly weak collection, contemporary conservatism is far more intellectually exhausted and threadbare, has less to say to Americans confronting a rapidly-changing world, than its supposedly out-of-gas liberal counterpart. (This year's pathetic crop of Republican presidential candidates, with the exception of the gravely flawed populist Buchanan, have done little to dispel this impression.) At least the intellectual Left, led by writers like Michael Lind, Robert Hughes, Stanley Crouch, Russell Jacoby and Todd Gitlin, has subjected its own pieties to withering self-criticism. More important, it has acknowledged the increasing irrelevance of the terms "Left" and "Right" in an age when the power lies not with Big Federal Government but with Big Corporate Government -- and begun working on new theories that are less driven by ideology than reality.

For its part, the Right, instead of trying to understand why its faithful are turning to Pat Buchanan, the one candidate who addresses such bread-and-butter issues, desperately recycles pie-in-the-sky supply-side economic theories and even more abstract trickle-down cultural theories (introduce "risk" back into society, they intone, with all the social-engineering zest of lab-coated ideologues who face very little risk themselves). With their obsessive, infantile prating against "government" (a position utterly without intellectual coherence, unless you accept the daunting ideology of anarchism), conservatives are hopelessly incapable of grappling with the real issues that are plaguing America -- downsizing, the structural job loss caused by technology, the decline in real wages, the widening gap between rich and poor.

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In one of the few pieces in this collection to even mention the issue of corporate power (why is it OK for these freedom-loving souls to be ruled by a corporation but not a government agency?), Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley points out that in the coming world, "the real economic competition will not be between nations but between companies." But Bartley has nothing to say about how those companies will relate to their workers or to their nations.

Instead of addressing those issues, or the inconvenient question of the relation between a late-capitalist commodity economy and the erosion of "traditional values," the conservatives find it more worthwhile to beat up on that enormous threat to American society, the men's movement. Bongos, the last redoubt of liberalism, must be ruthlessly exposed for the cosmic menace that they are.

"Bad writing is now on the Left, with all the other sloppiness," writes Florence King. Based on the evidence here, wretched prose is an equal opportunity employer.


Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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