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Prose & Cons

Pens at the ready, conservative writers march forward into the past in a new anthology

By Richard von Busack

Even the socialist George Orwell was known to quote a conservative occasionally; Orwell admired, for instance, Tory editor and writer G. K. Chesterton's comment that the phrase "My country, right or wrong" makes as much sense as "My mother, drunk or sober." A writer's political prejudices ought not exceed his prejudice against bad prose.

Unfortunately, that delicate ordering of biases escapes the management of such neoconservative periodicals as The American Spectator, The New Republic and The National Review. Many of the essayists who work for those publications predictably pop up in the recent collection Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing, and, all too often, they present an intellectual aspect like the physical aspect of the aristos in a Goya painting: stuffed, stupidly proud, vaguely terrified. If the anthology serves any purpose, it is to suggest to liberal readers that we should simultaneously loosen up and grow some morals.

The 40-plus essays in the collection have been selected by David Brooks, late of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, recently of Rupert Murdoch's conservative periodical The Standard. He has sorted the essays into loose categories--"Pieties," "Pleasures," "Attachments," "Aspirations," "Responsibilities," "Confrontations." How is a piety different from an aspiration? The answer is that the pieties in question are liberal pieties. Conservatives complaining about liberal pieties are an ironic sight--Lord knows, they want to force theirs down the necks of the unwilling. (I do favor returning prayer to school. I know no better way to induce the cardinal virtue of religious skepticism into a generation.)

In his introductory essay, Brooks focuses on how "The Conservative," despite his thin-lipped and disapproving mien, is really a party animal: a P.J. O'Rourke for revelry, a Christopher Buckley for wit. "These days, conservatives are as likely to draw inspiration from Falstaff as Savonarola," reveals Brooks. ("Have I, in my poor and old motion, the expedition of thought?"--Sir John Falstaff, Henry IV, Part II.)

Brooks goes on to mention that that intellectual Kohinoor, Dana Rohrabacher--who never misses his reserved slot on the annual lists of the 10 stupidest congressmen--has a penchant for surfing. Also know that "Danny Wattenberg, a writer for conservative newspapers, began as a punk rocker." The recreations of great minds. It's not that the left thought that the right had no capacity for fun, but rather that it was having a little too much fun with the environment, with people's livelihoods and so forth.

Still, mustn't sound preachy here--it's what they hate us for. Take, for starters, Joe Queenan's essay about how people are interfering with his right to smoke: "Yuppies are all like Molly Ivins: they like to sermonize, but they only want to do it on the Mount. If they did in on the street, they'd get a punch in the nose." Liberal columnist Ivins works in Texas, a state we Walker, Texas Ranger fans know is as full of nose-punchers as any in the nation, and Ivins takes a lot more heat than Queenan does for his own supremely unfunny "yet another aggrieved New York loudmouth" shtick.

Fighting the culture wars isn't easy if you don't have any ammo. Queenan's brand of impotent abrasiveness was epitomized by his memorably ignorant essay on jazz, which Spy found fit to print just before it collapsed. Blissfully unchastened by that example, Brooks offers further conservative jazz critiquing in Backward and Upward.

Tom Bethell is excerpted in an essay on the decline of black culture. Well, really, it is an essay on I know not what. Bethell makes a schematic connection between urban renewal, rap music and the decline of an old jazz musician he used to like to visit and patronize in a three-headed argument against funding public housing and putting up public money for jazz and rap music.

Here's a good rest stop in Bethell's line of reasoning: "Compared to many Irishmen in nineteenth-century Ireland, for example, most blacks in New Orleans lived in comfort, even in the 'Jim Crow' years." Some more cross-cultural comparisons for your approval: Compared to the red-light district in Hamburg, most Americans live in a morally reticent country. Compared to a soldier on Anzio Beach in 1944, a modern-day citizen of the South Bronx has little to fear from gunfire. And so forth.

Bethell turns especially heated describing how the great old garden of jazz became the modern-day desert of rap, where "dybbuks hop on pogo sticks and imps squeak and tease from a multitrack electronic inferno that just won't quit." This isn't a music review, this is the Temptation of Saint Anthony.

At least Bethell knows his old-time jazz. Unlike the other correspondents in Backward and Upward, who know only what is inside the round of their skulls. Consider Peggy Noonan's essay, "You'd Cry Too if It Happened to You." Noonan, a former Reagan speech writer (author, or rather, authorette, of What I Saw at the Revolution) is a 30-something without wisdom who writes like a 80-something without wisdom.

