Recently a publication we admire began to send emails inviting donations for a “Hipster Rehabilitation Project” to develop their readership among a younger generation via “enhanced investment in Facebook and Twitter.” As a card-carrying hipster (see my tagline below, however) and regular reader of The American Spectator in both digital and print form, I welcome this development. @AmSpec is working toward the future, and not just by adopting the technology of the present: they are actually paying attention to the real challenge of bringing up a new generation of conservative writers, readers, and, eventually, donors. Too many conservative organizations concentrate their appeal on my grandparents’ generation: a great and patriotic generation to be sure, and a good donor base—but one that unfortunately is dying out. The American Spectator is trying to be different. Their writing is both timeless and relevant, avoiding irrelevant controversy over Hawaiian birth certificates, Super Gulps, or First Lady junkets.
But alas, as hipsters we are constitutionally incapable of passing up opportunities for wisecracking at the expense of our friends and allies. Indeed, AmSpec staff themselves could not refrain from “shopping” the dapper R. Emmett into hipster headwear, ascot and BCGs, as shown.
The Hipster Conservative’s Old Fogey Rehabilitation Project will solicit no funds nor seek to affect future generations, since, as we have probably mentioned, we belong to the younger generation and practice the “backward glance” when least convenient. Instead, we reach out to older cohorts of conservatives, in many cases our own progenitors, to relieve them of certain troublesome accretions which have been lumped into American conservatism over time.
The first of these—and here, finally, we must abandon our joke at the Spectator’s expense, since many of their writers agree with us—is the idea that liberty is the principal conservative value, the political goal at which we aim. This is a self-defeating idea, and most conservatives who invoke “liberty” do so with some other ultimate goal in mind; only they feel it would be impolite to intrude their higher aims into the conversation. More on this later, but note, incidentally, that progressives also sometimes praise liberty. However, in the words of Bob Dylan, for progressives liberty “is just equality in school.” Hipstercons are “younger than that now;” we see where that reasoning takes us. Liberty is a value which is foreign to levelling and equalization; in fact, liberty and equality are usually at odds. Higher concerns determine whether we turn toward liberty or equality in a given situation. What we Americans revere as our liberty or freedom is not a mere absence of restraint. It is an opportunity which requires that what the free individual pursues be oriented toward the common good; particularly and always with a view to the well-being of his neighbor. Liberty is a condition in which true charity, as opposed to government welfare, can have free rein. This is why conservatives value it so much. Liberty allows people to help one another in kindness, without coercion. Forced equality, on the other hand, tends toward preventing true charity. The American Spectator’s Moore and Ferrara explained why in the Spectator’s April issue.
The second ideological weed which seems to have sprung up in fertile conservative soil is the heresy of American Exceptionalism. The unworthy term has become a right-wing Shibboleth to expose the lisping forkèd tongues of academics. That Mitt Romney believes in American Exceptionalism surprises no one who understands that Mormonism is the quintessential heresy of American spiritual destiny. But it rankles one to hear otherwise reasonable politicians and pundits invoking the idea as if it had been found inscribed on golden plates from on high. James Ceaser (an academic) has done us all a service by tracing the colorful history of this idea through various American religious and political movements in the first edition of the new Journal of American Political Thought. But Ceaser’s paper ends on an odd note which has provoked some of us to contribute to what we are calling a symposium discussing it. See my essay summarizing the issues, Bede’s contribution to the religion question, and Smith’s ultimate dismissal of the “-ism.” In addition to these responses we are pleased to present a historical essay on “Roman Exceptionalism” from a new contributor, Robert “Brutus” Yates.
A third problematic idea has entered conservative minds thanks to the libertarian-conservative alliance of the 1950s: a reverence of “market forces” to the point that unvirtuous acts are justified because of their profit motive. Recently, the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia secretly and suddenly ousted the president of the university, apparently for her failure to adopt supposedly emerging trends in online education quickly enough. The Wall Street Journal, usually known for its good sense, published a silly house editorial wondering what all the fuss was about; after all, the members of the Board are all very rich capitalists who must know what they are doing. And on National Review Online Jane S. Shaw praised the Board of Visitors for their futurism. This kind of free-market fanaticism is a kind of sloppy thinking which often precludes the more important situation of whether a thing is just, wise, or good. Ironically, as a result of this debacle, U.Va has experienced a surge of unwitting conservatism, as students, faculty, alumni and locals took to the Lawn (the University’s name for the central grounds) to protest their president’s ouster. Our editor Mr. Odradek observed one such demonstration and told us, “It was wonderful and bizarre how people were using words like ‘virtue,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘prudence.’ These are not the sorts of words that are often used at a campus protest.” The protesters were not merely supporting a popular administrator; they came out to defend U.Va’s Jeffersonian legacy of honor, intellectual rigor, and institutional tradition. Can anyone deny that such values are more important than mere institutional growth, especially at a time when so many universities are losing sight of the nature of their vocation?
A fourth malady of which we would cure the American right is “pave the planet” anti-environmentalism. The reason for this posture is mostly political; it is a reaction to the fraudulent environmentalism of the Left, which exists not to conserve anything but to excuse Federal tampering with everything. We think conservationism might actually take off among conservatives the moment the Environmental Protection Agency closes its doors. It is not a task that can be accomplished from an office on Pennsylvania Avenue. But conservative editorialists all too often assume that the environment is infinitely resilient. It truly can be damaged, and often the worst abuses are perpetrated within the cozy alliances of Big Government and Big Business. A conservative conservationism, by contrast, looks for ways to solve real problems—polluted waterways, for instance, or plastic—taking account of the immediate and long-term impacts of both the pollution and the solution on human communities.
The Hipster Conservative invites fogeys young and old to join us in conserving conservatism for future generations.
Also in this issue, Bede Adulescens presents the second of three essays on why he believes the “evolutionary” conservatism of Edmund Burke does not present a sufficient challenge to modern progressivism. Sordello has contributed timely meditations on our national holidays, Memorial Day and Independence Day. I attempt to trace the roots of early modern absolutism and democracy, showing how they diverged from medieval forms of government. And, finally, our friend N.W. Smith reviews George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy novel Game of Thrones. We hope you enjoy these offerings.
Featured image: Grant Wood, Daughters of Revolution, 1932