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The Conservative Imagination | The Nation

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The Conservative Imagination

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Dinesh D'Souza became a right-wing campus radical at Dartmouth in the late Carter years. His motives should be recognizable to former campus radicals of the other variety. In 1980 a young conservative at an elite university had more fun. He mocked his humorless liberal professors, scandalized the tender sensibilities of his classmates, fought the administration's attempts to censor his outrageous publication and saw his antics make national news. He was the true anti-authoritarian, member of a countercultural vanguard that couldn't be bothered with decency because there were omelets to be made. "To confront liberalism fully we could not be content with rebutting liberal arguments," he writes in the enemy's tongue. "We also had to subvert liberal culture, and this meant disrupting the etiquette of liberalism. In other words, we had to become social guerrillas."

About the Author

George Packer
George Packer is the author of two novels and two works of nonfiction, most recently Blood of the Liberals, which won...

Also by the Author

Muslim "fundamentalists" are often people from the striving middle class.

This is an insignificant little book--a make-book, like most of D'Souza's five others (that Letters to a Young Conservative and Whittaker Chambers's Witness can both be called books suggests that a more discriminating term needs to be invented). Part of its shallowness lies in the fact that stunts like trying to get university funding for a Dartmouth Bestiality Society always seem funnier at the time. These letters to a young correspondent named "Chris" recount the merry pranks of D'Souza's youth and then guide the protégé through correct thinking on the major issues. Unless you already believe that global warming means "Brazil's loss is Minnesota's gain," or that liberals go into sociology because their ideas crumble on contact with the hard sciences, Letters to a Young Conservative won't convince anyone of anything. Its tone is the smug self-congratulation ("I am delighted that you enjoyed my Reagan book so much"; "I see you found my letter on homosexuals quite amusing") of an undergraduate who's learned how to one-up and enrage inferior debate opponents. Rather like certain graybeards who never got over Berkeley or Columbia, D'Souza's mental world has been stunted by early glory at Dartmouth, and by having spent most of his subsequent career as a heavily subsidized, traveling provocateur who specializes in baiting college audiences and watching them react. When a student disrupts his lecture by walking out, D'Souza gets a laugh by announcing into the mike, "I realize that diarrhea can be a serious problem"--an anecdote related in a chapter titled "How to Harpoon a Liberal." In trying to be witty, D'Souza would have done better trying to be fair.

This book's value is entirely symptomatic. It suggests what's happened to conservatism in the two decades since D'Souza joined the Dartmouth Review, at a moment when liberals had grown fat in the waist and were prime for poking. Twenty years later, after soft landings in the second Reagan Administration, the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, what's become of the not-so-young conservative and his worldview, now that liberals seem pretty thoroughly beaten?

To begin, he is absolutely certain of that view--not just of its moral and intellectual soundness but of its inevitable triumph. There are no difficult questions to decide, no philosophical tensions to resolve, no former positions to reconsider--none of the things that would excite the hypothetical author of Letters to a Young Liberal. On the roll call of issues--economics, affirmative action, feminism, guns, homosexuality, the environment, abortion, globalization--D'Souza has all the troops in order, spit-shined and at attention. And in the same way, the enemy is lined up to be shot through unblinking caricature: "Liberalism has become the party of anti-Americanism, economic plunder, and immorality." When the young correspondent "Chris" proclaims himself a "libertarian conservative," D'Souza congratulates him on neatly evading the fundamental contradiction between freedom and authority at the heart of American conservatism. Simple-mindedness goes under the heading of upbeatness, and "We are justified in being upbeat because we know that we are in the right, and that the right will eventually prevail." These intellectual shortcuts and complacencies would embarrass the writers invoked in the reading list that makes up D'Souza's last chapter.

Of course, it isn't news that conservatives at least act less ambivalent and more cocksure than liberals. A book could be written on the theme that liberalism's problem is that it always involves complication and uncertainty. In his preface to The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling wanted to "recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty." That was in 1950, when political liberalism had reached its zenith and Trilling was worrying aloud that it had grown crudely deterministic at least in part because it lacked any viable conservative counterforce. At midcentury Trilling pleaded with American conservatives to revive themselves philosophically for the health of liberalism. And so they did. Today one can imagine an intelligent conservative like David Brooks begging liberals to find their voices so that conservatism doesn't stiffen like the liberalism to which D'Souza and his pals at Dartmouth delivered a few swift kicks on the eve of the Reagan revolution.

