»  National Review Online

December 19th, 2000

   From Beneath the Sign of Saturn


I am glum. I am in the throes of angst, of Weltschmerz, of ennui, of accidie. Ay, in the very temple of Delight, veiled Melancholy hath her sovran shrine! My soul shall taste the sadness of her might, and be among her cloudy trophies hung …

In short, gentle reader, I am suffering from post-electoral tristesse. The particular forms this disorder takes with different persons are as varied as the many types of melancholy listed and classified by Robert Burton in his great Anatomy of that affliction. (Which Bertrand Russell said was his favorite reading when depressed, sure to cheer him up.) In my case, it surfaces as what I think of privately as the Basil Fawlty reaction. Basil was the protagonist of Fawlty Towers, a British sitcom of the 1970s — I think it was pretty widely shown on public TV over here. One of the many, many ways Basil employed to vent himself on the idiots with whom he was for ever surrounded was to yell unanswerable rhetorical questions at them. Being idiots, of course, the recipients of these blasts attempted to field them as if they were real questions. In an exchange with one of his employees, Basil slammed his palms against his temples and screamed: "What's the point? I mean, what's the bloody point?" Employee: "I dunno. What's the point of being alive?" Basil: "There isn't any. We're just stuck with it."

Well, that's how I feel right now about being a conservative. What's the bloody point? There isn't any: but for reasons of conviction, upbringing and, no doubt, genetics, I am stuck with it.

Look, I am glad we won. It is a great relief. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are decent, normal human beings, blessedly unlike the current POTUS and VPOTUS. Neither shows any signs of megalomania. I feel pretty sure that neither has raped anybody, or ripped off the U.S. taxpayer for $300,000 and lied about it under oath, or solicited campaign funds from Chinese Military Intelligence, or written a book advocating the banning of automobiles, or argued in a court of law about the meaning of "is." Neither of their wives, I am certain, has ever engaged in rigged commodity trades, or written a book arguing that parents cannot be trusted to raise their own children.

We do not now have to endure four years under the iron heel of the Gorite terror, with new federal regulations to tell us how much cuff we can wear on our pants. The IRS will not now, or at any rate not soon, be able to complete its transformation into a federal secret-police force, used by those in power to intimidate and harass Enemies of the People. U.S. soldiers, sailors and airpersons will now, we may reasonably hope, be given some time off from their needlepoint workshops to do some actual military training. We do not have to watch the U.S. Supreme Court fill up with boomer intellectuals who regard the Constitution as a mere "text" to be "deconstructed." We have been spared all sorts of horrors, and a good thing too.

But conservatism? Ain't gonna happen. Wouldn't be prudent. While we shall not get the barmier sort of liberals on the federal bench, we shall not be getting any genuine constitutionalists, either. The way Congress is shaping up, in fact, we have a formula for the confirmation process producing only the most perfectly idea-free, publication-free, driveling, compliant mediocrities — not that that won't be a great improvement on thin-lipped Leninists of the Ginsberg variety. While the IRS will no longer be used as a tool for silencing the President's ex-hitups, it isn't going to go away and leave us with no federal agency at all possessed of a statutory right to inquire into our personal affairs. Perish the thought! Physical-training standards in the armed services will continue to be lowered in pursuit of the lethal fiction that a woman can be as good a soldier as a man (at any rate when she is not enceinte, as rather a high proportion of our female warriors seem to be at any given time). The federal government will get bigger. Taxes will go up. The First Amendment will be assaulted by "hate crime" lunatics, and will survive, if it survives, bloody and torn. The Second Amendment will be chipped away at steadily by our lawmakers. (By which, of course, I mean the guys in black robes. And speaking of Amendments, when is the wrecking crew going to get to the 19th? — that's what I'd like to know.)

Most of all, nobody in this new administration will ever, ever say anything at all about what Peter Brimelow calls "The National Question" — which is actually many questions. What does it mean to be a citizen of the U.S.A.? Does our nation have a common language? A dominant religion? Common moral values ? How many new Americans do we want each year ? From where? What colors, languages, religions, political traditions would we prefer among our immigrants, in what proportions? How well educated would we like them to be? Does the first sentence of the first section of the 14th Amendment need revising? If a very large and populous nation, growing daily in wealth and power, declares itself our enemy and boasts of having nuclear missiles targeted on our cities, should U.S. citizens who have family connections in that nation be employed at top-secret U.S. weapons labs? Is there any federal concern when local school boards in receipt of federal funds, or tertiary colleges partly financed by federal taxpayers, use history textbooks that concentrate almost exclusively on the wickedest deeds of previous generations of Americans, and teach our kids that the culture to which their parents give allegiance is the most evil and degraded of all the cultures that have ever existed? If government and corporate favors are to be given out preferentially by race, what — precisely — is the working definition of "race" for these purposes? I am English by ancestry, my wife Chinese. What "race" are our children, for the purpose of seeking "affirmative action" preferences? What, exactly, is the case against giving immediate independence to Puerto Rico and the Pacific territories? That it would save us too much money?

None of these questions will be asked by any member of the new administration. If any cabinet officer were so foolish as to raise any of them, he would be cast out to the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth, never to be heard of in public life again. These issues, which stand at the core of conservative concerns, will not be discussed. I guarantee it.

Margaret Thatcher used to talk about "the ratchet effect" in modern liberal democracy. The ratchet effect works like this: When the Left is in power, they get pretty much anything they want. When the Right is in power, we consolidate the Left's gains. That's what we have to look forward to, folks. However many hundreds of thousands of pages Bill Clinton added to the Federal Register, we shall be tearing out and burning … none. However many more hours my accountant needs to figure out my taxes in 2001 than he needed in 1993, he won't be needing any fewer in 2002, 2003 or 2004. However many infants had their brains ripped from their skulls in, or just outside, their mothers' wombs last year, it will be more next year, or the same number. However many opportunities NAMBLA has to get access to my son and tell him that "gay is just as good as straight," they will have just as many between now and 2004. That sign outside the passport office in Rockefeller Center, directing applicants where to go in both English and Spanish (N.B.: command of English is supposed to be a pre-requisite for naturalization) will still be there. Your tax dollars and mine will continue to be shoveled into barbarous sinkholes like Haiti, Egypt, Mexico, Puerto Rico and North Korea, so that our foreign policy elites can be spared the task of making any proactive decisions. All these things I guarantee, with utter confidence. Conservatism? Fuggedaboutit.

It is therefore from beneath the dark sign of Saturn, and with the taste of black bile on my tongue, that I offer George W. Bush a wan, pale, shadowed-eyed, melancholic welcome to the office of the Chief Magistracy, and a limp, cold, feeble handshake. We conservatives — that 20 per cent or so that have not lost contact with the real world — understand your many predicaments, and our expectations could hardly be lower. Just jam your foot hard on that ratchet, Dubya, just hold the line for four years, if you can. We shall peck away at our little editorials and Op-Eds, patiently explaining for the ten thousandth time, just in case anyone gives a flying falafel, the difference between liberty and slavery, between an army and a welfare office, between a live baby and a dead one, between a nation and (to borrow a very useful phrase from the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen) a dish of loose sand. And we shall try to shut off from our attention that nagging voice in our heads that keeps asking, for ever asking: What's the bloody POINT?