Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Had a dream the other night. It was in the form of a black-and white motion picture.

The opening shot is from on high, looking down on a massive athletic stadium, where a soccer game is in progress. As the camera zooms in, a player is in the clear, dribbling down the right side of the field and into the penalty area. Suddenly, out of nowhere, an opposition player comes careening into him, laying him flat out. The camera pans from the face of the stricken player to the face of the offender—it’s Chico Marx.

The referee rushes over to Chico with a card in his hand (it can only be red, of course). As he waves it in Chico’s face, another hand swoops in, and grabs it away. Harpo (who else?) then puts the card in his mouth and eats it. The referee now has four things to see to—the sending off of Chico, the condition of the injured player, the setting up of the penalty kick, and dealing with Harpo’s lèse-majesté. 

After setting the ball on the penalty spot, the referee walks over to Harpo, who, when the referee puts his hand in his pocket, also puts his hand in it. The referee then struggles to get his hand out to issue Harpo a card, but when he does so, the force of both hands coming out together unleashes a spray of cards, which land all over the turf. Harpo, seeing that, with one of his great grins on his face, pulls out a deck of cards from his shorts and starts playing war. Since Harpo’s deck is, naturally, all aces, he takes trick after trick, honking his horn, gloriously happy. 

Meanwhile, with the referee trying to deal with both Harpo and the moaning player, Chico surreptitiously nudges the ball away from the penalty spot. When the referee glances over, he sees the ball wrongly placed and goes over to replace the ball. This repeats itself several times, until the referee takes the bull by the horns and sternly orders both Chico and Harpo off the field. Harpo, looking abject with his lower lip drooping, approaches the referee with his hand out in full apology mode. The referee responds, and after the handshake, Harpo walks away to stand inside the right post of the goal, joining Chico, who is standing inside the left goal post. 

We see this from the perspective of the player who is to take the penalty kick. He (and we) sees Harpo and Chico inside the goal and in the middle Groucho, wearing his tailcoat and old-fashioned American football pants, with his mustache and eyebrows painted thickly on (as in the early films). He is smoking a large cigar. The camera cuts to Harpo, who blows the referee’s whistle (remember the handshake). 

Play thus resumes. From a camera angle behind the penalty taker, we see both his run up to the ball and the three Marxes in the goal mouth—each now clad in a baseball catcher’s chest protector and mask, with a catcher’s mitt on his left hand. 

The camera angle now changes, and from the goal mouth we watch the completion of the penalty taker’s run, the swing of his leg, and the contact with the water balloon, which a long time ago Chico had substituted for the soccer ball.

With water spray filling the screen, the credits begin to roll.

(Anybody know Steven Spielberg’s phone number?) 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Charming Billy (Consciences and Conservatives, Part 2)

In November or early December of 1957 I went to see Mort Sahl at the Village Vanguard in New York City. One piece of his satirical monologue remains in my memory to this day—his explanation of the difference between conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans.(1) 

Conservative Republicans, Sahl claimed, would not do anything for the first time, while moderate Republicans were willing to do something for the first time—but not now.


The essence of conservatism isn’t hard to discover—it’s right there in the name. It’s the desire to maintain, preserve, cling to what one has. In societal terms, it is to defend the status quo, the existing order against the fear (reasonable or not) of an unleashed anarchy. Probably the strongest statement in literature of this fear is the speech by Ulysses in Act I, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida [excerpt]:

O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows!

Order is achieved through strict maintenance of a class structure (“degree”). Just as the heavenly harmony of all the planets (the music of the spheres) is threatened by disorder in the heavens (“when the planets/ In evil mixture to disorder wander”), the harmonious music of civilization is untuned by class disruption. Maintaining the prerogatives of the established political, ecclesiastical, and commercial powers is of the utmost necessity to the conservative mind. It was the Conservative Party who kept the propertyless, women, dissenters, Jews, and Catholics from full citizens’ rights in England, while advancing the interests of the aristocracy, the landowners, and the established church. That political and religious conservatism go hand-in-hand should not be ignored. It was more than a jest when Maude Royden (1876–1956) famously spoke of the Church of England as “the Conservative Party at prayer.”


Perhaps the most notorious American outburst against change is this yelp from William Buckley, Jr., in his introductory proclamation in the first issue of his magazine, National Review
A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.(2)
It was not so much “Stop the world, I want to get off,” as “Stop the world, I want to preserve ‘civilization’ (the boundaries of which conveniently are co-terminus with my own privilege and power).” Do I detect a scent of solipsism?

