F.H. Bradley, perhaps the most self-aware philosopher who ever lived, once dismissed metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” Bradley (whose favorite pastime was using pictures of Gladstone for target practice with his revolver in his rooms at Merton College, Oxford) qualified his negative assessment of the intellectual life by pointing out that philosophy was itself one of those irrepressible instincts — a nicely circular way of putting it.
This is more or less how I feel about journalism. I don’t expect anything from readers except the occasional quiet chuckle and a general sense of not having wasted their time. I am certainly not in the business of changing hearts and minds.
Still, when someone with whom we have disagreed does recant, it is hard not to relish the taste of victory. Earlier this year Marie Kondo, the guru famous for instructing her Netflix audiences to throw away objects that do not “give them joy,” announced that she had given up on cleaning after the birth of her third child. We have never held much with Mrs. Kondo at Casa de Walther, a decidedly non-clutter-free zone. The old servants’ landing upstairs is full of items that are not exactly what you would call serotonin boosters: an artificial Christmas tree from the 1970s that my wife and I agreed never to assemble; wrapping paper; bits of unused ceiling tile (“Made in West Germany”); boxes of yellowing magazines; a children’s book entitled Tanks Are Mighty Fine Things.
Recently, on a chance excursion to this room (which is generally locked) I happened upon an issue of Rolling Stone from 2006. The cover story was a paean to Jack Nicholson (“Secrets of the Great Seducer”) that would now be unpublishable. Another headline was for a piece by one Robert F. Kennedy Jr. about how the voting machines in the most recent presidential election had all been hacked.
Leafing through the issue made me feel nostalgic for the good old days of “No Blood for Oil” and George W. Bush-as-Hitler signs. (By my count that was at least three Hitlers ago.) Since then, of course, all the most fashionable liberal causes — being antiwar, back-to-the-landism, iffiness about vaccines, skepticism of the FBI, CIA, free trade and, of course, casting doubt on the official outcome of our no-doubt sacrosanct elections — have become the exclusive province of the right wing.
How did this happen? Perhaps slowly, by more or less imperceptible degrees, people have come around to the idea that bombing the shit out of every country in the Middle East not named Israel might be bad for our national security, perhaps even (who knows?) morally wrong. But part of it, I suspect, is that people on the right desire the approbation of the cultural and intellectual establishment. In other words, they want to be cool, something that has been denied them — with considerable justification — since they were in middle school, if not earlier.
What do conservatives have to show for themselves after years of ham-fisted attempts at reinventing themselves as silver-haired Nader-voting hippie librarians? I suppose it is some consolation to know that in the years since the Rock Against Bush Tour of blessed memory the composer of such immoral lines as “Young ladies, young ladies / I like ’em underage see / Some say that’s statutory / But I say it’s mandatory” and “Bawitdaba, da bang, da dang diggy diggy” has come round. Ditto Elon Musk and Glenn Greenwald and even Van Morrison — to say nothing of those shining cultural luminaries Right Said Fred, who in addition to Milan, New York, Japan and shirts are also, it would appear, too sexy for the Covid vaccine and helping out the Ukrainians.
Meanwhile the other side have been busy reinventing themselves too. Ask yourself: what do liberals sound like these days? The strident moralism about Russia (remember when the Eighties wanted their foreign policy back?), the imperious blather about “our democracy” and “the Constitution,” fawning over the intelligence services, complaints about unelected judges usurping their authority — it all sounds suspiciously like, well, early 2000s neoconservatism. As I write this Elliott Abrams of all people is serving in the Biden administration. (St. Óscar Romero, pray for him!)
From the perspective of the average white suburban dog mom, not wanting to go to war with Putin or worrying that maybe the medical-industrial complex might be motivated by something other than public health is as uncouth as Toby Keith. For coming round on war, NAFTA and the benefits of raw food, conservatives get zero credit. (I myself was probably the last person in America to get a job in mainstream media because I was an “anti-war” conservative, which nowadays is a bit like saying you were the last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd to perform at a county fair in northern South Dakota.)
Does this mean that conservatives were wrong to change their minds, that it would be better if Rudy Giuliani had been elected in 2008 and we had spent the last decade and a half invading Iran and privatizing Social Security? Of course not.
Besides, for all I know, the winds might already be shifting again. Earlier this year, we paid to have a dumpster brought to our backyard. We filled it with broken furniture, worthless plastic toys and even a few dozen not obviously life-enhancing paperbacks. Your move, Marie.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2023 World edition.