The term “conservative” is used elastically these days, normally to indicate something that the author using the term dislikes. And while many such writers tend indeed to dislike conservative ideas, the objects of their dislike are rarely conservative in any sense a conservative would recognize.

A few years ago, the late Christopher Hitchens spoke of fringe elements in Jerusalem seeking the expulsion of Arabs as “Israeli conservatives” – surely a surprise to Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and other groupings that comprise the vast bulk of Israeli right-of-center politics.

Reuters thinks Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “conservative,” and the New York Times even headed its report on his election as president with the title “New Conservative President Takes Power in Iran.” Actually, Ahmadinejad is a radical among radicals in the Iranian hierarchy, with a penchant for Holocaust denial and harping on erasing Israel from the page of history. But then, the Associated Press regards him as “ultraconservative,” so the Times appears measured by comparison.

Now, David Greenberg at Slate thinks the recently deceased writer Gore Vidal was a “conservative.”

Vidal was neither insecure nor stupid, but if he can be described with a straight face as conservative, then just about anyone else can be as well. If conservatism comprises respect for custom, institutions, religious faith, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and limited government, Vidal was as anti-conservative as one could be. He regarded monotheism as “the great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture.” He despised Ronald Reagan and supported the Democrats across the decades, even once running (unsuccessfully) as a Democrat for congressional office in New York. But that was altogether too mainstream for him. For two years (1970-1972), he chaired the People’s Party, a short-lived grouping that promoted legalizing marijuana and instituting such decidedly unconservative devices as a minimum wage and even a maximum wage.

In 2004, he supported the presidential candidacy of far left Democrat Dennis Kucinich.