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Where Are the Conservative Scolds of Yesteryear?

Conservatism is a mood or an attitude as much as, or perhaps more than, it is an “ideology.” The mid-20th century literary critic Lionel Trilling famously called conservatism nothing more than a collection of “irritable mental gestures,” but if that’s so, it’s a temptation almost all of us will come to feel at some point in our lives. Things fall apart, as W.B. Yeats famously observed; we all get old if we’re lucky, and miss the days of our youth, and envy the Youth Of Today who don’t appreciate how lucky they are to be young. Since life entails both constant change and constant deterioration, the world gets harder and harder for us to cope with, and we are wont to vent our spleen on younger people, who are not as clever and moral and hard-working as we were, when we were their age. Or so it seems to us. This is a complaint people have been making in writing ever since writing was invented, and doubtless long before that, too. We can be sure that when writing itself was new on the scene, all the old, blind oral poets disparaged its practitioners as smartass young people who were too lazy to memorize heroic-couplet epics.

Defenders of the existing sociopolitical and economic order have known at least since the ancient Roman Republic how to turn this very human tendency to their advantage. We wouldn’t wish to eradicate either the deep-seated attitude or the general political tendency even if we could; after all, not every proposed or actual change in society is beneficial, nor should even beneficial changes always be implemented as fast as possible. In short, caution is often the better part of wisdom, and from first principles alone, we can easily see that much of the knowledge and many of the values we inherit from the past are worth preserving, although both should always be open to challenge.

So, as annoying as conservative moral scolds can be, they sometimes have a point. But America produced way too many of them in the closing decades of the twentieth century and the first decade or so of the twenty-first, and they gained far too much power over the national political and cultural conversation. I’m thinking of people like Bill Bennett, whom Gen X and older Americans will remember as President Reagan’s Secretary of Education. He’s one of the foundational neoconservatives, an epic scold, much given to stiffening America’s moral backbone. In 1993, this worthy fellow propounded a great brick of a book, clocking in at well over 800 pages, for the instruction of the impressionable young, under the title The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories. His timing was exquisite, as moralistically minded conservatives embarked on their great journey of outrage at newly inaugurated Bill Clinton, who represented for them everything they despised about “the Sixties.” Drawing upon scads of material from writers down through the ages, Bennett lays out ten meaty chapters of moral instruction to warm the cockles of the conservative, “values voter’s” heart.

Such a man must surely have been beside himself at the blitzkrieg of his beloved Republican Party by the lady-parts-grabbing monster Trump, no? No; he is a MAGA of the first water. By gosh, the Very Stable Genius even found time to chat with him in the midst of the January 6 putsch, though the virtue of Bennett’s memory fails him about that fact, as is so often the case with Trump toadies.

I know it’s shooting fish in a barrel, but let’s examine how the Orange Baloney Monster measures up to the virtues Bennett claims to admire most, based on his chapter titles, shall we?

1. Self-Discipline? Right, in the president who threw ketchup at the White House wall when his putsch began collapsing;

2. Compassion? Remember when the Mountebank Messiah mocked a reporter’s disability, to the jeers of his mob?

3. Responsibility? “I don’t take responsibility at all,” and that’s a direct quote, straight outta the Little Red Book of Trump;

4. Friendship? You can ask many who thought themselves Friends of The Donald about that. Take his former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen, please;

5. Work? Trump spent something like a quarter of his presidency playing golf;

6. Courage? Who can possibly forget when Cadet Bone Spurs, whose rich father got him out of Vietnam on a fraudulent medical excuse, called those who fell in America’s wars “losers“?

7. Perseverance? Fine, we’ll give him that one—when it comes to never admitting to being wrong;

8. Honesty? The Washington Post tallied more than 30,000 lies during the Very Stable Genius’s term in office;

9. Loyalty? The guy’s own personal lawyer calls him “John the Backstabber”; and

10. Faith? Remember when he had peaceful protesters violently expelled from Lafayette Park so he could march across the street from the White House to a church that despised him and get a photo op with a Bible? He held the thing upside down, and when a reporter asked him the ultimate softball question of whether the book was a family Bible, he responded, “It’s a Bible.”

If there were truth in titles, Bill Bennett’s opus would more accurately bear the label, The Book of Bad Faith. And so we find once again, as “conservatives” pollute the American air with noisy threats, that no such creature as an actual conservative exists on these shores.


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