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Navigating the Wild Stream of Conservative Thought, Part II

Updated: Jan 1, 2019

Navigating the Wild Stream of Conservative Thought, Part I was published on December 7, 2018.

National Review roving correspondent Kevin D. Williamson came to my attention when his colleagues vented their outrage over an unfortunate episode at The Atlantic, where he was hired as an ideas columnist who would offer a conservative perspective only to be fired in breathtakingly short order when it came to light that he had made some improvident remarks that could be construed as a call for abortion to be treated like any other homicide, up to and including imposition of the death penalty. Charges of hypocrisy, censorship, and liberal suppression of conservative ideas were fired off into the aether. Williamson took the high road when he thanked his supporters while saying that it is The Atlantic's business who they decide to publish.

Commenting on the controversy at the time, I confessed to a soft spot for any writer who thinks that Uday and Qusay are perfectly good nicknames for the elder Trump boys and can toss off the phrase "billionaire-ensorcelled anti-elitists" without coming off like he has been thumbing through his thesaurus. The favorable first impression grew less favorable as I became better acquainted with his work.

Williamson spent a fair part of election night reconnoitering behind enemy lines, where it seems he found what he wanted to find, a rash of foreordained conclusions, "Portland being Portland and all" (What the Midterm Results Mean, National Review, November 7, 2018). Here on the banks of the Willamette River he confirmed that the Democrats "have gone well and truly 'round the bend," to wit:

...the rank and file seem to actually believe the horsepucky they’ve been fed, i.e., that these United States are about two tweets away from cattle cars and concentration camps. The level of paranoia among the people I spoke to was remarkable.

It is not exactly a scoop when an intrepid reporter finds Portland comrades susceptible to horsepucky and prone to levels of exaggeration for which appellations like paranoia and hysteria are indeed applicable. In this they are little different from some of their fellow citizens of divergent ideological bents in other parts of the country. This is not a liberal-conservative, coastal-heartland, or urban-rural phenomenon. It is just kind of how people seem to be. Williamson appears to be without a doubt in his military mind that the contingent he encountered is representative of the city as a whole. I do not buy it, but I have only my experience as a resident here for the past twenty years. Who am I to dispute an official roving correspondent of National Review who conducted research for a fair part of a night?

Separation of children from their parents, indefinite detention, and an array of administrative hurdles have been used as tactics to discourage migrants from seeking asylum in the US. Thousands of migrant families and children are held in overcrowded, poorly staffed detention facilities. Some facilities do not provide adequate health services and employ staff who have not undergone federal background checks. The Trump regime's disregard for the health, safety, and rights of detainees, adults and children alike, and routine violation of US law, international standards, and basic decency is a matter of record. Concern about this situation merits better than glib dismissal as paranoia about cattle cars and concentration camps.

Williamson was also treated to the spectacle of a "troop of anarchists...marching through the streets," demanding the abolition of ICE, chanting humdrum obscenities, disrupting traffic, "engaging in the casual lawlessness now associated with this city" while followed around by two "poor neutered cops" reduced to beseeching the miscreants to stay on the sidewalk and refrain from blocking traffic. It does not appear that the intrepid reporter was unduly traumatized by his encounter with this mob, as he calls it.

The incident provided a handy opening to excoriate Mayor Ted Wheeler for surrendering the streets of Portland "to gangs of literal blackshirts." The description may be sartorially accurate, black being a fashion statement in anarchist circles. Beyond that, I wonder if Williamson is playing up the incident just a tad. His piece is the only account of the disturbance with which I am acquainted. I do not recall any reports at the time. An online search in preparation for this essay turned up nothing. Just how large was that mob anyway? The spare police presence—Williamson mentions only two police officers, presumably on foot, and a single police vehicle on the scene—suggests that the whole shebang amounted to a few knuckleheads making a nuisance of themselves.

The kind of thing Williamson describes does happen here from time to time. I do not want to make light of that. It is annoying and nothing for the city to take pride in, but as casual lawlessness goes, Williamson's mob sounds like a pretty picayune affair. These days I am more annoyed by the surrender of Portland's streets and sidewalks to flocks of electric scooters.

Portland does have a boatload of problems and issues that the mayor, city council, and police bureau have failed to address to anyone's satisfaction. While there remains much that is good about this city, I think you can find general consensus that the quality of life here has in too many respects deteriorated in recent years. By way of example from a recent article in Willamette Week:

The number of used hypodermic needles picked up by Downtown Clean and Safe, for instance, will reach nearly 39,000 this year—about four times the total in 2015. The amount of garbage the group has picked up doubled over the same period. And the number of car thefts in Portland has risen by 45 percent in the past two years. (Monahan, Portland's Mayor Is Struggling...).

To be fair, no one has any good solution for major problems related to affordable housing, homelessness, and police relations with the public. Nor does anyone have a clue what to do when blockheads committed to vandalism and violence hijack legitimate demonstrations, as happens on occasion, or when right-wing demonstrators from the ranks of Patriot Prayer and Proud Boys and their anarchist/antifa döpplegangers hook up for their periodic rumbles. These clashes are more akin to turf wars between rival gangs than anything to do with political ideas and principles. The encounters are complicated by the presence of well-meaning Portland liberals out to stand up against fascism, racism, Trumpism, &c. Unfortunately, they provide a measure of cover for anarchist/antifa types who are not exactly committed to nonviolence. Peaceful protesters have gotten caught in the crossfire and borne the brunt of the response from a militarized police force that stands accused of giving right-wing demonstrators something of a pass while dropping the hammer on the noble left. I have steered clear of these so-called demonstrations and do not pretend to have any privileged insight as to where the truth lies. I suspect that shreds of it may be found in any number of the multitude of conflicting accounts.

