I recently heard Tom DeLay, the not-so-Tiny Dancer and former bug killer-turned-GOP “hammer,” say that he had been a conservative all of his life. (By the way, watching excerpts of the Hammer dance with half-nekkid partners, while simultaneously recalling his old family-values sermons, is, well, a nice confirmation of my divorce from conservatism.)
Assuming he’s not just waltzing around the truth, DeLay’s admission is not a positive feature of his or anyone’s personality. How can it be that you were “always” this or that? Wouldn’t exposure to the world modify your views several times over?
Anyway, his comment made me reflect on my own experience, moving from rock-hard conservatism to an “unapologetic skeptic of conservative thinking.” One thing that vexes me is the criticism I receive from people who simply refuse to believe that I was once a “real” conservative, or that I “understood” conservatism. They can’t believe that someone who once was a “true believer” would ever turn his back on the infallible doctrines of conservative thought.
Well, I did. And here’s proof, in the form of samples of writings from my Paleo period. The quotes are lengthy—book length, in fact—so as to establish my once-conservative bona fides. So, if you are not interested in where I came from, I will understand, but then don’t ever question my “erstwhile conservative” credentials:
The first essay I ever wrote that received any attention was one written my senior year in high school. My Composition teacher, Sandra Eshelbrenner—who unknown to me at the time was a liberal, but thought she saw something redeemable in my writing—encouraged me to continue putting words together, after I wrote a rather racist piece titled, “Down With Whites?” The essay, written late in 1975, began:
I can see in the not-so-distant future that the life we know will be full of sorrow and pain. This will come not as a result of some terroristic assault from overseas, but from our uneasy black “brothers” here at home. The black race is on the road to complete dominance over everybody in the United States, and the federal government, and many of the people it stands for, are pushing them toward that goal.
The essay ended with this:
I am not a bigot, nor am I an egotist. I’m not saying we should ship all blacks back to Africa; however, there are some that I would gladly buy a ticket for on that voyage. I truly believe blacks deserve equal rights, but not at innocent whites’ expense. As it is now, they are getting better than equal rights, and if we don’t do something in a hurry, the black race is not going to be willing to settle for anything less than “number one.” This will inevitably leave us “the back seats of life.”
My first published essay was written in 1976 (I was 17) and titled, “The Sex Habit—A Teenager’s Paradise.” It was published in the Fort Scott Tribune on March 18 and included this ending:
Sex is a beautiful blessing on us by God, and I’m quite sure He did not mean for it to become the most commercialized and abused practice in the world. It is not just the teenagers who are abusing sex, but it is they who hold all the answers to the problems of tomorrow, and it is they who will have to change the trend of the “sexual revolution,” if sex is to remain beautiful and sacred.
In 1983, I wrote a defense of Christian education for my church. It included this:
One could accurately say, based on the Bible, education without the acknowledgement of God is equally without an acknowledgement of reality because God is the Ultimate Reality. So, to separate education from God is to separate it from reality, thus leading it to a frustrating search for the Truth. This is the situation we find today in not only our public school system but generally in society.
In October of 1985, I wrote a lengthy letter to the Fort Scott Tribune criticizing the paper’s advocacy of “ballots by mail”:
Fortunately for a democracy, indifference and indolence are cohorts, and those who do not bother to inform themselves usually do not bother to vote. Encouraging elections-by-mail increases the possibility of uninformed, or if you please, ignorant, voters influencing the outcome of an election. And as a factor in elections, ignorance should be kept to a minimum.
In the July 4, 1986, edition of Bill Buckley’s National Review, my submission to Nika Hazelton’s “Delectations” contest, in which entrants were asked to “describe their personal conception of heaven and hell on this earth,” was selected as the winner. My entry was:
Heaven on earth: Life without liberals. Hell on earth: Life without liberals. (With whom would I argue?)