But to judge by the tone and content of this book, and of so much conservative talk in magazines and on TV and radio, it's already happened. The disease of success has begun to waste the musculature; a new cycle of atrophy has set in. Electoral victory is a nice thing, but it doesn't necessarily signify intellectual health--as the Democrats found out after 1976. It's not just that there are no new conservative ideas; it's that the old ideas sound hollow at the core. Thus, D'Souza has to maintain with a straight face and the flicker of a smile that "more and more people are moving into the ranks of the affluent classes"; that "the power of big business over the average American is quite limited"; that "in their personal conduct, conservatives do not claim to be better than anyone else"; that the solution to crime is more guns; that the key to environmental protection is more growth; that the world's poor have no objections to globalization. Some of it is questionable, some of it is flatly wrong and much of it sooner or later will bump up against the wall of reality. But conservatives of D'Souza's age--which is mine, and I've been watching them since we were in college--are generationally in the same position as liberals of Trilling's or Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s.

Their adult lives have coincided with an era of political triumphs (D'Souza understands that even Clinton represented a conservative triumph of sorts). The intellectual work done by neoconservatives of a previous generation brought insurgents like D'Souza into a position where they could enjoy power and influence. They tasted it early, and they liked it. Who wouldn't, with all those soft landings? Just as universities, liberal foundations and, ultimately, Democratic administrations were waiting for the likes of Trilling and Schlesinger, an archipelago of business-funded think tanks, foundations, publishing ventures, lecture circuits and, of course, Republican administrations has underwritten careers like D'Souza's. Liberals writing for the omnipotent liberal media can only dream of the rewards that have come the way of a whole generation of conservatives. Ideas Have Consequences was the title of a 1948 manifesto by the conservative writer Richard Weaver, cited in D'Souza's reading list--and millionaires and corporations have taken it very seriously. But by cyclical entropy, or some mental version of Gresham's law, that very seriousness has produced a culture of heavy subsidy and institutionalization that is bound to end up the enemy of thought and to produce books like Letters to a Young Conservative. Dinesh D'Souza is symptomatic of this process today in the same way that writers proclaiming the death of conservatism in 1964 indicated the low fuel level of Kennedy-era liberalism.

A serious book by a conservative today would face the dilemma I mentioned above--that freedom and authority are profoundly at odds. Any true conservative (as opposed to a mere libertarian) has to be disturbed, if not disgusted, by the spectacle of contemporary America. If belief in a traditional and externally existing system of moral values by which human beings must organize the good society is the philosophical touchstone of conservatism, then America today represents the closest thing on earth to its actual repudiation. In this sense the Islamists are right to hate us, and the initial reaction to September 11 from the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson was philosophically correct. It wasn't long ago that a slew of books with titles like Slouching Towards Gomorrah and The Death of Outrage and The De-Moralizing of America were pouring from conservative writers and publishers like the curses of Jeremiah. September 11 prompted an about-face: Suddenly the instant books, in some cases from the same authors, were resolutely proclaiming Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism and What's So Great About America (D'Souza's contribution to the genre).

And by the same token, any true conservative must be uneasy with how completely the Republican Party has submitted to the interests of big business. The making of money doesn't signify any higher value, and in techno-capitalist America it is the single strongest force for crushing competing values, including what are known as "family values." No one can seriously despise the trash culture of TV, video, music and the Internet without having deep concerns about the unregulated industries and the glorification of wealth that produce it. But you won't find them in the undivided mind of Dinesh D'Souza or most of the other conservatives who turn out the books and commentaries. America is being polluted, they argue, by something called the liberal media, not the corporate media--get rid of liberalism and we'll be clean as well as rich.

Beneath this immunity to critical thinking lies an aversion to disturbing the party's electoral success. D'Souza and his contemporaries came in with Reagan, and unlike the right wing that produced Goldwater or even the neoconservatives of the 1970s, conservatives under 45 have always enjoyed a heady, intimate association with political power. Unlike Buckley, Rusher, Kristol and Podhoretz, they never learned the value of wandering in the wilderness for a decade or two. They expect to win. Like the Best and Brightest under Kennedy, their rhetorical style is arrogant and their politics mainly strategic. Losing doesn't have an automatically stimulating effect on ideas, but in the case of earlier conservatives it made them work harder and think more boldly than coalition maintenance and presidential apologetics could ever have done. With D'Souza we have the young conservative turned organization man. He seems to understand instinctively that too much thinking might endanger the two-headed Republican anomaly of business conservatives joined to moral conservatives. Last month's election suggests that this creature, especially during wartime, could have a potent political future. No one knows yet whether 2002 is 1966 or 1970--a realignment or an adjustment. The results have no doubt spread more sunshine across D'Souza's mental scenery. I can't help wondering, though, whether the didactic complacency of these letters will actually inspire any young conservatives out there--or whether a new turn of the wheel has already begun, with Dinesh D'Souza destined for the role once played by hapless university presidents.

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