We all had our youthful indiscretions that haunt or amuse us for the rest of our lives. Mine was conservatism. Sometime late in high school, I fell under the spell of Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley, and about the first thing I did when I got to college was join the Party of the Right (POR). I didn’t last long in the party, only about a year. I got tired of all the pompous rituals, and political sanity returned, bringing me back to the left from which I’d started.
Looking back, I can only explain it as a perverse form of adolescent rebellion. But since membership is “for life at least,” I’m still on their mailing list. For years, I’d been meaning to check out their annual banquet. When I joined in 1971, “movement conservatism” was marginal everywhere, especially on campuses. Now things are very different, with laissez-faire economics revered around the world and the United States run in a fashion that a National Review editorialist could only have dreamed of a generation ago. And since this was the POR’S fiftieth-anniversary banquet, it promised to be an exuberant affair. So last December I sent for a pair of tickets at $75 apiece, and circled February 1 on my calendar.
The POR is one of the parties within the Yale Political Union, a debating society modeled on its Oxford namesake. Most Political Union members are perceived by outsiders as earnest and even dorky, but the POR is the only party that achieves serious levels of weirdness. Not the kind of weirdness famously catalogued by Orwell, who lamented socialism’s appeal to “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer” and the rest. Members of the POR wear black tie, not sandals, and the surroundings are posher than Orwell had in mind. But a POR meeting is something truly extraplanetary.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. The site of the festivities was the Quinnipiack Club, an establishment whose taste for oil paintings of hunting dogs was evidence of its Anglophile aspirations (despite its location in downtown New Haven). Pre-dinner drinks were unremarkable; I chatted up a few student members and some alums, who seemed quite happy with the Bush Administration (despite some reservations about civil liberties). But for a gathering of presumed political junkies, the conversations (even the overheard ones) were remarkably apolitical.
Even when we were seated at our assigned tables, politics still took a back seat to the awkward chitchat one makes with strangers. I spent much of the dinner speaking with the neighbor to my right (of course), an engaging painter whose favorite artistic subjects are bruised limbs and severed heads.
But things really livened up once the mediocre food was cleared away and the toasting session began. A POR toasting ritual is organized around a “green cup”–a large silver cup filled with a vile green punch. The first toaster is always the current chairman (so called even though the current officeholder is a woman), who began with the traditional reading of the speech given in 1649 by the party’s hero, King Charles I of England, just before his head was lopped off by an executioner. It’s strange enough that American conservatives would support a monarch against the claims of Parliament, but the speech is even stranger: “I must tell you that the liberty and freedom [of the people] consists in having of Government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in Government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” Having performed her task, the chairman passed the cup to her right (of course), to another officer, who performed the ritual recitation of the British monarchs, starting with Egbert. So much for the Declaration of Independence.