For my trouble I received an autographed copy of Buckley’s High Jinx, in which the Father of Conservatism inscribed, “For R. D. Graham—With…congratulations on your great victory—and with warm regards from the author—William F. Buckley”
In the Fall of 1986, I debated a college teacher on the then-dominant issue of apartheid in South Africa. I defended the Reagan administration’s policy of “constructive engagement,” which essentially was a “go slow” approach to urging an end to white-minority rule there. Liberals were demanding severe economic sanctions to topple the recalcitrant government. In my opening, I said:
No one can predict the future of South Africa with any certainty. But it seems that engaging in economic warfare against South Africa could lead to an increase in violence and eventually to the death of thousands—perhaps millions—of people, both white and black, in a long, bloody civil war. Peaceful transition would take time and much patience; but, unfortunately, I fear the engines of moral indignation in the Western world will not idle long enough to allow such transition to occur.
I was an avid pro-lifer, and in April of 1987, I gave a speech that included this ending:
Finally, fight for the rights of those who cannot yet fight for themselves; fight for the unborn. For you, too, once shared their vulnerability, their dependence on a kind, caring mother to give them birth. You, too, at one time were merely a single cell, endlessly dividing and multiplying, all the while following a distinctly human set of instructions. And never forget that once you, too, were a potential victim of abortion, saved only by your mother’s recognition that the new life within her was more than a mass of tissue, more than an appendage to be cut off at her convenience. Your mother knew that the new life within her was, indeed, human life, who deserved, at the very least, the right to be born.
In the Fall of 1987, the U.S. Senate considered the confirmation of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork was essentially Antonin Scalia on steroids, and he once wrote, “We are increasingly governed not by law or elected representatives but by an unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable committee of lawyers applying no will but their own.” I gave another speech, defending Bork, which included:
…the opposition to Bork’s nomination has come primarily from extreme liberals, who originally attacked Judge Bork for being an ideologue with rigid, doctrinaire views, which they said he wanted to impose on everyone else…Now, as a result of his testimony before the judiciary committee, in which he explained the evolution of his judicial philosophy with great skill, some of these same extremists are accusing him of changing his mind too often! But then intellectual consistency has never been a prevalent characteristic of the liberal mind.
In 1991 I submitted an essay to Buckley’s National Review (rejected, of course). The essay was in the form of a cynical letter to “my compassionate-conservative brother” and included this:
Those clever liberals rhetoricians have made it sound as though the very lives of the poor were hanging by the thin thread of government intervention, so one can hardly blame some of the poor for their messianic view of government. But I see no practical way out of this mess, either. No politician I know of would ever consider making the poor pay at least some income tax, even on the good grounds of creating good citizens, elevating the poor from mere tenants to landlords responsible for maintenance of the Republic. So, I am afraid things will continue as they are, and you, dear brother, must accept it as I have…
I admit that I sometimes sound callous toward those who cannot help themselves. But I have come a long way, largely because of you. I do understand that there are those who either can’t fend for themselves because of certain disabilities, or who simply refuse to yield to convention and choose to live outside of the community. And I agree with you that the former are burdens we should gladly bear, either publicly or privately, and the latter should be left to themselves so long as they bring no harm to others. When I speak coldly about the poor, I speak mainly of those who have exchanged their dignity, their democratic inheritance, and their respectability for a few food stamps and a few dollars earned by the sweat of someone else’s brow. I’m afraid this is where we part in our analysis. You see these people as “victims” of bad government, led to believe they were “entitled” to benefits derived from the labor of others. I see them as “co-conspirators” in the dissolution of traditional society and good citizenship.
On November 6, 1991, I responded to Thomas Wheeler, who had submitted to the Joplin Globe a critique of local letter-writer Paul Butler’s claim that America was a Christian nation. About Mr. Wheeler, I wrote:
Perhaps his obvious hostility to conservative Christians prevents him from understanding that their desire for America to be a Christian nation doesn’t mean they want Jimmy Swaggart to rewrite the Constitution.
While I have heard many conservative Christians express their hope that America return to its Christian roots, I have yet to hear even the most ardent “flag-waving Christian storm trooper” demand the overthrow of our present government in favor of a Christian government, whatever that is.
