Monday, February 9, 2009

"Oh, I'm sorry. Did we get our movement in your status quo?"

And that's not all Nicola Karras has to say to Sam Tanenhaus:
American conservatism has always been counterrevolutionary conservatism, whatever Russell Kirk says. Even more than that, it's always been a youth counterrevolutionary conservatism. It was born at the 1960 Republican Convention among the "young fogies" who swarmed the halls with their blue and gold balloons. National Review reported, "They greeted Richard Nixon at the airport with Goldwater signs, and did the same thing for President Eisenhower the next day. They drove one Nixon aide into muttering in exasperation: 'Those damn Goldwater people are everywhere.'"
Tanenhaus and his critics both complain that no one reads Burke and Nisbet anymore ("conservatism AND intellectually bankrupt": 91,400 hits), but it's worth asking whether there was ever a Golden Age when people did. My guess is that there never was, but we can point to a time when at least one segment of the conservative movement was reliably well-read: the young people. Used to be that ISI handed out so many free paperbacks people thought the "S" was for samizdat! My own experience was a throwback in this regard—as Dan McCarthy has pointed out, things have been going downhill since the day activists started outnumbering intellectuals on the campuses.

The lesson of Youth for Goldwater is that the hormonal radicalism of youth can be harnessed for good, even by reactionaries, but only if the twenty-somethings have the intellectual chops to play Principle to age's Pragmatism (and as long as they can avoid the trap of Hessian defection). With the current crop of young conservatives, one gets the impression they'd have been happy to settle for Rockefeller. O tempora, et cetera!

And the boat is leaking fore and aft: the young conservatives ain't intellectual, and the young intellectuals ain't conservative. I'm with Stacy McCain in being worried that so few of conservatism's Young Turks oppose gay marriage:
Now, if you talk to these bright young fellows—and I find excuses to talk to them as often as possible—one of the things you learn is how many of them are either (a) in favor of gay marriage as a matter of social justice, or (b) defeatist in conceding that the legal recognition of gay marriage is a political inevitability, even though they personally oppose it.
And I would add my suspicion that support for same-sex marriage has become a mark, not only of defeatism, but of self-conscious tokenism among young conservatives. Being publicly pro-SSM is the quickest way for a young journalist to signal that he's one of the right-wingers it's okay to like. Haven't they heard that it's better to be feared than loved? Or, to put it less glibly, the real respectability of a solid argument is preferable to the worthless respectability one gets by being on the Harmless Right.

The conservative movement used to be able to count on its twentysomethings to have whole passages from Burke's Reflections committed to memory ("It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness . . ."), on the assumption that these well-read young men would one day grow up, and grow up to matter. If Tanenhaus wants to kickstart an intellectual conservatism for the twenty-first century, he should remember that old ways are not seldom the best. He should also stand warned that these tweed-clad library rats are likely to be intensely ideological.

First one to say "heartless" can jump in a lake.

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