Of those not there, most who know of the incident probably do so from Jerome Tuccille's Radical Libertarianism: A Right Wing Alternative. At the 1969 Young Americans for Freedom convention in St. Louis, one faction -- the libertarians -- opposed the U.S. government's orchestration of both the war in Vietnam and suppression here at home (including the nexus thereof: conscription). Their slogan: "Sock it to the State!" They were met (fiercely) by another faction -- the "traditionalists" (with the actual tradition never identified) -- who opposed that opposition. Their cry? "Sock it to the Left!"
This political drama flashed in the warder of my brain when something recently happened that put into perspective the bewilderment that has possessed observers of "conservatism" in the present age. The bewilderment itself comes from seeing too many individuals evade/dismiss/deny every error/deception/disaster in the "War on Terror" and repeat the same ill-conceived mantras (e.g., "Better to fight them [rump Ba'athists? rival Muslim sects?] there than here!"). People who used to parrot Rush Limbaugh's dictum that the military exists only "to kill people and break things" and condemned Clinton for American involvement in the Balkans, now pout that the "liberal media" aren't covering the super job the Army is doing in rebuilding Iraq. (A Reason commentator observed that the actual level of progress would have embarrassed a Soviet apparatchik reporting to his superiors. My own quip is that today's "conservatives" are so committed to the welfare state that they established another one in Iraq.) It's as if it's a badge of honor to see how long they can continue to support -- no matter how incoherently -- an unsupportable war.
The something-recently that clued me in to what's been going on was a response to a list made by Christopher Garvey (who ran this year for NY Attorney General on the Libertarian line) of rights that Americans have lost under President Bush. The respondent, N. (whom LRCers might recall from my "Letter to a Conservative Friend"), complained that Mr. Garvey's facts "sound like DNC talking points."
Bingo! Now I saw it all too clearly. Forget the Democrats' actual record on the war and related issues: If N. believed "liberals" were opposing Bush's attack on civil liberties, he was going to support it. And I thought about how any questioning of the Administration was always met with cries of "Support the Troops!" -- as if all those who didn't fall in line were '60s radicals spitting on returning soldiers and calling them "baby killers." The struggle isn't against "Islamofascism" (minted by Christopher Hitchens to baby-talk fellow Leftists into backing the war) or terrorism or even al-Qaeda. The imperative, no less now than in '69, is to "Sock it to the Left!"
The Spite Right was born, not in the reflection of Read or Chodorov or Garrett, but in the confrontationalism of Up from Liberalism. Its progeny include Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Goldberg, Gallagher, Malkin, Ingraham, Savage, O'Reilly, Beck -- self-scribbled caricatures who dwell in their own political cartoon, where there are only intrinsically evil "liberals" (Mr. Limbaugh adduces Ed Koch and William Kunstler on the same page) vs. "conservatives" whose goodness derives solely from fighting them. Such "liberals" are the Spite Right's Left, and once that Left was deemed "anti-war," pro-war was deemed anti-Left, i.e., the Good. Thereafter, the only matter of duty was to defend that war from this "liberal" assault. That meant fighting any and all "liberal lies" that challenged Administration Truth, which was Truth because it stood in opposition to those "lies." It meant fighting any moral challenge to the war, which actually could be only immoral because it challenges the war -- the War on Liberals, the struggle that is the essence of morality. It meant fighting the usual "anti-war" suspects, from Hollywood "limousine liberals" to sign-waving street protesters. For the Spite Right, Iraq is another name for Vietnam.
The Spite Right's vacant contrarianism is but one more species of identity politics, which rejects any transcendent norms, any morals that constrain men irrespective of group affiliation. Hence its members hold themselves to no such standards. We are told not to criticize "our Commander-in-Chief" -- this from characters who slapped CHELSEA HAS TWO MOMMIES on their bumpers. We hear roars of indignation over what Senator Kerry said "about the troops" -- roars that were previously directed toward the "liberal media" for distorting Senator Helms' Clinton-better-have-a-bodyguard joke. We see men who never donned the uniform dare to just smear John Murtha -- evidently Spite Rightists themselves are allowed to criticize government officials "while troops are in combat" -- and do so while almost literally hiding behind a woman's skirt. Alas, we have yet to hear or see those who sought to oust Clinton call for the resignation of a president who would not face the 911 Commission (part of his own "War on Terror") because he could not bring along the vice president -- "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived" -- to hold his hand and perhaps whisper in his ear.
This hypocrisy is hardly limited to issues relating to war. Ann Coulter, for example, cracks that if "liberal" jurists "interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the First Amendment, we'd have a right to bear nuclear arms by now." And what exactly does that deserve -- other than a rim shot? This: If conservatives "interpreted the Second Amendment the way they interpret the First Amendment," even the National Guard wouldn't have guns. One wonders if the godly Miss Coulter reads a Bible wherein Christ commands the believer to ignore the beam in his own eye but knock the mote out of his neighbor's -- a musing that extends to that lamest of ducks, the equally crudely written and drawn "Dullard Fillmore," where "liberal" hypocrisy is the only hypocrisy that exists for condemnation. And what is going on in the mind -- in the soul -- of a man, Michael Medved, who decries "save-the-world liberalism" and defends the global-liberationist delusions of George II and his court? (Answer: "Conservatives are both happier and nicer than liberals.") I need only mention Mr. Limbaugh and the subject of drugs.
Spite Right relativism is as metaphysical as it is moral. Because the only reality is of "liberal" harm, there is no consideration of what harm might come from the anti-"liberal" forces, who will consequently continue to aim their fire -- no matter what those blasts actually hit. Any admission of error would be, not a matter of intellectual honesty, but only a concession of right to the Left -- to the Devil. And that can never be. The ultimate evil for Sean Hannity is not to be found in a combat zone in Iraq or even in a cave in Afghanistan, but in the seat across the desk.
I don't require warnings that there is indeed a real Left with real evil -- no libertarian does. But the Spite Right is not alerting but numbing us to that evil. When the wolf is said to be everywhere, people soon come to believe there's no wolf at all -- the most vulnerable state to find ourselves when it actually does appear. The sober response to the Spite Right terror of "liberals" was demonstrated by H. L. Mencken with regard to Communists who acted in support of black Americans: "The way to dispose of their chicaneries is not to fight them when they are right." The whole of morality -- and truth -- cannot consist of waiting for a Howard Dean (or a Nancy Pelosi) to make a pronouncement.
I find myself speculating whether Buckleyism’s always-puzzling politics -- suppression of civil liberties (except gun rights) but rejection (if only rhetorical) of "Big Government" on economic issues -- makes perversely perfect sense as a point-by-point opposition to the politics of the Enemy. For the record, there are traces of a pre-Buckley Spite Right. In her April 3, 1948 letter to Isabel Paterson, author of The God of the Machine, Ayn Rand mentions a man who said that he was in favor of conscription "because the Communists are against it." She quotes her husband's comment: "I suppose even Communists are against smallpox. Is he for it?" Such is the mad logic of the Spite Right that if known "liberals" ever officially came out against disease, these latter-day "conservatives" would unsheathe their daggers in defense of any and all diseases. The only remaining question: Would the Spite Rightists continue to practice the anti-Leftism they preach if said Left ever came out against suicide?
"Sock it to the Left!"