What they do demand is an end to the growing hostility from our nation’s institutions…toward religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Whether Mr. Wheeler admits it or not, America at one time was a Christian nation…While it remains true today that most Americans are Christians, our educational system, our political system, and even the arts have become increasingly intolerant—even disdainful—of any Christian influence or expression…
On December 1, 1991, in a response to Rick Reniker, who had lamented in the Joplin Globe the death of his friend from AIDS, I wrote:
Does Mr. Reniker really mean that the victims of AIDS are in fact “victims of a complacent government and a judgmental society?” [...]
For the last several years we have been educated ad nauseam about the dangers of HIV. Our society is saturated with information about AIDS and its deadly assault on certain segments of our population. The condom is fast becoming a sort of national symbol. And recently we have all heard how everybody is at risk, which implies everybody is equally at risk.
Not so. Magic Johnson did not get infected with HIV because he was ignorant of the dangers of the AIDS “health crisis”…It was his ignoring the facts, not his ignorance of the facts that made him a victim.
As for Mr. Reniker’s…approval of the “Condoms control AIDS” billboards displayed in Joplin, one can only wonder how many such signs Magic Johnson has seen on the highways and byways of “progressive” Los Angeles or any of the many large cities he visited while wenching and playing basketball for the Lakers…
In the same letter to the newspaper, I responded to Deanne Ashley, who had expressed resentment for “original sin ideology”:
[Ms. Ashley] says that “Just Say No” tactics are ineffective in urging children to discipline themselves regarding their sexual desires…Ultimately, all that parents can do for their children is point them in the right direction and tell them that there are lines they should not cross, rules they should not break; that the indiscriminate indulgence of their sexual appetites may result in their being victimized, not by a complacent and judgmental society, but by a strange little virus that awaits them in the dark.
In 1992, I gave a speech to Phi Theta Kappa, a two-year college Honor Society, in which I said:
…have you noticed that the condom is fast becoming a kind of “national symbol,” like the flag? I have this fear—a totally reasonable fear, I think—that pretty soon the things will be hanging from every flag-pole in America—sort of like prophylactic wind socks. And that even now a modern day Betsy Ross, no doubt a member of the National Organization for Women, is hard at work fashioning a “star-spangled condom,” while some gay-rights activist is writing our new national anthem all about the joys of “safe sex.” And quietly some New Age scribe is revising the Bible to read “a condom covers a multitude of sins.” Such are the fears of a conservative today. But come to think of it, the condom would make a great flag for modern liberalism, for it symbolizes freedom without worry of messy consequences and the illusion that you are “safe” from your transgressions…
Now, I suppose that what I want you to understand is that embedded in the past, buried in what I have been referring to as “tradition,” is the accumulated wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers about the subject of values, of what was for them and what I think ought to be for you, the important things, the first things, the things that separate us from the animals. For it cannot be contradicted that you will live your life by a set of values, traditional or otherwise. I argue that traditional values are the only “safe” ones; for as Allan Bloom says, value relativism “takes one into very dark regions of the soul and very dangerous political experiments.”
And that is where I believe we are today. We are individually and collectively exploring Mr. Bloom’s “dark regions of the soul.” And the only light available to us is the light provided by our fathers, by our ancestors—by our tradition. For I think all of us will be touched in some way by that darkness. And we will respond with the wisdom of the ages or else be consumed with an unfathomable despair. Our tradition—not just mine, but yours, too—speaks to that despair. But in our time it speaks very faintly.
And so now you can see, I hope, the whole point of my little talk. Plato tells us that “the power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already.” So it is in your hands to get acquainted with your past. It is in your hands to learn the truths the great masters of Western Civilization can teach you. Their voices may be faint amidst the clamor of a culture in hot pursuit of its own lusts. But they are shouting from the shelves of your nearest library. Plato, Aristotle, Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Milton, Bunyan, Burke, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, and so on. They are all there—in what scholars call the classics, the “old books.” These old books, as C.S. Lewis put it, “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
I wrote a letter on November 20, 1992, to Republican Bruce Herschensohn, who had lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to Barbara Boxer, which included this:
Although detailed news from California politics is hard to come by here in the hinterlands of Missouri, I was not surprised to learn of Ms. Boxer’s despicable tactic at the end. As a representative of a once-noble political philosophy, namely liberalism, she has shown the central flaw of that philosophy, resulting from its internal logic: moral bankruptcy.
