Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Shine, Perishing Republicans

by Garret Keizer

Harper's Magazine Notebook (April 2009)

For man it is certainly more grave, or at least much more dangerous, to deny original sin than to deny God. -- Georges Bernanos

Perhaps the self-proclaimed party of family values and Judeo-Christian morality might appreciate - in lieu of the more prosaic soul-searching in which it is now engaged - an analysis of its resounding electoral defeat and resultant marginalization rendered in the form of an old-fashioned parable. He that hath an ear, let him hear.

The Republican Party is like unto an indulgent father who would not discipline his only son. Though his own father, even Ike, who had begotten him, prophesied against this slackness while the grandson was yet a suckling babe, bestowing upon the child the name of Military-Industrial Complex, the heart of the child's father would not repent. And though the father spake many curses against "permissive society", yet in the rearing up of his son he was the very marrow of permissiveness. When his servants came unto him and said, "This thy son is ruining thine house", he replied, "What is mine house if not a place for my son to play? And is it not written that the spilled wine of a prosperous son doth trickle down to sweeten the tongues of his bondsmen? Be patient then, and the trickled-down wine of my drunkard son may yet be fragrant upon thy beards".

It continued in this wise for many years, until the son said to himself, "It is not enough for me that I have my father's heart and my father's servants at my command, that they beat mine enemies and enlarge my purse, and that I am free to enrich myself and hide my treasure across the sea. For I have found me a friend, a youth after mine own heart, who is like my very frat brother, and my love for this W exceedeth my love for womankind. And between us we shall enjoy all that pleaseth our hearts, yea though it breaketh the heart of my dotard father like a potsherd."

Saying this, the son and his friend seized the mother of the boy, even Nasdaq the delight of his father's eyes, and stripped her of her raiment and ravished her upon the ground and spoiled the riches of her chamber and greatly shamed her in the eyes of the people. And when he saw this, the father rent his garments and said, "How is it that this crisis has come upon me, and why hast the Lord of hosts visited this calamity upon mine house so that I shall pay the price of it unto my children's children?"

But his neighbors and all those in the surrounding countryside said, "How now, but what shall prevent these motherfuckers from doing the same and worse to us, and indeed already we are made like paupers and captives in our own houses". For the son and his friend W had been abroad like a plague on the land. And seizing the father by the hairs of his head, the people of that place cast him out to wander the country like a leper, and with W they did likewise. But the son, the Military-Industrial Complex, they could not seize because of his great strength. And the son continued to oppress them and to commit robbery and abomination wherever he could. And this was about the time when Obama was anointed King.

The biblical language comes naturally, not only because of my background - I was raised on the King James Bible by people who were both Calvinist and Republican, not necessarily in that order - but also because the irony of the Republican Party's fall strikes me as essentially theological. That the party seems unable to grasp this may be a measure of just how far it has fallen.

Ask someone on the street or in the blogosphere to describe what makes the party's current predicament so ironic, and you might hear something like this: The Republican Party was supposed to stand for small government and fiscal restraint, and instead it has given us big government and the virtual socialization of large segments of our economy. Ask David Brooks of the New York Times and you will hear that such a development was more inevitable than ironic, and not necessarily a bad thing. Ask Ron Paul and he'll say nuts to David Brooks. But all of this is to miss the most basic question, which is why the Republican Party - or, more precisely, its dominant conservative wing - came to stand for smaller government in the first place.