Violence and vandalism under the guise of protest generate legitimate attention from the media. People like Williamson are eager to play it up as evidence of liberal hypocrisy and illegitimacy. In doing so they misrepresent a city that is no more surrendered to casual lawlessness and literal blackshirts than it is some idealized utopia for connoisseurs of coffee, craft beers, pot, and food carts, tattoo artists, vegans, and individuals afflicted with stage IV political correctness, all of which are to be found here without having to look too hard.

Okay, anecdotal evidence, but...I took part in three demonstrations in 2018. Each drew thousands of participants. Organizers and participants alike were committed to the exercise of our constitutional right "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." In each instance we did so peaceably. The most recent was on November 8, two days after the election, when thousands gathered peaceably in Waterfront Park to call on Congress to protect the Mueller investigation following the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. These demonstrations are by far more representative of my city than the one Williamson witnessed on election night.

Williamson ventures a few other observations about the midterms that are independent of his experience in Portland. I note but will not otherwise comment on his characterization of Ted Cruz as admirable and Beto O'Rourke as "one of the most insipid and puffed-up figures on the American political scene." That speaks for itself. The assertion that the midterms did not feel to him like a referendum on Donald Trump, or at least no more than any other midterm election is a referendum on the president, is odd. Is he playing the role of provocateur? Or just being obstinate? The current occupant of the White House did his damnedest to make the election a referendum about himself. Both bases were electrified by actions of the Trump regime. Okay, the Democrats ran some really good candidates. That may have had something to do with the outcome, though I do not expect Williamson to agree on that point.

I am sympathetic with the observation about Democrats who fixate on the fact that they consistently win a majority of the "national House vote" or the "national Senate vote" while remaining a minority in the Senate and claiming a smaller percentage of House seats than would be expected from the overall totals. I have cringed when educated, intelligent people have expressed wonderment that Montana and California have the same number of senators and bemoaned the unfairness of it. Williamson has a point when he says their fight here is not with the Republicans but with the constitutional architecture of the United States. There is nothing nefarious about it in terms of the Senate or the electoral college. We might quibble about the House and state legislatures, what with gerrymandering and all. He veers off track when he claims that what the Democrats prefer would be "a more unitary national government "under which the states are so subordinated as to be effectively inconsequential," blithely ignoring the current enthusiasm for sanctuary states and cities.

A more significant point slips by without comment. The consistent, sizable Democratic majorities in the "national" vote for House, Senate, and presidency are not irrelevant to the governance of the country. The constitutional architecture of the US gives a determined minority the means to simply render government ineffective, a tactic Republicans have employed with unabashed zeal since Newt Gingrich came to prominence in the 1980s. How to recognize the rights, legitimate interests, and concerns of minorities without giving a minority the power to dictate to the majority remains as perplexing a challenge today as it was for the founders in 1789. This is true whether the membership in the minority group is based on residence in rural communities and states of the heartland, race, religion, national origin, gender, or anything else.

It is not so much that Williamson gets things dead wrong as that he comes at them aslant, with a penchant for exaggeration he likes to lambast when it comes from ideological adversaries. Provocation is his métier. Mere facts are not allowed to get in the way of scoring polemical points. Easy jibes pass for wit, something that never happens here at Portable Bohemia. Well, hardly ever.

New York Magazine journalist Ed Kilgore contacted Williamson to question him about his views on punishment for women who have abortions. His experience casts light on Williamson's rhetorical tactics (Kevin Williamson Won’t Tell Me What He Thinks Should Happen to Women Who Have Abortions). He refuses to answer reasonable questions, claiming they are meant only to whip up emotional hysteria. Never mind that whipping up emotional hysteria is his stock in trade. Liberals are dishonest and stupid. To give him some benefit of the doubt, I do not know if it is all liberals who are dishonest and stupid or only some of us (here I use the word "liberal" loosely, liberally, if you will).

Kevin D. Williamson and Victor Davis Hanson are prominent, regular contributors to National Review. Their commentary does not define the magazine or contemporary conservatism, which is no more ideologically of a piece than its liberal or progressive counterparts. They represent a strain within conservatism that is hard-edged, uncompromising, and convinced of its rightness. Williamson writes with a certain panache and Hanson with an air of scholarly gravitas that provide cover for facile analysis. It is unfortunate that they fail to offer a framework for criticism or alternatives to correspondingly facile analysis from the left. We must look elsewhere.

I did not set out to make study of conservative ideas a project for 2018. As I think about it now, it appears that I bumbled into putting a fair amount of time into something I never thought of as a formal project. This led to lengthy discourses on Tom Nichols and the death of expertise, Jordan Peterson, and now Hanson and Williamson. I hope something of interest and worth came of it.

Today as I tried drove the stake through the heart of this piece I pulled some Edmund Burke down from my bookcase (The Portable Edmund Burke and Conor Cruise O'Brien's biography). Maybe it is time to to revisit the old fellow. I hope to find more there than is to be gotten from some of his intellectual heirs of the present day. Ah, another project. Just what I need.



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