A World View Encapsulated in a Backward Glance

Michelle Goldberg and Michael Tomasky have excellent columns up at the Daily Beast, which catalog the comprehensive push by conservatives around the country to demean, control, and otherwise subordinate women who don’t conform to traditional gender roles. In Oklahoma, a bill passed by the State Senate would outlaw in vitro fertilization, since it depends upon frozen embryos. In Virginia, a woman seeking an abortion will be subject to invasive ultrasounds of her fetus. And, of course, we have seen how the fight over “religious freedom” done in the name of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has quickly shifted to a fight over birth control, more broadly.

As with the continued rear-guard fight against same-sex marriage (activists in both Washington state and Maryland plan to challenge via referendum same sex marriage legislation passed or about to be passed in those respective states), we are seeing an old story replayed yet again: conservatives are entirely reactive to long standing efforts by women and gay people to obtain greater autonomy and equity in civil society and their personal lives. Fifty years after Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and forty three years after the Stonewall Riots, conservatives are still, in the famous phrase of William F. Buckley, standing on the railroad tracks of history and yelling “stop.” It is a restorationist credo to which we could also include efforts to bring back the gold standard and weaken the social insurance state. Yet this is a future obsessed nation, always fascinated by the next new thing, be it the iPad three or Jeremy Lin. And thus conservatism always has to set up a new bulwark in defense of freedom several miles back from it’s earlier bulwark–even Oklahoma can’t bring itself to prohibit birth control altogether. It will never be 1962 again, or 1920, or even 1870, the train of history keeps hurtling forward. The greater the current offense to the way things were–and now it’s a bi-racial/cosmopolitan/intellectual president raised in a Muslim country–the more rabid is the effort of conservatives to retain something of the old world, the more feverish is the desire to sail their boats against the current.

Modern conservatism and its political vehicle, the Republican party, is fittingly represented in 2012 by a movement of people who first came to public attention by dressing in clothing worn in the 18th century.

Correction: I’m embarrassed enough by this sloppy error to call special attention to it. The exact and, in context, William F. Buckley quote–one of the most evocative in the history of American conservatism–is as follows: “….if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” This is taken from the mission statement of the National Review in 1955.

No railroad metaphor–that was entirely of my own creation and should not have sullied Buckley’s lovely, if all too revealing, prose. Guess I must have been thinking about how great it was that Wilson nationalized the railroads (Irony alert!).