This is where it helps to employ a theological language, perhaps while recalling that the rise of the modern conservative movement is sometimes dated to the 1951 publication of William F Buckley's God and Man at Yale. If conservatives have traditionally believed in limited government it is because they also subscribe, contra many liberals and progressives, to an anthropology based on some notion of original sin. That is to say, the politically conserving impulse grows out of a deep-seated pessimism in regard to the ability of human beings to improve their lot merely by wishing to do so. A conservative tells us we had better look at history - hell, we had better examine our own thoughts and deeds since our last coffee break - and that in the light of those all-too-sobering examinations we had better be cautious about jettisoning old institutions and time-tested traditions, which, though flawed as all things human must be flawed, may be our best bulwark against evil itself. That a good law made in our best moments, and in the light of public scrutiny, is our strongest defense against what each of us is capable of doing in his worst moments and under the cover of dark. (I am old enough to remember a time when the battle cry of American conservatism, at least in my neighborhood, was "Law and Order".) The role of a conservative, as I understand it, is to challenge the yes-we-can progressivism of people like me, which is why I have always valued a conservative when I could manage to find one. Cheapskates and chauvinists I've found aplenty, but conservatives are a rarer breed.

Take, for example, that "archconservative" Ronald Reagan, who from the perspective of a hundred years will be seen as the last of the California hippies, a man who told us that if we just let the markets run wild and the Magic Bus of juggernaut capitalism go barrel-assing down the road with its freak flag flying all would be groovy and out of sight. What was his "Morning in America" bit but a cover of "Aquarius"; what was his presidency but the last act of Hair? - preferable, I admit, to the helter-skelter criminality of Cheney and Bush. But to call either administration "conservative" in its blithe overconfidence is to hold up a picture of your brain on drugs.

Beyond all the prattle about big and small government, this is the mega-irony of the Republican Party: that of all people conservatives ought to have been the first to grasp the dangers of unregulated markets. If big government is susceptible to the abuses of "sinful" human beings, how much more susceptible is a corporate system that is bigger than any government? The right wing of the party ought to have seen this better than the center, and the religious right ought to have seen it best of all. That they failed to see it bespeaks a spiritual bankruptcy beside which the financial plight of an auto industry is as a gnat unto a camel.

Given its inability to grasp that irony, we should not be surprised if the Republican Party evinces a similar inability to grasp the primal values of its base. There has been quite some groping about for those values of late, and quite a lot of talk about "the base", but I'm not sure the party would know its base if it fell down drunk and broke its nose on the same, which in a manner of speaking I suppose that it has.

This came home to me several years ago when my state representative Cola Hudson (as the story goes, his mother wanted to name him Kohler, but the doctor had had a few nips before he signed the birth certificate) dropped by my house for a visit. Cola was an old-school conservative Republican of the kind that made Vermont notorious for being one of only two states that didn't support Franklin Roosevelt in the election of 1936. (This was several decades before my tribe moved in.) A lifelong bachelor, Cola lived in the farmhouse where he was born and worked as a school janitor between legislative sessions. He died a little over a year ago, and I miss him.

Touchingly, Cola arrived at my house with a few clips about his record as an officeholder and with some photocopied pages from what he regarded as the seminal text of his political philosophy: Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance". If the essay was a formative influence for Cola, his reverence for it was something of an epiphany for me. It was also a shot of deja vu. There were none of Emerson's essays in the house where I grew up, or very many other books for that matter, but in addition to the Bible, we had shop manuals and parts lists for every car we ever owned, these being supplemented in later years by a Physicians' Desk Reference. (When my octogenarian father is prescribed some new medicine, he informs the doctor of the side effects.)

At bottom, and I mean the demographic as well as the spiritual bottom, the motivating ethos of the Republican Party base is not national defense, or free markets, or "family values". At bottom it is what Cola Hudson knew it was, what Joan Didion, a Goldwater Republican in her youth, partly had in mind when she wrote about "wagon-train morality". In his heart of hearts, the Republican conservative is still a pioneer and a homesteader, someone who takes care of himself, practices thrift, prizes industry, despises waste. I do wonder if the appeal of Sarah Palin had less to do with her opposition to abortion than with her ability to dress a moose. As far as that goes, I wonder if even Republican strategists grasp that hatred of abortion, and the related enthusiasms for guns and school choice, have less to do with opposition to the Democratic Party or to some atavistic "Communist Party" than with opposition to any well-credentialed, all-presuming third party: the physician, the cop, the school superintendent, the politician - alas, the union organizer - who intervenes, imposes, and later sends you the bill. In this connection, I would cite Richard G Mitchell Jr's 2002 study, Dancing at Armageddon, in which he persuasively argues that the driving force behind the survivalist movement is not so much right-wing reaction as the desire to exercise individual creativity and competence on some yet-to-be-subdued acre of "Planet Microsoft".