The white Ivy League Colossus standing “athwart history,” in the words of William Hogeland,
ordained himself the leisure-class warrior-philosopher, provoked to militancy by ubiquitous barbarism, defending on behalf of conservatism not mere intellect but the highest cultural sophistication and refinement.(3)  
Buckley’s civilization was the civilization of the white race. He asked, should the white Southerners, although in a minority, be allowed to maintain segregation—are they indeed “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally”? [emphasis mine] 

Buckley’s “sobering answer”(4) was “Yes”--they were entitled, because the “White community” is “for the time being . . . the advanced race.” 

Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that Buckley and his National Review opposed school integration and civil rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act. Buckley was also in favor of jury nullification—that is, juries deciding against the evidence to acquit in cases where Southern officials were tried for such undemocratic acts as failing to count the ballots cast by black voters.

Buckley’s conservatism was antidemocratic at its core.(5) Hogeland points to the following three-part statement of Buckley’s as the heart of his conservatism:
The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. . . . If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. . . . sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence. 
Buckley proclaimed the need to defend “civilization” against democracy. Which “enlightened” action was gleefully undertaken by such defenders of the arts and sciences as Bull Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, Alabama. Meanwhile, Shtarker Billy, the street-fightin’ man in the button-down collar, stayed safely above the Mason-Dixon line, coming out with some memorable lines (quoted by Chris Orlet):

1—“[R]epression is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights.” 

Repression is necessary for human rights? The man was positively Orwellian!

2—“It is for each man’s conscience to decide in the specific case whether segregation is being practiced morally or immorally.” [emphasis mine]

Ah, yes, the conservative conscience again. Don’t you feel relieved that it could be at ease with morally-practiced segregation?


(1) There were such fauna six decades ago.

(2) “Our Mission Statement” in National Review (19 November 1955).

(3) William Hogeland, “American Dreamers,” Inventing American History.

(4) No, there is no Swiftian irony here.

(5) And authoritarian down to his lace-ups. In a remark that would be crushingly satiric if made by practically anybody else, he excuses Francisco Franco of Spain as “not an oppressive dictator. He is only as oppressive as it is necessary to be to maintain total power.” 


Recommended reading:



Here is Ulysses’ complete speech in Troilus and Cressida:

Troy, yet upon his basis, had been down,
And the great Hector's sword had lack'd a master,
But for these instances.
The specialty of rule hath been neglected:
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
And this neglection of degree it is
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose
It hath to climb. The general's disdain'd
By him one step below, he by the next,
That next by him beneath; so every step,
Exampled by the first pace that is sick
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever
Of pale and bloodless emulation:
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot,
Not her own sinews. To end a tale of length,
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Ayenbite of Inwyt (Consciences and Conservatives, Part 1)

I read the other day that Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, had written a book in 2017 called Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle. Considering that Flake’s more famous predecessor as a Republican senator from Arizona, Barry Goldwater, had written his Conscience of a Conservative in 1960, the newer book might seem to be superfluous to requirements. 

Why is it, I have long wondered, that conservatives defaulted to “conscience” when defending their beliefs?(1)


If my head is anything to go by (God help us all!), one is best served when one has a “clear conscience.” Unfortunately, more often, one is aware of one’s conscience when suffering “pangs of conscience.” That is, one has been called to account by that great nanny, the superego, for having done something that was underhanded, unethical, immoral, or otherwise under-, un-, or im-. 

As a joke, the conscience is sometimes externalized in cartoons as a contest between the devil and the better angel of our nature—as, for example, in this New Yorker drawing by Alex Gregory:

But we are not fooled; we know it’s all inside us—the conscience is in us and about us. The pangs of conscience, if we let the devil make us do it, are our torments, not any other person’s and certainly not society-at-large’s.

Politics, however, is external—about the organization of the state and the welfare of its citizens. 

And so I’ve been perplexed (for almost six decades) why, when it comes to politics, do conservatives default to their own state of mind as enforced by their Big Brother, nanny, superego (call it what you will)—their “conscience”? Is it all about them?


I will do something here that I’ve never done before—say something nice about George W. Bush. He campaigned on a platform of “compassionate conservatism.” Though some have complained that the phrase was an oxymoron, nevertheless, whether his platform was good, bad, or indifferent, at least, being outwardly directed, it spared us the mental navel-gazing (how’s that for my weird locution of the week?) of all those conservative consciences.


(1) A quick fingers-and-toes addition of Amazon offerings turned up a count of 16 conservative conscience books versus 2 non-conservative conscience political books.