I almost didn’t write this piece. In doing so, I willfully open myself up to the harsh disapproval and flat-out wrath of many whom I respect and admire. That knowledge gives me no pleasure and, in fact, makes me shudder. But these thoughts – to use a once-lovely phrase I’ve grown to loathe – have been “on my heart” for a while, and I won’t rest until I’ve aired them.
Many of you know I recently spent a week cruising the Caribbean with my mom. What most of you don’t know is that we were traveling with a group of thinkers and writers and readers of National Review magazine. Yes, that National Review. America’s foremost journal of conservative thought. Brainchild of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
My parents are conservatives. Serious, thoughtful, principled conservatives. They have been reading National Review for decades and cruising with NR annually for almost ten years. My dad has some health issues and is no longer able to travel comfortably, so for the past two cruises, I’ve gone as my mom’s companion. And you know what? I’ve loved every minute of it. Spending a week with brilliant, funny, friendly intellectuals who relish ideas and rollicking debate is my idea of a damn fine vacation. What can I say? Some people like gambling. Others like lounging by the pool, playing shuffleboard, or shopping. I like a good mental workout.
As I write this, I resent the fact that I have to worry about doing so. I resent the fact that American politics has become so grotesque and fraught that I’m forced to choose between telling the truth and maintaining your respect – that I can’t do both. Most of all, I resent the fact that I’m such a freaking wuss… that I lack the courage and boldness that should be a writer’s very lifeblood… that I care too much about being liked and not enough about being honest. I tried writing political columns years ago, when I first started to suspect that my parents had passed along more through their genes than just blue eyes and a prominent nose. When I finally stopped buying into the left’s definition of the right – the only definition I’d ever paid attention to – and discovered what conservatives really think, by reading their own words, it was like a veil had been lifted, and I wanted everybody else to see the light, too!
I learned the hard way that people don’t like having their veils lifted. They prefer to lift their own veils… or not. Sudden, unexpected light can hurt your eyes. It can even blind you. And then you’re worse off than you were with the veil.
Yes… it was an ugly time. Far from showing people the light, I brought an extended period of darkness upon myself. Looking back, it was mostly my own fault. My delivery was off. In my newfound “wisdom,” I was condescending and snarky and too clever by half. I was attempting a giant eye roll at my former, know-nothing self, but it came across as an eye roll at my readers. Also, I overcorrected in a big way. So thrilled was I with this revelation about conservatism (“It’s not what I thought!”) that I plunged from left to right like a giddy preteen dumping Bieber for One Direction, briefly forgetting that I am, in my heart of hearts, a deeply moderate person. I regret the whole unfortunate period, have settled down happily in the middle – where I belong – and have put political writing behind me, for the most part.
But what I haven’t put behind me is my aching, fervent wish that the two sides of our political divide understood each other better, so we could have a real, rousing, and possibly even productive conversation. Without tearing each other to bits. While on the cruise last week, I kept wishing my liberal husband and all my liberal friends were there, so they could see what thinking conservatives are really like . . . and hear what they really care about. I contend that the “divide” is less about disagreement than about different priorities. And super-smart people are just fun to hang out with, whatever their politics! You guys would have liked each other.
One of the NR writers on board was Charles C.W. Cooke, a dashing young Brit who is more learned, at age 30, than most of us will ever be, and who writes like an absolute dream. Charlie’s got a book coming out in early 2015 called The Conservatarian Manifesto, and he brought along the introduction for us cruisers to read and ponder. In it, he laments the misconceptions people have about conservatives and seeks to correct them. If you truly want to know what American conservatives think, this is a great primer. (Hint: It has nothing to do with racism.) For best effect, read with a charming British accent.
“That in America, the friends of liberty are called ‘conservatives’ and the centralizing authoritarians are referred to as ‘liberals’ is one of the great semantic jokes of history. In almost every other part of the world, rightward-leaning political movements seek primarily to conserve the long established order, and in consequence compete not for meaningful ideological terrain but for stewardship and for stasis. Elections abroad tend to be narrow and meretricious affairs, in which minor reductions in the considerable power of the state take on great significance and ‘philosophy’ is seen as a dirty, even dangerous, word.
“In the United States, by happy contrast, conservatism is marked by its unorthodoxy and its radicalism. Conservatives are passionate and ambitious, and their concern is for neither the international norms nor the tribal precepts that have animated most of human history, but for the manifestation of eccentric ideas that have surfaced only recently– among them property rights; separation of powers; hard limits on the power of the state; staunch protections on the rights of conscience, assembly, speech, privacy, and self-protection; a preference for local governance over central planning; a free and dynamic market economy that permits rapid change and remarkable innovation; and, above all, a distrust of any government that would step in to answer questions that can be better resolved by civil society.”
Now, does that really sound so bad? My mom was in tears when she read this statement of her long-held beliefs and values. In a world where the media have almost completely (albeit erroneously) succeeded in equating “conservative” with “ignorant,” “hateful,” and “bigoted,” these eloquent articles of faith fell like manna from heaven on my highly educated and accomplished mother. Over the years, this gracious woman has grown far too accustomed to being misunderstood and maligned for her politics.
And, oh, how I resent that.
Listen. You don’t have to endorse these conservative values, dear reader. You may peruse the list above and disagree with every tenet… think it’s all poppycock. That’s fine with me. As I said, I’ve settled into a moderate position, politically speaking. I think both sides have good ideas (and bad ones) and important priorities, and that it’s mostly a matter of balance. (True believers on both sides will disagree with me here, and that’s okay, too.) All I ask of you, reader, is this: Please, please expand your political imagination. Dare to impute good intentions to your political opponents. Treat them with the humanity they deserve. Do not assume that “misguided” means “evil.” Dare to imagine that, sometimes, you might even be the one who’s misguided. And always remember – your political foe is probably somebody’s mother.
And next time you find yourself buying into the tired stereotype of conservatives as stodgy, old, ignorant racists desperately clinging to the status quo, reread Charlie Cooke’s manifesto above, and remember this awesome selfie of me with NR libertarian bad-boy Kevin Williamson. Dude’s a mad genius. He even has tattoos.