The Shame of the Sobrans(Reprinted from the issue of September 7, 2006)
I seldom leave home these days; somebody has to stay here and keep an eye on Washington, I tell myself. But this year Ive enjoyed no less than two vacations. True, they added up to less than a week, but even a few days away refresh the soul.
In late August I spent two days visiting my family in Boston. It was both a joy and a humbling reminder that I am the dunce of the Sobran tribe. I couldnt keep up with their witty, wide-ranging conversation, which left me wondering if I hadnt been adopted.
My daughter Chris fit right in, though; they love her and she loves them, so we must be akin. I sat there smiling absurdly, clutching my cane, and making funny faces at the children in an attempt to project a senile benevolence.
Even more humbling was a maritime incident. My brother Tom, a brilliant and prosperous lawyer, took several of us out in Boston Harbor in his yacht, where I proceeded to disgrace myself by getting seasick. Oh no! I thought. This cant be happening. Not to me! As the nominal patriarch of the family, I sensed that my dignity was about to take a further tumble.
It wasnt fair. Id had a light lunch, I was the only one aboard who wasnt drinking beer, and I have even slept at sea without incident. As a rule I love the sensation of being borne by the mighty waters below. I fully understand mans ancient love of the sea and sailing. But this time, for some reason, King Neptune must have had it in for me. You miserable landlubber! he seemed to say. Ill teach you to take me for granted! I fell on all fours on the deck and groaned pitifully.
Ill omit the details, but everyone was very gracious about it. Chris, a veteran sailor, assured me that even Lord Nelson got seasick at the beginning of every voyage.
I never knew I could feel this way, I remarked. Seasickness is like falling in love for the first time. Only ... different. She laughed and agreed.
Even now I am mystified. I can see getting queasy in a crows nest during a hurricane, perhaps, but in a calm harbor? Why hasnt it happened to me out on the bounding main? Me, the son of a decorated naval hero, half of whose crew was wiped out, Tom tells me, by kamikazes?
Dad didnt like to talk about his grim experiences at sea, and maybe I should be silent about mine. I just thought I should level with my public, rather than risk leaving the impression that I command awe among the legendary seafaring Sobrans of New England, who know me only too well to be taken in by specious glamour. I have asked the witnesses aboard not to blackmail me, as I am already paying off more blackmailers than I can really afford.
Conservatism without War?
Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, is a thoroughly decent fellow I have known for many years; we used to be neighbors, back in the Reagan years when we saw eye to eye on politics, and I can testify to his personal kindness on several occasions.
Lately, alas, Freds neoconservatism has alarmed me so much that I wonder how we ever agreed. A couple of years ago he wrote that the Iraq war was the greatest act of benevolence one nation had ever performed for another; I quote from memory, but I think verbatim. He has also celebrated President Bushs big-government conservatism as an advance on the older, limited-government conservatism of earlier generations.
Earlier this year his book in praise of Bush, Rebel-in-Chief, was published with unfortunate timing, just as Bush was diving in the polls.
In February Fred delivered a speech to a Hillsdale College gathering, now reprinted in the monthly Imprimis under the title Is [sic] the Mainstream Media Fair and Balanced? He answers this question emphatically in the negative, and though I would too, his reasons are disquieting.
Throughout the speech, Fred chiefly measures liberal bias by a single criterion: critical coverage of the war. This amounts to equating conservatism with neoconservatism. Principled conservative opposition to the war, vocal from the first and now growing stronger, is never mentioned. Neither are many other things that separate conservatism from neoconservatism: abortion, same-sex marriage, the welfare state, constitutional law, federal spending, and so forth. Youd think the only debate were over what kind of big government we should have, not over the nature and limits of government itself.
One of the disasters of neoconservatism has been the virtual obliteration of the idea of conservatism in the American public mind. To be liberal is to favor peace, to be conservative is to prefer war, and thats that.
This crude identification would be bad enough if the Iraq war were going well; as things are, it can only have the effect of associating any conservative philosophy with reflexive militarism, no matter what the consequences. Everything else conservatives have stood for is in danger of being forgotten.
To put it as simply as possible, this woeful stereotype that conservatism means war! can only serve liberalism. The idea is false to both reason and history, and it grieves me to find my old friends promoting it.
Rummys Lessons of History
As if to illustrate this point, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, addressing the American Legion in Salt Lake City, drew the familiar lesson of World War II. In Iraq we are fighting a new type of fascism, he said, and many have still not learned historys lessons.
Well, history offers many lessons, one of which is that we should beware of facile analogies with the past. Many people thought fascism in Europe was no threat to the United States and didnt warrant war; were they altogether wrong? A strong case can be made that they were vindicated by events millions of deaths, the coming of the nuclear age, the postwar triumph of Communism in Europe and China, and so on.
In any case, Americas entry into that war had much less to do with fascism than with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The lessons" we keep hearing are the warmed-over propaganda of the winners. Bellicose conservatives now talk as if Franklin Roosevelt were a conservative hero and as if Joseph Stalin never existed.
And just what is Islamic fascism"? Would it be too much to ask our rulers to define their terms when they draw these melodramatic parallels? When Newt Gingrich recently called the current war World War III, Tim Russert alertly asked if he would favor the kind of measures that won World War II such as huge tax increases, a military draft, rationing, and total mobilization of the civilian population?
Er, no. Gingrich didnt want to press the analogy quite that far. But he was soon repeating it anyway, when Russert wasnt there to keep him honest.
I can find lessons in history too! Regime Change Begins at Home a new selection of my Confessions of a Reactionary Utopian will brighten your odd moments. Well send you a free copy if you subscribe to SOBRANS for one year (at $44.95) or two ($85.00). Call 800-513- 5053 to order by credit card or check, or send payment to P.O. Box 1383, Vienna, VA 22183. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.
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the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission
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