My Curious Reading: In and Out of Conservatism

Mr. Boots


Many, if not most, acts are prompted by their environment (pressured, permissive, insular, cooperative, anti-social…), 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.  (1907)


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.

All this is food for thought, a looking back on those days when my politics locked into conservative mode…but in truth, not merely disagreeing with much of Republicanism, I also didn’t at that time care about issues—to know what they were, or to read about them. While I would never have supported the Nixon and Reagan era campaigns to destabilize Latin American left-leaning regimes, Salvador Allende, I barely noticed. Iran-Contra bored me.

When we look at political rallies, or the big rah-rah recruitment shows put on for salespeople, we see how readily the human mind attributes explanations to feelings that, in truth, and by design, came first. Sensory stimulants (of types known reliably to be so since Pavlov’s experiments were first publicized in the 1920’s): loud music, heavy drumbeats, group chanting of slogans and singing of anthems, flashing light shows, flashing imagery on overhead monitors—raise pulses, numb thought, and drown hearing. The attendee is excited, biochemically speaking. The attendee soon receives sound bites of ideology.

The attendee feels the reason for the excitement is the ideology.

As well, unexamined ideology can persuade when it resembles something we think we believe. Localism is very close to nationalism, though more associated with leftward thinking. While the localist can be a bully, an exclusionist, and a snob, the person attracted to “us and only us” can find, in nationalist politics, a club that welcomes everyone…excepting minorities, women, the elderly, the disabled, immigrants, people of other faiths… However, the nationalist version of exclusivism permits shopping at Walmart and consumption of non-organic produce.

My theory, as to comfort politics—ideas we settle into, that can’t bear up under deconstruction—is somewhat Jungian. We are powerless over the actions of our leaders, but dependent on them. We, the people, know little of statecraft, and can’t do much about what we do know. We have to trust our leaders; therefore, we may be happier with greater detachment, a degree of mythologizing.

The male elder is a strong archetype, one deeply ingrained in our culture, though we internalize this in ways that may seem lightweight. TV shows, especially with a conflict resolution structuring—cop shows (The Streets of San Francisco), hospital shows (Marcus Welby, MD), legal dramas (Perry Mason), science fiction (Star Trek)…but also soap operas, commercials, sitcoms, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, always have this figure—and their goggle-eyed young casts rely on him. (The 1970’s, bedrock culture for a couple of voting generations presently stirring trouble.)

The elder’s aphorisms are gnomic, obscure in meaning; he sends the young quester off to learn from his mistakes. Frodo (to take a popular example) couldn’t destroy the ring until both mentors, Gandalf and Aragorn, had been left behind, and the choices were his own. The quest loses a lot of its majesty if we picture Human Resources (Capital?) on the heels of the hero: “If you had read the company manual, you would know the procedure.” A sage won’t say, “If you had, as required by the change of rules, phrased your request using gender-neutral language… However, since you’ve made a mistake, I’m taking points off, and you’ll have to start again.”

More than the product of cultural conditioning, the elder makes us feel safe. We require of him those two qualities: the gnomic, and the hands-off attitude. The opposite of these would be the pedantic and the meddling.

Mr. Reagan and the Bushes, elected presidents, were criticized for cronyism and anti-intellectualism. But did they speak reassuringly and obscurely, and did they leave a great deal alone?

Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry…sage-like, or pedantic and meddling? Do Bill Clinton and Barack Obama seem to have more in common with the above list, or were both, by comparison, worldly-wise, inclined to seem…in Clinton’s case, older brotherly and laid back, Obama a father figure to younger Americans. The Boomers and post-Boomers may be the youngest middle-agers thus far, but Obama’s presidency marked a true divide, between the late twentieth century’s cultural model, and the early twenty-first century’s.

How then do we read the present trend, considering the American office-holder could be a father figure only to a dysfunctional household, where sons and daughters are inured to being shouted at, and the phrase “get out” rings through the halls? Well, it’s worth considering what a woman leader represents to a constituency—mother or Minerva? Europe seems to have settled comfortably for Minerva, but America, I think, still seeks a mother. (And rejects her.)

Offensively behaved people, right or left, have the power to turn away their own potential allies. A secret elite, one improbably consisting of artists and scientists, that yet has pre-emptive power over Big Industry is an illusion, a stand-in for the frustration of everyday rebuke. The one-two punch of political correctness begins with false positioning, then moves too quickly for the accused to catch up, to categorizing, making her guilty of “being”, rather than “doing”. The rebuker seals the deal by not permitting the accused to agree with him. Apologies are “words”; a wish to join forces an affront, committed by one who “doesn’t belong”.

We would do well to assume what is certainly true, that most people want to get along with others, that many may be ignorant or ill-informed, but that few act deliberately to cause hurt and harm. So many who don’t want to see nationalism on the rise, have been pushed to the political margin by an aversive reaction to pure unpleasantness.


2017, Stephanie Foster


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