Confessions of a Metropolitan Conservative
Ah, authenticity! You can't buy it, you can't fake it, and you can't help but wish you had it.
This all started with a lady across from me at a dinner party, a lady visiting from Virginia. We had established in some opening exchanges that she was a keen reader of my web columns. But how was it, she wanted to know, that I had not thrown in my five cents worth on the Rick Santorum business? Well, I said, I did actually pass some remarks of a general kind about it in my April diary. Pshaw, said the lady, but I hadn't declared myself. Where did I stand? What did I think about sodomy laws?
Well, I said, on the matter before the Supreme Court, I agree that there is no constitutional right to sodomy, incest or adultery, even between consenting adults. And as a conservative, I am temperamentally hostile to the idea that there are fundamental rights hidden in the Constitution that have somehow escaped the notice of scholars and jurists for 200 years until a rich, noisy lobby came along to agitate for them. And I would be very surprised to learn, if it could be learned, that the Founding Fathers had intended such a right, given that practically everyone back then believed homosexual sex to be a revolting crime against nature. And furthermore …
Yes, yes, said the lady, but where did I stand on sodomy laws? For or against?
I said I didn't see why the people of Texas shouldn't have sodomy laws if that is what they want. And having already said that I didn't see a right to sodomy in the Constitution, I didn't see how such a law could be unconstitutional …
The lady was losing patience. Would I kindly give her a straight answer? If I lived in a state that put matters to referendum via a ballot initiative, and if there was a referendum to put a law against sodomy on the books, which way would I vote?
I said I would vote against, because I don't see much point having laws on the books if you aren't prepared to send people to jail for breaking them; and sending homosexuals to jail seems to me to be a really, really silly idea.
"Ah," she said, in the tone of someone who has just had her worst expectations confirmed, "that's typical of you National Review types! Milk and water conservatives! You talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, you're just another bunch of metropolitan liberals!"
I was thinking about this all the next day. The lady had a point, of course. I seriously doubt there is anyone at National Review who would vote for a sodomy law. None of those NR writers who have declared on the matter have come out in support of such laws. That is not the same thing as saying that a state should not be permitted to have such laws, if the people of that state want them. We are mostly Tenth Amendment, strict-construction types here at NR, and I'm guessing that my position on the constitutional point is widely shared. We don't want to lock up homosexuals, though.
Now, 43 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll last May said that homosexual relations between consenting adults should not be legal. So the uncomfortable question arises: if we NR-niks are to the left of 43 percent of Americans on this issue, just what kind of conservatives are we?
It's the same with Creationism. I touched on this topic in a column a few days ago, where I called Creationism "pseudoscience." A poll conducted last March showed that 48 percent of Americans believe in Creationism, vs. only 28 percent in evolution. It happens that a couple of years ago, someone on a private e-list I belong to asked me if there were any Creationists at NR. I said I thought there was one. I had forgotten that NR had eavesdropping rights on this particular e-list. Kathy Lopez, who eagle eye never misses a thing, e-mailed me to ask who it was I had in mind. I told her. She checked. Nope, he wasn't a Creationist. To the best of my knowledge, therefore, there were no Creationists at NR, and to the best of my knowledge there are none now.
This means that on at least two points of importance to conservatives, we are to the left of vast numbers of Americans, over forty percent in each case. So again I ask: what kind of conservatives are we? "Milk and water conservatives," according to my dinner companion.
Race-conscious Chinese people use the word "banana" to refer to a fellow-countryman who has "gone Anglo." Such a person is yellow outside but white inside — a banana, see? Well, perhaps we milk and water conservatives are similarly inauthentic — red outside but blue inside. (I've been trying to think of some common object to use as a metaphor here. Is there anything that is red outside but blue inside? The best that the combined brains of the Derbyshire family could come up with is: a lovesick Apache.)
To get it back from the institutional to the personal: look at me. I have not the slightest doubt that I am a conservative by thought, feeling and instinct, yet on a lot of the issues that define American conservatism, I barely move the needle from the zero mark on the dial. I have guns but only fire them down at the range once a month, for the satisfaction of it, and to develop confidence in handling them. I have never hunted with guns. I am only feebly religious — feebly episcopalian, in fact, which is feebleness squared! Homosexuality? I don't like it, and have got myself in a lot of trouble for saying so rather bluntly, but I wouldn't criminalize it. Abortion? Pretty much the same. Creationism? Sorry, I think it's pseudoscience. I'm fine with evolution.
