10 January 2010

Along the lefthand road to Toryism

I have always suspected I’ve been a Tory at heart. My first inkling was when I was in eighth grade, taking Mrs Angela Abbott’s American history course – when, for contrariness’ sake with regard to the rest of my classmates, I enthusiastically took up the Loyalist position on the War of American Independence. But it has been a long and winding road in the Tory direction, and I’d like a chance to see if I can’t retrace my steps.

I think a significant part of my left-Toryism may be attributed to my fascination with history and with old ways of doing things. I learned from my parents to have a deep respect for the Navajo and Puebloan peoples of the American Southwest, who proudly kept their traditions alive and who took pride in having done things pretty much the same way for eight hundred years, despite the disruption caused by the Spaniards and later by the Americans. I learned to respect for my own Germanic-influenced culture when I lived in Wisconsin: Midwesterners take care of the people in their neighbourhoods, and have a community ethic which other parts of the country sometimes lack – they take seriously their roles as their brothers’ keepers. I think I saw this as being very much a transplanted Old World phenomenon rather than a truly New World one, and that may have shaped much of my future leftism.

And I loved the aesthetics of European high culture. Thanks to my best and closest friend in elementary school (a self-described hopeless romantic and frantic half-Greek geek), I was introduced to the Moomin books by Tove Jansson – or at least, the Farrar, Straus and Giroux translations of them – and the British spelling and grammar rubbed off considerably on me, turning me into a staunch Anglophile. My list of favourite authors of fiction has consistently featured some fairly prominent Englishmen and -women: Thomas Malory, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Edith Pargeter, Jane Austen, Jo Rowling, Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Terry Pratchett. I was even an honest-to-God monarchist for a long while, and routinely defended the aesthetic merits of the Anglo-Catholic high-church tradition to my parents when we were members of an Episcopal church after moving to Rhode Island.

This may seem like a bit of a strange retrospective, but I think it has a significant bearing on my current political proclivities. What frightens me most about the Republican Party and the right in this country is precisely that they are not conservative in any meaningful sense of the word, but rather, they are radical. George W. Bush pursued policies which were actively and blatantly disruptive to the social order at home and to the global order abroad. He prided himself on his vulgarity and his anti-intellectualism, and he cultivated a politic of disrespect, impropriety and incivility which has carried itself into the current Republican Party and into the Tea Party movement – the current standard-bearers of this flaunted incivility are former governor Sarah Palin and representative Michele Bachmann, and its lasting icon is likely to be Senator Joe ‘You Lie’ Wilson. The language and tactics with which they rally their supporters are increasingly crude, increasingly ugly and increasingly bellicose. Those who promote respectful, meaningful debate, professional courtesy and fact-driven policy are dismissed as ‘thought police’ and doctrinaire agents of ‘political correctness’ and are routinely compared to fascists.

This should be nothing new. David Neiwert and the people running the blog Crooks and Liars have done an admirable job researching and reporting on the growing radicalism of the modern right. But sadly, the responsibility for this state of affairs in American politics lies also with the modern American left of the late 1960’s. I was not around during the 1960’s, but my father was in Washington while it was burning due to the riots that had replaced the civil, composed and courteous demonstrations of Martin Luther King, Jr. Something went wrong – a polarising lack of civility and respect crept into American politics in the 1960’s that we still haven’t been able to dislodge. The vital centre politics of Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Kennedy had been shattered. The radical left-wing Trotskyites for whom the ends justified any means transformed into neoconservative war-hawks while the advocates of the hedonistic, individualistic counter-culture suddenly became born-again neoliberals and Reagan supporters. Both have carried forward this total disrespect for expertise, for the rule of law and for legitimate authority which have gotten us into such deep trouble now in our foreign policy, in our environmental policy and in our economic policy.

This disrespect now runs rampant across all levels of society. Children don’t feel obliged to respect their parents. Parents don’t feel obliged to respect educators or academics. Teachers and professors don’t feel obliged to respect school administrators or parents. The society thrives on confrontation, promotes narrow self-interest and thrill-seeking at the expense of the environment and the community, and panders to the most vulgar and aesthetically unattractive aspects of our consumeristic drive with teenybopper music, Transformers and Twilight.

What we need is a new kind of socially-responsible, affirming communitarianism, analogous to the One Nation Conservative school among Great Britain’s Tories, as articulated by Phillip Blond. I think President Obama is on the right track in this regard, opening up discussion about civility, community and volunteer service, civic tradition, real family values (meaning: not thinly-disguised homophobia or misogyny), organic society and what T S Eliot called the ‘permanent things’. He may not get very far in implementing policies which will help bring about the kind of society we want, but I think the ideas he’s bringing forward may be enough to build a platform for a new kind of Democratic Toryism.

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