She starts by skating into nostalgia for a good Catholic upbringing, which fuzzes into her golden memories of television reruns. We have it so good, she reminds us--just compare the set of The Honeymooners with the set of Family Ties. On the evidence of this essay alone, which "glows blue with television," to use a phrase of Tom Wolfe's, Noonan was born to write speeches for Ronald Reagan. What will become of her now?

Inevitable as a smog alert in summer, there is P.J. O'Rourke cheerleading the conservative counterattack on the election of Bill Clinton with a quote from John Belushi's Bluto character in Animal House: "Take no prisoners!" A typical O'Rourke witticism rises no higher than his hope that the watchword from here on will be "Free alcohol and not 'alcohol-free.' " O'Rourke, ex- of The National Lampoon, lately Contributing Editor in Charge of Deriding Foreigners for Rolling Stone, is really more like a gnat than a gadfly these days, and you don't have to be Johnny Temperance to draw an inference between O'Rourke's praise of booze and the steady decline of his prose skills over the past decade.

On an even lower end, consider Dan Shiftell's lament, "A Man, His Dog, and a Sad Story of Betrayal," in which he relates how he was forced (by liberals?) to have his dog castrated. Would a woman weeping about the removal of her kitty's ovaries have made editor Brooks' cut? More importantly: if they'd really wanted to emasculate the dog, why didn't they just make him register his handgun?

Laments for lost dog balls aside, the principal infuriation in Backward and Upward is not William Bennett quoting Edmund Burke on the French Revolution to describe the violence after the Rodney King verdicts (which reminded me of a favorite cartoon: A king on the scaffold in front of the guillotine glares at the crowd come to watch the execution and demands, "Why aren't you all at work?").

Nor is it Charles Murray's piece on "The Coming White Underclass" with its novel proposition that "illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time--more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness, because it drives them all." (America will never want for bastards even if you brought back the scarlet letter for adultery.)

No. What really makes my blood boil is Mark Helprin's obscene gassing about how "I Dodged the Draft and I Was Wrong." The True Confessions clumsiness of the title says it all. This sort of apologia is a fixture in neoconservative lore. Christopher Buckley, also represented in the anthology (badly, for a witty writer), has elsewhere toyed with the subject of his personal case of lack-of-traumatic-stress-syndrome.

Edward Tick wrote one for The New York Times Sunday Magazine several years ago that I've kept as a special item of loathing. "War," Tick observed, "is a required course and a course with a final examination. I was, I came to feel, among those men of my generation who had never been tested." Tick was, and perhaps still is, a psychiatrist in Buffalo, N.Y. Heaven help his patients.

From his post as a contributing editor at The Wall Street Journal, sometime novelist Helprin (A Winter's Tale), begs a graduating West Point class for forgiveness for having dodged the draft, saying he only found redemption later after joining the Israeli army. The cadets must have loved it. If I were a Vietnam veteran, I cannot imagine how I could respond to such bleating this side of assault.

Helprin's cataract of crocodile tears includes a particularly interesting droplet: his favorable comparison of Vietnam to the debacle in the Western Front. Most historians agree that World War I served no real purpose, a consensus that mirrors the equally agreed-upon futility of Vietnam 50 years later. Helprin, however, figures that Vietnam was the more noble of the two disasters on the grounds that "at least the war in Vietnam was fought in the context of a policy of containment that later was to triumph." But if the Communists won the Vietnam war and collapsed anyway, just what good was containment?

The beauty of writing about war is that you can fight it all again in the privacy of your home, using statistics to prove that a losing battle was actually won. However, the idea that there is a necessary male nobility instilled by having faced such horror, a nobility that the rest of us guys ought to have instilled in us, that we are somehow not whole without it--now, that is indeed a monstrous, murderous lie.

Such lies spring from admiring the rhetoric of writers who were then, as now, safe from battle. Ideals about war in these terms of "honor" and "manhood" have sprung, like dandelions in a vacant lot, into the minds of a generation of neocons spared from war. Wilfrid Owen, who perished on the Western Front a few days before the Armistice, warned the civilian that if he might see the horrors of war, he would not

tell with such high zest
to children ardent for some desperate glory
the old lie, dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori.

Owen was quoting from the Roman poet Horace: "It is lovely and honorable to die for one's country." No one can beat a new conservative writer's admiration of such loveliness. Here's Peggy Noonan on the war zone-like aspect of modern America: "We cannot write our memoirs and say,' Good-bye to all that,' cannot tell stories of how our boots rotted in the mud. ... They don't know we're brave. They don't know we fight in the trenches, too." It's a long way from prep school to Tipperary.