Your campaign was an inspiration to us conservatives. Some of us had been wondering if there were any truly principled conservatives around who were willing to stick to their guns and actually propound real conservatism, as opposed to the diluted variety espoused by some of its more dubious adherents. You articulated and championed our philosophy courageously, and I want to personally thank you and tell you how much you inspired me.
Mr. Herschensohn sent me a nice hand-written letter, dated December 6, that still hangs on my office wall:
My deepest thanks to you for that inspiring letter of yours. It is a letter I will save—and re-read as I have already re-read. Again—my appreciation to you for a great beam of light.
On January 31, 1993, I responded to a column by Joe Patrick Bean, then a regular columnist in the Joplin Globe, in which Bean criticized, much as I do now, the “hard right” turn of the Republican Party and blamed its defeat in the 1992 election on “hard-right kidnappers”:
…Like most liberal pundits, he trashes conservatism and blames those awful right-wingers for the fall of George Bush…Perhaps Bean has been too busy writing his columns to consult his history books regarding the last three presidential elections, but I will save him the trouble: The 1980, 1984 and the 1988 Republican Party platforms were virtually identical to the 1992 platform. Conservatism was dominant in those platforms and people knew where the Republican Party stood on the social issues. It wasn’t a secret. And Ronald Reagan and George Bush won about a zillion electoral votes in those elections, two of which were real landslides and not merely the product of a sympathetic press who in a frenzy of hyperbole turned Bill Clinton’s puny victory margin into a “landslide.”
The dynamics of the 1992 election were considerably different from before, what with a sluggish economy and George Bush’s loss of credibility by agreeing with the Democrats and their “sensible, pragmatic, mainstream” Republican cohorts who wanted to raise our taxes in order to fix once and for all our deficit problem. As the deficit grows ever higher, so much for the pragmatists. It wasn’t conservatism the voters rejected; it was the “pragmatic” George Bush.
But worse than Bean’s analysis of the Republican Party’s defeat is his prescription for its future success: “But if the GOP is to survive…it must move back toward the center.” This is merely the echo of a now familiar refrain habitually chanted by the freshly dethroned establishment, country-club Republicans, whose only distinction from the Democrats is that most of the Democrats have more money.
These so-called moderate Republicans…want nothing more than to stay in power. They are part of what has become a one-party system animating our contemporary politics: Democrats and moderate Republicans teaming up to keep government big and intrusive and to keep themselves in control of it. Silencing conservatives guarantees them a monopoly on power.
What Bean doesn’t understand is that the only thing separating the Republican Party from its Democratic counterpart is the presence of the conservatives and their convictions. Remove them and you have nothing but Republican me-tooism. If, as Bean says, the “sensible, pragmatic, mainstream” Republicans are the backbone of the party, the conservatives are its head. And the head must define and lead.
After the Oklahoma City bombing, Emily Moore wrote a letter to the Globe in which she claimed that right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh had contributed to the bombing. On May 8, 1995, the paper published my response to her “hysterical letter,” which included this:
These pathetic and desperate attempts to blame conservatives for the actions of misguided or evil people are an indication of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism.
On May 25, 1996, I wrote to the Globe to criticize Gene Garman’s “largely incoherent contribution” regarding Christian fundamentalism. I said:
…people like Mr. Garman, pretending to be open-minded, are very closed-minded to the real claims of Christianity. He quotes Jefferson to the effect that the wonderfully gifted intellectuals, who can see through all the “foolishness” of people who believe in the historic claims of the church, will “liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.”
By inserting references to “addiction” and “suicide bombers” and “extremists,” he tried to hide his real target; but by using Jefferson’s deistic quote, Mr. Garman showed that his real problem is not just with fundamentalists, but with anyone who happens to believe in a personal God who cares about his creation.
If you have read this far, now you know why I call this a “blog of repentance.”