May 30, 2005

The cost of fitting in

By: Matthew Mehan

Let us malign and stereotype the conservative for a moment:

He–and it is most certainly a ‘he,’ for only men are conservatives, unless it is a thoughtless woman who takes her opinions from men–is old.

He is rich and careless.

He is tedious in conversation, pompous in argument, and justified in all his actions.

He quotes Latin, even if he never studied it. In fact, he has an almost bizarre cultural necrophilia. He is obsessed with the dead: dead authors, dead faiths, dead thinkers, and dead founders, who wrote dead letters on dead paper to govern dead people.

He is ugly, probably fat, and thinks Yoga played for the Yankees.

He has no heart. He is inflexible at home and in bed, but at work he can bend like a reed.

He is wooden. He knows nothing of art, poetry, fiction, theater.

He is a philistine and a hack.

Angry yet? I am.

These nasty strokes together paint the false portrait of conservatism we conservatives have come to abhor. We know it isn’t true. And it wounds our vanity, it tweaks our pride to see pop-culture shelf us so cruelly. And so we have made great strides in touching up our public image. We have worked hard to highlight for the American public that conservatism is the very home of art, culture, health, compassion, wit, tolerance, and circumspection. And so it is. But we have also fought for the title “Hipster” and in some degree won it. We are cutting-edge. We are hip. We are cool.

And yet. . . me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

I don’t think conservatives are convinced they are hip, even despite the latest restyling of South Park conservatism. Consider the we-just-don’t-give-a-hoot ethos of the decidedly conservative country western scene. No one can convince me that country music is hip. Delightful? For many, yes. Urbane, sophisticated, or even hip? Errr. . . in a kinda sorta kitschy way, I guess. What about NASCAR? It is great fun, but it ain’t no Eye-talian opra. It lacks that something special, that ineffable sine qua non that xylophone music had in the 50’s bachelor pad, that knowing John Renbourn was the man who convinced the Dead to unplug for their Working Man’s Dead album had in the early 70’s, or that cocaine and safety pins had in the 80’s night life. Conservatives, on the whole, are not hip. Some are. . . but not really.

Some are cultured and classy; some are ribald and well schooled. Some are even classy and ribald, but none are really hip, at least not for long. And here we come to the rub.

A hip conservative is like a Boy Scout who decides to run with the cool kids. This is no small feat because, let’s face it, Boy Scouts just aren’t cool unless they keep the neckerchief on the down low at school. Now he goes to hang out with the cool kids for a variety of reasons, some good and some bad: maybe he wants some of the cool kids to benefit from Scouting; maybe, for the sake of the Boy Scouts, he wants people to think scouting is something cool kids do, or maybe he is just sick of the Scouts and wants out of the whole thing, but his dad would ground him if he actually worked up the nerve to quit Troop 144.

For whatever reason, let’s just suppose our Boy Scout does indeed start running with the cool kids. For a while things are great, our lil’ Scout is cool. He talks with cool kids; he walks with cool kids. He encounters the cool kids’ Holy Grail: cool girls. Our scout is in seventh heaven. Things are perfect, the cool kids even know he is a Scout, but they don’t care. They think he is cool!

Anyone who has ever read a nursery rhyme, caught twenty minutes of an ABC After School Special, or ever read Goofus and Gallant in Highlights magazine knows exactly what comes next. Sooner or later–and with a good editor sooner–the cool kids will gather around our plucky Boy Scout and put it to him: “Do you want to do some drugs, beat up a nerd, steal some money, try to get drunk, sleep with Suzie? Do ya, huh? Do ya?” And the Scout must decide. Obey the Scout Code on one hand, be cool on the other. Be honest, upright, clean and good, or be cool and complicated, cruel and. . . and. . . and. . . Suzie’s so beautiful and nothing bothers Bobby. . . You get the idea.

The discomfiture of many conservatives today stems from the growing fear that opinion makers in conservative circles are falling more in love with being ‘hip,’ or cool, or generally acceptable than with being conservative; that they are more concerned with being relevant than being right. Or perhaps conservatives, seeking to destroy the false image of themselves, have, instead of proving the liberals wrong, simply changed. The NASCAR, red county, country western conservative has little to fear from such temptations. It is the urbane, the cultured, the conservative well studied in pop-culture, with pricy contracts on cable shows, with book deals brewing, and with something to lose if something they say makes them unacceptable for mainstream media; they have to be on guard. Like a stuffy old conservative I will now sanctimoniously quote scripture: “Be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.”

But where is that line? It is an age old question, as old as principle and as tricky as the fallen world that tugs against it. In the decidedly conservative Catholic Prayer breakfast two weeks ago Archbishop Chaput (pronounced, he tells us, like “slap-you” with an ‘h’ and not an ‘l’) warned those trying to practice their Catholic faith, “Have we really examined the cost of our fitting in?” Believer or materialist must agree, everything, even fitting in, has a cost.

Why walk through this elementary exposition? Simple. The simple don’t forget the lessons of the nursery rhymes, they don’t dismiss the After School Special. It is the clever who are most susceptible to the simple mistakes. Things become complicated, choices become obscured by all the various and often erroneous factors their mind quickly brings to bear upon a question. They have to deal on a daily basis with all the errors and errants of society. They don’t listen to Rush at work, they watch Katie Couric, and read the New York Times. A conservative knows that the more things change the more they stay the same. The Boy Scout and the Cool Kids is not a story about growing up, it is a story about being human, period. Adults are just as susceptible to petty temptation as children are. Sure someone could decide to reject all their principles in favor of some other new set simply because they seem better to him, but far more often people turn their back on their principles for the most basic Aesop-fabled reasons: power, vanity, fame, money, safety, praise, honor, sex, an invitation to a cocktail party from people with whom they want to consort (ah yes, my favorite from Aesop: The Raven, the Gin and the Tonic). Thus when conservatives engage the realm of pop-culture there are always jitters that they do so for the right reasons. And that they do so warily.

Like the Scout, so named because he is ahead of the troops, out in front, leading with principle and virtue, spotting danger before it is close, conservatives should not seek popularity; they should even be cautious of it, for it is a sign that there are no more scouts out in front. The conservative that seeks to be hip or cool is really more of an undercover Scout, never quite at home, but seemingly so. And if he finds himself one night with the cool kids, and things are going south, he ought to have the strength to call his scout master for a ride home from the Party.

Matthew Mehan lives in Virginia and works as the Director of Admissions for The Heights School for Boys in Maryland. He is a Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute and a contributor to National Review Online, as well as the plucky group blog Down to the Piraeus.