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Who Owns Conservatism?
In Dissent, Number One Hundred and Eight
by Brian S. Wise
20 May 2003

Regarding the ongoing struggle for the heart of conservatism. 

I just cannot get my mind around anything serious.  There is news, important news, everywhere, all revolving around genuine tensions, but none of it comes across as interesting just right now.  In the twilight of my career, I am more interested in the Atlanta Braves and their standing in the National League East (first place, plus four games over Montreal) than I am captivated by the woes of the world.  They say that with spring, a young man’s heart turns to the fairer sex … while the female form is a most desirable thing, any young man who begins and ends his spring without several in-depth considerations of baseball is not worth his salt.
           
One electronic mail temporarily brings me back to Earth.  A woman from Charleston, South Carolina writes to express some reservations about the Republican party’s movements.  “The Republican party does itself more damage than Democrats could ever inflict,” she laments.  In the subsequent text she explains an election scenario from a few years ago, where the local Republican party outed a gay fellow Republican, a county solicitor, and then chose a straight Republican to run against him.  The point, I am told, was to root homosexuals out of the local party.
 
And it worked; the straight candidate won by a few hundred votes.  “Do you realize,” the writer concludes, “that half the Republicans in Charleston did not care that the guy way gay?  He was a good prosecutor.  The Republican party tore itself into two pieces over this disgusting display of prejudice and none was hurt more than the people of South Carolina.  I wish the ultra-conservative Republicans would lighten up on women and homosexuals so it would not be so hard to vote for conservatives.”  I responded at some fair length: Me, too.
           
Now look: It is perfectly understood that the vast majority of conservatism exists within tightly defined religious boundaries, and within those boundaries it is rather implicitly said that homosexuality is a sin, and impermissible.  Whether anyone agrees with that sort of religious expression is beside the point; there is that freedom here, and if you fall to your knees every night and pray for the God’s assistance in the immediate destruction of all homosexuals, that is your business, so long as you do not act out on any impulses yourself.
           
But politically, the position makes no sense.  If you believe, as Senator Santorum was suggesting in a backhanded way, that it is possible to “love the sinner, but not love the sin,” the movement as a whole will one day be forced to ask itself, and honestly answer, “Is it or is it not for the ultimate benefit of the Republican party that a blind eye be turned to a few things it finds objectionable in order to continue prospering?”
           
Worse than this, what has irritated me lately is this ceaseless, territorial pissing contest between paleo-conservatives (those who have been conservatives since their umbilical cords were cut) and neo-conservatives (those who had the good sense to convert after claiming Leftism in earlier life).  The former is typified by Pat Buchanan, who does not care much for Jews, and the latter by Irving Kristol, who sometimes fails to make a lot of sense.  The odds are strongly against my agreeing with either man on every point of contention … so who am I, exactly?
           
What chafes me is the rather brash assertion, and it comes from certain members of each faction, that either paleo-conservatives or neo-conservatives have the right to claim they own, outright, the ideological foundations of conservatism in general.  Now, is there good in Old School conservatism?  Of course, but its steadfast refusal to modernize (e.g., to admit to itself that certain cultural battles are lost, just as others have been won or are being won, and adjusting accordingly) makes it harder and harder to consider seriously.  Is there good in, well, New School conservatism?  Of course, but its weakness is that it sometimes reverts back to the old Leftism too quickly when backed into certain ideological corners.  (E.g., I knew too many neo-conservatives who were willing to give Bill Clinton a complete pass on Weinergate, along with most of the Left.)
           
It should not have to be said that one is a conservative because he believes it is best for him, not so that he can argue with others of slightly varying beliefs (while managing, we forget, to agree on mostly everything else) over who has the purest motives.  Or does it?

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