Conservative Mental Gestures

The last few days, I’ve been reminded of Lionel Trilling’s rather impolite description of conservatism as a philosophy expressed in “irritable mental gestures” rather than ideas. What keeps provoking this thought in me is all the carping about Sonia Sotomayor’s “reverse racism.”
I got to thinking about what I find so, well, irritating about this particular conservative mental gesture. And I think I’ve found it: What bothers me is that I once had the same thought. That is, I once thought to myself, “Discriminating against black people is racism. Therefore discriminating against white people by giving black people any sort of advantage must be reverse racism.” The trouble is, I was maybe seven or eight years old when I had this thought. I also remember thinking, probably around the same time in my intellectual development, that if I had to choose between being pro-life and pro-choice, well, damnit, I was gonna be pro-life, because you can’t have choices if you don’t have life. A little later, when I was about twelve years old, shortly after the trauma of 9/11, I remember thinking that we ought to invade, and possibly nuke, Iraq. I knew Saddam was a bad guy, I knew that 9/11 was a bad thing, and so I thought we should go get him.
These were childish things to think, and I am embarrassed to have thought them. The fact that conservative leaders, most prominently a certain former Speaker of the House, are expressing these thoughts with such confidence and indignation is really troubling. Don’t misunderstand me: the principle that might be said to underlie cries of “reverse racism” is perfectly adult. It is not childish to oppose affirmative action, and the issue can and should be debated by reasonable people. But at some point, rhetoric gets so far ahead of argument that there simply ceases to be a connection between the two, and one gets the sense that the rhetoric is used for its own sake, for whatever emotive power it might hold in the minds of resentful and lazy people. At some point, and I don’t pretend to be able to say where that is, a policy position morphs into an irritable mental gesture because of how it is habitually expressed by those who subscribe to it — unthinkingly, unquestioningly, irrationally. This is the current state of the GOP: a party whose substantive positions are completely overshadowed by the obnoxious buzzwords and dog-whistles it uses to communicate between true believers.

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