Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Old-Fashioned Conservatives and New-Right Radicals (1 Sept. 2013)

            I think it was some time in the 1970s, and I was in Oxford, Ohio, early in my career as a teacher at Miami University. In any event, there was a strike in Hamilton, Ohio, and some College Republicans from Miami U were driven over to Hamilton in an armored truck and worked as strike breakers. According to an interview in The Miami Student, the student newspapers, the College Repubs mostly saw their ride and their work as fun, something of a lark.

            I mentioned this story to a conservative colleague in my department, and he said something like, "Miami students scabbed … for entertainment?" I said that I didn't think they needed money, so, yeah, for entertainment and to make an ideological point.

            He kind of shuddered and said, "You don't do that …. I mean, maybe if you have to put food on the table, but you don't scab for kicks or to make a point. It's not decent."


            My colleague was an old-fashioned kind of conservative, with a strong sense of decency, a working-class background, and — whatever his complaints about unions — "scab" and "to scab" as part of his active vocabulary. Our larking, strikebreaking, scabbing students were something neither he nor I had encountered before.

            Later in my career, I was a senior faculty representative to Miami U's Student Affairs Council and kind of an informal parliamentarian. One new student member of Council moved and his buddy seconded a motion to reconstitute Council's membership. They moved to replace in the student delegation the Vice President for Minority Affairs of Associated Student Government with the Vice President for Communication. They thought it would make a neater organizational chart having the ASG liaison officer on SAC rather than the ASG VP for Minority Affairs.

            The Chairman of Council was the highly effective — as in "iron-fisted" — University "Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students," and Consigliere for Enforcement (my formulation) for the University President. The Chair turned to me and said, "Can we do that?" I thought for a moment and replied, "Well, Student Affairs Council lacks power to actually do very much, so we'd be advising the Trustees to impose on Student Government a change in the ASG constitution and by-laws. We can advise that; it's just that the Trustees as a matter of principle don't have the authority to order such a change — no outsiders can change a group's constitution or by-laws — and as a matter of politics, it would be, let's say, imprudent." Whoo, boy, would it have been imprudent! They'd have looked tyrannical over a relative trifle, and racist, since the word "minority" at Miami University meant Black, and we were notorious for having very, very few minority students. "So, yes, we can advise the Trustees to act inappropriately, but they will probably politely ignore us or send the recommendation back with a rebuke."

            The Chair turned to the President of ASG and unofficial head of the student delegation. "Does ASG want us to make this change?" he asked. The Student Body President said "No!" very emphatically, adding that the proposal had come to ASG from the two movers, and ASG had voted it down. Indeed, the idea had received just about no support except from these two guys and some allies from a group that had sprung up on campus recently, and with a lot of money. (A reporter for The Miami Student was convinced the student group was shilling for some rich big-wigs in Ohio politics, but he couldn't prove it and get the story published. The reporter thought the highly traditional Miami Student was about to get challenged by the Midwestern foreshadowing of The Dartmouth Review.)

            The two young men repeated that replacing the student VP for Minority Affairs with the VP for Communication would be logical and make for a cleaner ASG table of organization and a more coherent student delegation.

            And then, significantly, one of my older colleagues spoke up: an Asian-American Christian conservative from the Department of History.

            Assuming but not calling attention to the irony, this historian pointed out that his two younger colleagues on Council had a point about the abstract logic of tables of organization but left out a crucial factor, or at least a crucial factor for conservatives. Whatever the soundness of their arguments in terms of abstract logic, their predecessors in Associated Student Government hadn't been stupid, and there were historical reasons why ASG had as part of their delegation their VP for Minority Affairs, historical reasons that were still valid. As a principle of parliamentary procedure, the burden of proof lies with those wishing to change things, and as a principle of traditional conservatism, "Unless it's necessary to change things, it is necessary not to change things."

            These two guys from the Right of the College Republicans — remnants of the YAFers and precursors of Tea Party Youth — were engaging in the sort of abstract, historically ignorant — and proud of it!— futzing around with organization that drives traditional conservatives up the wall. They were engaging in this exercise not to actually get something done but to stir up racial issues and to appeal to some outside audience. This pissed off pretty much everyone else on Council, including our energetically authoritarian Chair.

            The motion had been made and seconded, and received in its favor the votes of the mover and seconder and failed, miserably ....

            Except, of course, the motion undoubtedly succeeded with its intended audience, who were not the Miami University people who would vote on it. The reporter for The Miami Student never did identify the sponsors of our New Right activists, but the circumstantial evidence is that they were alive and powerful in places like Cincinnati, Canton, and the Ohio General Assembly.

            My historian colleague was respectable Old-Old-Right Conservative, in the tradition of Edmund Burke; the two punks on Council were the new version, and what we are seeing more of today: wise-ass theorists, with impressive financial backing, guys who don't care much about tradition or history or, in a lot of cases, morality, decency, or just plain manners. These were the Miami U version of what Randy Newman identified (let's say through a synecdoche and the imperatives of rime), as "college men from LSU / Went in dumb — came out dumb too": far too refined to be "rednecks / […] keeping the niggers down," but willing to earn brownie points, and money, by trying to ensure that minority students wouldn't be guaranteed a voice on a Council, in a seat open to, and sometimes taken by, straight WASP or WASC males.

            (As a priest explained to me, there was no contradiction that Miami University, like many public universities, has a plurality of Catholics and is still WASPish: many MU students were WASCs, White Catholics, sufficiently assimilated and homogenized that for all practical purposes, they're WASPs.)

            I envy the energy and cockiness of these New Right students, especially the ones who'd risk getting their asses kicked as scabs. I envy their certainty. But these folk are cocky and certain mostly, I suspect, because they're privileged, because they've never encountered a problem Mom and Dad and family connections and wealth couldn't get them out of. And they have their theories (God, do they have their theories!) often enough — like, for a while, Miami alum Paul Ryan — out of Ayn Rand.

            So let us praise old conservatives, such as my two colleagues, and let us be very, very suspicious about the new varieties passing themselves off as conservatives. The New Right punks, female as well as male, have their theories and their rich supporters, and they want to push things around — and willing to push people around; they call themselves conservatives, but in their actions they repeat the worst mistakes and habits of radicals. 

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