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.
In short, Vidal was a political crank of the left. He was also an avid and perennial peddler of conspiracy theories. He believed that Winston Churchill was a malefactor who helped infiltrate “little Englander” film directors and producers into 1930s Hollywood to valorize Albion and to incite the American public out of neutrality and into the war. He believed to the grave that Franklin Roosevelt deliberately provoked Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor so as to facilitate U.S. entry into the war. Vidal’s isolationist stance was all of piece with that of Father Charles Coughlin — a thorough-going radical, though one also often deemed conservative by those who should know better — and like Coughlin’s, was thoroughly laced with anti-Semitism. Vidal also befriended through correspondence the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Greenberg is too well-read not to have known all this, and his piece shows that he has no illusions about Vidal being a paragon of immoderate bigotry and nastiness. How does Greenberg connect this blighted record to conservatism? On inspection, the connection rests on the exceedingly slender reed of Vidal having once said “I think of myself as conservative.” But then perhaps Vidal was, by his own lights — a conserver of patrician aloofness, avuncular unpleasantness, and drawing-room bigotry, all of which were going out of fashion in his lifetime. But as a lucid estimate of his political pedigree? Obviously Greenberg found it too tempting to tar conservatives with the brush of nastiness that was the bread and butter of progressives, whom leftists today would prefer be remembered as something they were not.
The procedure of discovering new “conservatives” seems to rest in transferring to fictitious conservatives all the ugly traits, vicious sentiments, and rancid rancors that have disfigured actual leftists.
This procedure has been going on since at least the time of the Soviet Union’s terminal phase, when Western journalists, inebriated with Gorbymania and the prospect of a hip, glastnosted, and perestroikaed Soviet Union, labeled the Bolshevik hardliners in the Kremlin old guard who looked on askance at all this as “conservatives.” An odd label when one thinks that these same people mounted the 1991 coup in an effort to keep old-style Bolshevism alive.
Unless diehard Marxist-Leninism or Stalinism has something to do with the thinking of Edmund Burke, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the Marquess of Salisbury, Michael Oakeshott, Elie Kedourie, or William F. Buckley, the promiscuous abuse of the term “conservative” debases language and ideas to irreverent ends.