…A great irony that slowly emerged out of the turmoil of the 1960s is that conservatism became the new counterculture — a movement that was subversive in relation to the established liberal cultural order. And, continuing this irony, liberalism became the natural home of timid conventionalists and careerists — people who find it hard to know themselves outside the orthodoxies of mainstream “correctness.” And what is political correctness if not an establishment orthodoxy?
When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean — you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the “correct” meaning. When I was a boy growing up under segregation, racism was not seen as evil by most whites. It was simply recognition of a natural law: that some races were inferior to others and that people needed and wanted to be with “their own kind.” Most whites were quite polite about this — blacks were in their place and it was not proper to humiliate them for their lowly position. Racism was not meant to be menacing; it was only a kind of fatalism, an acceptance of God’s will. And so most whites could claim they held no animus toward blacks. Their prejudice, if it was prejudice at all, was perfectly impersonal. It left them free to feel compassion and sometimes even deep affection for those inferiors who cleaned their houses, or served them at table, or suckled their babies. And this was the meaning of things.
The polite booing I elicited by mentioning American exceptionalism at the charity dinner also simply reflected — for the booers and their cohort — the meaning of things. It was a culturally conditioned response. American exceptionalism was a scandal that one booed in the name of humility and decency. Dissociation from it was the road to the Good. And this was so sealed a matter that booing me was only an expression of one’s moral self-esteem — the goodness in oneself bursting forth to censure a heretic.
What drives this conservative “movement”? Of course there are the classic motivations — a commitment to free-market capitalism, smaller government, higher educational standards, the reinforcement of family life, either the projection of strength abroad or, conversely, a kind of isolationism, and so on. But overriding all of this is a cultural motivation that might be called the “pinch of stigma.” The special energy of contemporary conservatism — what gives it the dynamism of a movement — comes from conservative outrage at being stigmatized in the culture as the politics in which all of America’s past evils now find a comfortable home.
This stigmatization is conservatism’s great liability in an American culture that gives dissociation preeminence, that makes it the arbiter of all other social values. Contemporary conservatism is, first of all, at war with this cultural stigmatization. Its ideas always swim upstream against the perception that they only echo the racist, sexist, and parochial America of old — as if conservatism were an ideology devoted to human regression. For conservatives, it is, in the end, a bewildering war against an undeserved bad reputation. And how do you fight a bad reputation that always precedes you?
This connection of conservatism to America’s hypocritical past is the American Left’s greatest source of authority. However trenchant conservatism may be on the issues, however time-tested and profound its principles, this liberalism always works to smother conservatism’s insights with the poetic truth that conservatism is mere cover for America’s evil. This ability to taint conservatism — its principles, policies, and personalities — with America’s past shames has been, for the Left, a seemingly endless font of power.