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Conservatives and the problems of language

Rhetoric and Respectability

M. E. Bradford

SINCENOVEMBER 1980 conservatives have been struggling with the problem of ad- justing their public posture so as to reflect changes in their situation. Following elec- toral triumph and the dramatic shift in the temper of their countrymen which pro- duced so many encouraging results at the polls, they have been obliged to represent themselves, through the spoken or the written word, in a very new light, as fig- ures operating inside the current of his- tory, not against it. I make here, of course, a distinction in rhetoric. In particular, con- servatives have had difficulty in moving from the forensic into the deliberative mode-from the speech proper to critique, of the accuser who defends his right to ex- ist with a censure of those in authority, into the language of those who are them- selves (if only, in most cases, through sur- rogates) in power. Our custom as conserv- atives-indeed, our occupation-has been to inhabit the wilderness, there crying out against interlopers who occupy the citadel and dispossess the rightful heirs. That role we understand perfectly, and the sound which it makes: a prophetic song of wrath to come. Moreover, we have learned how to suggest in general terms a view of the political things very different from that of our adversaries-an idiom for political campaigning, if not for policy. But what we should say about, or to (or in support of) a government which we helped to cre- ate-and which is at least officially appre- ciative of our labors in its behalf-is a mys- tery beyond our ken. And most especially since it is a government which has been

forced to do its work while hamstrung by the standing edifice of an omnicompetent state-a hostile filter through which it must translate its will into action, or else surrender to the inertia embodied in that mighty Leviathan. Without being understood on our own terms, according to any discourse we could recognize as appropriate for the ex- position of our cause, conservatives have, in these last five years or more, experi- enced political success, popular approval, and a limited but exciting influence over the operations of government-inside and outside the executive, judicial, and legisla- tive branches. Moreover, in playing at least a symbolic role in the conversations surrounding many issues of national im- portance, they have also achieved an un- precedented visibility. But a new language answering to their new circumstances they have not yet discovered. Instead, in discussing in their own way the merits of particular measures, decisions, or ap- proaches to the public business, too many conservatives accept by default, for lack of the necessary alternative, a rhetoric and a language which attach naturally to the politics of their enemies-the source from which they are derived. This is a rhetoric and language for administration which has long been a given feature of the Washington scene, organized not only by a texture, a set of images, a series of mod- ifiers which color it in a certain unmistak- able way, but also (and more importantly) by submission to a network of ultimate terms-what Richard Weaver called “god


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terms.” Inside of this verbal mesh there is no place for consideration of the common good, or a prior loyalty to the Constitution of the United States-the loyalty which all of our public servants proclaim as a condi- tion of the office or assignment which they are expected to perform. Nor is there in such a closed system or overlay any room for prudential restrictions of the kind which mitigate against the absolute claims of ideological shibboleths. Or for a law that limits law-its scope and agency, what may, for “good causes,” be attempt- ed in its name. It is a convention of the theory of lan- guage that our apprehension of reality and our ability to express it are condi- tioned-directed, restrained, and en- riched-by the idiom into which we trans- late such perceptions. Each language as a system has an intrinsic capacity to sharp- en our awareness of certain realities (in society, in the natural world, in the soul) and to render the particular angle of vi- sion implicit in its prescriptive structure. To put the matter in simple terms, it is easier to think or say some things in French, others in German, etc. Formally speaking, there is a consanguinity be- tween what is said and how we say it. Lit- erary critics narrow down this generaliza- tion into an observation about the lan- guage of period or particular writer. It also applies to verbal constructs which belong to a particular region, social station, occu- pation, or school of thought. The latter are more specialized configurations, ordered specifically by a sharing of values and ob- jectives. I prefer to describe each of them as a universe of discourse, meaning by that no more than the familiar proposition in epistemology that what we are shapes what we see. Writes Weaver in his essay “Language Is Sermonic,” “We are all of us preachers in private or public capacities. We have no sooner uttered words than we have given impulse to other people to look at the world, or some part of it, in our way.” The dilemma of conservatives speaking for their government, about what that government might or should do, is that