The conservative mentality insists that you can't honor warriors without honoring war. No doubt this is the reason for the inclusion of the best essay in here, Christopher Clausen's tenebrous piece about ghosts in his family. Clausen, too good for this Tory hodgepodge, is possibly welcomed aboard because he discusses his father's love for histories of the Civil War. Only history wonks (who can automatically kill any conversation with a breathless "and then, a fanatical Serbian student named Gavrilio Princip ..."), like soldiers, know how much more we have in common with each other than with the outside world.

Thus, it is enjoyable to read David Frum's essay memorializing Russell Kirk, a fine old history crank and ex-National Review writer from Michigan, lovable more for his dislike of automobiles and shopping malls than for his book The Conservative Mind, supposedly a classic of its kind but which, in excerpt, resembles in tone A Confederacy of Dunces' monograph by Ignatius J. Reilly on the iniquities of the 20th century: "Blood on the Hands: The Crime of It All."

Humanities professor Allan Bloom's crankiness is similarly celebrated by adoring student Clifford Orwin in "Remembering Allan Bloom." The late Bloom was author of The Closing of the American Mind, the bestseller that, after gross simplification by conservative pundits, became the focus of the nonissue that reading of alternative texts was somehow eclipsing the classics on college campuses.

"Allan was a live wire. ... He was a superhero," gushes a still-reverent Orwin. It's not my place to teach professors, but if I were in the humanities, the students would damned well know both their Shakespeare and their Zora Neale Hurston, and I would never accept the conclusion that the reading of one drives out reading of another. (If college students have time to watch Friends, it's proof positive that they're not being assigned enough reading.)

"[Bloom] regarded some books as worth more than others," Orwin explains, "precisely because they spoke to absolutely anybody who would take the trouble to listen to them." This quality is as true of Frederick Douglass as it is of Jonathan Swift, and yet, later, "Allan's advice to his graduate students was to find one great writer and stick with him. He believed that the key to learning was to live for a lifetime with the few great texts that most engaged you." Grand advice for a budding pedant. Is it any wonder the American mind closed?

But that's Backward and Upward for you. The conservative essays aren't good, and the good essays aren't necessarily conservative. Take Andrew Ferguson's somewhat amusing piece on "America's New Man" about the sensitivity of the post-Robert Bly drumming male. There's a sensitive sitting duck, a figure of such fun that neither left or right has spared him.

Florence King's "Dorothy Parker, Uncompassionate Liberal" discusses how un-PC Parker would have been considered by modern feminists, although Parker was, as King is forced to admit, fiercely left-wing. And yet King has a point. Humorlessness can mark the left, known for a reluctance to take a joke. Of course, a joke wielded by someone who has power over you isn't a joke, it's an insult--something you have to take whether you like it or not.

It may make more sense for the conservatives to appropriate Cole Porter than Dorothy Parker. Still, Richard Brookhiser's essay on Porter, "The Clever Life," begs the question, What's Cole Porter doing hanging out with these neocons? For having done the right thing by getting married to a woman even though he was gay? For liking rich people? The left may be on the defensive, but when the right starts claiming Dorothy Parker, "Night and Day," histories of the Civil War and Allan Bloom's beloved Flaubert as its political artifacts, it amounts to a cultural war crime--invaders sacking a museum.

The book reflects the amusing dilemma in which conservatives find themselves a scant year after the nation had supposedly turned irrevocably to the right. Squirm, boys, squirm! The Cold War was the right's consensus point; now that containment has vamoosed into history, the mass of conservatives, neo- and otherwise, is uncertain on social issues: split over the decision to be pro- or anti-choice, pro- or anti-smoking (Queenan's screed shares space with Buckley's mean satire of the tobacco industry), isolationist or militaristic.

Here, Buckley's observation that the trifling use of the phrase "lock and load" profanes the grunts who presumably used it in Vietnam. There, O'Rourke advises his fellow conservatives to make "lock and load" their cry against the Clintons. (A few weeks ago, Patrick Buchanan was saying that the cry "lock and load!" is what the Founding Fathers would exclaim to each other if confronted with today's secular humanists. What the Founding Fathers would say to Patrick Buchanan makes for even better daydreaming.)

Florence King's insistence that "the last witty civilizations were the last bastions of aristocracy" is interspersed with many tirades (among them one by Rush Falstaff, I mean, Limbaugh) about the elitism of the left versus the wisdom of the common man. And you thought liberals were in disarray. Backward and Upward is a selection of writers who have no issues but a great refusal, and no direction to go in but backward.


Backward and Upward: The New Conservative Writing, edited by David Brooks; Vintage; 330 pages; $13.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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