Reading the September comment, “The Conservative Humanitarian, “brought to mind the old quip about “the bland leading the bland.” A pastiche of unexceptional platitudes, felicitous quotes, and pious laments, Professor Steensma’s essay depicts a “conservatism” that will offend no one—and help just as many. This is lap-dog conservatism: pet it and it wags its tail. Steensma tells us society must meet “directly and unequivocally the dangers facing it,” but somehow he himself largely avoids this unpleasant task. So anxious is he not to give offense that he even grants that the liberal agenda––”racial and sexual discrimination, consumer rights, ecology”-should have long defined the “concerns of true conservatives.”
But conservatives are conservatives precisely because they feel other concerns-the traditional family, moral and religious vitality, safety from foreign aggression, the unborn-much more strongly. Steensma speaks of “the emerging problems of society” that conservatives allegedly ignored. But who besides conservatives have said anything at all about the breakdown of the family, about 1.5 million abortions annually, about skyrocketing teenage suicide, about feckless public schools, or about the overall decline in cultural and moral standards? Perhaps, as Steensma says, “the blame for the present chaos cannot be placed only on the liberals,” but conservatives are far from needing the kind of mea culpa he offers.
Glib talk about basing public philosophy upon “a consensus among thinking people” is also unwarranted. Insofar as there is a national intellectual consensus, it is still overwhelmingly liberal. It was, after all, on the basis of honoring the “consensus” that Governor Cuomo justified his faithless stance on abortion. Despite some electoral gains, conservatives are still an intellectual and cultural minority. They cannot simply go along with community opinion, politely applauding Alan Alda, Walter Cronkite, and Gloria Steinem as they lead us to destruction. Opposing widespread misconceptions is difficult, controversial, and unpopular. But retreating into Bartlett’s for a few pleasant bromides is no tactic for “true conservatives.”
Prof. Steensma Replies:
Dealing with Jay Williamson’s innuendoes on my integrity, courage, and masculinity is easy (sticks and stones, shall we say?), but more difficult is trying to follow the murky flow of his argument. If my essay is a “pastiche of unexceptional platitudes, felicitous quotes, and pious laments” (Williamson’s Roget is obviously well thumbed), his is a thicket of cranky sloganeering and stagey posturing whose theme is “Shove off, Jack, I’m on board.” My comments about shop-and-till conservatives must have struck a raw nerve.
Mr. Williamson’s comments are excellent examples of that shrill, selfrighteous, spiritually petrified pseudoconservatism that insulates itself in adhominemcuteness while at the same time ignoring the ugly realities of our modern world and avoiding the action conservatives need to take to ameliorate them. Attacks on Alda, Cronkite, and Steinem, though well founded, are by now awfully stale, and scattergun attacks on the public schools are so indiscriminate that they are useless (and, by the way, there are some awful private schools); such remarks do little to advance the conservative cause. Lapdogs are often innocuous, but yapping hounds are frequently dangerous.
Mr. Williamson is rightly angered and saddened, as most of us are, by the horrors of abortion, the breakdown of tl1e family, and the moral and intellectual battering of our youth. But many of us are also deeply disturbed, as apparently he is not, by the godless racial and sexual bigotry, the rapacious materialism that is destroying not only our environment but also our family and social values, and the rampant dishonesty in certain segments of government, unionism, and business. Mr. Williamson seems to be rather selective in the choice of evils he attacks. Like the Pharisee, he’d rather not be inconvenienced and would rather pass by on the other side.
Well, enough. But two final points: I don’t have to use Bartlett’s (I don’t own a copy, and I’ve taught Dryden, Burke, and Waugh for 25 years), and I’ve just retired after 35 years of enlisted and commissioned service in the United States Navy and Naval Reserve, two organizations which don’t tolerate lap- dogs and eunuchs.
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