How does that saying go? Save me, Jesus, from your followers?
One could argue that the conservative tradition needs the same kind of help.
The roots of the current culture war aren’t hard to find. I’ve written previously about a class-based campaign that goes back more than three decades, to the days of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; while that campaign’s being fought on many fronts, it’s especially instructive to watch the ways it’s playing out in present-day Canada.
On his site last week, Dan Gardner wrote about the Harper Government’s seeming disdain for parliamentary convention and the quaint tradition of treating one’s oppenents respectfully while maintaining one’s disagreement with them. An excerpt:
As Conservative strategist Rod Love told author Lawrence Martin, Harper and other Reformers seethed – and rightly so – at the way the Chrétien-era Liberals framed them as the lunatic fringe. “Others got over it,” Love observes in Martin’s book Harperland.
“Harper? It was just burned in his psyche. So when he came to power it was payback time. This wasn’t just about going after someone in the Commons in the day, then going out for a beer at night. This was about destruction.”
The same description surfaces over and over. Stephen Harper doesn’t want to beat the other side; he wants to destroy them. They’re not opponents; they’re the enemy. As for the depth of his ideological feelings, the prime minister’s colleagues use the word “hatred” to describe his antipathy to liberalism.
When politics is everything, when opponents are enemies, when there’s hatred in your belly, certain things follow. Ruthlessness, for one. Personal attacks. A refusal to accept the legitimacy of different views and to work with those who hold them.
I’ve wondered for some time why Lawrence Martin isn’t on the Tweeter, but moving on …
That quaint tradition I’m referring to isn’t just a matter of breeding or good manners. It’s part of the foundation for civil discourse and a healthy public sphere. Winning back the words demands that we stand against those who would strip words of their meanings and repurpose them for other ends. And one of those words, believe it or not, is “conservatism.”
I never thought I’d be citing David Frum approvingly, but in a recent piece for New York, he argued:
Rather than workable solutions, my party is offering low taxes for the currently rich and high spending for the currently old, to be followed by who-knows-what and who-the-hell-cares. This isn’t conservatism; it’s a going-out-of-business sale for the baby-boom generation.
… The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other …
I’m reminded of what they say about stopped clocks, but never mind that just now.
Back to first principles: You don’t have to advocate or identify with conservatism in order to recognize it as an honourable and worthwhile tradition. If it means identifying the best and most valuable aspects of our history and tradition, and working to defend and preserve those aspects, then I’m all for it. Once again, I’ll cite Edmund Burke:
Back again to Stephen Harper’s determination to remake the country in his own image.
Whatever this is, it isn’t conservatism. Certainly not in the tradition of Conservatives such as Bill Davis, Joe Clark, David Crombie, Dalton Camp, Flora MacDonald, or any number of decent and honourable people who’ve carried the Tory label. Above all else, we need to be vigilant about the word and its meaning. If Harper and his people want to rewrite the national narrative, that’s up to them, but we owe it to ourselves to demand nothing less than clarity and intellectual honesty from them as well as from ourselves.