If you scan the so-called conservative sites these days, the remarkable thing is the dullness of them. The writing is mediocre, at best, and the arguments are mostly washed out ideas from the 80’s with a heavy dash of libertarianism. The major issues of this age, immigration, identity, populism and nationalism are largely ignored. When they bother to pick them up, it is to take swings at the growing army of people to their right. The main role of so-called conservatism is to confuse and discourage the rank and file conservatives.
This old column from Jonah Goldberg is a good example. It is in the style that he has become mocked for of late. It’s where he lards up his text with Borscht Belt gags, along with a bunch pointless dissembling. The post is supposed to take a stab at defining conservatism, but he just does a bunch of name dropping, while making a hash of the subject. His jocular style is intended to put the reader at ease, while his hemming and hawing is supposed to make it seem like conservatism is up for debate.
Now, Goldberg is just an affable guy, who does not want to cause any trouble, while pretending to be an intellectual. I’m surely giving him too much credit for suggesting his incoherence is intentional. His latest book is so bad that I suffered from vicarious embarrassment while reviewing it. Even so, he is not alone. If you look around the so-called conservative intellectual space, it is a parade of mediocrities spouting banal nonsense that mostly defends the status quo against criticisms from the Right.
One argument against mediocrity is Ben Shapiro, who is pitched to us as a pint-sized wunderkind. He has a billionaire backer for his web site, a perch at National Review and the full support of Conservative Inc. If that stuff does not impress you, Shapiro did manage to get into Harvard at 16 and graduate at 20. Even the Left has started promoting him as the conservative voice of his generation. Here he is explaining the core principles of conservatism at a Young Americans Foundation event a couple of years ago.
In that speech, he starts out by claiming conservatism is about fairness of opportunity, rather than fairness of outcome. Then he says conservatism is about individual rights and individualism. He makes the point a few times that group identity is invalid, which is rather amusing coming from a guy who sports a yarmulke all the time. He actually says we should target people who discriminate and use the law against them. Not so long ago, conservatives warned that this was the ultimate goal of the Left. Now, here we are.
Individualism sounds fine, especially if you are a member of small group hoping to topple the large group. If you can convince the large group that it is immoral for them to stick together, then you can pick them off one at a time. That’s why there’s never been a military organized around individualism. It’s also why conservatism never embraced individualism. A deracinated and atomized people are easily conquered, which is why his people have made group loyalty their defining characteristic for a thousand years or more.
Shapiro is a smart guy so he surely sees the contradictions. That means he says things about conservatism that he knows are false, or at least at odds with what has been the core of conservatism for centuries. Maybe it is just what sells and he is just an ambitious person willing to do anything to get ahead. None of that really matters, because the net effect is the same. The well-meaning young people who look to guys like Shapiro to put structure around their temperament are swimming in squid ink.
One reason conservationism is now a dog’s breakfast of libertarian nostrums and reworked liberal platitudes is that conservatism is short of conservatives. The people carrying the banner for Official Conservatism don’t know the first thing about what it means to be conservative. It is as if they have spent their lives trying to avoid the great conservative thinkers. There is no trace of the intellectual giants in the ideas of the modern conservative. Take for example the great quote from the philosopher Michael Oakshott.
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Now, it takes immense talent to write something so powerful and insightful with such an economy of language. No one can be blamed for not having that skill. On the other hand, how is it possible to read that, as a conservative, and not immediately understand that being on the Right is not about individualism or anti-racism or any of the other ridiculous fads popular on the Left? The answer is they are either too dumb to see it or they hope their readers don’t see it. In other words, the squid ink is intentional.