I’m a conservative because of Robert Bork, who passed away this week at the age of 85.
I wasn’t set on the road to conservatism because of his fine scholarly work – I read his writing much later. I’m conservative today because in the Eighties, I was a conventionally apathetic college kid who generally drifted upon the tides of popular culture… until the day I started asking why this Bork fellow was the Devil, and no one on the Left could give me a straight answer.
Sometimes I wonder how many people can trace the precise moment of their political awakening: the moment when they joined the national conversation, rather than merely nodding along at what all the fashionable people were saying. Mine came during an evening of pizza delivery. I happened across a local talk radio show while I was tooling along with a payload of pepperoni and sausage. The various callers were railing against Bork and complaining about the dire straits America had reached, if such a horrible man could be nominated to the Supreme Court. I’m not sure what caught my attention and prompted me to spend the rest of my working evening listening to the show. What I clearly remember is noticing that nobody ever got around to explaining what, precisely, was so horrible about Bork. It was a succession of people who hated him, rather than disagreeing with him… because they had been told to hate him.
I asked around, and soon discovered that not even Left-leaning staff at my college could explain what was so hideous about Bork. A few of his more informed critics could mention a disagreement or two, but nothing that seemed to rate the full-on destruction of the man’s character, with Ted Kennedy famously challenging his very humanity. Criticism was one thing, but no one could tell me why this particular Supreme Court nominee was unthinkable.
It really stuck in my craw… and over time, it led me to challenge the popular impression of other conventionally hated figures as well, notably President Ronald Reagan – who was routinely subjected to pop-culture insults that would be classified as hate crimes, or paranoid delusions, if directed at the current occupant of the White House. If you’re too young to recall the Eighties, it was not uncommon to hear the Reagan presidency described as a threat to the continued survival of the human race.
Conservatives are the counter-culture, and we have been for a very long time. I wonder if the best yardstick for measuring our influence upon political culture would be to ask if today’s alternative media could have saved the Bork nomination, by highlighting its vacuity and puncturing the assumed moral authority of his persecutors, particularly Ted Kennedy. It seems to me that the Left retains too much power to define people as villains for low-information voters and the water-cooler chat network. That’s a big part of how Barack Obama got re-elected, and it’s clear that not many people associated with the Romney campaign realized how well it was working.
But I’m confident that the best on-ramp for young people to join the conservative movement is the same one I took, many years ago: ask the questions you’re not supposed to ask. Note the lack of substance in the answers you receive. Refuse the demands to place some political figures above criticism, while burying others beneath contempt. Don’t listen to what other people say about someone you’re supposed to hate – it’s easier than ever before to go right to the source, and judge their words and ideas for yourself. I can point to all sorts of compulsive legislation advanced by leftists, but they often have trouble explaining exactly what their right-wing demon figures and hate fetishes want to make the rest of us do. I kept asking that question during the fitful spasms of anti-Mormonism over the past year, and never could find out exactly what our prospective Mormon overlords were planning to shove down our throats, or pull out of our wallets.
It was relatively difficult for a college kid of the Eighties to track down what Robert Bork actually said and wrote. Today it would only take a few mouse clicks. It is always worth the effort.
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