Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rightward Turn

In the late 1950s and early 1960s William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk, and other prominent conservative intellectuals pulled off a kind of Velvet Revolution. By means of a series of thoughtful and thought-provoking publications and other media appearances they managed to separate mainstream conservatism from the far-right kooks such as the John Birch Society, Fr. Coughlin, and others who represented the know-nothing, knee-jerk fringe. The effect of this little coup was salutary, because it resulted in a period of nearly thirty years during which the conservative voice carried moral weight in the public square.

Of course, the culture at large was rather different in those days. The PBS television network had room for such middle-brow intellectual fare as Buckley's Firing Line, Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, and Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, and there were only two or three "major" conservative publications, National Review and The American Spectator being the ones with the largest circulation. Our culture has since, shall we say, "moved on".

I first began to notice the change quite some time ago--back when Buckley retired from editing National Review, in fact. Slowly but surely the writing in that forum grew less interesting and far from intellectually stimulating. But other publications arrived to fill its place, or so I thought: I began reading the Weekly Standard, and found that it sometimes rose to level of the National Review of the late 60s and early 70s. At about the same time, Rush Limbaugh was growing in popularity with radio audiences across the country, and for a little while he even had a television show.

Today, as I look through the sources of "conservative thought" available on the Internet, TV, and radio, I find that the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Andrew Breitbard make the John Birch Society look like Plato's Academy by comparison. The capacity to communicate the conservative stance by means of intellectual disquisition and rational argumentation has vanished, only to be replaced by the same sort of shrill, knee-jerk bigotry that characterizes so much of the left. While it is true that even Glenn Beck will, on occasion, say something that I find congenial, one must sadly note that even a broken clock is right twice a day, and as any reader of Plato's Theaetetus will know (hence, none of the current "conservative" pundits), getting something right once in a while is not a sufficient condition for knowledge or even intelligence.

This is unfortunate for many reasons, not the least of them being that (a) genuine conservative values will stand less of a chance of making any headway in the public square and (b) our culture, as a whole, is now "slouching towards Gomorrah" at twice the rate it was when this sort of behavior was largely confined to the left. Among these reasons, however, the genuine conservative must surely include the painful irony of a movement in which the noble and the good, construed as the end of man, are at the heart of what it means to be a member of that movement, winds up pillorying itself by stooping to the very tactics of its opposition in an appeal to the vulgar prejudices and bigotries of populism.

Nothing is new under the sun, of course, and while one may lament the present state of things, one comforts oneself with the thought that we have been here before and somehow managed to survive. The history of political discourse in the United States, contrary to the current wisdom, has not suddenly arrived at an unprecedented nadir, but has rather always been characterized by the sort of stuff that one might find flowing forth from the Cloaca Maxima. It is only our short institutional memory that prompts us to characterize our own situation as the End Time. But as new media and new cultural trends multiply ever more quickly with the aid of modern technology, it begins to seem as though the likelihood of another Velvet Revolution in conservative thought is very small, and that, perhaps, is to be lamented even more than the present situation.