Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Dawn of the Pseudo-Conservatives

In an excellent book, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment, Sidney Blumenthal has written of how the American right assumed the label "conservative". On p. 30 he wrote: "Before [William F.] Buckley, there was no common designation for people on the right. (Robert Taft, the old standard-bearer of the Republican right, had always referred to himself as a 'liberal.') National Review, with an assist from Russell Kirk, was largely responsible for giving the believers an identity as 'conservatives'.... The 'conservative' label enabled conservatives to gloss over their incoherence by providing a convenient rubric under which to file everything. Identification as 'conservative' also gave conservatives a self-consciouness as a movement aspiring to power."

What I find remarkable is how easily and apparently unconsciously writers like Blumenthal fell into according the label "conservative" to people they recognized were not actually conservative (see the above two sentences!). They simply acquiesced in the radical right's opportuistically adopting this label. Blumenthal had just written of how, "though they dreaded the leviathan state, [the right] encouraged the building of a permanent and expansive national security state." This is only one example of the glaring contradictions at the heart of pseudo-conservative ideology; while they constantly make a public fuss about their opposition to "Big Government" and demand that Republicans "starve the beast", they merrily and aggressively support virtually every increase in the defense budget ever introduced. Pseudo-conservatives have never met a defense increase they didn't like. And yet it seems likely that the largest increases in the federal government are contributed in expansions for "defense" and "national security".

President Eisenhower, about whom William F. Buckley wrote, "I intend, in an early issue [of the National Review], to read Dwight Eisenhower out of the conservative movement", warned all Americans against the growing powers of the military-industrial complex, and thought this significant enough to focus upon in his 1961 Farewell Address to the American people. Buckley's facile ideology was, "I will not cede more power to the state", unless, that is, it was for fighting communism and building up "defense".

Let's get this straight. The only increases in government that pseudo-conservatives are against are those that regulate large businesses or help citizens who are less privileged. As G. K. Chesterton observed: "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all." Pseudo-conservatives hate "social security" but love "national security". The Radical Right prattles about its opposition to Big Government involvement in our economy and lauds the "free market" and "laissez faire" principles until, that is, big corporations need some legislation for themselves; then, apparently unnoticed by most of the American public, they become advocates of government action. Does the banking and credit card industry want to collect more from those upon whom they've foisted credit cards? Then we must have new "bankruptcy" legislation. Does the auto industry's obvious mismanagement put them behind foreign competitors in producing fuel efficient cars? Then we must have taxpayer dollars to subsidize research into electric or hydrogen-powered engines. Have the gasoline refiners polluted water aquifers because they added MTBE to gas? Then we must have legislation to protect them from liability lawsuits for the resulting health hazards. Does the drug industry want protection from competition from Canada? Then we must have a Medicare Pharmacy Benefit that outlaws such dangerous market competition. But a higher minimum wage? Universal national health insurance? Bigger punishments for huge oil corporations who have neglected servicing their oil pipeline so they could make higher profits and give their executives more munificent golden parachutes? Horrors! Blasphemy! Interfering in our sacred "free market" system! Kill him who said that!

And it is not just Blumenthal who so easily acquiesces in pseudo-conservatives' purloining the misnomer "conservative." A truly remarkable example is Geoffrey Nunberg. Nunberg is an academic linguist who teaches the study of language to his students at UC Berkeley. He is also Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Nunberg's most recent book is Talking Right, which "tells the story of a subtle linguistic campaign whose architects--from Spiro Agnew to Karl Rove--have altered the meaning of our everyday political vocabulary." Excellent topic I say; and a very good book as well. But let's look at the subtitle of Nunberg's book: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. Great subtitle; very amusing; makes excellent points; but it still willingly and perhaps unconsciously commits the sin this very book is meant to describe: it acquiesces in allowing the radical right to wrongly appropriate the label "conservative."

And establishing the meaning of "conservative" is not rocket science. Let's take a look at Mr. Nunberg's own American Heritage Dictionary in its latest online version: conservative = "Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change. Traditional or restrained in style.... Moderate; cautious.... Tending to conserve; preservative." Or let's look at arguably the most authoritative english dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary: "Characterized by a tendency to preserve or keep intact or unchanged; preservative.... The maintenance of existing institutions political and ecclesiastical.... Characterized by caution or moderation."

Most pseudo-conservative policy proposals are the antithesis of these definitions. "Let's bomb Iran." "Let's call North Korea names and wait and see what happens." "Let's abolish the Estate Tax." "Let's 'reform' Social Security." "Let's rattle our sabres at China." "Let's invade Iraq and transform the whole Middle East." And yet most observers of American politics continually accord this glaring misnomer to those on the radical right.

George Orwell wrote: "Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can… if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs." Let us, in the spirit of Orwell, send the mind-numbing and obfuscating American abuse of the term “conservative” into the dustbin, where it belongs.


Geoff Nunberg said...

Truth to tell, I have no argument with any of this. As I wrote in the last chapter of my book:

Patriotism, values, elite, traditional, faith, ownership -- by deforming the meanings of good old words like those, the right has radically reconfigured the political landscape, divided the country, and drawn the language itself to the right.

So why did I use "conservatives" in the title of Talking Right: How the Right Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show? Well, the original version used "the right" -- that was actually the title used in the pre-publication announcement -- but the publisher was unhappy about the repetition of "right," so urged the change, and I went along. In retrospect, we probably should have looked for another solution.
Geoff Nunberg

Geoff Nunberg said...

Whoops -- the version of the title cited above is the original one, not the one that was finally used.

Geoff Nunberg