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.

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