they lack the requisite technique for de- flecting out of its tyrannical, demanding mode the rhetoric of ultimate terms and have forgotten the alternative political principles which would lead to the recov- ery of that technique, to a recollection of the method which follows from the vision of right order they supposedly affirm. This now familiar rhetoric is what Michael Oakeshott calls teleocratic-indifferent to the harm which might be done to our political and social structure by insisting on the absolute priority of realizing cer- tain ideological goals, regardless of imped- iments to such a realization built into the American regime. The best response to this pleading is the argument that society must be preserved and protected if it is ex- pected to facilitate the application and sound principles to the public sphere-that such a labor of preservation comes first and sometimes requires a balance in the competing claims of various absolute terms which have a standing among us. It is an argument which fulfills itself in bring- ing cries of outrage from the devotees of these familiar abstractions. And a re- sponse which is legitimately rhetorical, assuming that certain questions are not open to inquiry: a response invoked there- fore to confound a dialectic only disguised as rhetoric-what the Left has established as the primary language of American politics. The conservative alternative to this dis- course qua effrontery is what I have called here the rhetoric of the common good. It has as theoretical ground what the Church once spoke of as the doctrine of cupidity: a doctrine concerning the sin of giving pref- erence to a lesser as opposed to a greater good or obligation. With reference to three of the most potent of these ultimate terms-peace, charity, and tolerance in the sense of a special concern for various groups ostensibly disadvantaged by our economic, social, and political system4 will illustrate what I mean by the fore- going distinction between kinds of lan- guage. I will suggest how a proper rhetoric should operate in restoring to the political conversation of our time the character it

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should exhibit in balancing the always conflicting priorities of statecraft. And ex- plain why though peace, generosity, and brotherhood are, by definition, preferable to carnage, selfishness, and bigotry, we are always obliged to ask of measures de- signed to further these ends, “at what cost” and “at whose expense” in weighing their advisability. It is an unavoidable truth of the present political scene that, when ultimate terms such as the three here in question (or their synonyms) are invoked in debate over a specific issue, conservatives who worry about the craft of governing are often paralyzed with the fear of being disrepu- table. Forgetting their obligations to de- fend the inherited way of our culture, to oppose what threatens our security against an invader, our social peace or economic stability, they are reluctant to forfeit the legitimacy of policies for the present-policies to which their reputation will attach-which they have in mind by offending against what they concede to be sacrosanct boundaries. Their primary nightmare is that of being accused of big- otry, warmongering, insensitivity, and in- difference to suffering, of being identified as persons without ordinary human fellow feeling. And thus they are diverted from their first order of business-to preserve, protect, and defend-by being put on the defensive, able to make only arguments which object to the labels, not analyses which discredit their opponents. In the process all interest in what is the charac- teristic virtue of their situation in life is lost. There is no more potent example of the usefulness of the rhetoric of the common good than what occurs in the context of a conversation concerning war and peace. It is an axiom of American politics in our time that any political leader who wishes to see this country use military force to achieve its purposes can expect to be put completely on the defensive. There is a large component of our population which will not go even so far as to agree that na- tions have a right to protect themselves, to survive. As never before, it is now possible

for American politicians to inhibit or frus- trate the military policy of any administra- tion in power with the specter of body bags, the prospect of escalating terrorism, the possibility of long campaigns, or the ominous shadow of mutually assured de- struction. In Washington there is a large disarmament lobby supported by choice spirits who either doubt that any cause is worth the risk of their lives or who, in their refinement, believe that a foreign policy can be built on nothing more than our unwillingness to kill. Many of our countrymen are so impressed by their own horror of violence that they will bare- ly agree to let the rest of us oppose the violation of our borders by an armed enemy. As to our role in preserving the ability of other men to make such de- tached choices by supporting among them a liberty on which our liberty depends, the recherch6 moralists of peace make no con- cession whatsoever. That they might hate war so much as to bring it down on the lives of other men does not occur as a pos- sibility in their elevated calculus. Nor that they might be surrendering the life and liberty of others by insisting that the gov- ernment of their country submit to the test of their personal moral judgment. By maintaining that it is possible to love peace, privately, so much that you get war which others must fight-and by remind- ing all that we cannot improve our coun- try by arranging for its destruction-we in- voke the rhetoric of the common good and reduce to a matter of almost no im- portance, to a tautology, the self-evident truth that peace is to be preferred to war. It is to be hoped that the passage of time has brought us further out from under- neath the shadow of Vietnam. But the col- lective pacifism brought on by the form of that Asian defeat is not fully behind us. The simple truth (and the oldest locus of distinctions concerning the common good, except for those having to do with crime) that a condition of membership in a socie- ty is a willingness to fight against its enemies runs directly against insistence on a right of conscience to pick according to our scruples which of the nation’s wars


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