Oct 4, 2008

October 2, 2008: A Question of Will, Exile on Main Street, Victims of Property and Standing

Once, when writing about his youth, political columnist George F. Will described growing up in the plains of central Illinois. His friends, he said sadly, were St. Louis Cardinals fans, and grew up to be happy and liberal. Will tells us that he became an ardent Chicago Cubs fan and grew to be, in his words, “bitter and conservative”. Baseball can do that to a man.

There are two subjects about which George F. Will writes passionately and convincingly. The first is poverty in the South Side of Chicago and the second is the Cubs. While his remedies about the insufferable conditions that plague both his major interests remain suspect, his description of their plight is deeply moving. No one in America writes as lucidly as Will about what it is to grow up in Chicago's tenements. No one in America writes as lucidly as Will about the “lovable losers” who have not been champions of baseball since well before they took up residence at Wrigley Field. Over a quarter century ago Will wrote about the hapless Cubs sounding very much like a boy writing about a drunken or absent father; a boy bonded with his 'hero' but nevertheless brought to the awful reality that Dad had not accepted the responsibilities of adulthood. There is something about naming a team after an immature animal, he opined. Think about it: Bronco's, strong, fast; Boilermakers, huge manly biceps; Lions and Bears, fast, strong, ferocious: Cubs, warm, friendly, playful. Chicagoans regularly and lovingly refer to the Cubs as the “Baby Bears” and they have lived up to that moniker.

It has now been a century since the Cubs were last champions of their sport. A lot has come and gone in the interregnum. Many years later Will would write bitterly by counting the number of Presidential administrations since the last Cubs' championship and pointing out that there have been two world wars, a Great Depression, and numberless other events marking the intervening years, finally proposing a one game season so that the Cubs would never finish any more than one game out of first place.

To be a Chicago sports fan in general, and a Cubs' fan in particular, carries with it a weight of significance transcending sports. The word “Fan” is, of course, a contraction of the word “fanatic”. To be a true fanatic one must hold that the object in question—be that his beloved Cubs or conservative political philosophy—embodies untarnished “goodness”. It follows then that one's opponents therefore represent the forces of “evil”, all that is bad and sullied about the world. To be, therefore, a Chicago sports fan one must at a tender age come to grips with the awful reality that the forces of “Evil” almost always prevail. A persecution complex emerges hardening over time into a bedrock conservatism. George Will became, in his own words, “conservative and bitter.”

You're out of time my baby
my poor discarded baby
'cause baby, baby, baby, you're out of time” -- The Rolling Stones “Out of Time” (1)

Corey Robin in an essay entitled “Out of Place” quotes the opening statement of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie's “The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945-2000” that 'the central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement'. “Yet”, writes Robin, “for some reason Will still feels that the travails of his political kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized”. Robin continues: “Will is not the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted conservatism from the beginning when emegres fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. (2) Buckley and his cohorts saw themselves at “out of place” with their badge of exclusion making them just about the “hottest thing in town” (2)

“Plato's guardians were wise”, writes Robin, “Aquinas's king was good; Hobbes's sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy that Maistre could muster in “Considerations on France” (1787) was that his aspiring king had attended the 'terrible school of adversity”. Similarly Edmund Burke in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790) would describe Marie Antoinette “dragged 'almost naked' by 'the furies of hell' from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to 'a Bastille for kings' in Paris'. “Marie Antoinette”, Robin continues, “ was a particular kind of loser, a person with everything who finds herself utterly and at once dispossessed. Burke saw in her fall an archetype of classical tragedy, the great person laid low by fortune. But in tragedy, the most any hero can achieve is an understanding of his fate: the wheel of time cannot be reversed; suffering cannot be undone. Conservatives, however, are not content with illumination or wisdom. They want restoration.” (2)

What we have here, according to Robin, is the truly “bizarre” nature of modern Conservatism: a ruling class that for the first time rests its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood asking “us not to obey them but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them.” Whereas other political movements must persuade “the disenfranchised that they have rights and power”, the modern conservative poses a novel justification: “they are aggrieved and entitled—aggrieved because entitled—and already convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the inevitability of its triumph. They can play victim and victor with a conviction and dexterity the subaltern can only imagine, making them formidable claimants on our allegiance and affection.” (2)

This, in large measure, explains the tone of our national political conventions. For the most part, red meat to the party faithful aside, the Democratic conventions offer visions of hope with Obama leading his convention into a packed outdoor arena and an audience of 85,000 telling the country that we are in this together. The Republicans echoing the pattern of Goldwater and Buchanan gathered in the confines of a Minneapolis arena to grouse about what has been taken and what they fear is about to be taken from them. It was an exercise in the politics of bitterness, the politics of victimhood. At no time did they speak to the economic crises facing the working and middle classes; instead embracing novel ways to continue the business of unraveling the New Deal. No the conservative conscience knows neither intelligence nor compassion; to embrace either would simply impede the restoration.

There are many roads that lead to the miserable place called the Republican Party. Some have been laid low by fortune and find themselves backsliding into the indistinguishable masses and are embittered by the experience. Victims of property and standing. Others, with far less pretensions, simply embraced the wrong team.



2. Robin, Corey. “Out of Place” The Nation June 23, 2008 pages 25-33

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