About self-reliance as a creed, several things come immediately to mind. First, the obvious limitations of such a value, the degree to which self-reliance is both precarious and bestial outside of a social contract, the degree to which a patriarchal construction of self-reliance can become a woman's lack of the same. Second, the ease with which self-reliance, laced with a bit of original sin, becomes self-indulgence. Indeed it doesn't take Emerson many paragraphs to go from lauding self-reliance to praising the virtues of "whim", an accolade I would expect to find heavily underlined in Dick Cheney's copy of the text. On the positive side, though, it strikes one how attractive an ethic like self-reliance might prove in a time of environmental catastrophe and economic collapse. In any event, the survival of the Republican Party may depend on its ability to reclaim the values that appear in their most radical form among survivalists. Don't misunderstand me. I want the Republican Party to drop dead. Inasmuch as it differs too little from the competition, I want the Democratic Party to drop dead with it. What interests me is the politics that might emerge from their respective deaths and resurrections, what might happen if each were to glance at the yawning sarcophagus of the other and spot a naked body that it liked.

In that contentious stage of boyhood when I first began to shake off the political and religious conservatism of my roots, my worried parents and my much-harried Sunday-school teacher joined in referring me to the Dutch-born minister of the family's Reformed church. Perhaps the learned reverend could calm me down. The trouble of the moment was my discovery of what I took for a glaring contradiction in the writings of Saint Paul. This I could not abide. After hearing me out in his study, and taking a few meditative puffs on his pipe, the minister said that he was inclined to agree with me and that there were actually several other contradictions I might have missed. "For example", he said, "Paul tells the Galatians to bear one another's burdens, and then some verses on, he says that every one shall bear his own burden. Still, I'd say that on the whole it's a pretty good epistle." Then we talked about pipes, as I had recently taken up smoking one myself.

The older I get the higher my regard for the old dominie's method of treating with budding skeptics and the lesser my regard for his sense of contradiction. Whatever the apostle's inconsistencies, the dual admonition to bear one another's burdens and to bear one's own burden is not among them. These two imperatives, that of self-reliance and social responsibility, of the Republican heart and the Democratic heart in their purest forms, are the crux of any sustainable community. Neither value makes sense without the other, nor can it be fulfilled without the other. The trick is to get them to kiss. The trick is to create a society in which the privilege of disposable income is not contingent on the existence of disposable people - to say nothing of disposable tigers, ice caps, and arable land.

That is the primary task of any mature politics, and it cannot be performed so long as both of our major political parties are held captive by a rumpus-room economic system, with our congressional representatives spending more time talking to CEOs than to philosophers - or even to accountants - and hardly any time talking to the people they supposedly represent. Such a politics must always be puerile. Witness the recent hearings on the bailout; spend an hour lounging with the business-class travelers in an airport bar. (I happen to enjoy that crowd, but then I happen to enjoy the skateboard set as well.) Perhaps the greatest conservative soul who ever lived, Dr Johnson, said, "There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money". He was right insofar as innocence belongs to childhood. Innocents make money; adults make love. Adults hear more possibilities in that last phrase than the reductive eroticism that advertisers use to make money. A grown-up body politic will acknowledge its children, set them strict rules, and let them play with their credit ratings and their hedge funds, their light sabers and their cap pistols, in a well-supervised back yard so that the adults can get down to what adults are meant to get down to: the pleasurable socializing of their resources and the passionate coupling of their best ideas.


Garret Keizer is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His essay "Of Mohawks and Mavericks" appeared in the December 2008 issue.

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home