My Curious Reading: In and Out of Conservatism
Many, if not most, acts are prompted by their environment: pressured, permissive, insular, cooperative, anti-social, etc., and by the spirit of the times, whether or not the actor is fully conscious of this. I had been thinking of the Tylenol killer, of creating an intuitively correct character; thinking, that if you could, as a writer of fiction, move this person through space and time, you might “get” him (her). I don’t think the motive needs to be either money or revenge. Motive should matter less, in the resolution of an actual case, than its strict mechanics—the non-negotiables. Ultimately, and we know it already, there will have been one individual for whom these all came together: time, place, impetus. Opportunity isn’t much—a crime no one thinks of as possible has the widest possible field of opportunity. The killer didn’t need to be overly-clandestine. But what the killer believes about himself (self-aggrandizement, justification of voyeuristic tendencies), his location, specialized knowledge (conceivably specialized equipment…I picture there being, within the pharmaceutical industry, such as thing as a device for filling capsules…but then, I’m not in the pharmaceutical industry), serve in driving someone towards a point of decision. But to begin it all, you need a spur, something that prods the ego.
Now, changing directions. While looking through the archives of the Chicago Tribune to learn what else had been going on just prior to the Tylenol outbreak, I found an opinion piece by a writer I thought had a nice way of putting things. The byline was Dick West. I did a search on Amazon to see if he’d written any books, and in that way came across An English Journey, by Richard West (Chatto and Windus Ltd., 1981).
West’s style is economical, grumpy, often funny, opinionated; his opinions largely rightist. (His obituary, in the Guardian, calls this a late development. He was famous for his reporting on Vietnam). And this made me think…as though magical infection were possible, we prefer books that reflect our own politics; we avoid the other side’s point of view. And yet…
The history of conservatism versus liberalism is the history of opposition politics, in which views shift as one side circles the other. There was no incident that made me lean, for about thirty years, Republican. I had always been pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-equality. I’ve always disliked and distrusted top-heavy bureaucracies, institutionalization, and patronage.
I understand West when he complains about modernizing the language of the bible. His early account of dealing with the Equal Opportunities Commission would be wonderful satire…if it were. He quotes (page 16), recounting this story, a few lines from “The Secret People”, by G. K. Chesterton, so good that I include them here.
They have given us into the hands of the new unhappy lords,
Lords without anger and honour, who dare not carry their swords.
They fight by shuffling papers; they have bright dead alien eyes;
They look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies.
West opposes housing towers, rightly points out the difficulty in sending emergency help to upper floor residents, sympathizes with locals priced out of home ownership by incomers who leave their vacation investments standing empty; he points out that more of England’s historical buildings have been lost to improvement schemes of the sixties, than to the bombs of WWII. He dislikes big oil, Rio Tinto, shopping centers, nuclear missiles, and the silliness of special names for things. West says of the Dickens House (now Museum) “…at least is isn’t called the Dickens Heritage Center—” (page 127).
But he seems also to believe that the socialists invented addiction, while still he opposes the decriminalization of marijuana; and that an army of leftist social workers are responsible for women rejecting their traditional roles. He is nostalgic for corporal punishment, blames trade unionism for the decline of industry.
To criticize, as West does, the awarding of prizes to all participants, works as a deploring of watered-down values only if it can be true that mere differences in talent and perseverance separate one player from another. For those not allowed on the team (both in literal and metaphorical terms) or those to whom the ball is never passed, that they can’t win has been their reality. And if they get to play, they will have persevered long and hard for the chance alone.
To condemn societal explanations for crime, is again to suppose everyone’s experience of society is the same; that punishment, of some stripe, matters as a preventative to those who have never known reward.
2017, Stephanie Foster