So — what kind of conservative am I? Taking a cue from my dinner-table accuser, I think the answer is: I'm a metropolitan conservative. Of all the ways humanity can be divided into two distinct subspecies, one of the oldest and most persistent is the metropolitan-provincial divide. The contrast between the busy sophistication of the metropolis and the relaxed simplicity of the provinces goes way back in human history, at least as far back as Greek comedy. The metropolitans have by no means had the best of it; the city slicker can be just as much a figure of fun and ridicule as the provincial bumpkin, and is just as likely to be suckered — a Rawdon Crawley for every Charles Bovary. Intelligent provincials can be as confident, even as snobbish, as the metropolitans who look down on them. My own sister, a witty, worldly and well-read inhabitant of a small English town, describes herself with much pride as "a provincial lady."
The great British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark wrote a fine essay about the interplay between the two worlds:
Since a metropolis is the source of style, whether in fashion, or furniture, or the major arts, the concept of style tends to become too important, and at a certain point the balance of ends and means is upset. Just as provincial art fails from its lack of style, metropolitan art fails from its excess, and there appears the familiar symptoms of over-refinement and academicism.
(The essay is called "Provincialism," and can be found in Sir Kenneth's book Moments of Vision.) Something similar has happened in religion, church leaders being won over by the cleverness of metropolitan thinking, the theology becoming more rarified and abstract, the metropolitan clergy more cynical and corrupt, until at last a cleansing simplicity from the provinces arrives to renew and purify the faith. In this context, it's also worth remembering that the greatest event in human history happened in a remote and backward province of the Roman Empire.
I think that there is more involved than just accidents of location. Most of us, in temperament and outlook, are either metropolitan or provincial, either blue or red. I myself was raised in a small provincial town, but I have spent most of my adult life in big cities or their shadows, and have a mostly metropolitan cast of mind. I dislike modern American liberalism very much, and believe it to be poisonous and destructive; yet I am at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals. Setting aside our actual opinions about this, that or the other, I am aware that in the first gathering I am among people with whom I have, at some level, a shared outlook; and in the second gathering, not. I suppose I would have been more at ease among the wits and boulevardiers of first-century Rome than with the dusty Hellenized provincial intellectuals of Judea.
I'd even go further into this dangerous territory — and I emphasize I am speaking strictly for myself here, not for anyone else at NR. We conservatives like to scoff at lefties for their "noble savage" fixation — the way they go all misty-eyed and paternalistic at the thought of the poor helpless victims of capitalism, racism, colonialism, etc. etc. Well, I think I can see some similar strain of condescension in my own outlook. What the heroic worker was to an old-line Marxist, what the suffering Negro was to civil rights marchers, what the unfulfilled housewife is to Hillary Clinton, the Vietnamese peasant to Jane Fonda, the Palestinian rioter to Edward Said, so the red-state conservative with his Bible, his hunting rifle and his sodomy laws is to me. He is authentic, in a way I am not.
There doesn't seem to be much point in apologizing for this condescension, and I am not much given to apologizing anyway. It's worth noting, though, as a fixed component of, I think, the entire outlook of metropolitan conservatives. I don't think it is any cause for rancor or antagonism. The metropolitan conservative and his provincial cousin both have their part to play in keeping what Sir Kenneth called "the balance of ends and means." Sitting in New York cooking up argumentative commentaries is as useful, in its own way, as running a Christian home-schooling group in Knoxville.
Probably not as critical to the future of conservatism, though. Looking across the pond at the country of my birth, where there are no powerful conservative lobbies — no Second Amendment warriors, no Christian Conservatives, no Right to Life chapters — I see what happens when conservatism becomes a merely metropolitan cult: conservative politics becomes marginalized and impotent. That's not going to happen here; and it won't be me and my big city pals that prevent it, it'll be the legions of real, authentic conservatives out there in the provinces. God bless them all for keeping America strong, free, and true to her founding principles. If the price to be paid is a sodomy law here, a high-school Creationism class there, well, far as I am concerned, that's a small price indeed. People who don't like those things can always head for the metropolis, after all.